Want to volunteer abroad? How to actually make a difference.

The author interviews Rwandan women about the impacts of a volunteer implemented bee keeping project. (Photo by Bryan Kopp)

Every year, more young westerners are traveling to places like Africa, India, and South America in search of meaningful volunteer experiences.

And why not? There’s plenty of valuable work to be done, travel and living expenses are low, and even the most challenging volunteer position might look easy compared to trying to find a job right out of college these days.

At best, it’s opportunity for a broadened perspective on a vast and complex world, and a chance to empower others.

But at worst, it is an overseas frat party gone horribly wrong.

After I graduated, I served as volunteer coordinator for the McGill Middle East Program, a grassroots non-profit operating small community centers in some of the most under-served places in the Middle East. I witnessed an outpouring of enthusiasm from students who were eager to get their heads out of books and spend their summers fighting for social justice in Nablus or Lod.

At MMEP, and in later visits to Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, I began to investigate how to best use the well-intentioned energy of these young people, while remaining accountable to the communities on the ground.

Here are a few tips I came up with for would-be volunteers to ensure that their good intentions don’t turn into a bad experience that does more harm than good:


Seattle NGO Water 1st has Western visitors work on project for a few hours to build a sense of ownership, but the real work is done by locals. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

The first step to any effective volunteer experience is honestly asking yourself why you want to go. For professional experience in international development? To learn a particular hard skill? To work on a social justice issue close to your heart? For adventure?

Clearly defining your goals for your time abroad will help strike the balance between meeting your personal needs while remaining accountable to the community you are serving. It will also help you find a program that addresses your goals.

For you, the volunteer, there are all sorts of benefits, from increased mental and physical health, life span, personal development, civic-mindedness and trust, to employability.

But a potential volunteer should also ask themselves what it is they can offer to a community (and no, the answer is not t-shirts). Skill-based volunteering is often the best way of avoiding an experience that drains resources of the host organization with no added benefit to their project. As westerners, we come equipped with many skills and assets we may not even be aware of; our English language proficiency, our comfort with technology and the internet, our experience with organizational tools like excel, powerpoint, and word processing, perhaps even grantwriting or medical or legal expertise.

Some of these might not sound like the most thrilling tasks, but they are sorely needed to increase capacity of many under-resourced, grassroots community projects in the Global South.


East Africa volunteer
Kenyan community organizer Everline Adhiambo (center) works with on a grassroots project apprenticing girls in tailoring and sewing trades. Connections with community workers like Everline are crucial for international volunteer organizations to understanding the needs of communities on the ground. (Photo by Bryan Kopp)

Most would-be volunteers focus efforts on researching the actual organization they’ll be volunteering for, but few do enough research on the placement organization that’s going to get them there.

A quick google search of ‘volunteering in ________’ will yield a dizzying array of options, from two-week glorified vacations teaching English, to two-year stints in the Peace Corps. At first glance, they all share the same enticing photos of smiling, industrious young people surrounded by endearing brown faces.

In reality, each placement organization comes with their own brand of volunteerism, mission statement, and rating on Charity Navigator, exposing budget breakdowns and program efficiency ratings.

Look for organizations with local staff, or who partner with local grassroots groups. They’re more likely to be in touch with the realities and needs of the communities on the ground. Avoids organization that use over-simplified, ‘helping’ language.

Many programs, like American Jewish World Service, come along with their own ‘service-learning’ curriculum, intended to instill a sustained commitment to the region or cause at hand, while guiding the volunteer through the intentions and impact behind their stay.

One other word of caution: those volunteering without the help of an intermediary organization often find themselves in orphanages and other easy-to-arrange positions where they pay a weekly fee for food and housing in exchange for teaching informal classes and general affection for orphans or students.

These often for-profit programs are attractive for their simple administrative processes and flexible time commitments, but they run the risk of exploiting both the idealism and good intentions of western tourists and the poverty of children. A 2010 report on Orphan Tourism by the Human Sciences Research Council called orphanhood a ‘globally circulated commodity’, and expressed concerns about the effectiveness of orphanages that catered to the needs of tourists rather than the orphans themselves, many traumatized by the constant ebb and flow of personal attachments as volunteers cycle through facilities.


International Volunteers flooded Haiti after the earthquake last year. But many left too quickly to actually have a lasting impact. (Photo from EDV Media)

A common grievance from program staff on the ground is that by the time their eager volunteers get over their culture shock, pick up on important phrases, develop rapport with other staff and community members, and adjusts to the pace of work, it’s time for them to turn around and go home.

Accustomed to instant gratification in a western-paced work environment, even the best and brightest volunteers often under-estimate the sheer time it takes to get things going in the developing world. Patience is a valuable character trait for international volunteerism, but in order for patience to pay off, you need time. At least 6 weeks for small and clearly defined projects, and preferably 3 months or longer, according to Talya Gillman, Partnerships Manager for Repair the World.

There are many factors at play which keep the majority of volunteer projects brief. Many who spend time volunteering are students bound by the academic year, or must report back to a job, partner, or family. Our culture does not account for giant bouts of ‘time off’.

Given all of this, it’s easy for our desire for a little adventure or vacation to beckon us away from a less-relaxing volunteer assignment.

Placement programs know this all too well, and build into their packages enticing offers for excursions. Programs like the curiously-named Where There Be Dragons offer ‘authentic, rugged and profound learning adventures that expose the beautiful and complex realities of the countries in which we travel’. Their three month programs often include a 2 or 3 week service projects doing agriculture work or manual labor. Though the experience may be formative for participants, it is difficult to imagine how a group of westerners can undertake a project like this better than local workers from the community. Even worse, projects like these might divert work opportunities away from locals in an effort to cater to western tourists.

At the end of the day, the longer you’re invested in a project, the better the chances you’ll actually being able to contribute in a way that is not merely self-serving. It takes time to work through the awkwardness of cultural difference, and the painful histories of colonialism, racism, and ethnocentrism. But the relationships you build when investing real time and energy in a local community are probably the greatest reward you can get out of international volunteerism.


The author with Kenyan community organizer Everline Adhiambo. (Photo by Bryan Kopp)

Every volunteer is guaranteed at some point to see their carefully laid plans be de-railed by the sheer chaos and spontaneity of life in the Global South. Graciousness, good humor, and adaptability to unfamiliar circumstances are invaluable assets to help you deal with these setbacks.

Ashley Carter, a Peace Corps volunteer, spoke of her experience working on a computer skills project in a village in Niger;  “I felt frustrated because I felt like all we were doing was sitting around drinking tea, and I had this anxiety about getting things done. Eventually I took this time to sit and get to know people, and understood it as an important part of the culture. Once I accepted that, things went a lot smoother.”

Rikke Wasser, a German volunteer on a short term project on youth HIV/AIDS education in Rwanda, noted that her years of experience in public health prepared her only minimally for working with local youth, which required “openness, and access to my inner child.” Not exactly a skill taught in medical school.


Volunteering abroad is a privilege. If you have the education and skills required to land a good volunteer gig, and the time, money, required to actually go, you are one of a lucky few. Take a humble, flexible and thoughtful approach about your volunteer experience.

It will mean the difference between a well-intentioned failure and a truly meaningful experience for everyone involved.


  1. Really enjoyed this article, Anna! You make some great points about international volunteerism. The point that strikes home the most for me is about staying put once you’re there! When I volunteered at an orphanage in Ghana several years ago, I felt it was only after about 3 months of being there that I really started to get a clear picture of the situation and where/how I was needed. Unfortunately, as you mention, it was then time for me to pack up and return to McGill for another semester. I wondered a lot at that time (and still do) about the impact of constantly changing volunteers on the emotional stability of the children. Obviously, it’s not good!

    If I could add another point to yours, it would also be about not booking yourself too tight. I remember thinking before I went that I could spend as much time doing volunteer work as a full-time job, but realized after being there for only a few days that I needed time to myself each day to process the experience, therefore becoming more aware and hopefully more resourceful to the community. It’s easy to go into it with an “ok let’s get this done!” attitude, but there is so much below the surface to reflect on, and as you know life unfolds a lot more slowly in those parts!

    Thank you so much for this relevant and thought-provoking article! :)

  2. There are companies like one in Seattle, ngoabroad, that will help taylor individual skills to sepcific volunteering opportunities

  3. I really appreciate this article. So many perhaps well-intentioned Americans rush off to serve in foreign countries and boast of their experiences for years afterwards. However, after pressing such folks for details of their visits, I find that so many do little more than sales pitch their own religious views, tackle their own naval-gazing “culture shock”/”find themselves”, or provide minimal actual helpful assistance to those they intended to serve.

    How is spending heaps of $$, say $5K, to lift bricks for a schoolhouse in Africa for a few days (whilst taking roll after roll of the stereotypical white American in a sea of smiling African children photos) really helping the people there? At least any more than simply sending the school the entire $5k?? It all smacks of self-gratification.

    Furthermore, there are endless opportunities for people to serve the destitute right here. Let’s not ignore those in need in our own backyard, even though it might not be perceived as impressive to do so as buying plane tickets to fly across the globe and do little more than just “be there” someplace else.

    1. The average pay for a middle class citizen in Pakistan is 25 dollars monthly. The poverty rate in the US is 980 plus foodstamps, reduced housing, free schooling and college with peel grants, food pantries, etc..
      The poor in the US are considered very well to do in Pakistan and many other countries. Tell me what country a $5 contribution would make the most difference? The US or a third world country?

  4. Anna, thank you for some very important points, especially the need for humility, patience and allying with solid local people who are working on the ground.

    One of your readers draws attention to the thousands of dollars that most international volunteer programs charge. I see that one of your readers has already mentioned NGOabroad which is based here in the NW. NGOabroad charges about 1/4 what other international programs charge. It is designed to match your skills & work and/or life experience to international need.

    I think that ever since the tsunami generated by the quake in Banda Aceh in 2004, there has been an outpouring of interest in how to help people in other countries or even how to help at home such as after Hurricane Katrina.

    Thank you, Anna, for a great article and the conversation that I hope it generates and the people that are moved to volunteer.

  5. Do like the american politicians only help those who slide a envelope full of money under the desk why help others in our police state its counter productive

  6. Great article, Anna!

    What about those of us who, as you said, “must report back to a job?” I get two weeks of vacation/personal time off, not six. If I want to invest that time in doing actual good (not merely being a self-gratifying tourist/resource-waster), are there any worthy international opportunities at all? Do you have any recommendations?

  7. I would dealt like to help and change the way we people look at others.there are good people out there..

  8. The way you work indeed makes a positive change in people. If I may, current I am attached with an international NGO called SOLS24/7 based in Malaysia. We are specialized in working with those poor communities by teaching them English Education and help them with some community development projects. Currently we are in the midst of accepting volunteers/interns/trainees to be a part of our SOLS family. For more ingo, log on to our website, htto://www.sols247.org for more info.


  9. I would like to volunteer. I have been a volunteer in my country for 10 years. Would love to opportunity to experience the different cultures.

  10. Thanks Anna..the article is very engaging! I have no volunteering experience but am a freelance writer and have written several articles on the topic. But of course, your first hand experience of volunteering has made it a must read for prospective volunteers:)

  11. I am a carpenter and very good at most repair and building functions and want to help people in other countries but don’t no how I can help.does any one no how I can .

  12. Great story! Giving back and volunteering your time can have so many benefits. I volunteer with my company a few times a month at different local charities and its so rewarding. That feeling you get by knowing your positively impacting someones life by just volunteering your time is something that is truly indescribable. I would love to volunteer in a different country– after reading your post it is definitely now on my bucket list. Keep up the great work!

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