Finding and Choosing a Volunteer Program


Teaching English with Amizade, a volunteering organization based in PA.
Teaching English with Amizade, a volunteering organization based in PA.

Finding and Choosing a Volunteer Program

Sometimes, the best way to get involved in another country or culture is to volunteer. While it is often easy to walk into an organization and volunteer your time, there are a number of volunteer programs that put travelers in direct contact with the people and environment of another country.

You don’t have to join the Peace Corps to volunteer, anymore. From short-term programs to yearlong commitments, from teaching English to saving marine life, there are volunteer programs for almost every age level, ability, schedule and interest.

In most cases, you don’t have to have any previous experience or degrees, just the desire to assist and to learn. Use the guide below to help you determine which volunteer program is right for you.


There’s nothing quite like volunteering as a way to experience a culture beyond it’s attractions and sights. Though it’s not for everyone, volunteer travelers have the opportunity to get one-on-one with the local people, learn more about the culture than through a guidebook or tour, and have a positive impact, not a negative one.

Volunteering in another country can be the experience of a lifetime. You will most certainly have experiences and encounters that will affect not only how you see the world, but also how you see yourself. It will change you and will make you more aware of the inequities and needs and goodness and shared truths of the people of the world.

But beyond the benefit to you, volunteer programs are also valuable to local communities. Native English speakers help students perfect pronunciation; natural resources are maintained or preserved; community structures are built by volunteers, allowing locals to devote their time to their families, work and communities; and bonds of friendship are established to promote peace and understanding between different cultures.


There are several types of organized volunteer programs available and most require an application.

Short Term Programs

From three weeks to three months, many programs offer volunteer “vacations” for travelers who have limited time, but still want to help in some way. In most cases, you will be working with a group on a longer-term project–picking up where the previous group left off. You may be building a new school, teaching English or working side by side with locals in health care or environmental preservation. Some emergency relief programs are also short-term and you will be working on whatever is needed.Generally, no previous experience or degree is necessary. But there also specialized short-term, individualized programs for retired executives, women business owners, medical professionals and others with skills to share, but with tight schedules.

Short-term programs often include some cultural sightseeing and lectures or events. Short-term programs are ideal for travelers who aren’t ready or able to make a longer commitment, and who want the security of a group.

Long Term Programs

Usually lasting from three months to a year, long-term volunteer programs are for those who want a more in-depth experience and who have the time and desire to develop and complete a project. Long-term volunteers are often involved in teaching, health care, environmental conservation and other projects, and have a much larger amount of independence than short-term groups, which can be good or bad, depending upon your own needs for structure and guidance. Like short-term programs, long-term volunteers don’t have to have any special skills, though if you do, you will often be given a placement in which you can use them. Longer-term programs may also include some cultural and skill training.

Work Camps

Often scheduled during summer or holiday vacations, work camps are the European version of volunteer vacations. Most work camps are designed for high school and college-aged students, but many are open to older volunteers as well. Activities are most often physical, and include constructing buildings, clearing and maintaining natural areas, and are structured for work groups, not individuals.

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Teaching Programs

While teaching may be an activity offered in both short and long term programs, there are several programs through which college graduates can work exclusively as English teachers and receive a living stipend, and sometimes room and board.

These programs usually require a one to two year commitment, but you are often only working a few hours a day and have plenty of time to travel or take classes. You may have a few weeks of skill training and some periodic meetings and reviews, but otherwise you’re pretty independent.

Research and Environmental Programs

Some specialized environmental programs accept volunteers for both short and long terms to work in research or preservation. You may be counting sea turtle eggs or building an artificial reef or even working alongside a scientist studying animal life. In some cases, you may need to have previous experience or a degree for a long-term placement, but some programs accept short-term volunteers without experience.

Religious Programs

Habitat for Humanity and the Jewish World Service are only two of the countless religious organizations that offer opportunities for travelers to volunteer in variety of capacities. Catholic service organizations are the most predominant, but you don’t have to be Catholic to participate. Most of these programs run for varying lengths of time, and can be both short and long term, group-oriented or individualized.

Disaster Relief

Many national and international disaster relief programs accept volunteers for varying periods of time. In some cases, you may need special skills—medical or otherwise–, but in others, all that is required is the desire to help. In all these cases, you will be responsible for getting yourself to the destination and supporting yourself while you are there (though you may be fed and housed in a tent or some other shelter. Working in international relief can be a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing experience, but it’s not for the casual traveler. Don’t expect luxury of any kind: disaster relief areas are called so for a reason.

Local Non-Governmental Organizations

In many destinations, there are local non-governmental organizations that accept volunteers. Most require a commitment for at least a month, but others will accept your help for even a few hours. Few of these participate in organized programs–it’s strictly on an individual, “walk-in” basis. While you may be able to arrange a placement before your arrival, you might also have to wait until you get to your destination to offer your assistance.


Tuitioned Programs

Most short-term, work camps and some long-term volunteer programs charge a fee to participate. The fee usually covers your lodging, meals, transportation (not including airfare) and administrative costs. Costs for three-week, all-inclusive programs run between $1,500-$2,000, but you can add on extra weeks for less. Longer short-term programs are less expensive, averaging about $800/month.

Self-Supporting Programs

Many long-term, relief and “walk-in” local programs require volunteers to be self-supporting. Some offer homestays or group lodgings, but in most cases, you must cover your own lodging and meals, as well as airfare and transportation to and from your work. Depending upon where you are volunteering, this can be relatively inexpensive–often costing less than $20/day. You may have to pay a small fee for administrative costs to the organization, as well.

Stipend Programs

Stipend programs require a one to two year commitment and will pay you a small living stipend while you are in the program. In some cases, you will also receive lodging, but in others, you must pay for your own lodging and meals. The stipend is adequate to cover basic living expenses, but don’t expect to come home with lots of money saved up.


Accommodations for volunteers in most programs are adequate, but not luxurious. In most cases, you will be sharing your lodgings with other volunteers–usually in a house, camp or apartment maintained by the program organization. In other programs, you will be housed with a local family. In some self-supporting volunteer programs and stipend programs, you will have to find your own accommodations and pay for them yourself. Meals are sometimes included in your short-term program costs, but not always. If meals are included, and you choose not to take them, you may not receive a refund. In most self-supporting program, you will be responsible for feeding yourself, except in certain cases–e.g. disaster relief programs and homestays.

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If you want to volunteer abroad, the first step is to decide whether you are interested in a short-term or long-term program. Where would you like to go and when (some programs operate seasonally in some destinations)? Is the size and age range of the volunteer group important to you? Decide what types of activities you would like to do. Do you have any special skills or degrees that would be useful? Do you have a particular interest related to international development or environmental conservation? Do you have any physical challenges or special needs that might affect your ability to participate in certain activities or destinations? Determine your budget and decide if your volunteer program is part of your overall travel costs, or separate. Note: If you are a citizen of the United States and pay income taxes, the costs and expenses of volunteering may be tax-deductible as a charitable donation. This can affect your budgetary decisions.


Once you have determined where, when and what you would like to do, begin by searching GoNOMAD’s ALTERNATIVES LISTINGS of volunteer programs. Many programs are offered in several destinations, while some focus only in one region or country. Other resources include university study abroad offices, churches and religious institutions and charitable organizations.

It’s a good idea to start your search three-six months before you plan to travel, to allow time for the application process and to get any immunizations and visas. Request literature and brochures from programs and organizations, as well as references–names and phone numbers or email addresses of previous participants.

Make sure you understand what’s included in the program and the expectations the program has of volunteers. Get an accurate breakdown of costs, and make sure that any costs that aren’t included are figured into your budget.Once you have applied and been accepted to a program, read all pre-departure information carefully, as you may need to arrange for special things like immunizations, visas, travel and health insurance or specific items to bring with you.


It is vital to understand that volunteering is not the same as traveling. Once you accept a volunteer position, you have made a commitment, even if only for a few weeks, to participate and give of yourself. You have also agreed to live very close to a community that may not be used to foreigners and their customs. It is important that you do some pre-trip research about local customs and expectations, and plan to be sensitive to the requests of your host community. You may also have to tailor your own dress and behavior to be considerate. Above all, be open and patient: things don’t always happen according to plan. Your assignment may fall through; your project may not work; your students may be uninterested; your host family may not speak English. Flexibility, a sense of humor, and a strong memory of why you chose to volunteer in the first place are crucial items to pack with you.


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