Volunteering abroad sounds like one of those amazing, once in a lifetime and life changing experiences, right?
Well, it can be but it’s not quite that simple to be honest.
There is a lot to be said for but also against volunteering abroad. To start with the negatives: are we eliminating local job opportunities by volunteering abroad? Are Western businesses profiting from us paying to volunteer abroad? Has volunteering abroad become something mainly 18 year olds with wealthy parents paying for it do to delay going to University?
But then there is the good side: it IS a unique experience. You WILL get to do something that feels good and meaningful even if it is not exactly as good and meaningful as you first expected…
I have volunteered in several countries all over the world. Most, if not all, organizations I volunteered with did not live up to the (high) expectations I had of the good they could do. They are often underfunded, they work with staff and volunteers who don’t get enough training and they have to deal with the fact that money doesn’t always go to where it should…
Nonetheless, I cherish my experiences volunteering abroad. I felt useful (to some extent), I learned new skills and felt much more part of the local community than I would have felt had I just been a tourist in that country.
But do I recommend volunteering abroad?
Yes, personally I do although I would advise doing some research before you sign up to anything. Look for online reviews from previous volunteers to get a more honest picture of what the experience will be like. Always try to volunteer directly with the local non-profit organization instead of going through a commercial business in a Western country (as much as they will try to convince you that you need them, you DON’T! You are perfectly capable of buying your own plane ticket and travel insurance and you don’t need an expensive “briefing” to prepare you for your volunteer experience).
By far the best way to find meaningful volunteer work is to travel to the country first and then ask around locally. This may not be for everyone, I understand that, but if you do find yourself in a foreign country with some free time, just ask your ho(s)tel staff, local friends you have made, etc whether they can help you find volunteer opportunities. This way you are sure to avoid hefty recruitment fees and are not supporting the industry that makes money off people wanting to do something meaningful.
My personal volunteer experiences and recommendations:
1. Wildlife Animal Protection with ARCAS in Guatemala
I was only 17 when I decided to travel to Guatemala alone to learn Spanish and volunteer abroad. ARCAS was one of the few organizations in Guatemala at that time who had short term volunteering opportunities so in all honesty that’s the main reason why I picked them. The ARCAS Rescue Center is located in a tropical forest on the shores of Lake Petén Itza and not far from the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal (which makes it easy to combine volunteering with a visit to Tikal).
“ARCAS was founded in 1989 in order to help combat the illegal wildlife trade in the Petén region. Its first act was to establish the Wild Animal Rescue Center, a direct response to the fact that although the Guatemalan government was beginning to comply with the CITES treaty by confiscating trafficked wildlife, there was no adequate facility to treat and rehabilitate these animals. Under a cooperative agreement with the Guatemalan government, ARCAS is recognized as the official destination for all confiscated wildlife taken from smugglers in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. Since 1990, ARCAS has rescued between 300 to 600 endangered species per year of more than 40 different species.” – source: arcasguatemala.org
I love what ARCAS does and by volunteering with them you do actually contribute to making difference. They have a varying number of confiscated animals at any given time, ranging from parrots to monkeys and jaguars, which they treat and try to get back into the wild.
I spent most of my time there taking care of spider monkeys which I learnt are adorable, clever and very cheeky! My tasks didn’t go much further than cleaning and feeding so don’t expect volunteer work to be majorly complicated or educational, especially if you are only there for a short period of time. Nonetheless you are part of something good and will learn a lot just from being there and helping with whatever needs doing.
Accommodation and food were, and I am sure still are, very basic so that is something to keep in mind.
Would I recommend them?
It has been over 10 years since I volunteered here so I can’t say anything about how they currently operate but when I was there I really felt I was (a very small part) of something good. They charged only a small fee for food and housing and because you pay them directly you know the money at least goes to the organization itself (admittedly I do not know much about how they spend it) and not to some commercial organization recruiting volunteers.
They have opened additional locations in Guatemala City and Hawaii that might be worth checking out as well.
2. Teaching English with Door Step School in India
Looking for a new international experience I found a traineeship in India. The traineeship turned out to be a somewhat boring 9 to 5 office job in a modern office building in Pune, one of India’s largest cities. But, as part of the internship I had to spend a few weeks teaching English to children aged 4 to 10 at the Door Step School project.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I would never choose to work with children in any capacity so the idea of having to work with kids who don’t even share a language with me was in all honestly somewhat frightening. But, I don’t think I have ever been this grateful to have been made to do something I didn’t want to do…
“Door Step School provides education and support to the often-forgotten children of pavement dwellers, slum dwellers, construction site families and many other underprivileged families. Many of these children are not enrolled in school and have limited access to books and a place to study. Additionally, many children drop out of school to work or care for younger children. With neither support nor resources at home some children also suffer from very low learning levels. We are trying to bridge this gap by bringing education to the “Door Step” of these underprivileged children.”– source: doorstepschool.org
I chose to teach at a school located on the edge of a small slum. The whole school was barely anything more than four brick walls and a tin roof with even chairs being too much of a luxury. Within days I fell in love with all of my students. Honestly.
Kind, enthusiastic and eager to learn. I still wonder what has become of them… that skinny boy that looked sick all the time or that one really bright girl… I don’t think they remember me anymore but I will never forget them. Those weeks working in a slum, a slum I got to leave at the end of every day, but the slum they and their parents called home… it was an eye opening and humbling experience to be there and experience the way they live their lives.
Would I recommend them?
The Door Step School is located both in Mumbai and Pune. Their funding seems limited considering how many schools and kids they want to help so be prepared for basic conditions. But the volunteering experience is well worth it both for the kids and for your own personal growth. The Door Step School offers numerous programs so there are a wide range of ways to volunteer, including less hands on ones.
For more information: doorstepschool.org
3. Studying the dolphin population with Mauritius Marine Conservation Society in Mauritius
This time I was looking for a tropical escape from winter in Northern Europe.
The Mauritius Marine Conservation Society (MMCS) was, at the time I volunteered, studying the large dolphin population around the island and the (negative) effects of tourism on their behavior and numbers. For me as a volunteer that meant getting on a boat early every morning to meet the dolphins who were normally easy to find not far off the coast. Tens and sometimes over a hundred spinner dolphins would swim around our boat, entertaining us with their agile jumps. An absolutely amazing experience! Unfortunately a dozen or more boats filled with tourists normally showed up soon after we had reached the dolphins. And that is where our work started: we monitored the behavior of the boats, the captains and the tourists. Additionally, and most importantly, we monitored how all of this affected the dolphins. Over time MMCS hoped to gather enough data to pressure the government into regulating the dolphin tours and boat behavior in general.
Although in my few weeks there I only contributed to this research a tiny bit, I absolutely loved it! I had the opportunity to swim with hundreds of dolphins in their natural habitat, to get out on a boat first thing every morning off the coast of an island with stunning natural beauty… And most importantly I learnt a lot about the negative effects tourism can have and the need to protect and respect nature.
Would I recommend them?
Absolutely! Although not the cheapest volunteering abroad option, I really loved the experience and feel it’s well worth it. As with many non-profit organizations both funding and attracting qualified staff seemed to be an issue and I therefore definitely had my remarks on how this organization could have been much more effective, but they do a lot of good nonetheless.
Mauritius is also an island well worth exploring, public transport isn’t bad and accommodation ranges from basic and very affordable to extremely luxurious so there is definitely something there for every budget and every type of traveler!
MMCS works on different marine conservation projects so do check what they are working on at the time you want to volunteer.
For more information: mmcs-ngo.org
4. Coral reef conservation with Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve in Israel
Israel had been on my bucket list for a while so when I found out about a volunteering option in the south of Israel I decided to just go for it, even though something told me the project itself might not be the most exciting ever.
My gut feeling was right. They placed me, together with one other volunteer, in a mediocre hostel in touristy Eilat. Every day we took the bus to the Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve which is a protected stretch of beach where tourists can spend the day at a fee. As volunteers we spent most of our time cleaning the beach, cleaning buoys or just hanging around with the local staff because there wasn’t a whole lot to do…
Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that this nature reserve exists because you can see an incredible difference between the state of the coral reef in front of this beach and the one in front of the beach right next to it which is packed with hotels and restaurants and not protected. They simply don’t seem to have much work for volunteers and since they do have money coming in every day from a large number of tourists I feel they can sustain themselves and don’t really need volunteers.
But, at the same time I am happy this volunteer project made me go to Israel and experience it the way I did. I booked this project through GoEco, a commercial organization offering volunteer projects all over the world (was that the mistake I made?). GoEco planned a meet & greet in Jerusalem. The local staff member I met there turned out to be a very friendly guy, very passionate about his country. He spent time with us in Jerusalem, traveled with us to Eilat and showed us a different volunteer project in the desert. Thanks to him and the people I met through him I feel I got to experience the real Israel and had numerous very interesting conversations about everything that’s going on in and around Israel.
Would I recommend them?
Although my overall experience in Israel was very worthwhile and would probably have been less interesting if I hadn’t signed up for the volunteer project because then I wouldn’t have met that one great staff member and all the other local people through him… But the project itself wasn’t worth it. And the fact that I had to pay a lot for it because I had to go through a commercial organization makes me want to say no.
So yes, definitely visit Israel but you might want to look for a local, more impactful organization to volunteer with.
Are you traveling to Israel? Check out these Things to Do in Israel.
5. Marine research volunteer with Greenforce in the Bahamas
Only a few months ago I flew to the Bahamas to spend four weeks on a tropical island scuba diving every day. Or so I thought…
Again I went through a commercial organization and again I had my doubts… For close to US$ 2000 I got to spend a month sleeping on a wooden plank for a bed, sharing two flushing toilets between 23 people, taking only cold showers and eating rice and beans most days…
Additionally, because we only had one small boat that could only hold about 12 people and couldn’t be taken out on days the water was even the slightest bit choppy I did only 12 instead of the expected 40+ dives…
And yet the experience as a whole wasn’t a bad one. I got to live on a tropical, desolated beach for four weeks. For four weeks I knew no stress because there was nothing to do on this island and other than cook a few meals and show up for my sporadic dives I had no responsibilities.
The goal of this project is to gather data about the number and size of fish found off the coast plus the number and quality of different types of coral and of different types of algae. I was assigned fish surveys. So, in the four weeks I was there I had to memorize the names of a large number of different fish who frequent these waters and then take surveys to collect data.
Out of 23 volunteers, I was the only volunteer who managed to log data within four weeks. There were different reasons for that and both certain volunteers and the organization as a whole are to blame here. But since I joined the program with the idea of all of us contributing something to the marine conservation efforts undertaken here, I found this very disappointing.
Would I recommend them?
Absolutely not. I am sure there are cheaper ways to spend four weeks on a quiet beach under better circumstances and with more opportunities to go diving.
As mentioned before, it wasn’t all negative. But looking at how much money every volunteer has to pay and how little money seems to be available locally to run the project, it is easy to see where a large part of the money ends up. But, with a bar on site and the beach in front of your door it is definitely not punishment to spend a few weeks at this project.
One final thing to keep in mind: this project attracts mainly younger volunteers, between 18 to 21, and might therefore be less suitable for older volunteers.
For more information: gapforce.org
Should you volunteer abroad?
I have always felt that working or volunteering in a foreign country gives you a much better understanding of what the country is truly like. It really doesn’t compare with spending a vacation somewhere. While working or volunteering you might have less time to visit all the sights but in return you get to experience a small part of “real life” in the country you chose to go to.
So yes, for that alone I would recommend volunteering abroad. It broadens your horizon, opens your eyes to how other people live and, if you pick the right organization, you get to contribute to making the world a little bit better…
But please do pick the right organization! Try to make sure your money ends up with a non-profit or the local community and if possible gather information about whether you would take up local jobs by volunteering.
Have you volunteered abroad?
Please share your experiences in the comments below!
Would you recommend the organization you volunteered with or should we avoid them? I would love to know!
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