International volunteering has been an important and satisfying part of my life. Since my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala in 1991 and 1992, I have had the privilege to serve on 21 international missions in 12 countries. All of this began after I turned 50 – it changed my life.
If you have an interest in international volunteering I encourage you to pursue it.
Where to Begin
A good place to start when thinking about international volunteering is with an examination of your skills and interests. Which of your skills most interest you? What work or hobby has fascinated you? Former volunteers say that their most successful missions have been those on which they have been able to combine their skills and passions. A good way to test your skills as a volunteer is in your local community. Try different organizations. Get a feel for the type of work in which you feel you can make the greatest contribution.
When you have an idea of what type of volunteer work you would like to do start thinking about time commitment. Volunteer assignments can run from one-week to two-years or more. If this is your first international volunteer trip a short-term program can be a good introduction. A one or two week program gives you a chance to test your mettle and see how it works for you. You get a chance to adjust to a new culture and build international relationships.
Contacting and Investigating Volunteer Placement Organizations
Once you have an idea of the type of work you would like to do –and the time commitment you are willing to make – you can start investigating volunteer placement organizations. First search the organizations that have programs that match your interests. See if their programs are in countries or areas where you would like to volunteer. When you have narrowed your organization list down it is time to start contacting them. Carefully examine the history of the organization. It is important to work with a volunteer placement agency that has a positive track record. They should be working closely with an in-country, community oriented non-governmental organization (NGO). Their programs must be providing a needed service to the communities and individuals with whom they work.
When talking to the sending organizations ask the organization for the contact details of former volunteers in your age range. Contact the volunteers and ask them about their experiences. Did the program meet their expectations? Did they believe that their work made a positive and needed contribution to the community? What were the accommodations like? Did the organization provide good security? Was there access to medical care? Did the organization provide insurance? Were the staff helpful and knowledgeable? Was the food okay? Were sanitation facilities adequate? Were the physical requirements within their comfort zones? Was the age mix of fellow volunteers comfortable? Ask if they have contact information for other volunteers whom you can contact. Get it and follow-up.
Most short-term volunteering organizations require that the volunteer pay for transportation and costs associated with the volunteer assignment. The exceptions are organizations that have particular professional needs.
Prospective volunteers often ask about why they have to pay to volunteer. There are many good reasons. Volunteer placement organizations do a lot of advance work to assure the volunteer has a meaningful experience. They cooperate with in-country host organizations to develop programs that fulfill the needs of the community served and contribute to their overall welfare. They travel to program sites to set-up accommodations, food, medical care, security and transportation for the volunteers. They may include insurance. Providing these services requires time and financial resources.
Depending upon the organization and particular assignment, the long-term volunteer may or may not have to pay for travel and associated assignment costs. Some organizations like the U.S. Peace Corps, VSA/Cuso International and United Nations Volunteers provide travel costs and also a stipend. Ask the organization when you contact them.