How to Choose an International Volunteer Program

[singlepic=1420,150,,,right]You’ve decided to incorporate some aspect of volunteering into your travels – now how do you choose the right international volunteer program for you? One of the biggest benefits of volunteering abroad is the opportunity to learn and experience another culture. So much of the travel experience is take-take-take and for many that rarely even involves a genuine cultural exchange.

But by including volunteering as part of your travels, you’re able to immerse yourself into a culture and give a little something back as a way of saying thanks. When I decided to take a career break in the summer of 2006, I knew that I wanted to include volunteering into my experience. And there were many factors that I considered that helped me decide what program was best for me.

1. Where did I want to volunteer?
For a while, Peru had been tugging at my heartstrings, yet I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of spending my career break there. I had been to other parts of Central and South America, but had never been to Africa. Did I want to explore another continent?

After some research, I realized that the heart doesn’t lie, and it belonged in Peru. Why else would I have spent the prior year reading up on the Incan civilization, eating ceviche as much as possible, and enrolling in Spanish classes?

[singlepic=1416,200,,,left]2. What type of volunteer work did I want to do?
I’m not a trained doctor, vet, nurse or carpenter, and I don’t have business expertise to offer, so the type of work I’d be qualified to actually do was limiting. I am, however, a photographer and artistically inclined, so I was hoping that I could offer up those skills on some level. During my research, I kept coming across organizations that worked with children and schools, and felt that that would be the best area for me to pursue.

3. What did I want to get out of the experience?
I had pinpointed the type of work I wanted to do, but what else was I looking for? I had spent most of my travels hop-scotching across countries and continents, so I was looking forward to remaining in one place – Cusco. Still, I wanted to be able to explore the area and hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

I also wanted the opportunity to practice my Spanish, something I find much easier to do when I am in situations where I have to use it. A cultural experience was high on my list.

[singlepic=1419,200,,,right]4. How high was my comfort level?
I’m not adverse to new situations, but there were some areas that I felt strongly about. I wanted to bond with members of the community, but I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable doing a homestay the whole time. I also didn’t want to live on my own, as so much of the travel experience is meeting new people. Ideally I was looking for an opportunity to live with my fellow volunteers.

5. What type of organization did I want?
There are many levels of opportunities out there, from the local NGOs that rely on volunteers to be completely pro-active to companies that offer a great deal of in-country support but cost more.

Given that I was going to be in Cusco for just six weeks, I knew I wouldn’t have the time to make the in-roads I would need to find a grassroots organization, plus worry about accommodation. Yet I still wanted a smaller organization that had their roots on a local level but offered volunteer support. I was willing to pay for just such an organization.

[singlepic=1,175,,,left]6. How to find an organization that met all my needs?
I started my research flipping through Lonely Planet’s Gap Year Book because it offered great resources for this type of experience. However, the book’s audience is more based out of the UK and skewered to the “just graduated high school” level.

I also found that most of the organizations listed were based in the UK and priced in pounds. I was willing to pay for this opportunity, but given the weakness of the dollar, the prices were too high. (Note: they have since come out with a Career Break book.)

So I turned to Idealist – a great online resource I use to find volunteer opportunities and employment on a local level. I decided to give their international resources a test run, and because I had such a strong list of requirements, I was able to find the perfect experience for me!

[singlepic=1421,200,,,right]Peru’s Challenge
Peru’s Challenge is a local organization based outside of Cusco and they work with the local communities on sustainable projects. Because one of its founders is from Peru, the organization understands the needs of the community. And because the other founder is from Australia, they also understand the needs and expectations of the western volunteer coming into the experience.

I had the opportunity to work with the people of Pumamarca, a community whose members survive on their agricultural products but one in which the Department of Education does not support. We helped with the renovation of the school, teaching art and gym classes, and working with the Women’s Group.

[singlepic=1414,225,,,left]I was also able to put my photography skills to use. I photographed the children of the community and helped design a fundraising calendar for the organization. Funds raised went towards an emergency medical fund for the village.

In addition to meeting my “what can I do” needs, Peru’s Challenge also fulfilled my “what do I want to get out of it” needs. Their program fee included housing for me and my fellow volunteers (we did our own shopping and cooking) and great cultural activities, including Spanish, cooking, and dancing lessons. They also offered several tours of the area (including the Sacred Valley) and organized my Inca Trail trek.

My experience was fulfilling on every level and I attribute that to the thought and research I put in beforehand. (Read more about my volunteer experience in Destinations: Cusco, Peru and in the Peru’s Challenge newsletter.)

So make sure you do your homework. Otherwise pre-conceived expectations will only set you up for disappointment. And don’t anticipate your work will change the world – in many cases it’s about an honest cultural exchange.

We’d love to hear from you!

Tell us about your international volunteer experience

Other comments

9 Comments on "How to Choose an International Volunteer Program"

  1. Sydney Australia on Sat, 24th Oct 2009 10:25 pm 

    I’m gearing up to spend a month in Cusco, Peru teaching English. I flit from “excited out of my brain” to “terrified as all hell”. I’ve often thought about spending time in Cusco and I was finally in the position to do it (I had some money saved up. I thought I wanted to put a downpayment on a house but then thought, “mmmm, not yet”). I went through a company called i-to-i and they deal with young people who need a gap year to those people who need a career break and everyone in between. They are a British company, yes, but I’m Australian and paid in Australian dollars for my TEFL course and for a volunteer placement (they have in-country help etc etc). You’re right, though. You really do have to put the research in to find an organisation you feel comfortable with. I can’t wait to get there and experience life in Cusco, meet people like me who are looking to see what’s beyond life under flurescent lighting and meet local Peruvian children and their families.

  2. Michaela Potter on Wed, 28th Oct 2009 5:51 pm 

    Sydney, Australia – I’m so happy to hear that you are volunteering in Cusco, Peru – it is truly a magical place. And embrace those varying emotions you are feeling because they are part of this incredible experience; before you know it, it will be here and gone in a flash. So lap up every part of it that you can.

    I’m also happy that you did some research to find a program that fit your expectations. I can’t wait to hear more about it. Please come back and share!

  3. veron on Mon, 30th Nov 2009 3:40 am 

    Thank you for the detailed advise. It was encouraging to read about your experiences abroad. I have just begun doing some research on volunteer & travel opportunities and your article was helpful!

  4. Michaela Potter on Wed, 2nd Dec 2009 10:56 am 

    Thanks Veron! Volunteering is a great way to give back to a community that you are getting so much from while traveling. Even if volunteering encompasses just a portion of your travels, I think it is an important aspect to include. Where are you thinking of volunteering and when are you heading out? I look forward to hearing more about your experience!

  5. Annette on Thu, 21st Jan 2010 3:17 pm 

    Love this post!
    Have you tried Great people, fantastic projects!
    They’re based in the US, and have opportunities for more ‘mature’ volunteers.

  6. Veron on Fri, 22nd Jan 2010 1:40 pm 

    Hi Michaela,
    This is all pretty new to me!!
    I’d like to volunteer in a Spanish speaking country, due to a desire to learn Spanish. But I’m also interested in Middle Eastern/Europe(I’d like to experience some of the places where the 3 Abrahamic faiths began – Judaism, Christianity(in particular), Islam)

    Annette’s recommendation looks interesting. I’d like to head out sometime in the latter part of 2010. That would give me some time to save a bit more, however, if I can find a way to earn while abroad(p/t), or volunteer in exchange for room and board, that would help.

    Due to financial constraints, and a desire to, as you put it, “give back to a community” in some way, I am looking for organizations, that foster that combination(serving in some way & the ability to explore).

    I’ve been away from your site for a few weeks, but look forward to following for any tips in this area! Thanks for what you do.

  7. Annette on Sun, 24th Jan 2010 7:13 pm 

    Thank you Veron! You can go to GeoVisions and check out their work abroad options. Here’s the link:

  8. Michaela Potter on Mon, 25th Jan 2010 11:58 am 

    Hi Veron! I’m not as familiar with Annette’s recommendation of Geovisions (though I know of the organization) so definitely look into that as an option.

    Another thing to consider when it comes to financial issues is how far will your dollar go in a country. You’ll most likely find that places in Central and South America will be easier on the wallet then Middle Eastern/European countries. Again, I highly recommend starting with for a search of organizations that may fit what you are looking for.

    Also, Sarah Van Auken of Volunteer Global has put together a list of smaller service organizations:

    Make sure that whichever organization you are thinking of going with, that you ask for some referrals so that you can learn more about the program from a volunteers perspective.

    Nora Dunn (aka The Professional Hobo) wrote an article about how to travel full-time for less than $14,000 a year. You may find some of her resources helpful, including how to work or even find free accommodation.

    Working abroad is always a bit trickier for Americans as it’s difficult to get work visas. But teaching English is also something to think about, though most paid jobs require you be certified. Our co-founder, Sherry Ott, wrote a series of posts about her experience teaching English in Vietnam for a year. Maybe you can find some inspiration there as well:

    And lastly, we just posted an interview today with David Lee of He has some great spreadsheets on how much he spent in each destination (which will give you an idea of cost), but also some good advice about setting goals for yourself when it comes to planning something like this. Be sure to check out his post:–-realizing-a-dream/

    I hope these are helpful tips on getting you on the path to fulfilling your goals!


  9. Best International Volunteering Articles on Sun, 6th Feb 2011 5:00 pm 

    […] How to Choose an International Volunteer program This site is overall exceptional resource for Big Trips AND this article is a solid explanation of what questions to ask yourself when picking a program before going on the Big Trip. […]

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