Guide to Volunteering Abroad, Part 1 – Choosing the right project

Orphanage volunteering Cambodia 8

Volunteering Abroad

The motivation for volunteering abroad is usually born from a very raw sense of wanting to help others; a real need to give something back, help those less privileged than ourselves. Even a need to balance the books.

This unfiltered desire quickly leads to the question of ‘what can I do?’ And the degree of choice out there can be overwhelming. But it is important not to jump in with both feet. And take the advice on offer.

Making the Match

At Outreach International we think that matching a volunteer to the right project is the most critical stage of the volunteering abroad process. So many factors can influence the volunteer’s satisfaction during their placement, and how satisfied you are will have a direct bearing on the impact you make as a volunteer.

Many volunteering abroad organisations fill their volunteer vacancies from web-bookings alone. We want to talk to you and make sure we find the perfect match for you, as we know a well matched volunteer makes the biggest difference for those projects we support.

Here are the top 5 areas we reflect on when placing a volunteer abroad in a project. They are not in order, as how much weighting is given to each one is rather dependent on your answers, which is the point:

5 Areas to Consider


1. Your travel experience and comfort zone?

Whether you have travelled internationally before and to what types of destinations, independently or as part of a group, and your preferences for ‘roughing it’ will undoubtedly have a bearing on the volunteering abroad project or destination you choose.

For example, for a less experienced traveller wanting to volunteer abroad as a teacher in Africa, we might offer our project in Moshi, Tanzania, rather than our projects in Nairobi, Kenya. All the projects need volunteers, yet the Moshi setting is perhaps a gentler introduction to Africa and is served by better facilities for a less well-travelled volunteer.

The Nairobi projects are excellent, however, supporting the children in the slum areas and would represent a rewarding challenge for volunteers more confident in travelling in less developed areas.

Similarly, for someone interested in working in a kindergarten project in Ecuador for example, there is the choice of a city centre project that is a little more accessible and well connected to our Quito base. For the more confident traveller, a 30 minute local bus ride will take the volunteer to the rubbish-dump kindergarten, a project that sees less volunteers due to its location, where a good volunteer can make a bigger impact.

When volunteering abroad your project location, volunteer accommodation, transport and general environment are all factors that will affect your general well-being and so it is important that you are clear about your comfort zone and we guide you to projects that suit you.

2. What you want to achieve from the volunteer abroad experience?

Why Volunteer? This is perhaps the hardest question for volunteers to confront, as you balance your altruistic desire to make a difference with your hope for personal development and enjoyment, which should certainly not be ignored.

It’s a question that should be answered honestly, after some self-reflection. Doing so will not only guide your project selection, but also serve as a useful touch-point during your placement, helping you understand if you are meeting your own goals and perhaps spurring you further towards them.

For most people considering volunteering abroad the answer will be a combination of the following, and understanding the relative weighting you give them can be a useful exercise:

  • Helping others and/or the environment. Absolutely, but what else….
  • Gaining insight into a vocational area where perhaps you want to work in future (working with children, teaching, healthcare)
  • Using your existing vocational/professional skills in a different social context, perhaps even teaching other professionals or sharing best practices
  • Exploring a culture as a working member of a community
  • Developing your confidence and life skills through an independent travel/volunteering adventure
  • Improving a language skill
  • Meeting like-minded people, other volunteers
  • Enjoying your leisure time to travel and fun in the destination

And there are no wrong answers. Everyone is different. This is your experience, and the prioritisation you share with us will only help us propose the best opportunity for you; one that will meet your goals and expectations.

3. What do you have to offer?

This is a question too few volunteers examine carefully for themselves, either failing to look in all four corners of their box of talents, or not fully comprehending how their modest experience might still make a big impact in a different country.

It might be that you want to volunteer to teach English, but if you have a talent at basketball then you might create an equally big impact taking some fun coaching plans and a few balls with you for extra-curricular activity.

You might see yourself as a ‘general office manager’, but your knowledge of administrative processes, good writing skills, basic HR and IT might be the very thing a growing NGO is looking for from a mature volunteer.

You might see yourself as inexperienced in working with children of special needs, but your hobby of art and craft could be the basis for an activity programme, based on a discussion with your project Director.

You might have a passion for conservation that takes you to the wildlife project, but actually your graphic design and social media skills are something that would help promote their cause, making for a more sustainable legacy of your time there.

At Outreach we encourage you to shout about your talents, because our knowledge of the projects means we might know of one that needs your very individual skill, and our local coordinator will work with the projects to help bring your talents to bear.

4. Strong personal preferences

Ah, your strong personal preferences – they should be pretty easy to describe. Shouldn’t they?

If you are volunteering abroad and have a serious passion for a country or region then that is a pretty sensible place to start, but don’t discount the possibility of us proposing some exciting alternatives based on the other factors you are sharing.

Whether you want to live and work alongside other volunteers is a common feature to give some thought to. For the less experienced traveller, living with another volunteer can be a reassurance, or even essential if the plan is to go out and do some travelling at weekends and post-trip.

For others, the presence of other volunteers at work can detract from the experience. There is nothing worse than visiting a project to find the volunteers huddled together in their comfort zone, rather than pushing themselves to engage with those they are there to help.

And for many seeking a cultural immersion, it may be you don’t want to see another volunteer at all. Which can be arranged!

You may want to be in a city, or only speak English, definitely avoid insects, but be with a host family, or have an aversion to a prescriptive volunteer role. Or you may not. Whatever your strong personal preference then let us know, so we can account for it when working out the best volunteering abroad placement for you.

5. Timing and budget

Taming our dreams and ambitions are the limits of time and money, plus the dates you want to go.

School holidays, local festivals and even the breeding season for conservation projects can all affect the availability of a volunteer placement. We share this information on the website, although the vagaries of local timetables means this is always best confirmed by our local coordinator when you express a confirmed interest.

How long you can give a project is also important, as some projects have a minimum placement period for volunteers. More complex roles involving legal or management support to an NGO, for example, may require a minimum 6 month term in order to see projects through to completion.

Projects working with children vary from a minimum term of 1-3 months, depending on the nature of the project, the role of the volunteer and the specialist skills they bring.

Finally, supporting you in different countries and in different projects, comes with different costs. So some projects costs more than others, and when combined with your volunteering duration this can make a real difference to your placement fee, so it is good to be clear on what you can afford early.

Help is at hand

Taking the time to reflect on these considerations can make planning for your overseas volunteering adventure that much more productive. But the key factor is to combine your preferences with our knowledge of the projects.

Don’t get hung up on the exact hours of work (few projects have them), or the precise duties of the volunteer (in reality most are unstructured), but consider the environment, context and our feel for the project that will most likely determine whether it is well suited to you. A perfect match.

Read Part 2 of our Guide ‘Making a Difference’ to understand how you really can make a difference to those you serve when considering volunteering abroad.

Talk to Outreach and fill out our Introduction form to start your conversation about volunteering abroad, or view our projects and use the filters to narrow your choice.

Alternatively click here for more information about how we support your volunteering abroad experience.