Volunteer travel, also called voluntourism, mixes recreational travel with humanitarian work. In addition to connecting the traveller more closely with the culture they've chosen to visit, volunteer travel is also intended to provide a benefit to that culture that outlasts the trip.
Volunteering while travelling is a great way to make a difference, but it's not just about giving. Living and volunteering in a foreign country is a great way to get to know a different culture, meet new people, learn about yourself, get a sense of perspective, and gain new skills. It can also be a good way to stretch a budget to allow a longer stay somewhere, since many volunteer jobs provide room and board, and a few pay a small salary. Some employers offer "volunteer time" benefits, days that may be taken as paid vacation for the purpose of volunteering, and a volunteer trip may be a way to make more effective use of one's paid time off.
Many volunteer programs are oriented toward youth since good health, a desire to explore, enthusiasm, and flexibility are all assets in volunteer work. Some programs involve gap year travel for secondary school leavers, and others are mainly designed for recent university graduates or for young people in general.
However, those are by no means the only opportunities; there are also programs like CESO which mainly take retirees, and organisations like Doctors Without Borders or International Senior Lawyers Project who mainly recruit volunteers with specialized skills.
While there are lots of entirely legitimate volunteer projects, there are also numerous scams specifically targeting volunteer travellers, and many volunteer placements come with a catch. Some people will make profits any way they can, including exploiting their country's poverty and your good intentions for their own gain.
Young naive Westerners who feel the need to give value to their life are the perfect target for such scams. Especially if they are uninformed and believe volunteering is the way to save the world, as they have learnt from celebrities and various media. Volunteering can make a difference, but many pitfalls exist.
There is a campaign to End Humanitarian Douchery, run by ex-volunteers, with a toolkit to help prospective volunteers find good opportunities.
The best defences against scams, disadvantages and other negative effects are:
- Take the opinions of other travellers (not paid by the volunteer organisation) into account.
- Compare the prices of a volunteer tour to other commercial tours or to independent travel, if you just want to see the country. If you can find a less expensive commercial tour, you can donate to a reputable organisation in the country.
- In case of teaching, look at our English teaching article and sites linked there for information on the going rates for teachers and on available jobs.
- Look at several sources of volunteer opportunities, including the cheap or free — see below.
- If possible, check the legal status of orphanages and other sponsoring organisations in the receiving countries as well. Check whether organizations arranging placements are registered as non-profit entities in the sending countries.
Sometimes, volunteer work is just a ploy; the company is basically selling tours, but including some volunteer work both attracts customers and makes them more amenable to 'roughing it' with conditions that they would not accept if they were just paying for a tour.
While some volunteering tours are quite reasonable deals, others are seriously overpriced for what they provide. In the worst cases you could be paying as much as for a high-priced tour with good hotels and professional guides, but getting services (transport, accommodation and food) that a low-budget backpacker would not have to put up with. Compare a volunteering tour's price with the prices of traditional package tours to your chosen destination.
Companies offering volunteer placement have to cover their costs and some legitimately want to make a profit, but others charge outrageous fees. If a company wants a large sum to register for their service or to sign up for a trip, then it is worth asking some hard questions.
Some volunteering is basically just cheap labour. This is especially true for teaching jobs that need foreign staff. In particular, gap year volunteering teachers often work for much lower salaries and with fewer benefits than other foreign teachers. Since the students pay the same fees in both cases, this can be very profitable for the companies involved.
However, also house- and kid-sitting and regular businesses take advantage of volunteering, often through unsuspicious website like Workaway.
Businesses, companies and people offering such jobs fairly often try other tricks and mask their non-volunteering properties:
- Many emphasise the good nature of their work, such as sustainability, green farming, or animal care. However, in the end, the organiser still makes money from it and treats a volunteer similarly to a regular worker they would have employed locally.
- Some declare volunteering opportunities as cultural exchange, that allows you to stay for free and to learn the language. While it is true that language can be an obstacle, it is by no means justified to exploit such a situation. Note, many businesses will happily pay even if your language is not the best.
- Some companies misclassify workers as volunteers to circumvent employment standards laws. If paying someone little more than a token "honorarium" or travel expenses to work fourteen-hour days would be unlawful were these people correctly labelled "employees", mislabelling them as "volunteers" and imposing one-sided contracts which prohibit them from openly discussing their plight is really no better.
- In particular, some provide no proper visa, claiming that as a volunteer you need only a tourist visa rather than a working visa. This is true for some countries, though usually only with some conditions. However, in many cases the host government allows no such claim; in those places, using tourist visas saves the employer money or trouble, but the hapless volunteer might be deported or even jailed for working illegally. If you encounter such a claim, check it carefully using government sources as much as possible.
Local workforce competition
Whether or not they realize it, volunteers may displace local workers who would otherwise be hired to do the same work. This deprives local people of paid work and it may also produce inferior results for the project. Often, local carpenters, bricklayers and other craftsmen can do a far better job than inexperienced foreigners.
Are you skilled enough to do the job? Will you receive sufficient training and instructions? Will your involvement jeopardize another person's health or safety? If your volunteer role is to assist in the operating room of a local hospital but you don't have the medical knowledge to perform the task, then you are not qualified for the role and do the job properly even if you're not taking the job away from the local community. If you are planning to take a role that normally requires more than a couple of hours' instruction, such as healthcare, building construction, or teaching, you should not take those trips unless you already have substantial experience and training. It may be fun to go build a school, but it's embarrassing to discover that it had to be knocked down after your group left.
When you are considering a volunteer trip, ask yourself whether you are competing with the local workforce. If local professionals are available and could do a better job, consider instead donating money to a charity who can hire them.
Some projects do not meet the needs of the community; instead, they optimise for optics, prioritising projects that appeal to prospective donors. For example, it sounds great to tell donors that an NGO plans to build a school. The community to be served might not, in fact, need a new building; it may already have a suitable building but it cannot afford salaries to hire instructors.
Orphanages, which have humanitarian goals, sometimes present a very different picture of child welfare in their local area to prospective donors. Some have even been accused of trafficking children as a means of enriching their owners. Save the Children estimated in 2009 that at least 80% of the at least 8 million children in orphanages had at least one living parent.
When considering a volunteer trip to an orphanage, two factors may reduce its value for children affected.
- Frequent cycling of travellers (to keep the money flowing) creates a very unstable home environment for the child. A two-week or one-month volunteer trip allows for just enough time to build a relationship, which is then quickly abandoned as the trip ends.
- Many orphanages that allow tourist visits are bogus orphanages, where non-orphaned children are kept in deliberately wretched conditions to solicit donations or volunteers. Families in poor countries are persuaded to give up their children to institutions on the pretext that they will be provided with an education or a way out of poverty. These children are then misrepresented to the traveller as orphans and are not allowed to leave. Take precautions associated with the use of children for begging.
Types of volunteering
Many organizations send both qualified and non-qualified workers abroad as volunteers, with low salary, just compensation for expenses or even having you pay for participating in their programs. Although you are working, the main reason for sending you instead of recruiting locals may be to further international understanding.
Various agencies of Western governments send volunteers abroad. Many also send employees or contractors abroad, see Working_abroad#Government_jobs, but several have separate agencies for volunteers. Most volunteers are recent university graduates and most destinations are relatively poor countries.
These positions can be hard to get; they generally require citizenship in the sponsoring country and a university degree just to apply, and the process after application may be quite competitive. Most also require a heavier commitment than other volunteer schemes, typically two years.
- US Peace Corps. Also recruits experienced managers and technical experts for short postings.
- British VSO.
- Canadian CUSO. Also has "diaspora volunteering" (sending immigrants or their descendants back to the ancestral country) and "e-volunteering" (help out on a project via email or Skype).
- Australian AVID.
- New Zealand VSA.
- France Voluntaires.
These are among the best volunteer jobs. All the major expenses (immunizations, travel, etc.) are normally covered and there is support (training, medical insurance, emergency evacuation if needed, etc.) and some sort of salary, though this is generally quite small by home country standards. Typically these volunteers get the same medical care and some of the training that the country provides for military or diplomatic staff; this is generally very good, and often includes topnotch language training.
When you come back, these organizations look good on a résumé, especially for jobs where your knowledge of the country and language will be of use. Both governments and international companies quite often recruit among former volunteers; any significant overseas volunteer experience may help, but the government-sponsored programs are the most credible by far. In particular, various international development agencies often recruit ex-volunteers.
- Canadian CIDA.
- German DAAD. Focus on academic exchange and teaching.
- German GIZ. Many development worker positions, mostly for Germans. They also teach labour in Germany to send them back afterwards.
Many governments also run organizations to teach languages abroad, and of course they hire teachers. These are not purely volunteer jobs. Typically they cover travel expenses and provide a salary—but salaries are often lower than they would be at home, and sometimes the working or living conditions are difficult. We have lists of such organizations for English and for other languages.
There are also programs sponsored by host governments in various places. Many involve teaching English and mainly want native speakers who are new university graduates. Typically they use one-year (renewable) contracts, pay a salary and cover expenses such as airfare. See Teaching English for details.
Some international groups also run volunteer programs:
- European Voluntary Service (EVS). Allows you to work abroad for 3 months up to a year, funded by the European Union, at some kind of charitable organization. Requires European citizenship or at least a residence permit.
- United Nations Volunteers (UNV). A UN program.
- World Heritage Volunteers. A UNESCO program mainly working on preservation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
There are also programs that involve volunteer work on archaeological digs; see here.
Other overseas volunteering
Many of the major NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) involved in international aid also recruit volunteers and/or paid workers for various tasks. Examples include:
- Médecins Sans Frontières – Doctors without Borders
- Oxfam – Originally an anti-poverty campaign, now with broader goals
- UNICEF – UN International Children's Emergency Fund
- UNHCR – UN High Commission for Refugees
- Red Cross
Many of their jobs are high-risk, involving work in war zones or epidemic areas. Many also require specialised training such as medicine or nursing. On the other hand, almost all cover things like immunisations and travel cost, and some also pay reasonably well.
A gap year is a year (or other chunk of time) taken off, most typically between high school and university but also perhaps at various other times in life. Volunteering overseas is a common way to spend such a break. Typically there will be a fee to participate in these programs, and participants are not paid. For more, see our gap year article.
Some countries have jobs for live-in caregivers which require specific skills, training or experience. In Canada, for example, it is fairly common for families with a disabled person in the house — most often, an Alzheimer's victim — to bring in a foreign nurse as a live-in caregiver. It is quite difficult for a foreign nurse to become licensed to work in Canada; they must have excellent (IELTS 7) English or a comparable level in French, and pass a stiff nursing exam, and some are required to take additional training as well. However, work as a live-in caregiver does not require the Canadian nursing license. It will typically also pay much less, but the visa may be easier to get since many countries including Canada have special provisions for domestic staff.
Many churches or other religious organizations also send volunteers abroad, mainly either religious specialists (preachers, monks, nuns, ..) or people with important practical skills (doctors, nurses, teachers, ...). If you are a member of a religious congregation, then it is probably worth inquiring about their programs.
Israel offers the opportunity for kibbutz volunteering.
There are also various other organizations that recruit volunteers. These generally do not cover the major expenses such as airfares and travel insurance, and some charge a fee for placement. Web search for "volunteer" or "gap year" will turn up an enormous number of examples. But you can narrow it down by adding a country or region name or using combinations like "youth volunteer" or "retired volunteer". Of course many of them will be scams, businesses or marketing ploys rather than solid volunteering opportunities, see #Be wary above.
Cultural exchange and volunteer jobs
Jobs with low salary may be offered, sometimes without the charity aspect. Here you are working to get the opportunity to get in touch with the foreign culture, more deeply and more cheaply than on a course or vacation. A typical example is working as au pair, i.e. doing household and child care work for food, bed and pocket money. Some of these jobs do pay reasonably well, but many do not. Often language is a factor in hiring; an English Canadian couple might want a French nanny so their kids learn French, and English-speaking Filipinas are in demand in most countries from Korea to Egypt.
Several sites provide online indexes of volunteer opportunities:
- HelpStay. 1,000+ listing. In general, a host will provide 1-3 meals a day and accommodation in return for about 20 hours of work per week from a volunteer. Stays are usually at least one week in duration. Registration: €10 fee per stay + costs of host.
- HelpX. 33,277 listings. A web site that indexes organisations worldwide offering room and board in exchange for labour. They have a range of opportunities: farms, hostels, sailboats, ... The website is most popular in Australia (8,700), New Zealand (5,800) and Europe (11,700). Registration: €20 for 2 years (single and friends).
- Hippohelp. A map-based platform connecting travellers with hosts from all over the world. Travellers provide free services in exchange for food and accommodation.
- Hovos. Hosts around the world looking for volunteers help in their projects like animal care, gardening, babysitting, art projects, language practice, eco projects, farming and animal care. Join for Free.
- Nordjobb. Jobs for young people available through programs for cultural exchange and understanding for people from the Nordic countries (or EU citizens knowing a relevant language). Wages according to local unqualified summer job standard.
- Past Horizons. An index of archaeological projects worldwide that need volunteers
- Volunteer Stays (Help Stays). An index site mainly for opportunities in Ireland but with some elsewhere in Europe
- World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) (WWOOF). 16,000 farms. A green network that allows hosts that own organic farms to receive 4-6 hr per day of help on their farms (called WWOOFing) in exchange for food, accommodation, education, and cultural interaction. You can be sowing seed, making compost, gardening, planting, cutting wood, weeding, making mud-bricks, harvesting, fencing, building, packing, milking and feeding livestock in any of 80 countries. Registration: £20 (intl.), US$40, AU$70, €20-27 (DE, FR) per year; separate payment for separate countries/regions.
- Workaway. 30,000+ listing. Hosts from over 100 countries with opportunities including gardening, babysitting, art projects, language learning and animal care. Conditions by some hosts are outrageous, e.g. working part time 50% for just a bed in the middle of nowhere. Also, the platform makes it hard to identify bad sheep by blocking negative reviews. €39/year to register.
- Worldpackers. 4,446 listing. Worldpackers is similar to Workaway but concentrates more on short term assignments. Hosts can charge a fee per assignment, e.g. to cover for costs on their side, especially NGOs and other volunteer organisations. €49/year to register.
Nearly all these posts cover at least room and board while you are working, but few cover anything beyond that. Typically there is no salary and you are responsible for your own travel expenses. Some of the index sites may impose some requirements on the terms, but in many cases your contract is up to you and the organisation or individuals you are going to work for. Make sure you know what you are signing.
Please always remember, many use these platforms to circumvent labour laws and minimum wage regulation. You should really only take a job that cannot get regular workers, is sustainable in a certain sense, does not make money, or helps others when money is lacking. Working in a hostel 4–5 hr/day for just a dorm bed really is not the kind of work you should be seeking, see #Be wary.
There are numerous opportunities to contribute to the world while at home. For one thing, many worthwhile international organizations need donations, and some may need volunteers in your area. Also, working for a local political party or advocacy group may have effects on the rest of the world.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, many traditional voluntourism travel programs developed programs that let their supporters be involved in distant projects while staying home. For example, a program to build schools might have volunteers raise the money needed, hire local professionals to build the school, and let the volunteers follow the project online. This can result in work being done faster, at lower cost, and in a more environmentally sustainable way.
The Virtual Volunteer wiki covers a range of opportunities for volunteering without travelling and provides links to many.
Some governments have volunteer programs within their own country:
Other projects to consider include:
- The Humanitarian OSM Team, applying OpenStreetMap data to problems like the Haitian earthquake or the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
- Focal Local have a variety of projects
- The Tor Project, an Internet anonymity service often used by people at risk from oppressive governments, such as human rights workers or dissidents
- For Canadians, CUSO's e-volunteering[dead link] program.
You can also contribute information or copy edits here on Wikivoyage, on other Wikimedia Foundation projects such as Wikipedia, or on independent projects such as the appropriate technology wiki Appropedia.
Many volunteer jobs are in the 'third world'; see Working abroad#Stay safe.
Health can become a major issue when you are exposed to conditions and germs not found at home; see Stay healthy and Infectious diseases. At a minimum you need to see a doctor, preferably one who specialises in travel medicine, about vaccinations and other precautions well before your departure date, and to consider travel insurance.
In some countries, corrupt officials may interfere with entry of volunteers or vital supplies in an attempt to extract payments or bribes. In some recent conflict zones, governments may wilfully obstruct aid to civilians in rebel-held areas. And then there's crime and theft as risks.
If you pay income taxes in your home country and work as a volunteer abroad, then you may be able to take a charitable deduction for some or all of your trip expenses. The tax agencies are very strict on which organizations' trips qualify, and if you combine volunteer work with vacation, you will have to prorate the deduction on your airfare.
More generally, tax rules get complicated when you live abroad. If you have income other than the volunteer salary then parts of the discussion at Retiring_abroad#Taxation may apply.
Visa requirements vary significantly between countries, so make sure you check the regulations before you agree. Even if you are not getting paid for your efforts, you may have trouble if entering a foreign country without a work visa.
In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, all work (paid or otherwise) explicitly requires you to obtain a work visa, meaning that you will be breaking the law by volunteering on a tourist visa.
In other countries, volunteer work is allowed on a tourist visa as long as you don't overstay and the task is a legitimate volunteer position normally taken up by locals as an unpaid effort. In theory, the United States claims to fall into this category, if the host organization follows a specific procedure which requires it issue a letter in advance explaining their plans and "paroling" the volunteer into the country. In practice, it's not so simple. Border control officials have wide latitude to claim any arbitrary part of the task description falls into what is normally paid work. In one instance "cleanup" of hurricane damage was arbitrarily considered "construction work" to be protected for domestic workers, causing a church group to be delayed at the border and turned away. Likewise, one mention of WWOOF may get an unsuspecting, well-meaning volunteer strip-searched and turned back if the task could have been done by a paid employee. Australia also officially falls into this category, but with the additional restriction that volunteer work must be incidental to the trip (i.e. not the main purpose of the trip). However, Australian immigration law considers any form of compensation, monetary or otherwise, to be payment. This means that even if you are only receiving room and board and/or meals but no monetary payments for your services, that counts as paid work and would be illegal on a tourist visa.
For some travellers, a working holiday visa is another alternative; these are bilateral arrangements between various pairs of countries that allow young travellers from either country to work in the other for a year or so.
Other ways to help
The non-profit organisation or non-governmental organisation (NGO) model is intended to be more efficient than direct aid models, where volunteers offer cash or labour directly to people in need. Non-profits tend to be structured like corporations, with highly-paid executives disconnected from on-the-ground work and with entire departments dedicated to marketing and fundraising. If you intend to donate to a non-profit, research it as best as you can to be confident that your donation will go to the people who need it. You may be able to schedule an appointment to meet with a representative of such an organisation or to visit its facilities. If you would like to donate, cash does more good than donating specific items (also known as an in-kind donation). A donation of money allows the organization to pay for whatever they need most, and they may be able to arrange bulk discounts with suppliers. If you do want to donate in kind, ask the organization what they need first, to avoid burdening them with items they don't need and can't use. Examples of in-kind donations that you can bring on vacation include books and surplus medical supplies.
The mutual aid model, originating in a series of essays published in the 1890s, shuns the top-down non-profit organization model in favor of a minimal-overhead model where a group of participants decide by consensus how to help a population in need. The mutual aid group then raises money from among the group's members, not typically from external sources, and collaborates to purchase needed items and to distribute money, goods, and services. If you are traveling and interested in helping people directly, a mutual aid group might make it easier for you to find like-minded people who you can support with money and labour.
To ensure that you're supporting the communities you've chosen to visit, spend your money at local enterprises and businesses instead of at global chains and outlets. At the end of your trip, instead of bringing all your clothes, medical supplies, and equipment home with you, leave what you can with locals. This also frees up space in your luggage for bringing back other stuff.