There is no ‘best thing’ about volunteering abroad: everyone takes something different from the experience and that is why it is so appealing. However, one of the best things is the exotic destinations you get to visit. There is very little paid work available in most of the countries that need volunteers, and what there is should not be filled by foreigners, but by the people who live there. You get to leave the tourist trail and really go off the beaten track. It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture, often unimaginable before you get out there, and more importantly a chance to make a difference to the lives of people you meet. Writing about volunteering abroad is almost impossible to do without using clichés, but they are all true – whether you are teaching Thai children English, working in a landmine museum in Cambodia, helping to conserve the Amazon rainforest or giving medical treatment in Africa, the rewards of voluntary work are evident from the start. You are helping improve the world, making it just a little bit better. Never mind conscription to the armed forces, a mandatory, government-sponsored year of overseas work abroad would do the world no end of good.
Sadly, like everything, volunteering does have its downsides – most notably the cost. You are not paid for voluntary work (that would defeat the object!) but on the other hand, it seems unfair that you are expected to pay to do it! Still, there is a reason for charging volunteers for the privilege of giving up their time. Projects abroad are not cheap to organise and the majority of organisations charge a set fee to cover the cost of setting up the placement and in-country support. This is an unpleasant but necessary fact, and there is little any one can do to change it, but beware! Always make sure you know exactly what is and is not included in the cost. Most of the time you can expect your food and accommodation to be ‘free’ once you arrive, but this is not always the case. Check that airport transfers are available when you get there; otherwise you will arrive tired and confused in a foreign airport with no idea where to go! If your desired project is suspiciously cheap, make sure it is not because you have to buy your own meals at weekends or have to find your own accommodation. If you feel that you would rather organise your own living arrangements this works out well, but can be distressing for a first-time volunteer!
Flights, insurance and visas are rarely covered by the placement cost, and you will have to pay for these separately. In some countries you need to be vaccinated against certain diseases before you are allowed in, so it is important to arrange these before you leave Britain. Your placement provider should inform you about any required injections beforehand.
The cost varies according to destination, length and type of placement and time of year – for example, spending three weeks on a building project in Tanzania costs £495 with POD, whereas Real Gap has a year-long training course to be a Field Guide in South Africa for a hefty £5,799! Of course, these are extreme examples and a rough price for a three-month project is around £1700.
Only a lucky few are able to find that kind of money easily, and working at a full or part-time job is a good way of saving enough to cover the costs. However, for the vast majority of would-be volunteers the most effective way of paying for their placements is to fundraise the cash. This becomes part of the whole experience, and imaginative individuals thrive on the challenge of raising enough money in time. It has the additional bonus of raising awareness about the charity or organisation, so you will probably be encouraged to try it even if you have plenty of money saved up already. Sometimes fundraising hits a slump and it feels like you have asked everyone you have ever met to sponsor you, and it can be tempting to give up. However, no matter how high the price, breaking it down into smaller chunks makes the whole process less daunting. If you exhaust one method of revenue, simply move onto another! One idea is roping your mates into doing a fancy dress pub-crawl – it is a lucrative method of fundraising, and if you get £400 each time you only need to do five! There are several charitable organisations in the UK that offer funding for young volunteers: you simply need to ask them for it.
If you really do run into a dead-end, try asking your placement provider for help. They will be able to give advice and suggest ideas that worked for other people, but remember they cannot raise the money for you.
Each placement has its own set of requirements, whether that is a degree, language skills, time commitments or certain qualifications. However, one thing that links them all is the age requirement. Whilst there is often no upper age limit to volunteers, in most cases you need to be at least eighteen to volunteer abroad, Volunteering in the UK is a different matter, but visa complications mean that it is difficult for those under eighteen to find an organisation that will send them to a different country.
Then there is the question of what to do when you are out there! Choosing the right placement all depends on what you want to get out of it. You can do practically anything as a voluntary project, which means you can spend all your time doing something you love, exploring a new interest, or even furthering your career!
Hundreds of organisations offer overseas placements, and one of the best places to find them is the trusty Google. However, it can be a bit daunting when page after page of organisations are displayed onscreen: where do you start? How do you choose?
We have done the hard work by creating a Volunteering Abroad Quiz – an easy-to-use guide designed to help you choose which voluntary placements are best for you!
Volunteering projects abroad can be broadly divided into five categories: Community Development, Conservation, Career, Construction and Teaching. Do not be restricted by the option you chose in the quiz: you may find yourself tempted by something completely different!
Perhaps the most wide-ranging category for voluntary work, community development basically includes any voluntary placement that focuses on improving the lives of people in your host country. This is different to teaching, as you are generally not required to have any specific qualifications and separate from construction, as it demands more personal involvement with the local community. Volunteers tend to be placed in long-term projects that have the support of local authorities, and will continue after they leave.
The other ‘biggie’ of voluntary work. Conservation, and to a lesser extent, eco-tourism, is wildly popular with both gap-year students and those on a career break. After all, preserving coral reefs or working at an elephant sanctuary is a world away from the classroom or the office. Conservation projects are available for different lengths of time, sometimes as little as four weeks, unlike community development ones which often require a commitment of three months or more. They tend to be in the most exotic locations, which is another reason for their popularity.
The most ‘hands-on’ of the five categories, construction volunteers get to see the direct result of their labour, as they literally build new projects where needed. The best thing about construction projects is their simplicity: you are not required to have any language skills or qualifications, nor muscles the size of beer barrels, just to be physically fit and enthusiastic. Projects might include building schools and houses, constructing stoves or digging wells, and can be arranged to last just a couple of weeks. This makes them an ideal option for someone with limited time, although longer projects are also available.
Volunteer Teaching Abroad
A well-known and popular area of voluntary work, teaching placements are available on almost every continent. As mentioned elsewhere in the magazine, if you have a qualification that allows you to teach English abroad you can find paid work relatively easily, but there are other types of teaching too! Other examples would be teaching sports, dance or artistic activities, often to children in underprivileged areas. Voluntary teaching placements are usually in countries in South America, Asia and Africa, although ‘summer camp’ work (which offers nominal pay) is available in Australasia, Europe and the USA.
This last category is the vaguest, and could almost be described as ‘anything else’. Of course, any voluntary work looks good on your CV, but a placement that offers you work that could be beneficial to a specific career comes under this heading. Popular options include: the media, working on a newspaper or radio; medical, where you assist doctors and nurses in hospitals; business, which could be anything from setting up a guinea pig farm in Peru to setting up a womens’ co-operative; and (technically speaking) teaching, although that is varied enough to warrant it’s own category. ‘Career’ placements are sometimes more expensive than other types of voluntary work as they are more complicated to organise, and they almost always require some kind of previous experience or qualification, yet they remain a regular choice for volunteers nevertheless.