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voluntary work abroad

Although a common feature of the 'gap year', volunteering on a project abroad is not limited to those with lots of time on their hands. 2-week placements are entirely feasible for a unique holiday that will certainly make an interesting topic of conversation back in the office. You can teach English as a foreign language (TEFL), go on an archaeological dig, help build a school, do your bit to preserve the rainforests, help save an endangered species and much more. But what makes working for free so appealing?

  • It can be hugely satisfying to make a difference to a community or environment in need of help but lacking resources
  • You may come away from it having learnt a new language or new skill
  • It makes a rewarding holiday experience as you become fully immersed in the culture and customs of the country - it's a novel way to see the world
  • Next time you're struggling for words on your CV or in an interview you'll be grateful you did something a bit different from the other candidates
  • You might even gain practical work experience in a field relevant to your career
So how does it work?

It can be very difficult and time-consuming organising a voluntary placement yourself, but it is possible and you will save a wad of cash for your trouble. The easy way is to go through an organisation such as those listed at the end of this article. For those who think that volunteering abroad means a free holiday, I'm afraid you're in for a shock. Yes, it does seem surprising that you should have to pay in order to work for free, especially when your time is precious and you're doing it for a good cause as much as you're doing it for your own benefit. However, you can't argue that there shouldn't be a price to pay for the administrative task of arranging your placement and the in-country support that is usually available. You might also pay a 'donation' to the host community, even though you would expect your services to be sufficient. Your food and accommodation should be taken care of at no extra cost but you will likely be staying with a local family which probably doesn't cost much anyway.

In summary, you might find the fees unjustifiably expensive, but it is the norm and clearly plenty of people are willing to pay it. If you are concerned that seemingly charitable organisations are actually turning a profit, do contact them and ask questions - it's the best way to decide who to go with. A useful place for further research is the Ethical Volunteering Guide, which provides "advice and information for people who are interested in international volunteering and want to make sure that what they do is of value to themselves and the people they work with." For a list of organisations that can arrange your placement, see below. We have separated a few organisations that cater only for gap years (restricted age group); these are listed at the end.

Volunteering Organisations
I-to-I TEFL "Set off on the adventure of a lifetime with a career in TEFL (teaching English abroad as a foreign language)."
Changing Worlds "Changing Worlds carefully selects a variety of placements to suit you. We offer paid and voluntary placements world wide - if you like the idea of travel, meeting people and don't mind working hard then this is for you!"
Raleigh International "Raleigh International is a charity committed to the personal growth and development of young people from all nationalities and backgrounds"
Teaching & Projects Abroad "Our incredibly wide range of projects, including teaching, care, conservation, medical and journalism, are designed specially for the many communities where we work and also to give the best experience to everyone volunteering abroad."
Quest Overseas "A journey with a purpose". Gap year and career-break placements, expeditions, marine conservation and 2-3 week "escapes".
Earthwatch "Earthwatch Institute engages people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment."
VSO "We are a leading development charity with almost 1,500 skilled professionals currently working in 34 countries. We respond to requests from governments and community organisations throughout Asia and Africa."
Biosphere Expeditions "Our expeditions place ordinary people with no research experience alongside scientists who are at the forefront of conservation work. Expeditions are open to all, there are no special skills or fitness required to join and there are no age limits whatsoever."
Trekforce Expeditions "The experts in delivering remote conservation projects, teaching placements and challenging expeditions which actively and sustainably protect vulnerable environments and assist rural communities throughout the world."
Venture Co Worldwide "VentureCo’s multi-phase travel programmes incorporate development projects, expeditions and adventure travel in Asia, Africa, South America and Central America. If you’re taking a Gap Year, considering a Career Break or just fancy a working holiday with a difference you can combine these elements into your travel plans and achieve what you never believed possible."
Frontier Conservation Expeditions "Frontier projects advance field research and implement projects that will help conserve biodiversity and help develop sustainable livelihoods. As a Frontier volunteer your field-work will be a joint enterprise with local organisations, in some of the earth’s richest and most threatened biological hotspots."
Coral Cay Conservation "Providing resources to help sustain livelihoods and alleviate poverty through the protection, restoration and management of coral reefs & tropical forests."
VIP (Volunteers for International Partnership) "VIP offers volunteer opportunities for individuals or groups to do international community service in health, social services, environment and education. Work with a rural development project, volunteer in a health clinic, work with children, teach English – the volunteer opportunities are endless!"
Greenforce "Non-Profit Adventure Specialists" From 1 week to 1 year, projects range from marine conservation in Fiji to orphanage work in India.
Outreach International "Outreach International is a small, specialist organisation that places committed volunteers in carefully selected, meaningful projects." Destinations are: Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
Travellers Worldwide "We have over 250 projects that you can do, in 21 countries around the world." Conservation, teaching, caring for children and animals, sports coaching, learning a new language and more.
Concordia "Concordia works in close co-operation with over 80 partner organisations worldwide, all independent organisations who share a common involvement in short-term international volunteer projects."
ICYE (Inter-Cultural Youth Exchange) "Inter-Cultural Youth Exchange is a unique user-led registered charity working in the field of personal, social and community development. ICYE volunteers support local communities worldwide and can make a real difference to peoples’ lives."
BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) "The charity was set up in 1959, and has a successful history of environmental conservation volunteering throughout the UK and around the world."
Involvement Volunteers Australia "Involvement Volunteers Association Inc (IVI) helps you to make a difference in the world. We organise cost effective international volunteering opportunities."
Specialist Gap Year Organisations
World Challenge Expeditions "As the original schools expedition company, World Challenge offers an unrivalled range of programmes geared to the education of young people. Our 19 years' experience means that students and teachers benefit from a level of safety and service second to none, while the activities and amazing destinations guarantee an extraordinary adventure."
GAP Activity Projects "Gap Activity Projects is the leading year out organisation for school-leavers in the UK. It is a not-for-profit organisation, specialising in voluntary work placements overseas for 17-25 year-olds, in a transition year before going on to further education, training or employment."
The Project Trust "Project Trust sends about two hundred volunteers to twenty-five countries annually and is widely respected as one of the most experienced and professional gap year organisations in Britain."
Africa and Asia Venture "We have a reputation second to none for care and good management together with a real depth of in-country knowledge and understanding. We are a small, friendly organisation where the individual really counts. Come and join us on a journey for life!"