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Top Volunteer Abroad Programs for 2018

Learn from Locals and Make a Difference

Volunteering abroad is an excellent way to learn from others in order to be of most help for their unique situation. You can share your skills while gaining important philanthropic and global experience. Currently, top high schools and universities often favor or even require volunteer experience. Why? It is extremely important for students to learn as much as possible about themselves and the wide world in order to excel academically during and after their academic career.

As with any experience abroad, volunteering provides a window to the world . Yet, volunteering is different than travel or study abroad because of the direct ways you interact and learn from locals. The experience of living and working together offers a deeper understanding of how interconnected we all are and how we all really need to listen and learn from each other.

Volunteering is an extraordinary investment whose value will return in countless ways throughout your life — from careers to interpersonal interactions to knowing the value of learning abroad. Having that advantage — possessing global experience, being able to adapt to different surroundings, proficiency in learning new languages, and acquiring greater knowledge of others and ourselves — will give you an edge in today’s interconnected, international world.

There are a wide variety of programs offering volunteer opportunities — and a wide variety of options, including length, cost, pre- and post-program support, and more. Some programs run for a week or two, while others are offered from 12 weeks to a year (or longer, such as Peace Corps). The costs of volunteer programs range widely, as well — from a minimal or low-cost experience to a more extensive and inclusive opportunity with broad, in-country support. The costs are directly related to the amount of program support provided, including housing, meals, training, insurance, etc. You should research very carefully and determine your needs. You should think about what you hope to gain from your volunteering experience before choosing a program to ensure the best fit.

Finally — and this is becoming an important consideration for many more volunteers recently — you should research programs and ask alumni in order to ensure that the program you choose meets your expectations in terms of meeting the needs of locals without unintended consequences.

Top Volunteer Abroad Programs and Organizations
Photo courtesy of Global Vision International. Adapted by Transitions Abroad.

Picks for 2018 Top Volunteer Abroad Programs

United Planet

Volunteers in Mexico with United Planet
Volunteers in Mexico. Photo courtesy of United Planet.

A non-profit, United Planet offers programs for teens, families, gap year, and medical volunteers that focus on relational diplomacy and building a global network of leaders and volunteers which fosters cross-cultural understanding and uniting beyond borders.

Dave Santulli, Founder and President, United Planet, notes, "In today’s world, global challenges transcend borders. To address these challenges — poverty, global health, climate change, involuntary migrations ─ we need to work together as a global community. We are constructing the upper stories of a building in efforts to effect change without focusing on the foundation…the foundation necessary to solve these global challenges is in building stronger relationships and greater understanding across cultures.”

Why I recommend United Planet:

United Planet stresses the importance of civic engagement and building partnerships around the world. Their goal of overcoming global challenges and fulfilling each person’s global potential is useful over an entire lifespan, and indeed, encourages a lifelong engagement in volunteering.

Cross-Cultural Solutions

Children in Costa Rica
Child care in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Cross-Cultural Solutions.

A non-profit, Cross-Cultural Solutions provides community-led and driven volunteer programs that include cultural immersion and adventure. Programs include Education & Literacy, Child Development, Girls & Women’s Empowerment, Aging with Dignity, Support for People with Disabilities, HIV/AIDS, and Global Health. Their mission is to empower cross-cultural service that improves the health, education and economic opportunities for vulnerable women, children and elderly. CCS notes, “Our in-country team is made up entirely of local nationals and volunteers work alongside local people. This community approach was specifically designed to make sure our programs generate sustainable impact.”

The volunteer work with CCS contributes to five key objectives of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: End poverty in all its forms everywhere; end hunger and achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture; ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages; ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all; and achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Why I recommend Cross-Cultural Solutions:

I appreciate that the programs address a specific need in the community, and work with local organizations to provide learning opportunities for all, as well as immersive cultural experiences.

Worldteach

Volunteer abroad teaching in Ecuador with Worldteach
Teaching in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Worldteach.

Worldteach offers programs based on the needs of the communities and foster strong connections with leaders, community, and teaching volunteers. Worldteach has both summer and yearlong programs all around the world.

Karen Grossman Doyle, Executive Director of Worldteach, notes that their volunteer projects offer “a tremendous building block to a career, intercultural skills, professional goals, webinars through a fellowship model, and professional development — engaging in research and reflection projects so that they have a portfolio of work that represents their time in-country.”

Why I recommend Worldteach:

Worldteach offers comprehensive training and support to their teachers. Also, the programs for each country are based on what the host country partner has requested. Attention to cultural nuances and country needs, as well as volunteer support, is incredible. The programs represent a shorter alternative to the Peace Corps for those desiring an in-depth volunteer experience but with the option to choose the location and duration of service.

Global Leadership Adventures

Volunteer teaching program in Thailand with Global Leadership Adventures
Volunteer abroad as a teacher in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Global Leadership Adventures.

GLA offers service learning adventures for high school students in many areas, including Children, Language Immersion, Environmental Conservation, Animal & Wildlife Conservation, Sports, Medicine & Public Health, Social Entrepreneurship, Photography & Journalism, and Find Your Passion in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Each program is crafted to include community service, cross-cultural learning, and adventure, and is a fully supported experience with experts and mentors.

Vanessa Allen, Director of Marketing, Global Leadership Adventure, remarked that “these experiences are often a tipping point for students to reconsider doing what they are doing with their lives and be the change they want to see in the world. Leadership is crucial to GLA, and we weave lessons in leadership throughout the experience. We include reflection discussions, cultural learning immersion experiences, and volunteering as a delivery mechanism for leadership.”

Why I recommend Global Leadership Adventures:

When I chatted with Vanessa, her words truly resonated with me. She said, “It's a service learning adventure — service and learning go hand in hand, and the adventure is important as well. Because many of the areas in which we work are developing, we don't want a student to leave without understanding the richness of a country, both the natural resources (scenery) as well as cultural and historical richness. For instance, the issue of poverty will come up — besides economic/lack of resources — we illustrate that there are riches in so many other ways.”

Global Vision International

GVI volunteer programs
Photo courtesy of Global Vision International.

GVI offers a wide range of programs for the environmentally minded traveler, such as conservation work. Volunteers take a service-learning course connected to hands-on involvement with sustainable projects, volunteer communities, as well as meaningful cultural exchange.

GVI notes, “Groups could be involved in renovating a crumbling classroom in Cape Town, completing biodiversity surveys and species identification walks in Thailand, or taking part in fish and coral data collection dives in Mexico. Students will immerse themselves in an unknown culture while contextualizing their experience within an established curriculum.”

Why I recommend Global Vision International:

All GVI’s projects each have objectives geared towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which build upon the Millennium Development Goals. These are a set of coherent goals focused on sustainable development in the economic, social, and environmental fields. Volunteers work on decreasing Poverty & Hunger, creating Environmental Sustainability, providing access to Primary Education, Child and maternal Health initiatives, as well as disease awareness, and Gender Equality.

ELI Abroad

Volunteer in Africa with children with ELI
Photo courtesy of ELI Abroad.

ELI is a registered non-profit organization that specializes in individualized volunteer and internship programs. The organization does not plug participants into a placement because it’s convenient. They seek out the right for the right fit. ELI works closely with organizations around the world to make a difference in host communities. ELI has many years of experience and a deep commitment to the field.

Why I recommend ELI:

I appreciate the broad and deep experience in experiential learning and developing groundbreaking international programs of the founder and director, Kevin O'Neill, which has translated into an organization offering programs with a purpose where participants make a difference. ELI sees volunteering as part of a lifelong learning process, and offers programs abroad to participants ranging from 18 to 82. Many of their volunteers have gone on to work in the non-profit sector, or even form their own foundations.

Projects Abroad

United Planet in volunteers in Mexico
Volunteer abroad with child care in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Projects Abroad.

Offering programs from 1 week to 1 year in over 30 countries around the world, Projects Abroad is the world's leading short-term international volunteer organization. You choose the location, duration, and start date of your program. Options include working with children, teaching, conservation work, sports coaching, archaeological work, building, farming, and in the arts — and all are sustainable projects that benefit the community. You need to be 16 or older to participate.

Why I recommend Projects Abroad:

Projects Abroad is one of the few volunteer opportunity organizations where you can choose when to go and for how long. You can do a gap year or go for a week. You will work with established projects and stay with carefully chosen host families, which helps with cultural and language immersion.

Global Works

Volunteers with Global Works
Photo courtesy of Global Works.

Global Works offers summer service adventures for high school students.

Opportunities include global service programs, with a balance of community service, cultural exchange, and adventure activities; Language immersion programs, with community service, cultural exchange, and an emphasis on language development; and Enrichment programs, with community service, cultural exchange, and adventure activities with a specialized emphasis. All include a homestay experience, which is invaluable to true cultural immersion.

Why I recommend Global Works:

Global Works partners with a community to provide a grassroots experience that impacts students and partner organizations in the community in the areas of community development, education, environment, public health, and wildlife care and conservation. Regular reflection meetings focus on discussing projects, accomplishments, challenges, cultural differences, impact on the community, and sustainability.

Global Volunteers

Photo by Lynn Lotkowictz while with Global Volunteers in Cuba
Photo by Lynn Lotkowictz while with Global Volunteers in Cuba.

Global Volunteers offers short-term programs for individuals, families, and groups of all ages. Their goal is to address hunger, poverty, and educational needs around the world. Founded in 1984, Global Volunteers has worked with more than 33,000 volunteers in 200 communities in 34 countries. By working with local community partners, under the direction local leaders, and providing only requested services, Global Volunteers offers a unique glimpse into sustainable community relationships. Projects include schools, playgrounds, gardens, dormitories, water systems, language learning, health care, tutoring, and more, all focused on health, hunger, and IQ (which includes education, girls’ education, potable water, and psychosocial support).

I’m quite impressed by their goals for volunteers: to share skills in a culturally respectful way, contribute to genuine development, produce measurable outcomes, wage peace and promote justice, learn from and about local people, be immersed in the local culture, be properly guided and appreciated, make friends and grow personally, remain connected after returning home, and to have fun and make a genuine difference.

Why I recommend Global Volunteers:

Global Volunteers’ goals include waging peace and promoting justice, worldwide. Add to it their commitment to working long-term and sustainably with local people, on the needs that locals express, and you have an organization that focuses on true international development.

Amizade

A non-profit 501(c)3 fair trade service organization, Amizade values community-driven service, deliberate learning, intercultural immersion and exchange, global citizenship, and reflective inquiry. They focus on fair trade learning — “the individuals and communities that host students and volunteers are uniquely impacted by visitors and should be offered fair working conditions and compensation, hold significant voice in the orchestration of programming, and be offered proper professional development opportunities.”

Amizade’s Youth Ambassador Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and provides students from Peru and the North Central Appalachia region of the US  an opportunity to learn together about culture, leadership, and impacting positive change. As well, Amizade works with the Fulbright Program (U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs) to connect service learning for Fulbright students and Fulbright alumni in a weeklong program.

Amizade offers other options, including open group programs, individual programs, faculty-led courses, road scholar, and customized group programs.

Why I recommend Amizade:

I first met founder Daniel Weiss while we were doing our PhDs in the Comparative and International Development Program at the University of Minnesota. From the start, I knew he was on to something big — from the way that the programs were structured, in terms of community-driven development, to their fair trade ethos.

WWOOF International

Volunteer abroad organic gardening with WWOOF International
Volunteer abroad organic gardening with WWOOF International.

WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) provides opportunities to volunteer on small, independent organic farms. You work for a few hours each day, in exchange for food and accommodations. WWOOF stays can be short (a few days) or long (up to 6 months) — depending on your needs and travel plans, as well as the needs of the farm. Each country participating in WWOOF has its own website with opportunities; the reach is global, so you can include WWOOFing in your travels. There are over 100 countries participating in WWOOF. Most countries participating in WWOOF require volunteers to be 18+. 

Why I recommend WWOOF:

This is a unique opportunity to participate in organic agriculture while having a homestay. Do not look for deep cultural immersion, but rather, the ability to help an organic farmer and learn from them and your fellow WWOOFers.

Helpx

Helpx also offers accommodation and food to volunteers in exchange for working 2-6 hours a day. Helpx differs from WWOOF in that opportunities are a bit more varied — there is an online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, hostels, and even sailboats.

Why I recommend Helpx:

This is an easy and low-cost way to volunteer while you travel, especially if you just have a few days to volunteer.

Peace Corps

Peace Corps Director while volunteering abroad
Former Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet with a local family while volunteering abroad.

Perhaps the grandparent of modern volunteering, the Peace Corps provides a small living stipend and extensive support network to volunteers, who sign up for a two year term. Volunteers must be 18+ and a US citizen. There are opportunities in 60 countries for people interested in being a change maker and collaborating with local communities.

“My experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer was the most important transformational moment in my life, particularly because it provided me with a foundation for my career. Peace Corps service transforms both the Volunteer and the community members they serve.” — Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Dr. Russell E. Morgan, Jr., Kenya

Why I recommend the Peace Corps :

The immersive service experience is life-changing. Many of my friends have volunteered with the Peace Corps, and there is a large and active community of RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteers). This organization promotes world peace and friendship.

NGOs

Volunteering with Otra Casa in Peru
Volunteer abroad in Peru with children. Photo courtesy of Aviv Hochbaum.

Last but not least, there are many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that offer volunteer opportunities. Things to look for include responsible programming, need, impact, funding, and fit. Here is an excellent checklist for researching and finding a good program for your needs. As an example of the many NGOs in any given location worldwide, here is a detailed list of 25 suggested NGOs in Peru.

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