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Trends in Volunteering Abroad

New Programs Reflect Evolving Interests

Trends in volunteering abroad
Photo credit Behzad Larry, Worldteach. Adapted by Transitions Abroad.

Why volunteer abroad? There are countless reasons, ranging from very personal goals to intercultural, academic, and professional development growth opportunities to more global ones, including relational diplomacy, global citizenship, student activism, and civic engagement.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities states that "Global service learning affords students opportunities to understand the larger structural forces underlying social problems, provides transformational learning experiences, and helps students see the world in a profoundly different way."

The number of students volunteering abroad is growing, whether on short-term programs or during a gap year. According to The American Freshman 2015 (PDF), “nearly three-quarters (74.6%) of freshmen in 2015 consider helping others in difficulty to be a 'very important' or 'essential' personal objective.” 

And in the 2015 Gap Year National Alumni Survey, respondents cited these significant influences when deciding to take a Gap Year: gain life experiences and grow personally (92%), travel and experience other cultures (85%), and to volunteer (48%).

The primary motivations are demonstrated again and again when researching the increase of volunteering abroad — WYSE notes that “Millennials are more generous with their time, money, and donations than any other generation, according to a recent study on travel and philanthropy. New data shows that 81% volunteered, 78% donated cash and 83% gave in-kind during their most meaningful trip from the last two years.”

The Brookings Institute shares the remarkable and important long-term effects of volunteering — “Volunteers working in other countries develop life-long relationships and promote cross-cultural understanding in ways that few other federally funded programs can do. They bring home to the U.S. an understanding of foreign cultures that enriches our country and informs our policy choices. Volunteers also contribute to institutional capacity building, social capital, democratic governance, and a respect for human rights, all of which help to make the world a safer place for Americans both at home and abroad.”

So we know it’s important to volunteer, and we know the global benefits of doing so. So how do you know where to start looking? What about costs? And, most importantly, what are the most recent trends in volunteering? We dug in — and asked the experts. Take a look…

Where to Start

There are countless volunteer programs, and it is wise to do your research. Things to look for include costs, locations, support, reputation, and culturally responsible opportunities. We’ve compiled our list of some of the top volunteer programs for 2017 — take a look!

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

Variety of Programs and Costs

The costs of volunteer programs vary considerably. Some volunteer programs, such as the Peace Corps, offer a small stipend to cover living expenses for the two years of service. Some opportunities, such as WWOOF (World wide opportunities on organic farms) are no cost, self-directed, and offer a flexibility of movement — stay one day or stay a month or more, depending on your desires and the needs of the farm where you help. Volunteers for Peace offers meaningful, sustainable, community-led opportunities for $500 per project.

Programs that are of shorter duration will, of course, be less expensive than longer programs, due to the time spent in-country.

The more a volunteer program costs, the more likely it is to include a variety of opportunities, thoughtful and culturally-oriented programming, and in-country support. Global Vision International has a detailed summary of where the money goes in their organization — it pays for a support network, health and safety, food and accommodation, orientation and training, and more.

Volunteering as a Building Block for Your Career

It is important to frame volunteering as a foundational block for your life, both for your career and for your personal growth and development. By acquiring international experience, and by working, living, and being immersed in a different culture and language, you’re gaining marketable skills and knowledge for working in today’s global economy.

When I talked with Karen Doyle Grossman, of WorldTeach, she said something that really resonated with me on this topic. She noted that “the time spent volunteering is not time off from your career, but rather, a tremendous building block to your career. It helps you gain intercultural skills, hone your professional goals, and contributes to your professional development.”

She also remarked that “volunteer programs provide a wealth of international experience. It is very competitive these days for everyone who is trying to develop and maintain a career, and this is a critical investment.”

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

Steve Gwenin, of Global Vision International, made an important connection between jobs and extracurricular learning experiences. He said, “As the world becomes increasingly inter-connected through technology and travel, at a faster and faster pace, and the work place and economies change just as fast, employers are increasingly looking for students to adapt and gain the skills required to operate internationally and cross-culturally. Competition for jobs, especially graduate jobs, is high, and students know they need to do something for their CV to stand out, specifically around improving their soft skills, international experiences and out-of-classroom learning experiences, rather than just traditional, classroom-based academic accomplishments.”

These skills you’re gaining? You will be amazed at the life-long benefits of volunteering.

Benefitting Host Communities and Students

One of the most important trends I see in volunteering is the valuable reach of the programs. This movement toward benefitting both communities and students in deep, meaningful ways is welcome, indeed.

GVI’s Gwenin noted that students are looking for this aspect of the volunteer experience, as well, saying, “Experiential education, specifically volunteering, has great potential to positively impact both host communities and students.” As such, their programs (and those of many other organizations) work toward this goal.

Dave Santulli, the founder of United Planet, had much to say on these types of transformational experiences, both for participants and communities. He observed, “Opportunities in mutual learning, i.e., learning together with local communities, and working with a sense of partnership and looking at many of the service opportunities in that spirit — of mutual learning — is important. When working side by side and immersing together to share and exchange cultures, we can learn about each other — and our challenges and joys.”

He further elaborated, saying, “With our locally driven initiatives, we work closely with communities to match a service opportunity for something that is appropriate for both the local community and volunteers, so it’s a positive impact for all the parties involved.” This aspect of civic engagement, i.e., that of being responsible and engaged and working together in partnership, is critical. Dave stated that he believed “that global partnerships are critical to addressing global challenges — there’s no way to overcome them and fulfill our global potential when we’re unable to understand and work together with others beyond borders, whether it is in our community or across the world. Volunteers — and communities — work together to become change agents.”

Volunteer program in Honduras with United Planet
Volunteer in Honduras. Photo courtesy of United Planet.

Offering Longer-term and Gap Year Programming

Several of the experts remarked that the trend of longer-term and gap year programming was important to many volunteers. Santulli shared that longer time frames for volunteer programs help to “create opportunities for people to come together in partnership and with a sense of mutual learning and humility. The longer time allows for participants to learn about a different culture/side of the world and creates opportunities for volunteers to contribute more meaningfully to locally-run and driven initiatives. In this way, by creating shared experiences over time, participants learn about local and global issues, broaden horizons, and share skills and perspectives.” He commented that volunteers weren’t only students, but also professionals who might be changing careers or transitioning in their lives.

Crafting an Authentic, Cross-Cultural Experience

Vanessa Allen of Global Leadership Adventures reflected that “students want to matter, to make a difference, and to feel like they are giving value. It isn’t a transactional attitude, but students are looking for an authentic experience, one that is really different. Service and learning go hand in hand, and adventure is also important. We don’t want students to leave without understanding the richness of a country — both the natural resources, such as landscape, and cultural and historic richness. This happens through experience with community-led initiatives, reflection discussions, and getting to know people face to face in their own communities, where they live, to understand — from a holistic point of view — what their lives are like.” She also commented on the fact that these cross-cultural experiences “are often a tipping point for students to reconsider doing with their lives and be the change they want to see in the world.”

When you imagine volunteering abroad, what do you think of most? Yes, that — learning and working with people from another culture. When we open ourselves to the rich experiences that these unique opportunities offer, we do more than help others — we help ourselves…and the world. The whole process is transformational.

Volunteer program in the Dominican Republic with Global Leadership Adventures
Volunteering in the Dominican Republic. Photo courtesy of Global Leadership Adventures.

Including Re-Entry and Alumni Events as Part of the Experience

Of course, a volunteer experience truly starts from the moment you start thinking about it and researching options until the time when you come home and share your experiences — and beyond. Many organizations are including re-entry as part of the volunteer experience, to broaden the definition of experiential education to encompass the entire experience, from initial excitement to reverse culture shock. Allen noted that it is imperative to include this, in order for students to be “able to process the change in your worldview.” Alumni events and social media give past participants an extended experience and connection with each other.

Doyle Grossman concurred, sharing that Worldteach incorporates an end of service conference while volunteers are still in country as a reflection project that assesses intercultural effectiveness post-project. As well, they offer opportunities for alumni to mentor recently returned volunteers, as well as hold educational symposiums for alumni — the connection is never really over.

Santulli pointed out that “these international experiences are transformational, change worldview, and make everyone a bridge builder. Once we have that understanding, we want to pass it forward and figure out how to play a role in building a more united planet, stronger global community, and have a greater sense of international understanding. These types of international programs inspire people to feel that sense of responsibility — that they've been fortunate enough to have this experience, want to pass it on, share stories, etc.”

Including Social Media

In this internet age, it isn't only about telling stories when we get home, and sharing photos (or slides!) with friends and family. Now, the power of social media is harnessed to truly share these profound, intense global experiences in a variety of ways. 

The Peace Corps has three goals, the third of which is bringing the Peace Corps Volunteers' host countries to their readership, to promote peace and friendship. Many PCVs have websites, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and more. No longer is the foreign so foreign, in a way — by learning more about cultures around the world, travel becomes an adventure.

Peace Corps Volunteer Abbie Olson is currently serving in Morocco, and her website is an example of cultural learning at its best. Every week, she shares much about her life in Morocco — and while I’ve had friends from Morocco, I’ve never learned as much about this country as I have from Abbie. Her Moroccan Monday articles directly address the Peace Corps’ third goal, by detailing life in Morocco and sharing cultural observations and teaching about interesting things there, such as the world's oldest university and library.

The story of Abbie's very first day in Morocco gives us a glimpse into how she'll live over the next few years. She said, "As for me, when night began to envelop my first day of Peace Corps life, I was arguably a mess of emotions. With one day down, and indisputably hundreds to go, I was more than a little dazed. However, fully aware that no day is complete without a bottomless glass of mint tea and fifteen jolly Moroccans talking a mile a minute — and wrongly assuming that I could easily collapse into bed by 8 p.m. with a good book — I wasn’t entirely surprised when just minutes from attempting to retreat to my room, I was hauled in a rag-doll-like-fashion to my aunt’s house for a Mawlid dinner party. I have a theory that consistent caffeine throughout the day gives Moroccans incomprehensible superpowers."

In The Art of Storytelling, Abbie writes, "For almost a thousand years, oral storytelling, or hikayat, was an essential part Moroccan culture; entire families would learn and pass on dozens of tales — many about heroes, lovers, cabbages, and kings — but recent technological advances have pushed the art toward a possible extinction."

It is this very medium that shares and maintains storytelling — but perhaps in different ways than we expected — or can imagine. How will social media change the volunteer experience? Time will tell. But I think that social media, used wisely, can engage people in new ways, by showing that living and interacting with people from all over the world can enrich our lives in innumerable ways.

Volunteering as a Life-Long Endeavor

All of the experts noted that the very first volunteering experience was a first step to a lifetime of service. Santulli commented that people have a “growing sense of responsibility for stewardship or shared future of the planet, from people of all ages — of people wanting to get out in the world and find some positive way to contribute to build bridges, contribute to global challenges that we share as a planet, that aren't isolated to our local communities or countries, but shared.” But perhaps he summed it up best when he told me that volunteering “gives us a sense of purpose and should inspire us to get us up out of our seats to work even harder. No one can afford to sit back and watch as the world passes by. Stand up and figure out what you can contribute, what your passions are, and go and do that.”

Volunteering Abroad Resources

iie.org offers a section on Non-Credit Work, Internships, and Volunteering Abroad that offers statistics about locations students choose to volunteer by year.

Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good is a free and inspiring ebook edited by Ethan Gelber. Experts, thought-leaders, and independent thinkers on volunteering abroad discuss responsible and creative ways to make a difference in the lives of those in need worldwide.

LearningService.info is a new website that explores issues relating to volunteering with a critical eye, offers background videos, and is currently completing what promises to be a fine book on volunteering overseas given the team of experienced and accomplished writers who are experts in the field.

Finding a Volunteer Opportunity

To find volunteer opportunities, check out Transitions Abroad's extensive volunteering abroad section.

Note that sites such as www.Idealist.org and www.volunteersouthamerica.net offer many volunteer opportunities abroad.


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