Choosing the right overseas placement
By Tom Green
Volunteering overseas often involves a significant investment of both time and money, so make sure you do as much research as possible before choosing an opportunity.
Why volunteer abroad?
If you're thinking about volunteering abroad, you're probably passionate about making a difference to people or a cause. As overseas volunteering charity VSO says: 'Nothing compares with the satisfaction of translating generosity into practical, life-changing achievements.'
However good your intentions, no individual is going to change the world in a few months, so make sure you are realistic about what you want to achieve and honest about your aims. Do you want to spend months devoting yourself to a single, possibly remote, community? Or do you want to have a see a new country, meet the locals and have some fun? Both are possible, depending on which placement you choose.
Since getting overseas takes money and effort, you might first want to consider volunteering closer to home to make sure you have a taste for it.
The variety of opportunities is vast, but can be split into two main categories: those for people with demonstrable professional skills, and those open to anyone.
Focus on working out what skills and experience you have and matching them to the right opportunity.
If you have a professional skill, you could qualify for a more long-term placement which may even be paid. But most organisations – particularly 'voluntourism' companies offering short-term placements – will want you to pay for transport, living expenses and an administration fee. Volunteering England lists organisations offering either short-term or longer-term opportunities overseas.
To help you see what sorts of opportunities are available, we've listed them in the following categories: General opportunities; Professional and skilled; For youth and students; Environmental and Art and culture.
The organisation you're interested in should be ready to answer any questions you have. If not, take it as a warning sign that it may not be committed to supporting volunteers.
How much will volunteering abroad cost?
The cost of volunteering overseas varies greatly and will often factor in food, accommodation and an administration fee. Make sure you get a full breakdown, including any extras such as insurance, visas or specialist equipment, before handing over any cash. Check whether flights are included – usually, they're not.
Ask if it's possible to cancel a booking before you go (and what the financial penalties are) and whether there's flexibility on the outward or return flights (useful if you want to arrive from another country or continue your travels elsewhere once the volunteering is finished). Before you agree to a placement, make sure you know the length of the commitment and if there are any financial penalties if you decide to come home early.
It is possible to volunteer on a budget, and some organisations offer advice on fundraising to help finance your trip. If your placement involves being miles from anywhere for months on end, your savings will stretch a long way. But if you're planning on travelling a lot, be realistic about how much you think you can raise.
Where in the world?
For many people, the location of a volunteering opportunity is key. If you've long wanted to discover Burkina Faso, Belize or Benin, it's obviously sensible to target organisations that work there. However, bear in mind that many organisations operate in more than one country and might not always have vacancies. Wherever you go, you're likely to have a unique experience, so don't get too hung up on the exact co-ordinates.
Most organisations operate in safe countries, but if you have any doubts consult the Foreign Office website. Any organisation worth its salt should give you plenty of information about the culture of the land you'll be living in, the specific location of your placement, the type of accommodation and what amenities are available nearby. If you have any special health needs then be sure to let organisations know straight away.
What will I be doing?
In recent years, concern has grown that some overseas volunteering organisations (often private companies) might be a little more concerned about making money than making a difference to the host country.
Make sure you get a clear description of the work you will be required to undertake and a guarantee about any training or support offered. The organisation should be able to spell out in detail why the work is useful to the people in the host country.
For more information, see our article on ethical volunteering overseas.
If possible, meet representatives of the organisation in person. They might be at careers fairs, charity events or open days for prospective volunteers. Face-to-face is the best way to put questions and get a sense of what volunteering involves.
Ask to be put in touch with either current volunteers or those who have recently returned. In addition you can ask for advice from people on discussion forums such as those at TheSite.org or on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and i-volunteer. Review sites may be useful. Everyone's experience is likely to be different, but the more you can find out the clearer the picture you will be able to build up.