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Volunteering with a program or volunteer-sending organization

One option for volunteering in another country is to go with a volunteer-sending organization or program. These organizations coordinate international volunteer roles and projects and will often also arrange such logistics as housing, in-country transportation, and meals.

That said, there is a lot of variation—both in terms of what is provided as well as in price—so you'll want to spend some time researching and comparing to decide what structure or type of program you might want to volunteer with.

Structure of volunteer-sending organizations and programs

  • Nonprofit volunteer-sending organizations and programs
    Many volunteer-sending organizations are nonprofit or nongovernmental, meaning that they, in most cases, (1) have a volunteer board of directors, (2) are driven by a mission for the social or environmental good, and (3) invest any profits made back into the activities and programs of the organization (to learn more about nonprofits, check out this chapter of the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers).

Examples of nonprofit volunteer-sending organizations include VSO, WorldTeach, Cross-Cultural Solutions, United Planet, and Global Volunteers.

  • For-profit volunteer-sending organizations and programs
    In addition, there are several for-profit volunteer-sending organizations. While many are also mission-driven and focused on social or environmental good, these organizations can generate profits for their owners and are designated as businesses under tax law.

Examples of for-profit volunteer-sending organizations include Projects Abroad, i-to-i, ProWorld Service Corps, Global Crossroad, and Volunteer Adventures.

  • Government volunteer-sending organizations and programs
    One of the most well-known volunteer-sending organizations in the world—the Peace Corps—is in fact an agency of the U.S. government. Many volunteer-sending organizations in Australia and Europe—like Volunteering for International Development from Australia (VIDA) and Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst (DED)—are also funded and/or managed by national governments. Finally, a handful of organizations are funded by consortiums of countries, including European Voluntary Service and UN Volunteers.

Additional types of volunteer-sending organizations and programs

  • Faith volunteer-sending organizations and programs
    While there isn't a lot of comprehensive data, it is usually agreed that the largest number of people volunteering abroad do so with a faith group or organization. Indeed, faith groups do some of the toughest development work and are among the oldest types of international volunteerism organizations. For some, the added element of faith makes an international service experience all the more powerful; others may be wary of appearing to be a modern day missionary. However, it's important to note that many faith groups do volunteer work abroad with no religious message or faith requirements, operating much like any other nonprofit volunteer-sending organization. If having—or not having—a faith component to your service experience is important to you, be sure to ask for more information on how they connect their religious and humanitarian missions.

Examples of faith-based volunteer-sending organizations include Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, American Jewish World Service, Mennonite Central Committee, and the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. (If you're seeking information on volunteering with a Christian organization, consider checking out the directory and training resources at ChristianVolunteering.org)

  • Volunteer vacation organizations and programs
    Volunteer vacation—sometimes called voluntourism—organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofit, focus on incorporating service into tourism and travel. Think of it more as volunteering while traveling than traveling to volunteer (for more information on the distinction, check out "Understanding The Differences: "Volunteer Vacations" vs. VolunTourism" here). So if in considering balancing your time abroad between volunteering and travel you tend to lean towards the latter, you may want to consider going with a voluntourism organization.

Examples of voluntourism organizations include Globe Aware, Bike & Build, and Voluntouring. Programs and packages are also increasingly offered via hotels and traditional travel companies and websites.

  • Volunteering and study abroad organizations and programs
    Some study abroad organizations offer programs that combine learning with volunteer service. To learn more, visit this terrific website hosted by the Abroad View Foundation. Also, if you're currently a university student, check to see if any of the study abroad programs coordinated by your school offer opportunities for student engagement.

Examples of study abroad organizations with a service option include the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership (IPSL) and World Learning.

  • Volunteering and language programs
    Similar to study abroad, there are also language programs, individual language schools, and volunteer-sending organizations that provide opportunities to both volunteer and learn a new language while in another country.

Examples of organizations offering both volunteering and language components include AmeriSpan and BridgeLinguatec.

  • Volunteering via an Employee Engagement Program
    Finally, whether you are living and working abroad or are currently in your home community, check to see if your company or organization has an international employee engagement program. Increasingly, multinational corporations, organizations, and agencies are seeking to facilitate opportunities for employees to get involved in communities around the globe.

Examples of companies with international employee engagement programs include Timberland and IBM.

So as you can see, there really are many different volunteer-sending organization types and structures. Take your time and consider your options, then 1) start identifying potential organizations and programs, 2) do your research, and 3) ask questions to determine if they are a good fit for you.


Does it matter whether the volunteer-sending organization is for-profit or nonprofit?

Some volunteers choose a nonprofit volunteer-sending organization because it was formed primarily for the public good. Others have no preference for nonprofit or for-profit, instead focusing on finding the volunteer program, regardless of structure, that offers the location and service opportunity they are looking for.

At the end of the day, it comes down to doing your research. Prices vary widely whether nonprofit or for-profit and there are ethical, mission-driven organizations on both sides, just as there are for-profit and nonprofit volunteer-sending organizations that could do a better job of arranging quality, sustainable service opportunities. Ask the questions that are important to you and you should be able to find the volunteer-sending organization whose mission, practices, and opportunities are the best fit for you.