There are millions of opportunities worldwide—which means that there are literally millions of different paths to volunteering. Here are some of the ways you can get engaged on a global level:
If you can imagine it, you can probably do it. There really are that many different projects and tasks for volunteers to take on worldwide. That said, many international volunteer opportunities are focused on issues of community development—health and nutrition, building or repairing physical infrastructure, education and empowerment, and economic development. These may be ongoing efforts or in response to natural or civil disasters. Similarly, many volunteer opportunities may focus on environmental issues affecting both humans and wild flora and fauna.
The structure of projects is just as broad. Some organizations—for example, UN Volunteers—are looking for what we generally call skilled volunteers: individuals who can offer specific expertise, from construction and carpentry to legal and financial know-how. Similarly, there are international internships and study abroad opportunities, linking international learning to global service. Other organizations may be looking for anyone and everyone who cares and has time to get involved; Service Civil International, for example, operates two to three week workcamps around the globe for volunteers with all kinds of backgrounds and experience levels. Finally, there are thousands of opportunities for volunteers to get involved in international efforts from their home computers via online volunteerism.
Again, the sky is the limit. U.S. citizens/nationals in the Peace Corps commit to two years of service; VSO volunteers go for between one and six months or one and two years, depending on the position. Some people volunteer for just a few hours or a day; others stay for months. Many volunteer abroad programs require that you go for at least a few weeks while organizers of volunteer vacations—combining service with vacation travel—may only schedule a day or two of volunteering. It really does depend on your interest and availability.
A note about length of service: many people would love to volunteer longer but simply cannot find the time or resources. Don't worry about that. If you want to volunteer abroad, find a way to do it for however long you can. Sure, you probably won't have the same depth of experience that someone staying for months may have but you can still have an impact (however long you stay, be sure to read our section on realistic expectations). Just think about your service as part of a larger continuum of volunteers, each committing whatever time they can to making a difference in the world.
The stereotype of international volunteers may be backpacking young people in their early twenties but the reality is that international volunteers are ALL ages—from young children traveling with their families to older adults experiencing new global adventures as part of an active retirement. Individuals can take a gap year—otherwise known as a year off from college, university, or professional work—whether they are fresh out of high school or 15 years into their career. Indeed, some professionals find that taking a break from their day-to-day life is just the respite they need to determine a new career direction, all while garnering new perspective and context for their work.
You can volunteer with many different types of organizations:
Depending on who you volunteer with, you'll either go as part of a formal or structured volunteer program or plan and identify your volunteer experience independently. To learn more about which option is the best fit for you, visit our section To Program or Not To Program.