Volunteering Internationally: A How-to Guide

Volunteering Internationally: A How-to Guide

By: jlaskows
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Volunteer Internationally

Volunteering Internationally: A how-to Guide

By: Jessica Doherty | Volunteer Services Assistant

As midterms wind down and projects and final papers ramp up, you have probably been daydreaming about life outside of school. While for some that may just involve an uninterrupted evening of TV, without the accompanying guilt of procrastination, for others it paints a more adventurous picture. More and more, people from all over the world are taking up“voluntourism” a different way to see the world that combines service and community engagement activities with travel in another country. This new trend allows you to make a difference in a community while engaging with a new culture in an entirely different way than if you trekked through it with a backpack for a week—and it’s easier than you think. Read the following tips and tricks to get you started on your way around the world.

Define your purpose and constraints

There is no question that volunteering abroad is a personal challenge. You don’t get paid—in fact, you usually have to pay to participate—and you have no obligation to go. You most likely need to remain in your placement for a longer period of time (generally a month or more) and are often faced with difficult living conditions, so it is important to make sure you have a clear purpose for volunteering abroad. Whether you are passionate about a specific cause or interested in really digging into another culture, your purpose will propel you on the hard days and inspire and fulfill you on the most amazing days. In coming to terms with your reason for going, you have probably also established a few other important benchmarks: How long do you want to go for? What type of work do you want to do? What are the minimal conditions you are willing to stay in? These will help further narrow your search and make sure you sign up for something for which you are truly ready. 

Choose an organization

Now that you have clearly defined your purpose and have decided volunteering abroad is right for you, it is time to determine if there is an organization that can help facilitate your experience. Often organizations will have positions arranged and can help secure your visa and accommodations if necessary. Some organizations will even pay for your visa! 

Word of mouth is usually a good place to start—you can get a first hand account of the experience and the support the organization will give you. If you don’t know anyone who has volunteered abroad, there are many organizations online you can check out as well. They will likely have descriptions of the positions, time commitment and sometimes required skills and experience. If you are concerned about the legitimacy of an organization, check for testimonials from other volunteers. Can you email them for more information? Also, research any partner organizations they work with to give you an idea of the company they keep. Email them directly for more information before you make a decision and trust your gut if you think something is not on the up and up. Your instincts are your most important travel partner—might as well practice using them!


If you decided to go through an organization, likely they have provided you with a comprehensive guide to yourpre-departure tasks. Depending on which country you are traveling to, you may need a set of vaccinations or a special visa for your passport. It is important to look into these with plenty of time before D-day as some vaccinations require multiple shots and some visa applications require a lengthy application process.

  • Check out which vaccinations you may need atthe Public Health Agency of Canada website.
  • Make sure your travel visa andpassport are up-to-date and valid.
  • Check the Foreign Affairs website for travel advisories and warnings as well as information on local laws and customs.
  • Brush up on the cultural norms in the area where you are staying. Check a guidebook, or do a quick google search to help mentally prepare you for theculture shock you might experience. 
  • Create a budget for your time abroad. You are not going to be earning money so make sure you have access to a line of credit or have a plan for if your well runs dry.
  • Always arrive with cash in case you encounter a sticky situation—your taxi driver likely won’t accept your debit card!


While many people volunteer to give back to their local community, reaching out around the world also has a positive impact on the global community. Be sure to create a volunteer profile on the Online Learning Community about your experience so others who are interested but need that extra push can learn from and be inspired by your adventure. Also, if you have an amazing story you want to share, write an article and send it to ventureVolunteer —we’d love to hear from you!

Beyond the Article

Check out some different organizations that offer volunteer opportunities and unpaid internships abroad:

TravelCuts—Volunteer Abroad
Canada’s Coalition to End Global Poverty
Canadian Crossroads International
Youth Challenge International
GAP year abroad

Read instructions onhow to create a volunteer profile for the OLC and share your experience with other students!

VisitSymplicity to view other, local volunteer opportunities.

Have a different opinion on volunteerism abroad? Check out thischallenge to international volunteerism from Briarpatch magazine.

Visit SFU Volunteer Services for other questions to ask yourself before volunteering internationally.

Posted on March 04, 2011