Volunteering Overseas – The Definitive Guide

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Not everyone wants to have their entire gap year experience pre-determined and planned out for them (as I mentioned on this page about gap year organizations).

If you want to work abroad (doing some kind of volunteer work) during your gap year (or during a career break) but don’t want to have an organization arrange and decide absolutely everything for you, then there are alternative available – the most popular of which is to work for a charity abroad.

Such charities operate in the developing world and offer overseas volunteer opportunities. They are known as NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). This basically means that instead of relying on the government for funding (through grants and other means) they aim to raise their own money and operate independently of the government.

They are particularly important in countries where the government may be corrupt, as it means that the money they raise will go straight to the people and the places that need it most.

NGOs are mainly concerned with helping the local people in developing countries – especially those in poverty or lacking adequate healthcare or education. In addition to requiring funding they also require people to come and do the work (such as teaching or building schools) for them, meaning there are lots of volunteering opportunities for those who’re willing to help (that means you!)

Teaching OverseasOne of the main differences between NGO charities and ‘official’ gap year organizations is that NGOs are more focused on the local communities (and helping them), whereas gap year organizations are more focused on their gappers (i.e. the people taking the gap year).

Because of this, working for an NGO can be a lot tougher, as your needs might be put second to those of the locals. By contrast, the main aim of a gap year organization is to ensure its participants have a great experience of another culture that will help them to grow and develop in a safe and secure way.

Obviously the charities won’t just ship you out to the middle of a foreign country and expect you to fend for yourself, but they will expect you to be more independent and adaptable.They’re definitely a step up from what you’ll experience with a gap year organization, so you should think long and hard about whether you can handle the conditions before applying.

There is no doubt that they’re aimed more at people who have traveled before, or who have a greater amount of life experience.

What ‘tough conditions’ might these be? Well, sometimes you might be based in areas where there is no electricity or running water. Also, while gap year organizations will typically pair you up with a group of likeminded (and similarly aged) people to work with, volunteering with an NGO might mean you’re working all on your own, with no-one to buddy up with and support you.

Although the conditions can sometimes be tough, if you really want to help out those less fortunate, there are few better ways to do so than by volunteering overseas with a charity.


When applying to one of these overseas volunteering, it’s a good idea to do it around three months in advance if you want to stand a good chance of success.

Once you’ve filled out an application form (either online or by printing it out, filling it out by hand and then posting it to them) and ‘passed’ that step, you might be asked to meet up with one of their representatives for a chat – just to make sure you’re suitable for the placement you’re applying for.

Some charity organizations won’t hire you unless you’re older than 21, as they’re looking for mature people who really care about the cause.

If you are younger than 21 years of age (but older than 18 years) you still stand a chance of being recruited – you’ll need to show them that you’re mature enough and that you care a lot for the cause, however. Doing some background research on the organization and what they do is always a good idea before having an ‘interview’ with them. In particular you want to be able to talk about the work that they do and where they do it.


The cost of these overseas volunteering programs is largely dependent on the length of them (i.e. how long you’ll be away for) and also whether the cost of airfare is included. As a guide, expect to pay anywhere between $800-$5500 (£500-£3400).

Most NGOs will expect you to cover these costs on your own (as you would have to with any ‘regular’ gap year organization), but VSOs often offer overseas work projects at a subsidized rate (more on that later).

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)

VSO was one of the first organizations to send young volunteers overseas to work in the developing world, and they’re now known all around the world for the amazing work they’ve done. One of the main draws of VSO for volunteers is that they offer overseas volunteering opportunities at subsidized rates (meaning they’re a lot cheaper than gap year organizations or NGOs).

VSO looks to recruit people over the age of 25 who have professional experience in the fields of engineering, medicine, agriculture, teaching, etc. Their aim is to send these people overseas to work in developing countries. This is the ‘main’ VSO program, and requires a two year commitment.

Because of this, VSO is better suited to those taking a career break rather than those on a gap year. Although most of the people on the program are over the age of 25, if you’re 21+ you can still be hired to teach English abroad through their program.

In addition to the ‘main’ program, they also have youth programs that are aimed at those aged 17-25 who are less experienced (i.e. undergraduates who might not have any specialized skills).

One such program is the Youth for Development program, and looks at sending university/college students away for a year for work experience in a developing country. This program acts as a ‘sandwich year’ (meaning it is ‘sandwiched’ between your second and third year of university/college) as works alongside universities.

The best thing about the Youth for Development program? The cost. At around $800 (£500) this international volunteering program is one of the cheapest around!

Volunteer Projects (a.k.a. Work Camps)

There are several volunteer projects (also known as ‘Work Camps’) that offer short-term volunteering opportunities to provide unskilled labor abroad.

Volunteer FarmingThese short term volunteering programs are a great introduction to traveling and development abroad, and are aimed at those aged 18-21 years old.

Most work camps last for 2-4 weeks, and enable young people to experience other cultures, increase their awareness of the world and to meet people from different walks of life.

It is common for young people, when returning from these impoverished areas to have a newly-found enthusiasm for helping people and a greater sense of responsibility to the world.

Most short term volunteering projects such as these take place in the summer, meaning it’s best to apply in March and April before all the spaces are filled (as they’re very popular these days). They

In the UK, the major work camp organizer is Concordia International Volunteers.

Doing It Yourself

Another alternative is to enlist the help of overseas volunteer working databases to help you find a placement, and then apply yourself.

There are a number of informational services out there who can give you all the relevant details regarding volunteer work placements, but who won’t arrange or apply to the placement for you.

How do they work? You send them a list of your interests, or you tell them what kinds of placements you’d be interested, then they go through their database and try to match you up to a suitable project (usually some kind of group-based social development or conservation program).

The benefit of doing things this way is that you can save a lot of money. These ‘informational database’ companies only charge a small fee (around $50) for their services.

Another benefit of doing things this way is that you can sometimes find amazing volunteer opportunities that you’d never find by doing things the ‘normal’ way. This is because they’ll often have links to newly-formed foreign work projects that would otherwise be difficult to find out about.

The major volunteer work database for UK residents at this moment in time is WorkingAbroad.com

Avoiding Problems Abroad

Volunteering overseas can be tough, and although it is most certainly character-building, this does not mean that you should allow promises (about your program that were made before you left) to be broken. Misunderstandings may occur, and paid work can become unpaid work.

The best way to avoid such problems from ever occurring is to only apply to trusted and established organizations. If, during the application process, you have doubts about the validity of the organization you’re applying to don’t hesitate to ask them to put you in contact with a couple of their previous volunteers (to act as a reference). 99% of trustworthy organizations will have no problem with you doing this.

A Checklist of Questions

Here’s a handy list of questions to ask yourself when you’re thinking about volunteering overseas. Answering them should give you a good indication as to what kind of program you want to do (and whether working for a NGO is right for you at all):

  • What kind of work would you like to do? Do you want to work with children? Do you want to work in social development (educating people on nutrition and hygiene or building irrigation systems)?
  • How much time do you have? Are you taking a gap year? Are you taking a couple of years off on a career break? Or do you only have the summer off?
  • How much can you afford to spend on a program (in total)?
  • Would you mind living in an area with no running water and electricity? How long could you last there for?
  • Do you have any special skills that you could use abroad (e.g. teaching or healthcare skills)?
  • Do you prefer to work individually or as part of a team?
  • In regards to the program – Do you know what your money is being spent on?

Related posts:

  1. Overseas Teaching Jobs – A Definitive Guide Teaching English Abroad

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