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Volunteering overseas

Volunteering with an international or a local non-profit can be a great way to gain experience living and working in development environments. You probably won’t get paid, although the host organization may well be able to help you find free or cheap accommodation, or at least negotiate a better deal than you can likely get on your own.

Volunteering or interning for an international organization

I’m using the terms ‘volunteer’ and ‘intern’ pretty much interchangeably here, for our purposes there really isn’t much difference – the main thing is to use them to get experience living and working in the places you want to get a job. Doing this with an international organization comes with all the advantages and disadvantages of an international organization. It can be harder to line these kinds of things up, they may even ask you to pay for the privilege of working for them, but it might help you position yourself more effectively for a job. It’s vital to point out that not all international organizations are equal in this regard. It is going to be easier to leverage this into a job if  you are working with an organization that actually does the kind of work you want to do, rather than one that is set up to offer travel abroad opportunities to students.

Volunteering for a local non-profit

This can be a great option for people looking to build their resume, or help out in a very direct way. One thing to bear in mind is that by no means all local non-profits in the developing world have an internet presence, and it may well be that the only real way to discover a lot of the smaller ones is to be there on the ground. It can be tempting to try to get everything lined up before you go, and while this can work, it isn’t going to be possible with many smaller groups.

What can you gain?

Experience

Alongside a genuine desire to help, this may be the number one motivation for many people. How well you vet the organization you want to volunteer for, and how well it has thought out what it will do with you will play a large part in determining how useful your experience is.

If your concern is to improve your qualifications for a career in development, an unconventional work experience may enhance your candidacy.
Caitlin Hachmyer, Alternatives to the Peace Corps

A better understanding of the local situation outside of the air-conditioned-Land-Cruiser lifestyle.

Get out of that Land Cruiser and meet people!
Get out of that Land Cruiser and meet people!

You will likely be living outside of the expatriate bubble that can insulate development workers from the realities on the ground. Getting to know local people and understand their frustrations and aspirations will give you an insight you won’t get working for an international agency. You won’t have your experiences mediated by a translator, or be isolated from life by a bunch of ex-pat friends who live in a compound with you. You’ll also have a lot of fun.

Understand the way international development agencies are viewed by local people.

When you work for a well resourced international agency, people who might be wanting grants or resources from you can tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, not what they really think. When people know you have no resources to give them, they tend to be more honest (this is actually a major obstacle for many international organizations). Communities in developing countries have a very sophisticated (although not always 100% correct) understanding of what development organizations are. They formulate their own theories about how best to manipulate the system, and this influences the information that organizations get.

I remember a meeting in Kosovo about revitalizing post-war agriculture that involved two completely different estimates of the number of farm animals that communities possessed. It turns out that one survey had led beneficiaries to believe that the organization would be giving animals to families that did not have them, while the other led families to believe they would be providing livestock feed based on the number of animals that families possessed. Needless to say, people reported radically different numbers!

A chance to learn the local language.

Working for a local agency can be a blessing, because they often operate in the local language, while international agencies tend to operate in the language of their donors (usually English, sometimes French or Arabic). Nothing helps you understand the local context and situation faster, and nothing will motivate you to learn a language more than not being able to do anything until you figure it out! I was a mediocre language student in school, but managed to pick up more Croatian in three months than I did French in 8 years of schooling.

Being able to speak the language is such an advantage in itself that I almost hate to sully the purity of the goal of by pointing out that – yes – speaking it will help you get a job.

Opportunities to network with international agencies.

Helping local organizations to figure out international organizations and vice versa is a great opportunity to build relationships in international organizations (see text box). You can use your position with a local agency to talk your way into coordination meetings, set up meetings to discuss potential funding from international organizations, and cook up any number of other opportunities to get your name out there. One tip on ingratiating yourself to international NGO staff – there is almost always some commodity that is very hard to get in country (cheese, good wine, whatever) – bring back small quantities of this as a gift to bring to parties will generate a tremendous amount of goodwill!

What can you offer?

Unless you have some specific technical skill set that is in demand, you will most likely have to fall back on the skills that most westerners have that are in demand in the developing world: Teaching English, and writing funding proposals. Don’t be surprised or discouraged if local non-profits are unimpressed by the insights that your international development theory degree might have to offer.
It’s unfortunate, but largely true, that money and other resources are often controlled by organizations that are led by foreigners. Local non-profits often have difficulty accessing these funds, even when they are available, for a number of reasons:

  • they often don’t know what grants or programs might be out there
  • they may not understand the requirements or regulations
  • they may not be able to write good enough formal English to produce a slick application that hits the right key points
  • they tend not to articulate clearly the ways in which their organization meets the funding requirements
  • These things are often cultural and linguistic in nature. A westerner can sometimes go into a small local non-profit, look at their plans and programs, and translate them into language and terminology that make sense to donors in ways the local organization is unable to. As a foreigner, you can help local organizations to navigate international organizations. The reality is that as a westerner, you can open doors and get meetings that they can’t. Make sure you take a responsible view of this, and do what you can to bridge this gap and help them reduce it in the long-term.

How helping a local organization helped me get my first job
In 1997 and 1998 I volunteered with ‘I Want to Go Home’, a very small Croatian organization that was supporting refugees who were returning to a particular part of Croatia. The organization was headed (and at that time staffed only by) a woman who was herself a returning refugee. I met her in a cafe in a small town in Croatia after being introduced by a friend who worked for a human rights organization. She spoke no English, and I did not speak much Croatian. Over many cups of coffee, she explained to me in Croatian, sign language, frequent reference to an English-Croatian dictionary, and a sketch pad, her vision for an organization that would provide social and material support for returning refugees. She had some great ideas, and a lot of energy and determination, but no clue about how to approach donors.

I helped her set up a basic accounting system to track income and expenses (a requirement for any donor), we wrote a strategic plan in English that we could shop to donors, and developed a couple of proposal ideas which I wrote up in English. It took months of pushing, but we eventually got two grants, one for material assistance, and one for a car, essential for getting to some of the remote farms people were returning to. One of these grants was from a major US relief and development organization that was running a small grants program for refugee return. Their application process was a little arcane, and I spent a long time working with their grants office and Country Director to figure out how ‘I Want to Go Home’ could fit into their requirements.

In the end the organization got the money, and I built a relationship with the Country Director of the international NGO. When I applied for a job in Kosovo with the same NGO, the Country Director wrote me a reference recommending me, and I got my first job in humanitarian relief.

Further reading

  • The Insider’s Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go has an easy to read question and answer style that covers everything from applying to the Peace Corps if you are married to whether your cell phone will work in your placement site. For my money it is the best practical guide on how to figure out whether the Peace Corps is right for you, what to expect, and how to get the best out of it. Buy it from Amazon or Powell’s Books.
  • Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Guide to Global Volunteer Opportunities is in its 12th Edition. It is a great resource whether you have the author’s ethical qualms about the Peace Corps or just feel it may not be for you. The bulk of the book is a directory of organizations that take volunteers (with some notes on their characteristics), but to be honest I think the more useful (in the internet age) part is the handful of chapters that deal with tips on how to assess your motivation, the type of organization that will suit you, and the practicalities of planning and fund-raising. This is a great start both for helping you think through what kind of experience you want, and begin your search for opportunities. Buy it from Amazon or Powell’s Books.
  • How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas is one of the more useful practical guides to figuring our volunteering overseas. It goes far beyond Peace Corps, and stands out to me because it addresses issues of funding, choosing the right program, and how to be effective as a volunteer. Buy it from Amazon or Powell’s Books.
  • I think the best book on the relationship between local and international NGOs, and the ways in which external resources, cultural approaches and staffing influence development and relief is Ian Smillie’s Patronage or Partnership? Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises. The good news is that you can download the entire book for free. You can also buy a hard copy from the download link or from Amazon or from Powell’s Books.

Buying from these links helps me support this site.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. sandra marshall permalink
    November 8, 2011 11:14 am

    1 would like to have the opportunity to become volunteer aid worker, i have mental health nursing experience and general nursing including A+E experience and ITU. i look forward to hearing from you.

    • November 8, 2011 2:03 pm

      Hi Sandra – I wish you well in your search!

  2. sandra marshall permalink
    November 10, 2011 1:51 pm

    HI NICK THANK FOR YOUR EMAIL.

  3. Raphael permalink
    December 27, 2011 5:22 am

    eu gostaria de participar do programa de ajuda humanitaria internacional o que eu faço?

    • December 27, 2011 7:52 am

      I’m sorry – my Portuguese is pretty terrible, but my sense is that your question is tremendously broad – is there something specific that is not covered on the site that you want to ask? Thanks! Nick

  4. Mike permalink
    March 16, 2012 3:27 pm

    Hey Nick, I’m a college student in South Carolina (Socy major, Business minor) who is going to be graduating in the next year. I’m torn between grad school which I want to go to, the peace corps, and job experience. If I want to do all of them (I do) which one should I do first, or should I just go volunteer at a local organization in a foreign country?

    • March 16, 2012 4:15 pm

      Hi there Mike – congratulations on almost being finished with college! First off, if you find this site helpful, please do tell your friends and career services – and please do consider buying, reviewing, and rating my ebook!

      OK – your question – I’m assuming that you’ve read the pages that talk about this, and you pretty much know my opinion – of course, your milage may vary, and what’s right for one person may not be for another, but here goes. If you’re wanting to get a job with an international aid agency overseas, field experience is key. I think that ‘being there’ is tremendously helpful as well. Whether that’s just showing up and volunteering, or going through Peace Corps doesn’t really matter. To be honest Peace Corps is not looked at so much as valuable work experience by many development types – what it is is a relatively structured way to get two years experience living and working in the developing world while getting your expenses paid (not that that’s a bad thing). To make it pay off you must use the time to network and accumulate accomplishments that will distinguish yourself from other PCVs. If you think you can do it on your own without Peace Corps then more power to you – it will probably take you less time to build your networks and find work. Of course, just showing up has a lot of tremendous potential downsides too, the risk of something awful happening is certainly there. I go into this in more depth on the site.
      As for grad school, I think you’re better off waiting till you have a couple of years of work experience under your belt. Without field experience, while it may make you a better professional, grad school likely won’t help you find your first job.
      Good luck!
      Nick

  5. nickole permalink
    April 16, 2012 6:24 pm

    I would love the chance to get out there and help…i am prior military… I dont know who to get in touch with to start my journey…any advise you give me will be very much appreciated.

    • April 16, 2012 7:09 pm

      Well, Nickole, I honestly don’t know how much more advice I can give you than what’s presented here – if you have a more specific question I’d be happy to take a stab at it,
      Good luck,
      Nick

  6. nad permalink
    June 16, 2012 9:54 am

    Hi Nick,

    I’ve just graduated from university with a BA in Political Science and in October I’m due to begin a one year masters program at LSE in International Relations. However, I am at a bit of a loss on what to do after my masters. I realize that it will be difficult for me to get a humanitarian job with only academic credentials but I was hoping to potentially spend a year afterwards both volunteering and backpacking in Central/South America.

    My main field of interest happens to be in conflict studies (which will be the focus of my masters) – I am interested in volunteering for DDR programs and possibly working with either former combatants or refugees. I’ve googled such programs in Latin America and can only find UN reports, etc. but little information on how I can actually work on the field. I know that particular programs exist, however I am not sure what they are or how to contact them! Do I just find and email a particular organization and beg them to let me volunteer? To be perfectly honest, even if I do manage to get a volunteer position, after years of academia, I don’t have any particular hard skills except for essay writing! Thus, I’m not sure what my work would comprise, which puts me at a loss on what I should include in my CV.

    I do understand that so far I only have academic credentials. However, I was born and raised in the developing world, have a couple of short-term internships under my belt, and have travelled/backpacked extensively in parts of the third world. I’m hoping that this experience will count for something….

    I know this is a ridiculously long message but any information/advice you give me would be much appreciated!

    • June 17, 2012 11:59 pm

      Hi there A;i – congratulations on your BA – and enjoy LSE – its a fantastic school, and you’ll meet some fascinating people. Make sure you network network network while you’re there. Take advantage of your faculty, fellow students, and career services in getting as many contacts as you can while you’re there.

      First off, your message isn’t ridiculously long, but I do wonder whether some of my writing may be a little obtuse, since I feel that this site pretty clearly articulates my opinion on these questions. Perhaps you could help me out and re-phrase your question for me?

      You mention that you were born and raised in the developing world, and travelled extensively in the third world. I’m afraid that kind of experience doesn’t really count for much. Travel is travel, and it’s great, but it’s not work. When hiring managers are looking for work experience, they are looking for evidence that you can get things done in challenging environments. Backpacking is, unfortunately, not evidence of that, at least, not in the way that hiring mangers are interested in. Being born in the developing world is also, unfortunately, not going to help you much, except to the extent that UN positions are still subject to quotas that favor developing countries in some respects.

      So – specifically, “Do I just find and email a particular organization and beg them to let me volunteer?” No. Sweet screaming Lord no. Don’t beg anyone for anything. You need to articulate what value you add to any particular program. Even if that is being able to write, that’s a real skill. You need to get experience in the field – I’ve written a little on this, but honestly, this is the whole ball-game. You need to figure out how to network and get to know field hiring managers and convince them that you are able to solve more problems that you create!

      Good luck!

      Nick

  7. November 1, 2012 4:53 am

    My coder is trying to convince me to move to .net from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of the costs.
    But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using Movable-type on a number of websites for about a year and am worried about switching to another platform.
    I have heard excellent things about blogengine. Is there a way I can transfer all my wordpress posts into it?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  8. December 14, 2012 8:20 am

    Hi Nick, thanks for creating this website it’s really useful. I will have a look at your book🙂 I am currently struggling to find work, having just finished my practice-based PhD in refugee advocacy, as all of my experience is voluntary. I wondered if you had any good ideas about how to find/contact local organisations over seas or if you could recommend any? I am particularly interested in working with women and mental health/well-being or education. But I am un-skilled and will do anything useful (ha). Cheers.

    • December 14, 2012 8:50 am

      Dear Lauren,
      Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for checking out my ebook – it really helps offset the costs of running this site when people buy it, but if you’re short of cash, reviewing it on Amazon is the next best thing!
      Sorry to hear you’re struggling to find work, you don’t mention where you live, but I’m guessing it’s the UK? To be honest, I’m not that plugged into the UK refugee advocacy scene, my first suggestion would be that you look to the networks that your PhD program has – there must be some fairly serious connection with your college? Other than that, if the UK is anything like the US a lot of this is down to the usual suspects who tend to run refugee resettlement programs.
      You mention working overseas, and that certainly broadens the search criteria, since almost all of the major aid agencies work with refugees in some way or another, and a lot of them have some kind of advocacy and / or mental health and gender focus. If you want to work overseas then I would give you the same advice I give most people – network, get overseas and gain experience living and working in the places you want to work, and if necessary intern and volunteer to get that experience.
      In terms of finding local organizations, the approach I think a lot of people have luck with is to find a place they like, that is calm, and has good tourist infrastructure, do your internet research first, contacting as many people as possible and letting them know you’ll be coming, then do the rounds, handing out your resume, offering to volunteer, and letting people know you’re looking for work. Take a look at the interview with Lorina McAdam for her take on this.
      I doubt that you are ‘unskilled’, in addition to your PhD, you probably have good writing skills, interpersonal skills that can be leveraged in management, and a general problem solving approach that is always useful – you need to spin your resume in those terms if you don’t have the experience to make it jump out immediately.
      Good luck, and let us know how you do!
      Nick

      Getting your first job in relief and development

  9. Emily permalink
    February 18, 2015 5:21 pm

    Hi Nick I found your blog whilst looking at international aid work. At the end of my education I will be a fully qualified physician associate. My question is can I do aid work with a chronic condition, I have a long term neuralgiac condition which requires medicatin but not much in the way of hospital treatment? I would love to get in to this field and use my skills where they are most needed. Any insight would be helpful.

    • February 18, 2015 7:13 pm

      Thanks for your question, I’m going to use it in a blog post in the next couple of days – thanks,
      Nick

  10. Sid permalink
    March 22, 2015 1:23 pm

    Hi,

    I’m 18 years old, and am currently an undergraduate law student in India. I’ve always been aligned towards social work and have done a lot of work in India. However, Africa has always fascinated me and I’d love to combine my passion for social work with my fascination for Africa by volunteering there when I get a long break in early 2016. How do you suggest I go about applying for the same?

    • April 10, 2015 9:18 am

      Hey there Sid!
      I think some of the ideas on my blog might give you some clues about my advice on this. I know that there is a belief out there that I’m holding out on the best advice for the comment threads, but really – the best advice I have is on the blog (and the book!).
      If you have a more specific question that isn’t covered I’d be glad to give it a swing!
      Thanks,
      Nick

  11. Heather permalink
    September 4, 2015 1:35 pm

    Hi Nick,

    Awesome blog! I’m a qualified social worker with 20 years experience and three years experience of international volunteering in some pretty terrible situations (eg the tribalism crisis in Kenya in 2008- it was pretty scary!) I don’t have a question but I just wanted to say that my next stop is making an effort to find humanitarian and disaster relief work and will draw on my previous experience, my future volunteer work and invaluable resources like this blog!

    Thanks so much for your time!

  12. Olivier B permalink
    March 22, 2016 8:30 am

    Hi Nick,
    Awesome article. I am currently an electronics engineer but I am getting bored of doing a job that does not mean much to me. I would like to have a positive impact, help out other people in countries. To sum up I want my life to be meaningful.
    I have read your article and I an wondering where can I find “jobs” for this. In fact, at the minute this is so blurry to me that I am not even sure it is possible. Where to start finding opportunities to do this?

    I guess I am too used to finding a job through usual websites and I can’t seem to find where to find opportunities in this domain. Which NGO, etc…
    Thanks for the article, very useful anyway. It made me realise I could actually do this.

    Olivier

  13. luzpiluzpi permalink
    April 5, 2016 8:02 am

    Excellent information. I am agribusiness engineer and I am from Colombia, I am searching for a volunteering experience helping people.

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