Should you volunteer abroad on your own?

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You can see the world as a volunteer on your own; just think carefully before you go (Photo credit: Fr Antunes, Creative Commons/Flickr)

With summer in full swing, many people are looking to use their vacation time to give back by volunteering abroad. Fortunately, there are a ton of organizations that can help you find a great volunteer opportunity overseas. But what if you want to volunteer abroad on your own? Perhaps none of the programs you see match your interest or availability. Or maybe you’re excited by the idea of exploring a new country on your own. Before you book a plane ticket, think about the following pros and cons to volunteering alone in another country:

Pros:

You have greater control over your time and money: When you set out to volunteer abroad on your own, you control your budget, what kind of work you do, how long you stay, and whatever criteria are important to you when selecting a volunteer opportunity.

You can integrate volunteering overseas with travel and study: Because you are in control of your schedule, it’s easier to fit your volunteer experience in with other events like studying abroad and travel.

You can immerse yourself in the community: While many volunteer-sending organizations do encourage you to get to know the community you are helping, when you are abroad on your own you are more likely to interact frequently with local citizens and organizations instead of with program staff who may be from your country.

[Already set on volunteering abroad? Check out this list of questions you should ask before you go.]

Cons:

You have to face challenges on your own: Sick? Lost? Problems with your visa? Not happy with the experience? Unfortunately, when you volunteer solo, you’ll have to deal with these issues — along with other risks — alone.

You have to do much more research: You can lower the risks you encounter by doing as much research as possible before you go. However, even this can be challenging: while volunteer-sending organizations build relationships with local NGOs and have websites where you can explore opportunities, if you’re going on your own, you’ll have to find a way to get in touch with local organizations who might not be easily accessible.

You might be a drain on local organizations: If you aren’t fluent in the language, you’ll likely need more support to complete tasks. And for organizations that don’t have many volunteers, there is no guarantee that someone will be able to fill your role once you’ve moved on, resulting in much of the work you started being left unfinished.

There are more pros and cons to volunteering abroad on your own and we encourage you to explore them. However, the best way to get a sense of whether or not you should go alone is by talking to other volunteers. What did they love? What did they struggle with? And what, if anything, would they do differently?

Have you volunteered abroad on your own? Tell us about your experience!

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Comments (10)


  1. koofre udoka writes:
    July 10, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Yes I can!


  2. Nicole Ricchione writes:
    July 10, 2012 at 10:24 am

    I traveled to Ecuador on my own last year and I did a home stay, helping out on a farm last year in the mountains outside of Quito. It was actually a really great way to experience the local culture and get integrated into the community. Even though there was a slight language barrier because I only know basic Spanish phrases and my host knew no English, it was relatively easy to overcome. Another girl was volunteering there when I arrived and we got along great so there was a nice mix between getting in some genuine self-reflection while also having someone to hang out with so that I didn’t get too lonely. I absolutely recommend doing a volunteer trip on your own, but it definitely requires more time researching and planning to verify what you are doing is legit and safe. Not only is it a more genuine way to experience the local culture/community, it is also a lot cheaper to plan it out on your own versus going through a large organization that charges high fees.


  3. Kirsten writes:
    July 10, 2012 at 11:08 am

    I’m about to leave for a 7-week volunteer program in Tanzania all by myself. Almost everyone I know has asked me how I could go so far away for so long alone, but that’s part of the adventure. I want to be taken completely out of my normal, everyday comfort zone and thrown into another culture.

    When I first found the organization I’m going with, I did a lot of research about it to see what other people had to say – it’s the internet, people love to tell you when they are angry about something – but I couldn’t find a single bad word written about this organization. Volunteer Africa has been in the same region for 10 years, have a great reputation with the locals, are very organized, and give people who are doing longer programs, like myself, a cooking and a language class, so the language isn’t something we’re expected to know at all beforehand. I was given a phone interview before being accepted to the program, and it was by a girl who is my age who completed the same program last year. She gave me her contact information so I could ask any and all questions regarding situations I may find myself in while there, and whatever sort of gear I may need to bring with me. I have had nothing but a perfect experience with this organization leading up to my trip, and I’m extremely excited to be boarding a plane bound for Tanzania just 10 days from now. I guess I should report back after my trip, but I expect it will be a great success :).


  4. Makenzie Marineau writes:
    July 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks, Nicole and Kristen for sharing your stories!

    I’m currently an intern at idealist.org but come the end of the year I’m planning to go abroad to volunteer and travel in Southeast Asia for three months – alone. I’m still in the process of trying to find an organization to work for. I’m beyond excited to make my travel plans a reality while having the opportunity to give a helping hand and learn about another culture. I’ve traveled a lot on my own and have had my fair share of ups and downs but overall it’s always been a growing experience. It’s great to hear other positive experiences about volunteering and traveling solo (and as a woman!).

    Enjoy your time in Tanzania, Kristen. Look forward to hearing about your time when you return!

    Makenzie


  5. Natalia Juarez writes:
    July 10, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    These stories of people volunteering are very motivating and eye-opening. I am currently looking to volunteer abroad with an organization and hope it happens soon! Please put links in this feed if anyone who has volunteered abroad, or is planning to and you have a blog or website. I would love to hear more!


  6. Fund My Travel writes:
    July 11, 2012 at 1:38 am

    You can definitely do volunteer abroad alone. Anyway, when you reach your destination, chances are, you’ll find other volunteers like yourself.


  7. Sharif writes:
    July 14, 2012 at 8:02 am

    I think One can not be master doing work in an uni-cultural context for years. If I am targetting to be an expat in the future, Isn’t it less hard for me to start working as a volunteer in other nearby countries? I can experience different cultures and meet other qualified volunteers. I am the one trying to do some volunteer work in Asian Countries but can’t find on how to do and from where to start? Can anyone give me advice on this?


  8. Lee writes:
    July 17, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Great post Allison.

    What do people think of the term ‘voluntourism’ to describe an extended visit abroad with the goal of volunteering? We recently featured a story on the topic on CharityVillage and it seems that more and more people (of all ages) are signing up to see the world and make a difference – it’s not just young people – more boomers are taking sabbaticals, and retirees are seeing it as a way to be more active and engaged in their retirement. Some are going it alone, and others are going with friends or family.

    https://charityvillage.com/Content.aspx?topic=Have_your_passport_ready_A_look_at_voluntourism

    Lee Rose
    Editor – CharityVillage


  9. Kirsten writes:
    July 17, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Natalia, I have a blog but it doesn’t have a whole lot on it. Obviously I plan to write a lot about my trip once I return, so the blog will get filled eventually.

    But you can still check it out if you’d like :)

    http://tanzaniakiki.wordpress.com/


  10. chris writes:
    July 18, 2012 at 8:21 am

    I taught Enlgish in San Salvador with a local NGO last fall. Great Experience!!!
    http://www.cis-elsalvador.org/. A great place to practice Spanish and learn about pressing social justice issues. And wonderful people!!


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