21 May Top 3 Tips to Choosing the Right Volunteer Abroad Program for You

Key things I’ve learned to help you get the most from your global experience


Volunteering abroad offers a unique opportunity to travel internationally and get global experience while helping to make a difference. There are many volunteer abroad programs to choose from so it is important to do your research and find the find the right option for you. So where do you start? You already have by taking the leap and deciding to volunteer abroad! Here are my top 3 tips and next steps to choosing the right volunteer opportunity for you, ensuring you get the most out of your experience.

All my volunteer experiences – gained through different volunteer abroad programs – have at least two things in common: (1) they were exciting and fun and (2) they have helped me develop personally and, more importantly, professionally. Currently I’m volunteering in Cambodia with the EMBRACE project, focused on improving maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH), through Youth Challenge International and ADRA Canada. Through these experiences, I’ve learned a lot about how to get the most out of the experience and I wanted to share some tips with you. Specifically, among the thousands out there, how to choose the right volunteer abroad program(s). Below are a few key things I keep in mind during my search.

1. Outlining your goals and aspirations 

Going abroad for an extended period of time sounds fun and, when it comes to choosing a volunteer abroad program, one can easily be carried away by the idea of living in a cool country and doing cool things. Of course, I cannot deny that this “wow” factor has played into my decision-making process emotionally, but when it comes to justifying spending so much time and money, I always try to turn to my rational side – think pragmatically. Volunteering abroad is more than merely volunteering abroad. The programs provide an excellent opportunity for you to leave your daily routines and later come back with a global perspective and new skills. Through the various volunteer abroad programs I have joined, I seized this opportunity to work towards my goals (mostly career-oriented). Although a few months of volunteering abroad have not gotten me to where I aimed to be in my career right away, each experience has helped me steadily build my toolkits (i.e. C.V.) and led me one step closer to where I wanted to be professionally.

Starting from my first volunteer abroad experience, I chose to assist a PhD student with her project on birds and microbial communities in central California. This decision was made easily because of a clear goal in mind – building my first research fieldwork toolkit, which was essential for my further studies in ecology and later a career as an ecologist. It is after this initial volunteering experience that doors opened and allowed me to assist in more ecological research volunteer programs. Eventually this work and time paid off as I was accepted into a research master program in ecology with thanks to the several relevant professional experiences I now had under my belt. Fast forward to a few years later and I have now decided to make a career pivot into the field of public health and international development. I had kept this goal in mind while I was searching for new volunteer opportunities. I was very fortunate to have found YCI’s volunteer program in Cambodia working to improve MNCH issues. Now that I have gotten my foot in the door of this new field, I can see that many more doors again are gradually opening up with potential to land a new job in the health sector or pursue a public health/international development master degree.

2. Aligning your personal values and believes with the organization and position

Knowing my goals and aspirations has helped me hone in on my search for specific volunteer abroad programs. This initial filtering makes the next part easier: choosing an organization and a position. It is important to look out for whether or not the organization and the position it offers aligns with your personal values and believes. For example, how does the work that I do help me as much as I can help the organization and its beneficiaries. Case in point, I have spent this past year working among rural communities in developing countries not only because I wanted to gain some real-world experience from the project, but also because I value greatly the effort in creating changes at the local level. Having found this alignment between myself and the EMBRACE project, I go to work every day with a great sense of purpose – to learn about community-based approaches and interventions as they happen on the ground in villages, creating positive changes among many lives.

When it comes to finding a good match between you and the program, the most straightforward way is to do some thorough research about the host organization and the position. This could be through word of mouth, reading the organization’s blog, social media, volunteer comments, etc. And of course, the interview process with the organization presents the golden opportunity for you to make sure that they get to know you as much as you get to know them. But, although these processes may give you a good sense of what you would be signing up for, some degree of mishaps (misalignment) can still occur during the course of the program and so course correction (realignment) becomes an inevitable response. It comes down to flexibility, adaptability and communication as no one knows what you want to do better than yourself. Communicate your desired trajectory and be flexible and adaptive to put your work plan back on track. I have gone through the process of course correction during most placements and each time it allowed me revisit what I really wanted to get out of the experience, ultimately leading me down the right path.

3. Knowing your commitment of time (and money)

Joining a volunteer abroad program is a big decision as we are committing our most valuable asset – time. My rule of thumb is to be a little more generous about spending time for the program should you have found the right one. It takes time to get settled in a new environment and around new people. From my experience, I haven’t felt truly comfortable until weeks, or at times up to a month, into my volunteer stay. If the programs were for a short period of time, I would have regretted having to leave when I just started to feel like I was truly living the experience, inevitably missing the part where I would learn the most while having the most fun. Though I do understand that not everyone can free up a few months at any time, so a little piece of advice I can offer is to do it while you can – enjoy the volunteer abroad experience while you can afford spending the time and before getting all tied up with life.

Money may be another big factor in the decision-making process and sometimes it can become a major deterrent to joining a volunteer abroad program. My rule of thumb is again to not be afraid to spend invest a little bit of money if there isn’t too much of a financial constraint. Spending time and money on the right program means we value the opportunity to do meaningful work and investing in ourselves. On top of that, many responsible volunteer abroad programs are spending volunteers’ contribution (both monetary and work hours) towards making a difference in global development.

*Pro-tip: if there are some financial constraints, you can look out for scholarships or student loan repayment assistance. Also, some programs cover many of your costs and offer a monthly stipend for living expenses – check out YCI’s subsidized international youth internship program Innovate ME.

All in all, my experiences gained from volunteer abroad programs have gone a long way in helping me build my career and develop as a person. I hope this article has offered some more insights to those who are thinking of volunteering abroad and choosing among programs. And if you do end up volunteering abroad, here’s a few extra tips on how to take full advantage of the experience:

  • Say yes to every opportunity presented to you – you never know what doors will open next unless you’re willing to take that first step
  • Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself and take chances – worst case is that everyone thinks you are weird, and what’s wrong with that?
  • Show explicitly your curiosity and willingness to learn, especially culture and language – people do see and appreciate your effort to reach out and integrate.
  • Embrace the unexpected – see it as a challenge and opportunity to grow.

About Martin Wong
Martin is a Canadian volunteer with Youth Challenge International currently working as a Knowledge Management Coordinator for the EMBRACE Project with ADRA in Cambodia. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Global Environmental Change & Sustainability from Johns Hopkins University and Masters of Philosophy in Ecology and Biodiversity from the University of Hong Kong. Martin is passionate about environmental conservation and global health and creating real change in real lives.

EMBRACE is a four-year project designed to improve the maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) of vulnerable women, girls and boys in Cambodia, Myanmar the Philippines and Rwanda through improving access to essential health services, building the capacity of local health workers, and providing community education programs. Funded in part by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada (GAC), EMBRACE is a project led by ADRA Canada and implemented in partnership Youth Challenge International (YCI) and the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre (HDC).

To learn more about how you can volunteer or intern overseas, develop a career you love and make a difference with YCI click here.