Work Abroad

A Guide to Volunteering

Want to save starving children in Africa? Read this first.

Road Junky asked me to write an article on voluntary work based on my experience as a volunteer in Rwanda. Much of this article relates to volunteering in the context of developing countries but bear in mind that there are plenty of volunteering opportunities in your home country; these won’t require any nasty vaccinations or having to live in 40 degree Celsius heat and will be just as rewarding. I have started a directory of organisations involved in voluntary work. I hope in the future others will add to the list, which is intended to be only brief summary to give a quick overview of various volunteer work.

I appear to have spent much longer on why not to become a volunteer, I hope it does not appear overly negative. My volunteer experience has been a very positive one, despite some decidedly rocky periods in the early days. For volunteer types one and two (paying and unpaid volunteers), you probably can just throw yourself in at the deep end and have a great time but in my experience the third, more formal and long term voluntary work has quite an impact on your career, finances, health, patience levels and sanity! In short, it needs to be given some consideration.


Types of Volunteering

There are three main categories of voluntary work:

1) Voluntary work which costs you money. This category seems to encompass many wildlife volunteer efforts and can be seen as a way to get something back from a donation to a charity. Usually needs to be arranged in advance or runs at specific times of year. These jobs can also take the form of training or work experience geared to younger volunteers.

2) Voluntary work which costs you nothing. This is probably the largest and least formal of the all the types of voluntary work. You will usually be responsible for your accommodation and food, thus you are simply donating your time. Such work is particularly popular in Asia or other places where the cost of living is low. Often travellers will stumble across notices in hostels looking for volunteers to teach English, help with a beach clean up or at a local orphanage. Many jobs are on an ad-hoc basis and do not need to be organised in advance. The length of time involved is generally flexible also.

3) Voluntary work which pays you a wage. This is most common for professionals with experience and often includes housing and/or money to restart life back home at the end of your volunteering time. You can expect work in this category to be of fixed duration and quite formal. The application process will be as rigorous as a standard job application (and sometimes even more so!). These jobs are often a stepping stone to an international career.

I have never done the first type of work, although if I my application to volunteer with my organisation (VSO) had been rejected I was looking into doing a stint with IVCS in India, which involves making a contribution to the organisation.

In the second category, I spent a lovely 3 weeks in an elephant sanctuary in Malaysia during my travels there. I had not planned on this and have seen many similar volunteering opportunities in places like Kathmandu and Bangkok.

Aoife Hegarty

Aoife has lived and worked in Rhwanda and Switzerland in both the NGO and financial sector. That means she's pretty smart.