How to Ethically Volunteer Anywhere in the World

Headshot of Shannon O'Donnell from alittleadrift.comI’m frequently asked about volunteering overseas and unfortunately, I don’t know much about it. So today, I’m turning the blog over to friend and volunteer tourism expert Shannon O’Donnell from the blog A Little Adrift. She’s been volunteering around the world for years and recently published a book on the subject. She’s the expert, so without further ado, here’s Shannon’s advice on finding good volunteer opportunities.

A foundational motivation underpinning the past four years I’ve been traveling around the world has been the idea that serving others would help me find clearer direction for my life. There are many ways to better understand and respect other cultures as we travel, but for me, the most effective has been volunteering. I left to travel for many reasons, and I had many preconceived ideas about what I would find when I left the confines of the United States. Traveling dispelled many of those notions almost immediately, but it was only when I slowed down and spent time volunteering that I was able to sink into the travel experience in a way that goes beyond photographing the major temples, churches, and iconic sites.

When I first left in 2008 on what I thought would simply be a year-long round-the-world trip, I was overwhelmed by how convoluted and ethically ambiguous the international volunteer industry seemed. Simple searches to find projects I could support on my trip yielded a bevy of companies touting volunteer experiences operating in the poorest countries in the world and yet costing many thousands of dollars—it didn’t make sense, and it nearly discouraged me from doing any work at all. But once I traveled, researched, and learned, I realized there are many quality, ethical options out there for travelers interested in volunteering, but finding them is tougher than it should be. It’s this quandary that motivated me to write my book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.

I know what it’s like to want to volunteer and travel, but to be confused by the sometimes huge fees, the equivocal ethics, and the sheer number of options. With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity Matt gave me to share five clear steps that show how to find and vet good-fit volunteer projects.

Step One: Understand Development and Aid

Shannon O'Donnell teaching English to child monks in Asia
During my first year volunteering internationally I overlooked this first step and instead fueled my volunteer efforts with enthusiasm and little knowledge, and as a result I unfortunately supported a few projects that I now see had fundamental ethical issues. One of the hardest things for new, eager volunteers to understand is that not all organizations—even non-profits—are doing good, necessary work that ethically develops the communities and eco-systems where we volunteer our time. For that reason, take a step back from the planning and instead learn more about core problems facing development projects when they bring in Western volunteers and ideas.

Two core themes I analyze in my book center on how too many volunteer projects can actually foster dependency on international aid and compromise the dignity of the people they are trying to help. Before you volunteer, your job is to understand the macro-industry around volunteering. I’ve collected a list of fantastic books, TED Talks, and websites that provide context for international aid conundrums and the interplay between volunteering and development work. Each one of these three offers a good start towards broad-level understanding:

Step Two: Choose a Good-Fit Type of Volunteering

Shannon O'Donnell volunteer farming with her young niece overseas
There are an overwhelming number of ways to volunteer, and since I started traveling more than four years ago, I’ve tried most of them. I used a placement company on my round-the-world trip to find a monastery in Nepal where I could teach, I’ve taken recommendations from travelers on the road, and now I most often volunteer independently with small organizations I find organically as I travel. Your next step is to assess your time commitment and your personal volunteer motivations.

  • Independent volunteering: Independent volunteering is ideal for long-term travelers and those on a flexible round-the-world trip who don’t know when or where they might be traveling. There’s usually little or no facilitation, so you must arrange all travel, accommodation, and food. In exchange, the fees are low or free. You’re traditionally working directly with the project/organization on a very hands-on level.
  • Placement companies: Middlemen take a fee to match you with a specific type of volunteer project and usually offer a medium level of facilitation. Ideal for very specific or niche volunteer experiences and either short or long time commitments.
  • Voluntours: These offer a high level of facilitation and are ideal for those on a short vacation who want to pack in a lot of sites with a nod to service integrated into the trip. Voluntours are expensive and the ratio of touring to service can vary greatly. Usually, the bulk of your fee goes to the tour company itself.
  • Social enterprises: All travelers can support the small businesses working within their own local communities for change. If you can only volunteer for a very short time, consider nixing the volunteering and instead infusing your money into local communities as you travel. Volunteering is not always the right choice on every trip, but you can still do good by choosing restaurants, shops, and business with an underlying social mission.

Step Three: Research Organizations in Your Interest Area

Two female volunteers bathing a large elephant in Thailand
Now we’re down to the nitty-gritty details. Travelers too often skip the first two steps and risk having an unfulfilling trip at best and doing harm with their volunteering efforts at worst. My prep work for a new volunteer trip starts with a search of the major volunteer databases to see what projects exist within my interest area. I then use a spreadsheet or an Evernote folder to track the details.

These websites allow you to sort and sift through the whole gamut of types of volunteering (conservation, teaching, medical, etc.) and requirements (family, timing, location). For now, simply fill your spreadsheet or folder with projects that excite you, and in the next step we’ll look at vetting potential volunteer projects.

  • Grassroots Volunteering: A small, growing resource of free and low-cost organizations and social enterprises all over the world. This site is my personal passion project that I launched in 2011.
  • Go Overseas: This site collates volunteering placements from many companies and returns a lot of variety in the search results.
  • A large database that occasionally returns some fantastic, small, niche organizations.
  • Pro World Volunteers: A wonderful middleman placement company with community-driven projects that offers internships, volunteering, and study abroad programs.
  • Volunteer HQ: Very fair placement fees even with the refundable registration fee taken into account, and they seem to choose projects with a long-term community approach.
  • WWOOF: Working on organic farms is a wonderful way to give time to farm, agriculture, and sometimes conservation projects. Matt has previously provided a full guide on how to WWOOF on your travels.

Step Four: Ask the Right Questions

Vetting the volunteer projects you researched is your next step and allows you to narrow your list. Diligently follow through with this stage of the process because there are heartbreaking consequences to supporting projects that are not sensitive to the needs of the people and places they serve. An example, and a cautionary tale, is the current orphanage scandals reported in Africa and Cambodia; something as innocuous as volunteering at an orphanage often has sad and heartbreaking side effects on the children.

Frustratingly, there are disparate issues within each volunteering niche, so I wrote up a full list of questions to ask your volunteer organization on my volunteer site. The core issues most volunteer projects face come down to:

  • Where is the money going? Look at placement fees and how much of that fee goes back into the community or projects.
  • How is the organization working with the community? Have they asked the local community if this project is something that is wanted/needed? Find out if the organization is prepared to stick around and support the project or development work for potentially many years if that is needed, or leave altogether if not.
  • What is expected of volunteers? What is the exact nature of the volunteer work and what is the level of volunteer support on the ground?

When you’ve effectively questioned the organizations and projects that interest you, you’re only left with the personal decision of weighing time, costs, and project details to decide which one fits your volunteering goals. My 11-year-old niece and I volunteered during our seven-month trip to Southeast Asia, and my volunteer goals then were quite different than when I travel solo. My various projects over the years have reflected my differing circumstances…as will yours!

Step Five: Take a Deep Breath

The single decision to weave international service into my round-the-world travels changed the direction of my life. I left the U.S. back in 2008 confused about the direction I should take. I left behind my previous dreams as an actor living in Los Angeles and hoped that travel and volunteering would help me re-focus. It has done that and more; the regular integration of service in my life gave me a new lens through which to experience the world and an ability to experience communities and cultures in a way that simply traveling through a country does not.

Once you’ve picked your volunteer experience, take a deep breath before you tackle the planning phase and those practicalities. I have travel resources and volunteer resources when you’re ready for that, but pause first. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details, but the larger picture is very rewarding when you’re able to sit down in the airplane—your bags packed, vaccinations done, details planned—and simply anticipate the new experiences and perspectives you’re about to face.

Shannon O’Donnell has been traveling the world since 2008; she travels slowly and volunteers in small communities along the way. She recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her travel blog, A Little Adrift.

  1. Like Matt, I’m a bit ignorant when it comes to volunteering. I was just reading up on Myanmar and how weary they are of having foreign aid because of where the money is going – something I had never thought about before. Do you know of any reputable volunteering in Myanmar, Shannon?

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I think its important to remember that the volunteer experience often benefits the volunteer more than the organization. I spent two years teaching high school English in Madagascar with the Peace Corps. I worked hard as a teacher, my students passed the required national exams. For me, those two years were a critical formative period. The Peace Corps changed the way I view the world, and taught me to travel anywhere. It also strengthened my graduate school application, which set up me on my current career path. The hardest part of a volunteer experience is feeling that your contribution is insufficient. I might help to remember that it’s likely to be most meaningful to you.

    • I agree so much Kay, about volunteering during the formative years shaping who you are and how you think. The Peace Corps is such a great example of long-term service and the effects that can stack up as volunteers work together over years to help train or develop communities. And I think it’s okay too that volunteers often get more out of the experience if they then take that information and new understanding and support the cause and community when they return home, spreading their new views and even fundraising for the cause so they have an even more lasting effect! :)

  3. Your blog post and book are badly needed. I love to recommend volunteering as part of an overseas trip, but there seem to me to be a lot of, if not exactly scams. certainly very overpriced volunteer “opportunities.”

  4. Angela O.

    Shannon, this information could not have come at a better, more crucial time for me. I literally was thinking about how one goes about this type of life and then bam! here it is on Matt’s blog. I cannot wait to read the book! Thank you so much and thank you too Matt for having Shannon on here. (=

  5. Theresa

    Hello Shannon,

    Great information. I’ve been traveling and teaching for years. I’m looking for a reputable volunteer experience with small children and infants, maybe an orphanage, but not necessarily teaching (I need a break).

    Can you point me in a direction that may deal specifically with this type of volunteerism? I’m looking at Africa, Asia or anywhere really, that I’d be useful.


    • Hi Theresa,

      Since I’m not sure which region you are interested in, it’s hard to say specifically, but several of the programs at are working with children. Same goes with — start looking through programs here and you can find ones that specifically have the work you are looking for. Of note though, is that I recommend that you spend at least a month if you are going to be working directly with children at orphanages since it can be so disruptive and harmful to have short-term volunteers come into these situations. Hope that helps, and good luck researching :)

  6. Daichovo

    If you’re medically-minded, you might want to check out the group Floating Doctors, currently located in Panama in Bocas del Toro. I’ll be doing a volunteer project with the local curandero (mountain medical shaman dude) researching herbs and other treatments in April-May. The nice thing about this group is that you don’t have to be in a Western traditional program to volunteer. They are looking for massage therapists, PT’s etc. I’m an acupuncture and Chinese medical student so they are using me to help research/document local ethnobotany. So far they’ve been really friendly, and I can’t wait to share my experience once I go!

    • Thanks for sharing the Floating Doctors Daichovo, I had never heard of that group, but it can be hard to find great medical volunteering options, so I have added this to my list to research so I can rec it to people! Enjoy your volunteer trip and I hope you learn a lot :)

  7. This is a really wonderful piece, Shannon! I love your first step. Educating travelers before they decide where, how, and if they will volunteer abroad is the most crucial thing we can do to prevent doing harm to local communities. IMHO, it seems outrageous that anyone should be dropped in the third world without fully understanding the complexities that surround poverty, aid, development, and the creation of wealth. Volunteer opportunities that are education-based are, I think, the most ethical and useful way to engage with impoverished communities. But I wonder how much allure (and in some cases, profit) a volunteer program might lose if it removed the “help” or “service” component. Would people still be interested? Leads back to the first, and perhaps most important, question we ask ourselves: why are we doing this?

    What a relief to read a well-written and balanced article that offers real solutions and ideas, as opposed to strictly voluntourism-bashing or, “Here’s how you can do good in [insert third world village]!” I appreciate the depth, and clearly others do, too. Nicely done! I’m currently producing and directing a feature-length film on this subject, and love meeting others who are passionate about volunteering abroad. I’m following you on twitter from @HOPEWasHereFilm. Keep in touch, and I’m now reading up on your book on Amazon!

    • I agree so completely with the fact that education-based opportunities often provide the best long-term solutions for communities. I like volunteer programs that are building a system that will eventually *not* need any volunteers–if a company is willing to take that perspective, and find an exit strategy after training, I think it can show a commitment to development versus the profits the volunteers bring in. Too often I have seen volunteer projects that are no longer needed, but the funds from program fees are so hefty that companies are unwilling to allow communities to take over themselves with the new skills!

      As you said, it’s great to meet up with like-minded travelers and I would love to share a coffee if our paths cross; best of luck on your filming in Peru. :)

  8. Annalise

    Thank you so much for this fantastic article Shannon! Especially the links included. I have found it so informative. I am soon going on a 7 month trip to Europe and South East Asia and had been planning on volunteering in an orphanage for a month of 2 in Cambodia with Volunteer HQ however now after reading this post and this article I am questioning whether this volunteering path would be beneficial to Cambodian communities. What do you think? I saw you recommended Volunteer HQ above however after reading about the damage volunteering in orphanages can do I’m wondering whether I should avoid that kind of volunteering all together.
    Again, thank you for the article! :)

    • That’s a tricky situation you’re in, because it is very difficult to vet the various orphanages in Cambodia. I do think it can be done with care and consideration, particularly since you are willing to give a month or more. Make sure you ask a lot of questions about the volunteer experience you picked in Cambodia, and consider reaching out to — they are on a mission to eliminate the need for orphanages by reconnecting children with their parents and instead providing support that way. Best of luck Annalise!

  9. Milly

    Great post! I am always worried about getting sucked into the whole “volunteer tourism” thing. I’d be doing more harm than good!

    Cheers for the tips!

    • It can be really tough to feel like you’re making a difference Milly, but when in doubt, you can always work on practicing responsible tourism and supporting local businesses and social enterprises! :)

  10. Understanding development and aid is such an important factor that many people seem to ignore. I work in international development and come across so many young people who have the heart in the right place, but don’t understand the consequences of some badly organized volunteering trips. Great post!

  11. Shannon,

    Thanks for the post. You have a lot of courage to get out there and just do it. I think your book is an excellent idea, because there still is so much confusion and sometimes even garbage out there when it comes to volunteering abroad.

    Some day I really want to do WWOOF. This is a downer question, but have you ever been lied to or scammed while trying to volunteer?

    • I have heard both sides of the coin on WWOOFing–mostly good for those who asked questions and had aligned their expectations to the reality of what they were expected to do. As far as being lied to–no, not outright in terms of volunteering. But, I learned the hard way that just because it would seem something is a natural and right assumption, that’s where the trouble lies. One of my volunteer opportunities took a part of the volunteer fee to donate to the project, but I only later learned that fee never went to *my* project, but one in another town completely and my project never actually received financial support from the placement company. Finding that out really frustrated me because I hadn’t asked the right questions before hand to figure that out! Ask a lot of questions is the bottom line!! :)

  12. Vee

    I did WWOOFing before and it was a great experience. Shannon gave really good advice when it comes to volunteering. But I think those advice also apply for most situations, especially with WWOOFing. Ask questions… lots of it. Let me know if you need more info on WWOOFing!

    • Eimear

      Really want to volunteer with an organisation that really has the communities best interest at heart, any more ideas or websites to look at?
      Thank you.

  13. Sharing the little you have with ours that donot have is an act of charity. Working in the community pool you closer to those who need you. Thank you for volunteering

  14. I read The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It last year and thought “Why are governments (and us) doing what he suggests?”

    Some of the solutions seem so simple.

  15. This is a great post! It’s hard to wade through all the scams sometimes and I think you make some awesome points and tips on how to really find something worthwhile, kudos!

  16. Dawn

    Thanks for sharing! These are some great resources. I’ve done some WWOOFing in the past and have found it to be a very rewarding way to volunteer. Excellent tips on finding good volunteer projects. I’m heading over to check out your blog now!

  17. Wow! That’s so awesome. Talk about a whole different realm of traveling. What better way to truly experience other cultures and traditions all while hopefully learning to understand and appreciate your own culture a little more. I hope that I can one day soon be able to volunteer abroad like this. Thanks for the great info and insight!

    • Volunteering really can deepen the travel experience, particularly if you give yourself enough time (months) to immerse in the culture–I would have it any other way now that I’ve seen how much deeper you can connect to people and places. Good luck planning those future trips! :)

  18. Great article, when I looked into volunteering a few years back they were trying to charge me a fortune just for the privilege of helping out which I thought was a bit strange. Hopefully you didn’t pay (too much) and have a great time!

  19. Really thanks for the article. I think that people dont think really about volunteering and what it can do to the community. A lot of people pay $1000’s for these schemes that are little more than a scam that ultimately damages the community. Thanks for this article very informative.

  20. Great post. I have met so many people who have paid thousands of dollars to volunteer with an organization, only to be left with a bad feeling because they don’t know where their money went or they didn’t feel like they contributed anything valuable. And I like what you said about research – way too many people commit to projects without having any idea of the implications. A perfect example is in Siem Reap, Cambodia where way too many people volunteer at orphanages that are being run like businesses and exploiting children in the process. Thanks for all the info!

  21. deb

    thanks for all the information! do you have any specific recommendations for an active 60 year old retired high school art teacher? I’m more interested in 2 week trips right now.

  22. You are so right that not all the organizations are as ethical as they pretend to be, especially the ones that ask for large amounts of money to join. This is what has put me off any serious volunteering for so long.

    I’m considering to just travel to Africa next year and ask around who might need my help (most likely as an ex-teacher). Do you think this is a good way to find the organizations that actually are trying to do good, and also for me not to give all my money away to middle men and so on?

    • If you are going to be in Africa for a while, and you have the flexibility to find a place you like and stay, then I think it’s a great idea to go over there and travel and ask around until you find a place that needs your help and matches your values. :)

  23. Joe

    I appreciate the article. Another thing to consider is if this is a hand-out oriented organization. Too many orgs hand out water, medicine, toys that pollute land and or are unneeded. Nonprofits often get people connected to a medicine, process, or way of agriculture only to leave without follow up resources or any lasting connection. Natural empowering process is the way to go. Outsiders don’t create change, but if partnered right, we can support people in achieving their goals.

  24. Gracie E Thomas

    Hey, Shannon! I am so glad I found this article. I am currently an undergrad and I am looking to volunteer back home (in India) and I don’t personally know anyone who has done this, so I don’t know who to direct my questions to.
    I want to work with orphans (It’s hard to describe it but I want to be there to show them my support because sometimes I think even when there are resources available, if you don’t feel the support/love or you think no one cares, you don’t advantage of the opportunities that come your way. And that’s quite a lot to ask and it’s something that is most likely the result of long-term interaction but I would be happy even if I could just make them feel like they have someone who cares about them) but I don’t know where to start. I have never done this before and it seems like the best way I can contribute at the moment is by teaching English. However, I don’t have a teaching degree or even any teaching experience :(
    Do you know where I can start and how to best prepare for this trip ( I am actually looking for tickets for the upcoming summer so I AM going to do something, but I don’t know just what yet)?
    And thank you!

    • Hi Gracie, so glad you found the post helpful. In terms of volunteering when you visit India, orphanages is one of those tough quandaries and you have some work cut out for you doing research to find a place where you can be of service — it’s not impossible though. Think about how much time you have to give, and perhaps skills beyond teaching that you could offer (website skills, social media, etc) to the organization. I would start by researching some of the obstacles and arguments against orphan tourism so that you have a good idea of what to look out for when you are vetting opportunities. Best of luck!

  25. Kerry

    Thank-you so much for this article. I have been going a little crazy wading through the options of meaningful overseas travel that I can afford. I have had a quick look at your page – Grassroots volunteering and I didn’t believe I could volunteer for free!! There are so many options. Thank-you again.

    • Glad you found it helpful! There are definitely free options out there; if you have flexibility in your timing and how you’ll be helping there is no doubt you can find a great fit in the region you plan to visit! :)

  26. jas

    Hi Shannon

    Thank You, some great insight into volunteering, i am fifty plus female, looking to travel and volunteer with a like minded person. Any advice?

  27. Hi Shannon – thanks for this post, it’s incredibly clear and helpful. I have spent a lot of time volunteering abroad and have experienced a range of things. Mostly I agree that it’s important to find the right fit and be absolutely clear what is expected of you. I’m also a believer in free volunteering as you should come with skills and experience that is valuable to the organisation for which you volunteer.

    Cheeky plug here but I think it’s worth it since it’s so relevant – I work for SOLS 24/7, and education focussed NGO in SE Asia and we are currently looking for international volunteers. We provide food, accommodation, internal transport and training all free of charge, plus a living allowance for volunteers who will be posted out to our community centres across Malaysia. Take a look at and see what you think!

  28. Alex

    Is there a way I could volunteer/ help in other countries without working with an organization? Like more independent, with a friend or two.

  29. jordan


    I’m looking to volunteer doing conservation. Where’s best to place my effort and make sure I’m doing the best I could be doing?

    Thank you

  30. jess

    hi, there’s need a working visa permit, altrough is unpaid, to make voluntering in central america? do you ever had request a working visa to work like voluntering (paid or unpaid jobs)?

  31. Ronnie

    Hello Shannon. Truly an eye opening article. And what an amazing life you have lived allready.
    I am hoping that you still check this page for comments although its over 1 year old.
    I am a 23 year old danish lad.
    I have wanted for as long to travel to Africa to learn their culture, view their sight of life, and of course to help with whatever i can.

    I have primary looked into wild life volunteering but i cant find anything like that without it costing a fortune.

    See i dont have a lot of money. I could probably pay the ticket down and that is about it.
    When you are down there, and if food is not part of your “package” from big firms, then how is that problem delt with. I wouldnt mind working with a tribe, hunting or farming my own food

    I would so appreciate an experts opinion, and guidance.

    • Hi Ronnie, sorry for the long delay in getting back to you, I just saw your question. Research is your best hope. Independent opportunities exist all over Africa, in heaps of various countries, and many of them are very low-cost and at least have no placement fees, though some may require you to cover your minimal costs to live in a village or community. Some of the sites listed above have databases of opportunities, or I recommend that you search through some of the sites listed here to find a good match for your skills:

      Best of luck! With some deep research and a decent time commitment (many opportunities are much cheaper the longer you stay), you can definitely find something that will work!

  32. Eva Ameria

    Hi Shannon,

    I followed all your advise and had a wonderful volunteer trip to India.

    I had a bad experience in Ghana some year back and thought of reporting it to some authorities. I did not.

    However, after reading your blog and similar stories I found this organization in India –

    They did a wonderful job and teamed up with credible NGOs for a very sustainable model of volunteering.

    Above all, I did consider your thoughts on food, safety and hygiene and was greatly benefited. I think I will take up another trip to India, and stay there for longer this time to ensure that my services have a better impact on the community.

    • I am so happy to hear that you had a successful trip, and I think that if you can go back for longer, the more time you can spend in a place and on a project the deeper impact you can have in helping them achieve their mission and goals. Safe travels and best of luck on your next trip!

  33. Shannon, thank you so much for this information. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by all of the scattered opportunities.

    My husband and I started our own environmental research and education non-profit almost two years ago, focusing on community redevelopment in areas of environmental decline. Our accomplishments and experiences have truly been life-changing, but that’s a whole other story!

    As I’m sure you’re aware, developing a grassroots organization doesn’t allow you to live the life of lavish. On top of that, we have just recently lost our sole investor. The both of us have quite literally dedicated our lives to helping others, and we don’t plan on stopping now. Our dream is to move abroad and work in a close-knit community where we can teach others, specifically on how to improve human and environmental health conditions. However, we do not have the money to go through a third party program. Ideally, what we need is food and housing in exchange for at least a year of our uninterrupted hard work an dedication.

    I searched through your Grassroots Volunteering site and contacted many of the free programs. However, most of them still require a weekly/monthly fee. Outside of your site, we are at a complete loss trying to find an opportunity. Does this type of opportunity even exist online?

    My husband is an experienced world traveler an I am a traveler at heart, though I have little experience outside of America. Together we have an abundance of knowledge and experience in environmental issues, technology, history, anthropology, archaeology, science, construction, sustainable practices, organic farming, and much more. All of this, we want to give!

    Do you have any suggestions?

  34. Amanda Robin

    I would like to throw a couple of other websites into the mix. Both are strong proponents of ethical volunteering and perhaps of more interest your readers, specialise in connecting international volunteers to free volunteer work opportunities. The organisations are Volunteer Latin America and Volunteer 4 Africa. The former has a web page about ethical volunteering at The other web address is Both organisations give back in the form of donations and are eco-friendly. Well worth a look!

  35. Hi Shannon,

    This is very useful post and everyone should consider these five steps before volunteering. Also, volunteering is meaningful only if it is done in right place at right time. So making a right decision is inevitable. And this post provides a direction for a right decision (Y)

  36. Johan

    Hi Shannon,

    Thank for these great tips. While Googling I stumbled upon your site and you provide us with really good tips about volunteering abroad. However, I would like to stress that you can volunteer from pretty much anywhere you like. I’ve been volunteering as a web designer for for a few years now where I helped setting up website for small NGOs and volunteers etc.
    Now I’m planning on doing some volunteering abroad myself. I’ve come to know some really great projects, so that should help me to get started. I also strongly agree that volunteering should not cost you any more money than strictly necessary. But I do understand when people are willing to pay a little bit extra to have a bit of extra certainty, especially when it is your first doing something like this.

  37. Sarah

    Thanks for the article, it was so helpful to read :) I’m looking at volunteering in Thailand with Ivhq, do you know if they fulfil the ethical volunteering criteria? I have heard so many mixed opinions!

  38. subodh

    Dear Shannon

    Warm Greetings to you

    Vow what experience u have in volunteering.
    I m starting as w world in this year 2015.My age is 48 there any age they accept for volunteering.
    Yr reply will be appreciated.



  39. Amalie


    I really like this read, I agree! I have been looking to volunteer/work abroad, but having trouble finding the correct organisation. I don’t want to spend money on just administration costs and not even help the community I visit. I was thinking of just travelling and maybe finding local NGO’s and volunteer centres on the way. However, this can be challenging as well – what would you recommend for south america area?

    Thank you,

    Amalie :)

  40. Jennifer

    I am a university French language and physical education graduate from Canada looking to teach English as a volunteer in Madagascar. The only programs I have found either require a lengthy time commitment or cost a suspicious amount of money (IVHQ). Any leads?

  41. Constanze

    Dear Shannonn,

    Thank you for all the insights and great tips. It’s just so great and refreshing to see that a lot of people share a great interest in volunteering and helping others. One of the things which really triggered my interest is the fact that you travelled with your niece and even homeschooled her on your seven month trip. I’d love to do the same but have no idea how to get the ball rolling. I’ve got a 12 year old son and we love travelling and different cultures so that it wouldn’t be a problem for him to explore the world with his mum. However, there are still some issue in terms of supporting yourself while on the road and in planning everything. I assume it was not really a big problem for you since you had a lot of experience under your belt therefore I’m hoping that you could give some advice of how to get started and which countries offer the best potential for mum and son 😉
    Thank you

    • Hi Constanze, so glad you enjoyed the piece and are interested in traveling with your son. It’s definitely doable! How you go about it, however, will really so deeply depend on your own situation. I work from the road doing online marketing consulting, so I was able to make money while homeschooling and volunteering with my niece. For you, I am not sure of your skillset, but you might look at ways that you could freelance to bring in some income while you are traveling. Graphic design, translation, writing, etc — lots of these are possible to bring in income on the road. Also, a lot of parents I met spent years saving up money and then going the super budget backpacking route. You can travel to a lot of places on a strict budget and still have an amazing time (this is what my niece and I did). I would consider starting in Southeast Asia, it’s very cheap to get between the countries, the culture is fascinating, the food delicious, and it was affordable enough that we could stay for many months without breaking the budget but still having a great time. Matt has some budget travel resources throughout this site, and I have a whole page on my site dedicated to homeschooling on the road, in case you decide to go this route! Best of luck!

  42. Research, research and research. This will place you in the right genre. Small effort in the right direction is far effective than anything else. If you are happy what you’re volunteering for, the outcome will be wonderful.

  43. Joe

    Apparently, Shannon now charges $90 an hour for here advice. There it is in a nutshell…almost everybody is using volunteering as a way to make money. Obviously a generalization, but as somebody with 30 years of experience working as a conservation biologist, restoration ecologist and sustainable development organizer, it’s really dispiriting to have watched volunteerism rise and industry. It’s actually made it very, very difficult to volunteer without having to pay through the nose, even if you have highly specialized skills.

  44. Great article Shannon!

    We interviewed Shannon recently too, and she helped us put together a very comprehensive guide to volunteering abroad. It is now published and available to everyone for free. You can download it here:

    Our goal is to make volunteer travel as accessible as possible for anyone who wants to give it a try. In regards to Joe’s comment above, yes we charge for our volunteer experiences, but most of those program fees go towards necessities like meals, accommodations and airport pickups. Simply put, we take care of all in-country logistics so you don’t have to.

    On the other hand, there are alternatives that allow you to volunteer abroad for free like Peace Corps, but that is a 2 year minimum commitment. If you take a trip through Build Abroad, timeframes are much more flexible.

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