Help Away From Home

Guide to Life: Volunteer Abroad


Almost every major religion advocates some form of charity — see the Christian concept of virtue, the Jewish concept of tzedakah and the Muslim concept of sadaqah — but even if you don’t subscribe to a religious theory, it feels good to help. One popular method of non-monetary aid is volunteering abroad, by which one travels, generally with a group, to foreign country in order to lend skills or expertise. The movement has not been without critics, who often denounce volunteer abroad trips for diverting resources from the home country or sending naive (and useless) foreigners into dangerous territory. But many countries do need help, and, if you possess much-needed skills and a desire to see the world, you might want to consider taking a trip. Here’s how to go about it.


Take an honest look at yourself. Before deciding to volunteer abroad, it’s important to determine whether or not you can actually help with the task you’re setting out to complete — those without a specific set of needed skills or an able body might better serve themselves and a foreign country by helping in other ways. Take the example of Pippa Biddle, a well-meaning girl who, as a student, went to Tanzania to build a library. As she recently wrote in an article for The Huffington Post, “Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students, were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

Find an organization. This, more than anything else, will set the tone for your trip. Ask around — it’s always best to get a firsthand account from someone you trust. If you don’t know anyone who’s volunteered abroad, check with local aid organizations, or look through online trip aggregators like

Ask questions. For instance: Does the organization have a religious component? What are some past projects with which volunteers have been involved? What are some current projects? Where does the organization get its funding? Is there a cost involved? What precautions does the organization take to ensure the safety of program participants? What is the age range of people attending the program? Does the organization provide any sort of support or follow-up after the program ends?

Prepare. Acquire any necessary visas and immunizations. Run the weather and prepare for the conditions. Leave out the unnecessary — Haiti is not the place to showcase your new J.Crew sweater. As a corollary, pack only the essentials. For some ideas, check out our traveling Haiti kit, but here are a few reminders: passport, copy of your passport, sunscreen, band aids, bug spray, hand sanitizer, wet naps, malaria pills, aspirin, laxatives, anti-diarrheal.

Lower your expectations. We’re talking about expectations for the food and accommodations, and wi-fi accessibility, but also for your impact. Unless you’re under a very specific set of circumstances, you won’t pull children from burning wreckage, or clone the last remaining members of a dying animal species. But that’s all right. You’ll do what you can, and the world will be better for it.