group of U of M Students in front of a windmill in Spain

Volunteer Abroad

    Volunteer Abroad Programs

    Volunteer abroad programs allow you to share your time and skills with a community abroad. They are typically a few weeks to several months in duration and are almost always unpaid. Most are open to students and non-students and do not require any specific skills or language ability.

    Affiliate Volunteer Programs

    Child Family Health International: Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, India, South Africa

    Expectations

    Unrealistic expectations are often the main source of disappointment on a volunteer program. Consider your own experience, language proficiency, and familiarity with the host culture as you prepare to volunteer abroad. Develop realistic goals. Keep in mind that you may not make an immediate impact that is visible while you are still in the host community.

    Project Expectations

    You may end up working on a project different than what you were initially told or different than what you expected. One of the key elements of a good volunteer program is that the project addresses the actual needs of the community, not the preferences of the volunteer. There may be times where it feels like you are not contributing or “doing” anything. Talking with people from the host community, meeting their families and getting to know one another may be very important in the host culture.

    Organization Expectations

    Some programs will provide details of your placement, housing, and other program features before you depart the US, while others may provide minimal information beforehand and finalize your specific volunteer placement once you arrive in country. Be flexible and know that there is a great deal to be learned from any project. 

    Cost Expectations

    Many students want to know why they have to pay to volunteer their time and energy. In addition to providing your food, housing, transportation, and so on, the program fee often supports the project and community in which you will be working. The fee provides the administrative support for arranging your placement and ensuring that the project is continued in the future.  To find scholarships available for volunteering abroad, visit our scholarships and fee reduction webpage. 

    Things to Consider

    As you set goals and research volunteer programs, many characteristics are important to think about before you decide what program is best for you.

    Program Length

    Volunteer programs typically last a week to 3 months or more. Some programs, like Peace Corps, offer long-term placements of more than a year. Consider how long you can afford to be abroad without an income. Keep in mind any student loans you have. Also note that your visa may restrict the amount of time you can stay in a country.

    On-Site Support

    Volunteer programs differ in the level of support provided and independence required. Consider how much instruction and support you need with visa assistance, arrival, transportation to and from your volunteer site, and language translation. These are just some of the areas where the level of support on a program can vary.

    Program Fees

    Program fees can vary greatly. The amount often reflects the level of support and resources available to you before, during, and after the program. Ask what is included in the program fee and what additional expenses you will pay out of pocket. Ask for a breakdown of how your program fee is used.

    The articles below help explain what your program fee pays for and the differences between volunteering through a program provider and working directly with a local organization.

    For information about fees for Learning Abroad Center and affiliated WIV programs, visit our WIV funding page

    US-Based Program Provider vs. Local NGO

    Program structure may impact the cost and level of support provided. Smaller, host-country based organizations may offer a deeper level of cultural and language immersion but might not have the staff and resources to provide quick responses to your inquiries. Additionally, you may be required to arrange your own housing and transportation with little or no support.

    Volunteer placement programs based in the US may be easier to communicate with and can provide detailed information about the program before you arrive. They may also provide more structure and support before, during, and especially after the program. This type of program, however, may have a higher program fee.

    Volunteer Colleagues

    You could work with other US volunteers or volunteers from around the world. More independent volunteers may want to work more with community members, which may or may not require language proficiency. As you investigate program options, be sure to inquire with whom you will be working.

    Accommodations

    Some volunteer programs offer homestays while others house volunteers together in a home, apartment, or hostel. Some short-term programs feature more rustic accommodations in a community center or school gymnasium. Your housing option may affect the level of language and cultural immersion on your program.

    Additional Resources

    Evaluating volunteer abroad programs: A set of good principles and practices for volunteer programs developed by the International Volunteer Programs Association

    TransitionsAbroad: Explains benefits of volunteering with an organization and where fees go

    Community Engagement Scholars Program

    Are you interested in social justice? A major that requires community work? Volunteering for a community-based organization? The Community Engagement Scholars Program may be for you. The program requires community engagement volunteer hours, community engagement coursework, a series of reflection papers, and a final project and seminar. Volunteer abroad hours may count toward this program's requirements.

    Contact the Center for Community-Engaged Learning to attend an information session.