7 Things I Wish I Knew About International Volunteering Before Spending a Year Doing It

Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org.

a 2.5 minute read…
Experteering overseas

In 2010, I left a great company that I co-founded to spend a year traveling and volunteering with social enterprises around the world.

Here are the 7 things I wish I knew before I left.


1. Never pay an organization on the ground to volunteer

Most international volunteer opportunities cost a lot of money . This is an immediate red flag that your support is not needed, only your money is. Instead of doing work that helps their mission, you’ll be treated to experiences designed to get your money. In a best case scenario, you’ll create dependencies on philanthropic contributions, in a worst case, you’ll unknowingly support crime, as uncovered in this article about the Cambodia Orphan Business.

| Use a curated listing and support service like MovingWorlds, browse on your own using Idealist or Helpx; or inquire directly with organizations you find inspiring to find a place you can volunteer for free. 


2. Define success clearly

When volunteering with an organization, even for a short period, take the time to plan and clearly define success. If there is not a clear objective or project that you are going to deliver, then the experience will never reach its potential. Both you and your hosting organization should be able to clearly define the Who, What, Where, When, How, Why of your project.

Also, re-consider your definition of success… if you are working on a project, will you measure success at the end of your experience, or a year after? As an example, if you are helping put in a well, is success installing a working well or is success a functioning well that is still working 1 year later…

| Use a shared document (i.e. Google Docs) to clearly outline project deliverables with your hosting organization


3. Over-communicate, over-plan, and over-deliver

Due to busy schedule on both sides, I know it can be challenging to find time to speak with your hosting organization before officially starting your volunteer work. However, time spent planning is the most important part of any international volunteering experience. In order to have a successful project, you need a successful planning phase. Before you book your travel, you should have had in-depth conversations about

  • Living, work, and transportation arrangements
  • What happens after you leave
  • Project goals and deliverables
  • Communication preferences
  • Cultural differences
  • Measuring success
  • Exact timing
  • Safety

If you are unable to find time to plan, that is an indicator that the hosting organization and/or you are not taking the project seriously enough.

| Use a volunteering planning document to co-create a statement of work and project plan. This should be mutually signed by you and the host (as a sample, here is the MovingWorlds Experteering planning guide)


4. Don’t push your own agenda

In a poignant speech, “To Hell With Your Good Intentions”, Ivan Illych points out that wanting to do good and actually doing good are very different. He highlights that, time and time again, “visitors” have tried to initiate their own efforts to drive progress, only to leave communities worse off before by unintentionally derailing local efforts and creating dependencies. In fact, his speech was a predecessor to the current debate on development aid by almost 4o years.

When volunteering overseas, seek first to understand, and then work to empower local efforts. The most sustainable projects are those that support local initiatives already in progress.

| Learn about human-centered design for social innovation for best practices to understand and empower local efforts

5. Volunteer your real skills overseas

According to leading global development organizations, “Access to talent”, or a lack of it, will soon become the leading barrier to progress. When you volunteer, make sure to focus your efforts on projects that are filling a void. As an example, if your skill set is in accounting, using your skills to build a home might be counter-productive. In fact, you might even take the job of somebody in-country who is capable of that work.  Instead, perhaps you can work with local nonprofits or startups who need help improving their financial controls. As Pippa Biddle highlighted in a popular post, volunteering when you don’t have skills might result in you doing more harm than good.

| Find organizations that are looking for your skills, and will provide you benefits in exchange

Note: Why should they provide benefits? At MovingWorlds.org,  we have found that organizations that are willing to co-invest truly need the skills and offer better experiences, and as such, use that as a key criteria for curating and approving international volunteer opportunities.


6. Focus on relationships, not work

Sometimes plans change and projects get cancelled. Other times, they shift dramatically in length or output. The key to working through major changes lies in strong relationships; when volunteering overseas, the key to strong relationships is understanding cultural differences.

| Get a head start on understanding cultural differences by reviewing Expat guides and travel books


7. Share what you learn

Chances are, not everything will go perfect. In fact, you might flat out fail. I know I have a couple times. If you do, don’t be embarrassed; rather share it as widely as possible – There is even a website dedicated to the effort: Admitting Failure.

| Share your experiences – success and failures – on your own blog, community sites, or AdmittingFailure.com


In Summary:

Volunteering overseas can be an incredible experience that truly can make a positive impact. To help ensure that you create change and learn from the experience, follow these 7 tips;

  1. Never pay an organization on the ground to volunteer
  2. Define success clearly
  3. Over-communicate, over-plan, and over-deliver
  4. Don’t push your own agenda
  5. Volunteer your real skills overseas
  6. Focus on relationships, not work
  7. Share what you learn

What tips would you add to this list?