9 Facts Most People Don’t Know About International Volunteering

Mark Horoszowski

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

International volunteers

Volunteer work is an enormous renewable resource for social, economic, and environmental problem-solving throughout the world… But the lack of solid data on volunteering has left it under-valued and its full potentials unrealized.” -Lester M. Salamon*

Done right, volunteering overseas can have a profound impact on the volunteer and receiving organization, helping to tackle the “talent gap” and empower changemakers around the world. Done wrong, it can carry serious implications.

If we view volunteering as a strategic resource for global development, we have to better understand what is working and what isn’t.  Despite its size and importance, we have found that published international volunteering statistics are fragmented at best.  Still, the following are worth a read:

1. How many people volunteer overseas?

A 2008 study by Tourism and Research Marketing counted over 1.6 Million people volunteering internationally every year.1


2. Where are most international volunteers from?

The United States of America.2


3. What country receives the most volunteers?

The most popular country is most likely India (according to a GoOverseas.org report), but Africa is the most popular continent (according to research from UC San Diego).3

Countries with most volunteers


4. What type of person volunteers overseas?

Your typical volunteer will most likely be employed and college-educated.4

People are looking to spend their vacations and retirement in meaningful ways that make contributions to others.” -Bob Benson, director of the Center for Global Volunteer Service at UC San Diego Extension

International volunteers are typically college educated

International volunteers are usually employed


5. What cause attracts the most interest from volunteers?

Alleviating poverty.

84% of international volunteers are interested in this cause.5


6. Why do people volunteer overseas?

In 2008, a survey of 1,400 professional by the UC San Diego’s Center for Global Volunteer Service found that

…40 percent of Americans say they’re willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, with another 13 percent desiring to spend an entire year.5

According to Travelanthropoist6, there are four “most common” motivational themes identified by voluntourists themselves as being the main driver for going volunteering:

  1. Cultural immersion
  2. Giving back
  3. Camaraderie
  4. Educational

Specifically, when it came to skills-based volunteering, a more in-depth study from George Washington University found that professional development was the number one reason to go volunteering overseas

why go skills-based volunteering



7. Do people usually volunteer in a group, or by themselves?

It appears that the most likely answer is that people search individually, but tend to go as part of organized groups.

The most popular group? 45% of volunteers go with religious organizations.7


8. What types of skills do people normally volunteer overseas?

This is another fuzzy statistic. According to a leading report,

The most common activities of volunteers who spent all or almost all of their time volunteering abroad included behaviors that do not require high professional skills, such as tutoring or teaching (27%), engaging in general labor (26%), and mentoring youth (26%).

In other words, roughly 80% of international volunteers, or 1.28Million, are conducting mostly manual tasks that can also be completed by residents from the host country. Meanwhile, the remaining .32M are doing “high professional” skills-based work. Considering that the vast majority of these volunteers are college educated and employed, we hope to see this statistic flip in the coming decade.

In fact, this shift is already occurring as a number of international organizations are heavily promoting skills-based volunteering, like A Billion + ChangePoints of LightTapRoot FoundationHandsOn Network, and the International Association for Volunteer Effort.

Why is the shift from manual to skills-based volunteering important? Volunteering on manual projects can easily result in unintended consequences, so before going to volunteer we strongly urge you to read The Guide to Being an Ethical Volunteer.


9. Skills-based volunteering is becoming more popular, especially in corporations.

According to a report from George Washington University

Despite the economic downturn of the past few years, ICV [International Corporation Volunteering] continues to be an important and growing trend. In 2010, over 80 companies reported having at least one formal international volunteer program, whereas less than 60 reported the same in 2008.

The benefits to employers who mange international volunteering programs are vast and we expect this industry to keep growing. Huffington Post recently wrote about it, too.

Our Thoughts on These Statistics

It’s not easy to measure such a diverse and expansive industry, but it’s important that we try. In an effort to better measure the impact of international volunteering, the United Nations has released a manual on the measuring the economic impact of volunteering.

As the industry continues to grow, so will the measurement of it. And as it does, we’ll be able to continue to improve international volunteer efforts to help accelerate progress.

Volunteer work, often referred to simply as “volunteering,” is a crucial renewable resource for  social and environmental problem-solving the world over. The scale of such work is enormous and the contribution it makes to the quality of life in countries everywhere is greater still.

-International Labor Office.


Are there any interesting statistics that we missed? If so, please leave them in the comments below…


* -Lester M. Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies.
1 TRAM: http://www.atlas-webshop.org/epages/61492534.sf/en_GB/?ObjectPath=/Shops/61492534/Products/ATL_00073
2We struggled to find an official statistic on this. However, by cross-referencing with the TRAM mentioned above and a report prepared by the Center for Social Development at the Washington University of St. Louis, approximately .9 Million of the 1.6 million volunteers are from USA. http://csd.wustl.edu/Publications/Documents/RB13-14.pdf
3 Deduced from the relative popularity of volunteer and voluntourism operators in India. http://www.gooverseas.com/volunteer-abroad-report, and UC San Diego 2008 report on International Volunteering: http://www.ereleases.com/pr/africa-top-destination-for-global-voluntourism-11907
4The Global Center for Volunteer Service at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). http://www.ereleases.com/pr/africa-top-destination-for-global-voluntourism-11907
5The Global Center for Volunteer Service at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). http://www.ereleases.com/pr/africa-top-destination-for-global-voluntourism-11907
6 http://travelanthropist.com/2009/10/2008-voluntourism-report-insights-on-the-volunteer-tourist.html
7International Volunteering from the United States between 2004 and 2012. Center for Social Development at the Washington University of St. Louis