Considering Volunteering Abroad as a Teen? Here’s What You Need to Know

Volunteers in the back of a truck in Sri Lanka.

An increasingly popular rite of passage for teens today, volunteering abroad is often seen as way to extend service learning to low-income communities abroad. Particularly for Americans, young people are taught that volunteering and service learning is a high-quality experience that is important for college applications, job resumes and graduate school. Throughout high school, most students volunteer their time in some capacity, whether in their home community or abroad. And while that is an admirable and often true sentiment, it is important that volunteers understand the context, history and ethicalness of volunteer abroad projects prior to signing up. 

Why are There so Many Volunteer Abroad Options out There?

Volunteering abroad is a growing industry. Although it is hard to measure, it is estimated that approximately 1.6 million people volunteer abroad annually, generating approximately $2 billion globally. And you, Gen Zs, have a strong desire to volunteer for both social justice reasons and personal growth.

As you scroll through all the online offerings out there, you’ll notice trends in the types and variety of volunteer projects available. The most popular regions for volunteering abroad in 2018 were Asia, and Africa and South America, while the most popular project topics were:

  • Medical Volunteering
  • Volunteer Teaching
  • Wildlife and Conservation
  • Orphanage Volunteering
  • General Volunteer Abroad

With such large numbers of people interested in volunteering internationally, it should come as no surprise that there has been an explosion of providers seeking to profit. Both well-intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned companies are jumping in with the hopes of capitalizing on this travel trend. Review websites like GoAbroad and GoOverseas see the highest saturation in the volunteer abroad sector with hundreds of organizations vying for coveted participants.

A volunteer pets a dog on a beach in Thailand.

A volunteer cares for a dog at our pet rescue center project in Thailand.

Compare and Contrast Voluntourism and Volunteering

When you start digging into international volunteer programs, you’ll start noticing a few styles of teen volunteer programs. There tends to be two structure types – voluntourism vs volunteerism – and there are key distinctions between the two that make them different experiences for the volunteer, but also for the community where the project is happening.

Not all organizations that offer volunteer experiences are created equal. There are perfectly ethical voluntourism programs and horribly unethical volunteerism programs. GoOverseas does a great job of breaking down key differences in their blog post on the matter. We can’t make sweeping generalizations about all projects because there are positive and negative aspects (and real-life examples) of both types of programs.

Here are a few differentiators  between the two types of these volunteer experiences:

Voluntourism

  • Short-term
  • No experience required (may or may not be on-site training)
  • Group oriented
  • Typically a program fee
  • Operated by for-profit companies
  • Emphasis on your experience not impact

Volunteerism

  • Variable length
  • Training/experience required usually with on-site orientation and training available
  • Typically solo or small-group experience
  • May or may not be a program fee
  • Operated by non-profits
  • Emphasis on community impact and capacity building in addition to your personal growth

Note: It is important to understand there are key differences between both structures, but neither are inherently good OR bad. They are simply different.

Understanding the Context and Challenges of Volunteering

Volunteer programs do not happen in a void – they happen within a context – and it is imperative that you begin to unpack the context in which you’re hoping to volunteer as part of your preparation process. This will help you better understand your work, your impact, and the community challenges and successes that exist before and after your program. Even the volunteer with the best of intentions can be a disservice or disrespectful to the community if they do not understand the context in which they are volunteering and the meaning behind their work.

In addition to all the latent challenges associated with the global context, there are also unique challenges created by the industry itself.

Due to the rapid expansion of the volunteer abroad industry, there is little regulation or oversight from government agencies, leaving regulation up to the agencies themselves. Without any oversight, it is difficult to set rules about what is acceptable and ethical in a volunteer project. This can lead to a conflict of interest in which for-profit businesses are looking to make money off of volunteers looking to make a difference.

There is no shortage of stories (here, here, here) out there about issues with voluntourist organizations causing more harm than good or only seeking to profit off of tourist dollars without considering the local impact. One part of the volunteer abroad industry where this is especially prevalent is volunteering in orphanages. Consider the below abstract from a 2010 publication from the Human Sciences Resource Council on orphanage tourism in South Africa:

“The dominant global perception that sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing an ‘AIDS orphan crisis’, coupled with growing trends in international voluntourism, has fostered a potentially high-risk situation for already vulnerable young children in the region. We describe an emerging ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, and show how short-term attachments formed between children in group residential care and volunteers may worsen known impacts of institutional care.”

Deservedly, horror stories such as these have led to public distrust in volunteer abroad programs. Many people feel skeptical and concerned about signing up for volunteer opportunities, and don’t necessarily trust that they are transparent, ethical or responsible.

There is also an “opportunity cost” challenge to consider. When a volunteer enters into a space, are they displacing local labor? Or are they filling a void that would not otherwise be achieved? This is an especially important consideration for construction based infrastructure projects like building homes or schools.

Teens volunteer in Costa Rica helping to build an animal cage for rescued wild animals.

So, Why Should I Volunteer Abroad?

You may be asking yourself, “Well, why would I bother volunteering abroad?”

Volunteering abroad can have a profound impact on you – the volunteer – as well as the community you provide service to. Opening one’s eyes to the challenges faced by communities abroad is an opportunity to change the course of one’s life, or learn about a local issue that you don’t face in your home community.

Volunteers can also make an impact on the community such as spreading awareness of the issue, building new infrastructure, contribute to ongoing research, or perpetuate the day-to-day maintenance of a rescue center.

“It was an incredibly humbling and magnificent volunteer opportunity. The lifestyle of Costa Ricans is one all the world should pick up! They work hard, but also know when to take a break. Working with the staff at the sanctuary was incredible. You can see the passion and love that they have for the animals and for their center. They were practically bubbling over the brim with positive energy – how could I not have a wonderful time?!?! ” Costa Rica Volunteer alum, Varisa Lertburapa

The reality is people wouldn’t do volunteer abroad programs if they didn’t feel a compulsion to contribute to the greater good – and that is an admirable trait we should celebrate in ourselves. It is a human instinct to want to help others, and sometimes going to a foreign country is a meaningful way to do so.

Although there are volunteer programs out there that are using the guise of humanitarian aid to make a profit for themselves, smart volunteers can find good, ethical and meaningful volunteer abroad experiences. Yes, it may take a little more research and an understanding of the context of the volunteer abroad industry, but it is possible. The responsibility falls on you to do your homework on any organization when choosing a volunteer project. But, with our tips for finding a legit volunteer project, hopefully we can help make the process a little smoother for you to pursue your passions while making a positive impact on the world.

 

Global development is a massive field of study, so we can only scratch the service of the topic in a blog post. But, if this is something that interests you, here is a great list of books, resources and online articles all about the topic.

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