Volunteering

The Aid Workers Network is primarily focused on professionals working in aid, relief and development: people who are paid to address the critical needs of developing countries, and who have the appropriate and necessary training and expertise for such work. The resources on the AWN web site are focused on these professionals.

However:

  • there are some professionals who donate their expertise to aid, relief and development work; they are not paid for their work, which makes them volunteers. These highly-skilled volunteers fill gaps in local skills and often play an essential role in early responses to disasters.

  • there are people who volunteer in the field and, while they may not have the training or experience of professional aid workers and they are not being paid (in fact, in some cases, they have actually paid to have this work experience), they consider themselves aid workers, addressing critical needs in the developing world.

  • there are people who want to become professional aid, relief and development workers, and while they may have the academic background for a particular area of expertise, they lack the necessary work experience for such.
For those who have experience in an area of expertise that relates to aid, relief and development (this can be anything from maternity healthcare to emergency telecommunications to wine-making) and are looking for unpaid opportunities in the developing world: the following organizations place such highly-skilled volunteers and do NOT require the volunteer to pay a fee (and often cover all travel and accommodation costs, and even pay a modest stipend):There are many organizations that also place unskilled volunteers in short-term work experiences abroad in exchange for a fee from the volunteers. There is some debate among professional aid, relief and development workers, and local people themselves, about whether or not such programs really benefit local communities. For instance, hiring local people, rather than bringing in unskilled Westerners looking for a feel-good experience, to build a school, construct wells, help at an orphanage, etc., creates much-needed local jobs and income needed to sustain local families, as well as building local capacities and a sense of ownership in local projects. VSO has come out against such volunteer vacations/gap-year volunteering abroad, in both this press release and this article from the BBC.

If you are considering program where you will pay a fee in order to volunteer abroad, AWN recommends you first review these resources:

  • The ethical volunteer guide, which can help you evaluate such pay-to-volunteer-abroad programs

    abroadreviews.com, which allows people who have paid to volunteer abroad to share their experiences with such programs.

  • The book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, by Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega, and Zehara Heckscher. It gives details about various volunteer abroad programs, suggestions on how to raise funds for such, and tips and worksheets that can make any volunteering abroad experience have real impact for the local people, and benefits for yourself long after the experience is over.

Because there is such a vast number of pay-to-volunteer-abroad organizations, and because these organizations vary significantly in terms of quality both for the volunteer and those supposedly served by such organizations, AWN does not list such organizations on the AWN advice pages. Instead, we link to meta-sites that provide links to web sites for such programs:
Local volunteering in your own community is an excellent way to develop the experience needed for aid, relief and development work abroad. As a volunteer, you will often receive specialized training that is also applicable to work in the developing world. This includes volunteering for:
  • local nonprofit organizations that serves high poverty areas, people with disabilities, youth, the elderly, abused women, women re-entering the work force, etc.
  • the Red Cross, Red Crescent Society or Magen David Adom in your local area
  • organizations that help people with HIV/AIDS, or that educate people about HIV/AIDS.
  • a hospice, particularly one that serves people with HIV/AIDS or cancer patients.
  • organizations that provide health-related education, advocacy or care.
  • a literacy program, not only in helping people learn to read, but also helping with the administration of the program and promotion of such a program to low-literate and semi-literate communities
  • a job-training organization or initiative.
  • a voter-education initiative or local election.
  • a local fire station or other emergency responders
  • a grass-roots advocacy effort, such as advocating for recycling, women's rights, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, environmental regulation or education reform, particularly in a highly-political environment.
  • an organization focused on micro-financing and financial education for people from low-income communities, immigrants/migrants, etc.
  • a youth center that is focused on at-risk young people, and develops positive, worthwhile activities for the youth to engage
  • a program focused on prisoners or people just-released from prison
Aspiring aid, relief and development workers can also look into volunteering as unpaid interns for international nonprofits/international charities in their headquarter cities (such as London or New York). However, be aware that most of these agencies do not pay for travel or accommodations for interns.

This site provides more information about how to use local volunteering to gain skills and experience for volunteering abroad. Also see the AWN advice page on Finding a Job in aid, relief and development.

If you would like to volunteer to be responsible for this page's information, please see the AWN volunteer guidelines and follow the directions to express interest. Or, if you would like to contribute an item to this page, simply post your question, comment or suggestion on this subject directly to the AWN Forum.