This is another one of my old published pieces, but I think it’s still relevant
I recently ran into a blog written by a young person (I will assume a woman, but I am not sure) who was frustrated with her attempts to volunteer abroad. She wanted some kind of international service, ideally in a refugee camp. An idealistic person, she was willing to do anything, even sweep, drive, or clean. Yet no one would take her. She was disappointed, and didn’t understand why no one wanted her when she was willing to work completely unpaid. I hear that from a lot of people I meet. They are enthusiastic and passionate about wanting to help, but they can’t find any way to do it. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not surprising.
This is why: when I worked for an international NGO, it cost us $16,000-$20,000 to put an unpaid volunteer in the field. The cost included health insurance, housing, food allowance, and transport costs. Even if a volunteer paid for their own plane ticket, we couldn’t ethically send them to Sudan or Sri Lanka without providing food, housing and health care. Those costs add up fast. For $16,000 in most parts of the world, you can hire a trilingual local person with better skills than any volunteer American. Add to that the possibility that the volunteer will flip out in the new place, and be unable to cope. For an NGO to justify sending you as a volunteer, you need to be skilled enough to be worth the cost and the risk. In other words, trying to be a volunteer isn’t really much different from looking for an entry level salaried position. The following advice applies to both paid jobs and volunteer work.
You can make yourself worth the cost of hiring by having the right skills. Luckily for the international job seeker, NGOs are looking for a decent range of skills. The first and most obvious is clinical skills- doctors, nurses, PAs, EMTs, or midwives. They also need finance people – CPAs are great but a budgets and bookkeeping background will suffice. Technical experts on agriculture are very much in demand, as are water and sanitation engineers. Lastly, and this is what most of us get in on, they generally need writers. Any NGO doing development or emergency relief work spends about half their time writing reports on what they already did, applying for grants to do more things, and writing success stories to encourage private donors. They need native English speakers to write this stuff. If you don’t have any of the necessary skills, you can gain them. You can train to be an EMT, or find a job where you work with budgets. Writing newsletters or grant applications for your local animal rescue group, neighborhood association, or homeless shelter isn’t exactly the same as writing them for an international organization, but it’s close enough to get you hired.
You can cut down the risk of hiring you, too. Get some international experience. If you’re still in college, do a year abroad and don’t go to Europe. Europe doesn’t count when you’re applying to be a program officer in Indonesia. Go somewhere difficult, that will teach you how to adapt to rough conditions and very different cultures. If you have finished college, do some traveling, and then list the places you’ve visited on your resume. It’s not the same as living abroad but it proves you have a passport and can navigate a foreign city. Do a job in the US that is as similar as possible to the job you want to do abroad; that will reassure potential employers that you’ll only be facing one new thing at a time.
If you really want to work abroad, go. Move to the country you want to work in. It’s easy to be a volunteer when you are already living there, because no one feels the need to pay for your housing, insurance, or anything else. If you live nearby, you are genuinely a pair of free hands, and plenty of NGOs will want to make use of you. After about six months of volunteering, you’ll have enough in country experience and know enough about NGO work in the local context to be really useful. At that point, some effective networking should get you paid employment.
There are a couple of things I deliberately didn’t suggest here. Don’t go on a pay-to-volunteer trip. Very few organizations respect those as real international experience. I also don’t generally suggest the Peace Corps. The good thing about Peace Corps is this is that the government will pay for your travel and health insurance, while also giving you a small stipend (plus a few other benefits). The downside is that the Peace Corps is actually quite selective, and you also don’t get to choose where you go or what you do but you promise to do it for two years. For the tiny monthly salary, you are making a lot of commitments. It isn’t for everybody. On the other hand, it’s experience that employers value, because it’s so very hard.