¨You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.¨
Long-Term Travelers Volunteering Abroad Over 50
Throughout this post, you will find references to the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas by Joseph Collins and Zahara Hecksher. How to Live Your Dream was my go-to guide for everything volunteer-related when I taught classes about traveling and living abroad throughout the US in the 2000s. Unfortunately, as is often the case, I have not found any book or website as authoritative and comprehensive as this book in the past twenty years. Thankfully many of the same organizations mentioned in the book still operate today).:
What Types of Volunteer Programs are Available?
The diversity of ways you can help is fantastic. You can help while living in a relatively comfortable Western-style existence or spend years living with locals in remote corners of the globe. The choice is up to you.
- Volunteer tourist opportunities are available worldwide and typically last from one week to a year.
- Some volunteer travel experiences are available only to people with a background in a given field who speak the local language.
- Some volunteer travel experiences also involve traditional tours and hotel stays in their program.
- Some volunteer travel programs are free or low-cost; others can be relatively expensive. (Some volunteer programs are also tax-deductible in the US and Canada).
- Many volunteer travel programs also include opportunities to stay in locals’ homes (and often eat meals there).
Volunteers can assist in any number of ways and projects. Some volunteers provide labor for construction and reforestation projects. Others use their training to offer intense medical care to poor villages. Still, others help with office work, grants, teaching and training, computer programming, community activism, and many other projects.
Some volunteer projects send small groups of experienced technicians overseas to provide medical and managerial services. Most, however, are open to anyone.
My Experiences with Volunteer Travel Overseas
I enjoy volunteer travel abroad immensely. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to learn a bit about marine biology and archaeology while volunteering. And perhaps, more than anything, volunteering helped me uncover my love for teaching English.
I have been on eight long and short-term volunteer experiences abroad, including:
- Doing the grunt work (washing dishes) to put together a multicultural festival in Collechio, Italy (Emilia-Romagna) (Volunteers for Peace).
- Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Kaliningrad, Russia, for a year (WorldTeach discontinued their programs in 2019)
- Teaching English and helping restore a classroom mixed with extensive sightseeing and cultural events through an Amizade program near Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2014.
- Watching turtles lay eggs; learning about rural Mexican life; hanging out with fun young volunteers; and consuming way too many tequila shots as a volunteer in Colola, Michoacan, Mexico (Volunteers for Peace)
- Counting dolphins in the Golfito in Costa Rica through Earthwatch teams volunteers with scientists researching various ecological, cultural, and historical projects (including archaeology).
- Working on an informational sign about oak trees for a forest near Big Sur, California, the Passport in Time program on archaeology arranged through the United States Forest Service.
- Shadowing Gayle Nystrom (a long-term Costarrican citizen and former Peace Corps volunteer) on her daily activities running the Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation in 2008.
What is Volunteer Travel?
Volunteer Travel occurs in the words of Coghlan and Gooch whenever tourists:
¨undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment¨.
About 15 years ago, the Today Show (a popular morning TV show in the USA) featured a segment on volunteer vacations. According to the show’s producers, this segment received one of the most significant numbers of viewer responses ever.
Why? I think it is because humanity is moving toward, as Lyndon Duke, a University of Oregon social scientist, notes, a new era in which the predominant question people ask themselves is: “What difference can be made?”
The message that everyone should try to make a difference in the world permeates our popular culture and is part of the reason for the expansion in the number of opportunities for volunteer travel abroad.
Why Is Long Term Travelers Volunteering Abroad Over 50 So Great? Who Should Volunteer Overseas?
While the desire to make a difference is admirable, volunteering to work, particularly in another country, during your vacation is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Before researching volunteer vacation programs, potential volunteers should consider what they want from the experience. In the sage advice of How to Live Your Dream:
“Many people considering volunteering abroad begin by looking at the different volunteer programs before taking the time to look at themselves. This often leads them to feel confused and overwhelmed by all the options. Reflecting on why you are interested in volunteering overseas can guide you in deciding if volunteering is the right option. Begin by reflecting on some basic questions about your interests in international volunteer work:
- Why are you interested in becoming an international volunteer?
- What life events have sparked this interest?
- What do you hope to get out of being an international volunteer?
- What do you hope to contribute?
- Where are you heading in your life, and how does being an overseas volunteer fit into the picture?”
Remember that you will not be able to change the Earth single-handedly. It would be best if you were open, flexible, understanding locals, and dedicated enough to show up. Even though it may not be clear, the organization’s staff depends on your assistance. If you don’t feel like you can (or should) give this assistance dependably, you need to talk to the agency staff (and the director of your volunteer placement agency). A volunteer vacation is a bit of a misnomer. While it is a vacation, you are also there to serve. You shouldn’t just leave because it is not helping your purpose.
Remember, you don’t know the answers. The people you are “serving” have often been victims of well-intentioned “white saviors” who have worsened their lives. Many developing countries have been around for thousands of years and have ways to do things that make sense within their geography, politics, history, and culture. Your job as a volunteer is to learn these ways of doing things and help relieve the workload for the existing staff. You are not there, particularly in the space of a couple of weeks, to change things.
Good and Bad Reasons to Volunteer
How to Live Your Dream lists good and bad reasons to consider volunteering
Good reasons to volunteer:
- Learn a foreign language
- Get to know another culture
- Have a better firsthand perspective on the impact of wealthy countries in the world
- Gain experience in a field in which you have studied
- Put your concern for others into action
- Learn more about yourself
- Share your skills and expertise by responding to a specific request from a foreign organization.
- Be inspired by the efforts of people in developing countries
- Become a more effective advocate for changes at home that will help poor people overseas
- Live out your faith or religious beliefs through deeds and work for justice
Bad reasons to volunteer
- Escape a bad relationship or other personal problems
- Save poor people or lift poor people out of poverty
- Assuage your guilt
- Travel or have adventure purely for personal enrichment
- Unable to hold a job
- Unable to pass your classes
- Everyone’s doing it, or your partner’s doing it
- Make religious converts
- Impress future employers
- You have an addiction and think that a change in environment will help you
What Should You Do to Become an Effective Volunteer Overseas?
While it is difficult to determine what will distinguish a good from a lousy volunteer, there do seem to be some traits that most of the best volunteers share.
Here are the traits that How to Live Your Dream to be an International Volunteer identifies:
- Learn the language
- Listen before you act
- Be friendly
- Live simply
- Find allies
- Dress appropriately
- Exercise extreme caution in friendship, sex, dating, and marriage
- Work for sustainability and local control
- Share with people at home
Volunteer Travel Abroad Placements
Most organizations have staff to provide support for volunteers. The level of support varies considerably between organizations. Some will take care of all of the details. Others will serve as a liaison between you and the local volunteer agency.
These fees vary a lot. Most volunteer vacations require you to pay for these support services. The only exceptions are a couple of agencies that need trained volunteers (like the International Executive Service Corps, which places highly skilled administrators to consult with small and mid-sized businesses overseas).
Most volunteer placement programs also arrange homestays for volunteers because:
- Many volunteer placements are in rural areas where hotels may be far away from the placement and
- Homestays offer an inexpensive place for people to stay and experience life in the community where they are volunteering. (See the earlier section on homestays for more information.)
Here are some examples of the most prevalent types of volunteer placement programs.
Upscale Volunteer Programs
Upscale volunteer organizations provide three types of volunteer experiences:
- Global Volunteers; Longstanding organization that provides volunteers for a wide range of projects and ages in many countries worldwide
- Global Service Corps (currently program lasts for two weeks to 6 months and is only available in Cambodia and Poland. I would love to do a stint, around three months if possible, at a Buddhist monastery teaching English)
- Habitat for Humanity sends teams of volunteers to help build homes throughout the globe for two to three weeks at a time.
Upscale volunteer programs cover all your needs, including internal transportation (other than airfare), housing and food, on-site orientation, extensive background materials, evacuation insurance, and day-to-day assistance. As a result of all this attention, many upscale programs are expensive (often as high as $200-300 a day).
The projects send delegations of volunteers to the same community together. Group leaders accompany these groups to the site and help ensure their daily needs are met. Usually, the upscale agencies have a limited number of operating countries. If you want to go to a particular country or work on a specific project, you need to have a flexible schedule since the number of delegations is limited.
Upscale organizations work hard to find a placement that matches your interests and skills. Most of the participants are older North Americans.
The upscale agencies often pay families to put you up in their homes. Most homes are modest but more likely to have Western-style conveniences than most other volunteer programs. You will stay in a moderate-priced hotel for a couple of days for orientation and transfers to the site.
The workcamps organize the volunteer’s accommodations and food. Usually, you pay an administrative fee ($100-400) to a central office and an additional on-site fee (usually $10-25 a day) to the local work camp for local accommodations and food. Often, the accommodations are in dormitories.
Many workcamps do not provide training, pre-departure support, or transportation to and from the workcamp site.
Sometimes, however, if you want to participate in a particular work camp, you may need to apply early. Do not be surprised if VFP or similar organizations sometimes cancel your program.
Generally, though primarily young, work camp volunteers come from varied economic and cultural backgrounds. Many people enjoy the intercultural interaction at workcamps even more than the volunteer activity. Read Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa by Tanya Shaffer for a moving account of her time in workcamps in Africa.
The costs, the tasks, and the working environments vary greatly between work camps. When I checked, some of the work camp projects included assisting refugees in the Netherlands,
Most VFP work camps require that participants pay a fee to VFP (usually $250) to support the organization’s operations in the US. An additional fee is often required to help the local nonprofit that organizes the work camp in the country you’re visiting. (Fee varies between $0-400; based on my sample of work camps from the VFP website)
Work camps include representatives from several countries. The local nonprofit sets a maximum number of participants from a particular country. Usually, there is a limit of two people from the USA. However, since Americans seldom participate in work camps, I can tell that you usually will not have problems getting the camp you select.
The camps encourage the participants to get to know each other’s cultures and interact with the local population. Toward that end, the group leaders are expected to develop activities outside the volunteers’ volunteer work.
I have been on two VFP workcamps. One at a Multicultural Festival in Collechio, Italy, in 2008 and another at a turtle conservation program in Colola, Mexico. Both activities provided a different view of Mexico and Italy than I would have gotten otherwise. While the accommodations and conditions were basic, they were well worth the modest costs and discomfort.
Short-Term Informal Placements.
Many organizations accept volunteers for a couple of weeks to a month. These organizations send a few volunteers a year to work on specific projects in developing countries. Unlike the upscale and workcamp projects, volunteer placement is a small part of these organizations’ workload. Often, you may be the only volunteer on-site for these projects.
Long Term Volunteering Abroad
Volunteer support agencies often arrange long volunteer assignments (like World Teach or the Peace Corps. Most of the assignments through private support agencies require a commitment of three months to a year, though there is no penalty if you decide to leave early. Most support agencies require a fee, usually around $4000-8000 a year. Some will make arrangements to provide college credit.
Joining the Peace Corps is one of the few ways you can get all your expenses paid for as a volunteer. The Peace Corps will also provide you a stipend to help set up your life upon return to the USA (usually equivalent to $500 or so per month for the length of service).
There are several things to consider if you want to join the Peace Corps, however, including:
- The Peace Corps requires a two-year commitment. Sometimes these assignments can be cut short depending on the political realities within the country. That said, I don’t know of any penalty, per se, if you fail to complete the commitment.
- Applying for the Peace Corps is competitive. Only about 15% of all applicants are accepted. Your chances of being accepted if you are newly out of college are less than 10%. The chances do improve considerably for older volunteers, however.
- The training for the Peace Corps is very intense. Usually, you study the language and culture and learn the appropriate skills for eight to ten hours a day for several weeks. A sizeable number of volunteers will decide not to complete the training.
Nonprofit agencies are more likely to take on non-skilled volunteers willing to spend six months or more on-site because of the work involved in providing the volunteers with support services. Most of these organizations require paying for your living expenses (usually only a couple hundred dollars a month) and transportation to and from the site. However, some are willing to pay your costs for you.
Volunteers Forever contains a detailed list of organizations prepared for short- and long-term volunteers over 50 for a modest fee. (When I looked at this list in August 2022, I noted that many links did not work). I went through the site in detail and found numerous projects that piqued my interest, including working with Pandas in Chengdu, China, and arts and theater programs in Cairo’s poorer neighborhoods.
You can also make informal placements with organizations on-site throughout the planet. Since making these arrangements is difficult, I would not recommend this strategy for short-term volunteers. (Remember dealing with volunteers takes work for the organization. They also have to learn to trust you. As sad as it may seem, volunteers have burned some organizations) If you plan to show up somewhere and find an assignment, plan on a month or two to find a position for you and carefully read the chapter of How to Live Your Dream devoted to finding a placement on-site first.
Generally, the best volunteer experiences are longer-term. It takes a month to get used to your organization and see how it fits into it. As time passes, you begin to make friendships and become an integral part of your new community.