How long you volunteer for is entirely personal, but your time commitment has a large effect on which type of volunteering is right for you. There is a debate to be made about if you should even volunteer for most types of international travel. There are only specific scenarios where volunteering is a good choice, and it varies by every single country, type of project, and type of volunteer.
To truly understand the various scenarios that you will encounter, and to accurately judge if you have enough time to volunteer, first study the ethics of the international volunteering industry, as well as the politics and economics of the developing world. When you have a good foundational knowledge, only then can you determine how long you should volunteer to have a positive impact on the place you’re visiting.
How Long Should You Volunteer?
Remember, you can best assess this once you have the foundational knowledge mentioned above. Then you should honestly evaluate your trip to decide which type of service—because you don’t have to volunteer to be of service—is right for your trip.
Got a day?
Are you sure volunteering is the best fit for your trip? Short vacations for those with just a day or two of service are often a part of organized tours. Or, practice socially responsible tourism on your independent trip by supporting grassroots businesses: cafes, artists, tour operators, hotels, and local workshops. With just a few days of service, social enterprises and locally run or community-organized day tours are a fantastic option to feel good about the way you spend your money on the road. Remember, you can’t do much in a day, but single-day volunteer opportunities can contribute to a total cumulative benefit when picked wisely and when they keep the issues of dependency and dignity in mind.
Got a week?
Again, I ask: Is volunteering is the best fit for your trip? Consider how you can make your vacation a service-learning trip by traveling responsibly and spending money directly in local communities, and in support of socially responsible business. While it is possible to find ethical short-term volunteer opportunities, these are often most effective for highly skilled volunteers offering medical, financial, or other specialized skills. You can truly have an impactful vacation by traveling responsibly.
You can also really have an impact by picking an off-the-beaten-path location for your vacation. Many of the world’s most popular destinations suffer from overtourism, and it’s only worsening every year. Picking offbeat vacation destinations makes for incredible vacation memories, unique adventures, and also spreads your money into locations and countries where ever tourism dollar has a more profound effect on the local economy.
That said, if you are dead-set on adding service to your trip, choose wisely and be sure you are not simply painting a school, or some such. Search for a service-based tour operator that focuses a week of your trip on volunteering. Or, go independent and arrange a week of service directly through an organization near your vacation spot—you could even make volunteering your entire vacation. Either option works! Search our database of vetted independent volunteer organizations to find something that fits your timeframe. Remember, the longer you can stay the larger your impact.
Got a month?
Find an independent organization in your field of interest. With a month at your disposal, you have time to self-arrange the tourism side of travel and can save a lot of money by skipping the middleman. Or go through a middleman for a hassle-free, all details handled volunteer trip—just be sure that the middleman is not a catch-all operator allowing volunteers of any skill or interest. This is the catch, because these types of operators are hard to find. You want to find operators with a long-term investment in the communities where they work, that way you can be sure your service is both wanted and needed, not simply a project intended to make volunteers feel good. Start with this comprehensive list of questions to ask your volunteer organization when vetting potentials.
Got a summer or more?
Go independent. Placement fees charged by middlemen can stack up for the volunteer, but also take a lot of potential money and autonomy away from those on-the-ground who manage volunteers. Long-term volunteers and interns have time to figure out the specific placement details through research or while on the ground. With time on your hands, you may find independent grassroots organizations can offer plenty of assistance, and you don’t need placement organizations at all. I highly recommend that you skip the multi-national companies—the fees you save by not using a middleman or a massive voluntourism company are better spent locally when you are on the ground.
Got a year?
Use the term “internship” when searching for organizations to fit your needs. There are many wonderful companies offering low-cost or free placement help for volunteers with a long-term time commitment to give to important projects. I highly recommend long-term volunteering: it’s the best way to integrate, understand, and make a difference.
We have an entire section of the site dedicated to listing volunteering internships, most of which start at three- to six-months or longer of a time commitment—it varies by project, so simply use the filters in the sidebar to find the right project for your internship.
It’s not just about the amount of time you have on your hands, but also the skills you bring to the projects and how you can support the development and conservation work. Some areas of volunteering really do lend themselves to short-term volunteers—there are trash collection projects in Southeast Asia that do wonders and every hand helps—while others contain sensitive elements that are best handled either by skilled or long-term volunteers.
Just because a volunteer organization will let you join a project does not mean that you should.
There are few hard and fast rules about how long you must spend volunteering to consider your time ethical and well-spent. The world is a big place and issues in one part of the world appear very different in others. That said, here are a few rules of thumbs that you can use to determine the type of volunteering that might be a good fit for your upcoming travels.
- Working with children: By and large, you should not work on volunteer projects allowing volunteers to work with children for less than a one-month time commitment, nor on projects that do not require a background check. Turnover in orphanages, after-school programs, and more can have a negative effect on children and it’s best to reserve a month of your life to ensure you can dedicate the time needed to help more than harm. This includes volunteer positions where you are teaching English to children. While there are some exceptions—projects that have volunteers work with teachers instead of directly with the children—this is a good rule of thumb.
- Environmental conservation: Good news, there are no restrictions here and the wide range of conservation projects available—tree planting, picking up trash, educational initiatives, etc—mean that there are both short- and long-term options on nearly every continent. Projects include such things as trail marking in South America to reef monitoring off the coast of Madagascar. With such a range, it’s best that you identify your specific interest and then see how long is normal for volunteers hoping to make a positive impact.
- Animal and wildlife conservation: Like environmental conservation, there is a range of opportunity here and this is an area where volunteers with shorter time-frames can feel good about dropping in and helping in their short amount of time (sometimes just a day or weekend affair). The shorter projects tend to work with animal welfare—dog rescue centers and such—while those projects requiring long-term volunteers (a month or more) usually work with endangered animals.
- Construction projects: There are a lot of time commitments, but it’s usually only the multi-national companies that allow volunteers to spend days or a mere week building something like a school. If you are using independent volunteer companies, they will want you there for a month, at least, to see a project through to completion. By requiring that volunteers stay longer, organizations can minimize their losses in training time. If you have experience in construction work, however, there are many projects that may use your skills building local capacity in the week+ that you can stay.
- Medical and healthcare volunteers: This massive subsector of the volunteering industry offers everything from voluntours where you spend a day or week and then see local sights. These are not inherently wrong. Trips like that usually command high fees because the medical volunteer’s fees pays for the medicines and supplies that they will distribute to rural communities. Specializations within the medical fields—eye doctors, surgeons, etc—are often highly sought in some areas and the projects bring in foreign doctors to not only treat the community, but to pass on skills. As such, many of these projects ask that doctors stay at minimum two weeks so that there is strong knowledge sharing between the volunteer and local healthcare workers.
Your Next Steps:
Now that you have a good idea of the type of projects that are a good fit for your trip, and the type of skills you can offer to international communities, you have a few possible next steps.
- Search our social enterprise database for organizations—restaurants, tour companies, massage parlors, hotels, and more—that need your business as you travel the world!
- Use our resource page to begin finding and selecting projects: How to Get Started With Independent Volunteering.
- Search our database of hand-vetted independent volunteering projects discovered by our GV Ambassadors.
- Check out our Responsible Travel Guides, which are thorough resources offering advice on responsible travel for some of the most popular countries in the world. You’ll find advice on the best social enterprises, ethical considerations specific to each country, and an entire primer on responsible travel there.
- Secure the right volunteer travel insurance for your trip. Volunteer trips do not always have the same needs as regular vacations and this piece lists out your key options for volunteer travel insurance (in most cases I believe that means going with World Nomads).