Volunteer Careers: Turning Your Placement Abroad into a Job

by Published

Volunteering abroad is a wonderful way to flip your current take on life and reroute your understanding of the world. For some, an international volunteer placement awakens a desire to work abroad on a professional basis in an arena that can be challenging, competitive, and sometimes overwhelming to step into. Thus: an interest in volunteer careers is born! If you’re hoping to use volunteering in the international development sector as a stepping stone to an international NGO or other non profit careers, take a look at some of the advice veteran volunteers and managers offer to maximize your volunteer abroad experience while broadening your skill set and your resume.

Here’s everything you need to seek meaningful volunteer careers after your international service:

Change sign lit up

Being open to change—including your career plans—will help you have a productive experience volunteering abroad.

It’s imperative you find the right volunteer program from the get-go

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer abroad that will keep you busy, but not all will offer you the opportunity to hone or build your professional skills. Lenna Arango is a program officer with a global health NGO who has lived and worked extensively abroad. She encourages volunteers to seek placements where their tasks and projects are articulated in advance of their arrival, and have a proven sustainability and inclusion of local resources (including laborers). 

As Lenna says, “So many internships and volunteer positions are very vague and sometimes it feels like no one is really prepared for your arrival or there really isn’t anything for you to do.” If you get the sense that a placement doesn’t have a clear set of tasks that will fit your skill set or offer you a chance to learn something new, keep looking. Volunteer career opportunities only arise when organizations take your professional development seriously.

[Here’s how to choose the best volunteer project for your skills and passions]

Anticipate change

If you’re looking to make a or non-profit work abroad, you must be ready to constantly change your expectations, says Erin Wattie. Erin is a Harvard grad and World Bank alum who has beat the odds by consistently finding volunteer careers and opportunities abroad. Ask yourself, “How was today great, what happened today that wasn’t so great, and what can I do to answer these two questions differently tomorrow night?” Reflecting on these things will help you identify and create learning and volunteer career opportunities for yourself while enhancing your contribution to the organization—making you that much more valuable as a potential long-term employee. Volunteering to get a job might be old fashioned, but it definitely works.

Paint buckets and cans

You always knew you liked to paint, but now you have some serious project management skills. Volunteer job opportunities await!

Focus on volunteering first, then finding career opportunities

Lenna echoes this, suggesting that if you do a good job, you’ll be noticed. At the same time she cautions against using your time as a volunteer to be job-hunting or constantly seeking paid work or volunteer job opportunities. “Give yourself a time period where you will focus on volunteering and then a time when you will begin to also look for paid work and let it be known that is what you are doing.” This will build trust at your placement site, but also ensure they know you are open to long-term non profit careers and opportunities. 

Strive to understand your co-workers/co-volunteers from their perspective

A final note for the time during your placement is offered by Amira Resnick, who spent time working in Colombia before pursuing a M.A. in Public Administration at USC. Amira says it’s important to leave assumptions at home. “Try to get to know the people [you work with/for] based on how they identify themselves… instead of necessarily comparing it to your own context.”

Volunteer job opportunities are reserved for those that can strip their own preconceived notions to view projects, people, and places for what they truly are, not for what the individual expects.

International volunteers who are able to do this well demonstrate their potential to become a long-term part of a team—not just a visitor from abroad who is unable to step outside of their own paradigm for the sake of their work.

[9 resources for finding paid volunteer work abroad]

Photo of a little girl in a developing country

Sometimes volunteering abroad opens us up to new experiences and people that we’re just not ready to say goodbye to.

Be willing to stick it out for the long haul

There are plenty of philosophical arguments for and against expats volunteering abroad. The bottom line is if you are going to take a job that could go to a local who likely needs it more than you do, you better be bringing a strong skill set that can be used and shared. Local resources are the key to doing any job abroad effectively—an understanding PhD candidate and two-time Peace Corps alum Grace Pai offers reflecting on her work in Bangladesh.

Following severe flooding, Grace and her team were able to raise significant resources locally to address the problem. As she says, “I guess because of my eagerness to ‘help’ a developing country, I had subconsciously adopted deficit thinking in assuming everyone in the country is poor and needy. On the contrary, there was a wealth of local resources and social capital that I had not considered before, which is something I always try to assess now going into a foreign context.” 

This type of understanding only comes from spending time on the ground, being open to learning, and a willingness to commit to volunteer job opportunities. Volunteering can be a great first step towards gaining this exposure and awareness—something future employers will look for when you seek to transition to paid employment.

[5 career benefits of volunteering to get a job]

Hands holding dirt for planting for volunteer career opportunities

Take care of the world and it will take care of you in turn.

A final piece of advice on volunteer careers

Perhaps the best advice that can lead in the direction of a long and productive career abroad is offered by Erin, “This whole international development thing has gone through hundreds of thousands of philosophical, anthropological and statistical permutations: the answers aren’t as simple as they seem. This said: innovation, ingenuity, and inspiration are the stuff that makes the world go ’round, so keep your thinking cap on. Just remember that you are joining a well-heeled community of do-gooders who are still trying to figure it out, so welcome aboard and let’s get cracking!” 

Grace offers a slightly shorter summation of it all: “Persistence and grit. And the willingness to fail often.” Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to tackling volunteer careers, and succeeding, in the international arena!

Share your experience & leave a review of your volunteer program!

Topic:  While Abroad