Trading Hostels for Hotels: How to Turn Volunteering Into a Career Abroad

Volunteers by Visions Service Adventures, on Flickr

Do you love volunteering abroad as much as we do? Then read on to see how you can make a career out of it! This guest post is brought to you by Megan MacDonald of , a community of adventurous, independent women offering a fresh take on a variety of worldwide perspectives!

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

Getting Your Feet Wet

First things first: find the right program. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer 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. 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.

Taking the Plunge

If you are looking to make a career in international development 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 paid work 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 opportunities for yourself while enhancing your contribution to the organization – making you that much more valuable as a potential long-term employee.

Girl Volunteering Abroad

Visions Volunteer by Visions Service Adventures, on Flickr

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. “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 opportunities. A final note for the time during your placement is offered by Amira Resnick, who spent time working in Columbia 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.”

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.

Going the Distance

There are plenty of philosophical arguments for and against expats working 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 and being open to learning. 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.

A Final Piece of Advice

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 work, and succeeding, in the international arena!

Megan is a contributor for Go Girl, an online magazine the adventures of women around the world. Read more by Megan and other women travelers at

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6 Responses to “Trading Hostels for Hotels: How to Turn Volunteering Into a Career Abroad”

  1. joy khalil
    Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 4:39 #

    Great article and advice from the MacDonald and Arango. Too many young adults jump into the going abroad scene haphazardly and thus return home-quickly-disallusioned and fearful of trying it again. Planning makes perfect.

    • Tiffany Harrison
      Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 10:53 #

      Definitely. Thanks for your thoughts on this! Would you add any other tips in addition to these?

  2. PoD Volunteer Thailand
    Monday, 12 November 2012 at 6:02 #

    You could read books the world but nothing beats actually getting out there and seeing it for yourself. If you don’t get yourself out there NGO’s will never notice you. Good advice!

  3. Peter Lee
    Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 6:11 #

    One can get better opportunity in abroad. You can utilize your skills and full-fill your dreams in abroad. There are lots of people who went abroad and built their career. And yes take some advice and made a plan before go out to avoid any problem.

  4. Paulina
    Wednesday, 6 February 2013 at 11:15 #

    Running my own NGO in Chile I quickly learned how to choose the right and dedicated volunteers. It is important to ask them for their honest reasons of volunteering. There will be no use of a person seeking just to kill his/her time when volunteering. Great article! This is the link to my NGO that certifies fair volunteer projects: – I would only like to share it with you and also ask for your feedback.
    You can recommend us any organisation to get their projects verified and certified by VOFAIR!


  1. How to Turn Volunteering Into a Career Abroad | Sustainable Vision | - Thursday, 1 November 2012

    […] Do you love volunteering abroad as much as we do? Our latest guest post from Megan MacDonald shows how you can make a career out of it!  […]