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Volunteer checklist for responsible volunteering abroad

When you’re looking for a volunteering placement abroad you can quickly feel completely overwhelmed by the thousands which are available to choose from! How are you supposed to tell which ones are responsible and ethical and which one’s aren’t? We’ve put together a handy checklist that will help you when deciding which overseas volunteering experience you wish to give your time and money.

Things to look for in a volunteer sending organisation

Track record

The best way to understand how impactful an organisation is, is to check for evidence of past achievements. When checking out an organisation’s website, look for information on how they monitor and evaluate their work. How do they know what they’re doing is working and not causing more harm than good? What do the local community have to say about the project? How do their findings inform future projects? You want to look for an organisation that understands that making change is hard and takes time, and so takes monitoring and evaluation seriously!


Unfortunately, lots of organisations use words like ‘ethical’ and ‘responsible’ on their websites when describing their work, but this doesn’t always mean the trips they run are actually either of these things. When looking at organisations to volunteer with, why not begin by seeing if they offer orphanage volunteering placements? If they do, you can quickly rule them out, as we know that volunteering in an orphanage is extremely harmful and definitely not responsible! The good news is there are lots of organisations who no longer offer orphanage volunteering projects altogether. 


A key question to ask yourself when searching for a responsible volunteering program abroad is who is accountable for the design, running and evaluation of the project, as well as volunteer and community member safety? Sometimes organisations recruit volunteers to take part in their own trips, but other times organisations act as a ‘broker’ and don’t actually have much to do with the program itself. Work out all the stakeholders involved in any program before agreeing to participate so you can feel confident that they are all acting responsibly.


Volunteering, by its very definition, is something you do for free, but this shouldn’t mean that you aren’t vetted in one way or another to ensure your suitability for the program. Any responsible volunteering initiative will include an application process where you might have to complete a form telling the organisation a bit more about you, or attend an in-person or Skype interview. You should also expect to receive what’s known as pre-departure training and support, where you will find out more about your program and the best ways to prepare.


When looking at overseas volunteering opportunities you will probably come across lots of extremely emotive language, like ‘save the world’, ‘make a child smile’, or ‘help end suffering’. Although good at recruiting volunteers, this type of language does not indicate a responsible volunteering placement abroad. When looking at organisations one of the first things you can assess is how they are representing the individuals and communities they work with through images and written text. You want to avoid any organisation that oversimplifies poverty and inequality, or makes volunteering look too much like a vacation. Instead look for an emphasis on equal partnership with local people. 

Things to look for in a volunteer program

The ‘need'

Any ‘need’ that a project is intended to address should be identified by the local community before it is designed. When researching, feel free to reach out to organisations directly to ask them how the project you are interested in first came about. Also, remember that volunteers should never be taking the jobs of local, skilled people e.g. building projects. Look for opportunities that work with volunteers to help meet a short-term skills gap within a local community. Responsible initiatives should add to existing capacity within the community or enhance local projects already happening and not replace them.


A sustainable project doesn’t create a long-term dependency on volunteers, meaning that it doesn’t require volunteers forever in order to continue. For example, instead of teaching basketball to children directly, international volunteers could teach local volunteers how to play in order that they could carry on supporting the sport locally even when the volunteer project has officially finished. To check a project is responsible, ask to know when the expected end-date of the project is and what the organisation’s exit strategy is.

Things to look for in yourself

Skills match

When considering the sort of volunteering project you might be best suited for, have a think about what skills you have that you could share. Are you any good at marketing or copywriting? How about data collection or computer programming? A dab hand with a camera? Can you speak a different language? These are all great skills and would be really useful to lots of different organisations around the world! When you have a list of your skills then google specifically, looking for a project where you’ll be able to really bring benefits.

Suitably qualified

To be a responsible volunteer one of the most important things to bear in mind is that you are qualified or skilled enough for the role that you will be taking on. A quick way to think about this is by asking yourself whether you would be allowed to participate in that type of volunteering project in your own country. If the answer is no then it’s unlikely to be a responsible project to do abroad. If you’re unsure what a project will require of you in terms of qualifications or skills, then ask to see a role description.

Learning opportunity

One of the biggest things you can bring as a responsible volunteer is an openness and willingness to learn. You are almost guaranteed to benefit more from your volunteering project than the community you are trying to help, so make sure you go with a humble attitude. You are not a ‘customer’, but a volunteer and so should approach the project with curiosity and respect. Look for a project which emphasises the opportunities for learning and think through how you can apply what you’ve learnt when you return home.

How much should I pay to volunteer abroad?

Volunteering overseas trips are rarely cheap or free to volunteers because they cost money to run. For example, organisations have to cover the cost of things like volunteer accommodation and food, any training and support offered, all the logistics of the project itself, as well as the salaries of any paid staff members. The more expensive the project is to run, the more expensive the program is likely to be.

There is a common misconception that the more you pay to volunteer abroad the more ethical or responsible the project is. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. When assessing if the project you want to volunteer on is responsible, consider asking the organisation for a breakdown of how your program fee is spent. Ideally the majority of the placement cost should go towards the community or the direct running of the project.

How long should I spend volunteering abroad?

As the conversation around responsible volunteering abroad has become more mainstream, a commonly held belief has developed that if you volunteer for a long period of time there is less chance of you doing harm. Although it’s true that extremely short-term projects (2 weeks or less) are unlikely to make much - if any - real impact, volunteering for months or years on an unethical project is still going to result in you doing harm. For example, if you’re considering volunteering in an orphanage it makes no difference if you are there 2 hours or 2 years it is still damaging to the children involved.

More information

If you’re keen to find out more information about responsible volunteering abroad, check out our volunteer testimonials and the below list of awesome sites:

Learning Service

You might also like to take a look at the organisations that don't support orphanage tourism.