Volunteer Your Way Around the World

By Hostelling International / Photo by USACE HQ

A Guide to Volunteering

Here's a quick guide to volunteering around the world and some perspective from Hostelling International volunteers.

If you are thinking of volunteering, you have a huge choice of projects available: from local programs helping your own community, to projects further afield in countries such as Africa, Thailand and Costa Rica. The great thing about volunteering is that anyone of any age can do it, and your skills can be used to teach, build, clean, support, conserve and develop communities throughout the world.

Something to suit everyone’s timetable

Generally, most volunteer activity programs abroad require a three or four week minimum commitment. This time frame affords the volunteer the chance to fully contribute their time and skills to their volunteer activities, but also get the most out of the experience. Obviously, the longer you can stay, the better it is for the community as well. If you don’t have a lot of time to spare, then looking for a local volunteer activity or volunteer efforts are a great option. By choosing a project within Canada or the U.S, you may more easily fit that commitment into a long weekend, a weeklong vacation or perhaps dedicate yourself to a more permanent position.

One of the main draws of going abroad is that you can help out in a country that is less fortunate than your own. If you’re lucky enough to work for an employer who would allow you to take a career break or extended unpaid leave, go for it! If you are between jobs, this could be the perfect time to take on any number of volunteer activities. A student taking a gap year before starting work may find volunteering efforts abroad an excellent way to develop skills and build their resume. Retired? Volunteering activities are not just for the young; many retirees choose to volunteer and have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.

Choosing the right charity or operator

Unless you already have a charity or volunteer activity program in mind, choosing the right volunteer efforts can be a confusing experience. Some volunteer activities are run by charities or not-for-profit organizations, while others are for-profit driven operations. You really do need to do your homework to make sure that your money is going where it is most needed.

Volunteering can often open your eyes to how fortunate we are here in Canada

Some organizations offer a great deal of support: orientations when you arrive or transfers including flights, while other companies merely assign you to volunteer activities while you do the rest of your trip planning. The majority of organizations will charge a fee—or seek a donation to cover basic administrative charges, your accommodation and food.

Build a house, dig a well or care for orangutans

You may also find this opportunity is ideal for trying out new things like Kirsty did. “I had initially planned to teach English in the classroom,” she says, “but I got there and found that I didn’t actually enjoy this volunteer activity! It’s of course important when volunteering to fill your days with things that you enjoy and find rewarding. Teaching wasn’t for me, which was a great discovery, as I had planned to become an elementary school teacher after my time volunteering. Instead I filled my days with other rewarding volunteer efforts around the school, such as coaching the sports team, running PE classes and helping out in my school office.”

Where in the world?

Choosing where you focus your volunteer efforts can depend on the project you choose, but also on what you want to do after your volunteer program ends. Many volunteers combine their volunteer experience with travelling or a working-holiday Visa. You could hit the popular traveller’s route of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and incorporate a house building volunteer project along the way. How about volunteering at an orphanage in Romania before or after taking a working holiday in the U.K. or Ireland? There is a world of possibilities!

The end result

Whatever you choose to do, one thing is for certain, you will have a challenging and rewarding experience. Volunteering can often open your eyes to how fortunate we are here in Canada and give you a new perspective on life in the western world, as Kirsty found. “Living in such basic conditions taught me how to really appreciate what I have access to in my life, basics such as clean running water and enough food to eat she says. What it also taught me is how damaging some of the decisions that we make in the developed world are for the lives of people in third world countries. For example, we pay a pittance for coffee beans from the farmers, while we are happy to pay a fortune for a cappuccino from our corner coffee shop.” Volunteering allows us to make a difference and we are fortunate that we have a multitude of options available to help do some good.

Useful websites


If you would like to volunteer at Hostelling International, please visit hihostelspm.ca/volunteer, or pop into your local Hostelling International hostel and ask about any volunteering opportunities that may be available.

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