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Making a difference in a different country: 3 tips for volunteering abroad

At TIAA, we consider ourselves truly lucky to have so many of our customers out there in the world giving back to their communities every day—whether it’s part of their full-time job or on a volunteer basis. In fact, we’ve heard from many of our customers who have found ways to combine their passion for volunteering with another of their favorite passions: traveling. It’s a combination that makes perfect sense!

“If you’re able to take a long trip, or if you get the chance to take a sabbatical from work, you might want to consider turning your next vacation into an opportunity to do some good while you’re abroad.”

Just like bringing home a new skill from a vacation—like cooking or scuba diving—volunteering while you’re abroad is a great chance to add some self-fulfillment and good karma to any upcoming itinerary. If you’re able to take a long trip, or if you get the chance to take a sabbatical from work, you might want to consider turning your next vacation into an opportunity to do some good while you’re abroad.

There are many rewards to volunteering. Developing new skills, learning about the environment, helping less fortunate communities and people in need are just a few—not to mention that some organizations may offer free room and board or a stipend for your work, which can help make your travel even more affordable. And, taking several weeks or even months to engage with a meaningful cause can offer an amazing opportunity to experience change and see the outcomes of your efforts come to life.

But, before you take off to build schoolhouses in Cambodia or work on a nature preserve in Costa Rica, there are a few things you should keep in mind as you plan your altruistic adventure.

  1. 1. Go where your interests are

    Man examining a jungle plant while volunteering abroad

    Choose a project and place that you’re passionate about. Outline social, cultural or environmental issues that are important to you personally, and then prioritize them to help determine the kind of volunteer work you’d find most fulfilling. Next, add the locations that you’ve always wanted to visit and do some research to find out if the issues you’ve outlined have programs in those regions. Lastly, don’t forget to consider any skills and experience you already have. Ask yourself how you can best apply your talents to the volunteer work that interests you. This will ensure your experience offers the greatest benefit to you, the organization and the community.

  2. 2. Carefully research each organization

    Woman researches volunteer organizations

    While planning any trip abroad takes a significant amount of preparation, volunteering abroad requires asking even more questions than your typical vacation. Sadly, there are some organizations out there that try to exploit well-intentioned people or misuse funding, so be sure to look into the legitimacy of the programs you’re hoping to pursue.

    Before you commit to volunteering with any organization, contact them directly and ask them to explain exactly how they raise money, how they impact the local communities, how they plan to use any money raised, and how they track the results of the work and fundraising they do. It’s also a great idea to ask for contact information for past volunteers, so you can speak to them about their experiences.

  3. 3. Embrace the full experience—even the difficult days

    Volunteering abroad may put you in situations that are a step outside of your comfort zone. There may be days when the issues or the work may seem overwhelming. Allow those challenging moments to enhance your problem-solving skills and your personal growth—and know that even though your trip may have its tough moments, taking on an opportunity like this will enable you to experience a deeply authentic cultural immersion. More than anything, make sure you have fun on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure traveling, learning and making a difference in a new country!

At TIAA, we’re passionate about helping those who are passionate about helping others. Visit TIAA.org to see some of our customers’ inspirational stories and find out how they’re making a difference in their communities every day.