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To program or not to program (that is one of the questions)

Just as there are thousands of places you can volunteer in the world, there are thousands of ways to do it. Fortunately, most of them fall into one of two categories: going with a volunteer-sending organization or going on your own.

Think of the spectrum of volunteer abroad choices like booking a vacation: there are all-inclusive vacation packages and there are those trips that you plan entirely on your own. For some, the ideal volunteer abroad experience is to travel solo, deciding for yourself where to volunteer. For others, going with a program that arranges such logistics as housing and meals is a far better fit. Both can result in an extraordinary experience…it really just depends on what you're looking for.

Going solo is also often a more affordable option although it comes with the caveat of more work; a rough rule of thumb for this could be the less you pay for your volunteer abroad experience, the more work you'll need to do to plan and prepare.

With that in mind, here are some pros and cons to consider when deciding whether to volunteer abroad on your own or with a program:

Pros of going with a volunteer-sending organization

  • Less personal planning required
    While you'll need to do the research to decide which program to volunteer with, they'll likely do much of the logistic planning for you. Many volunteer-sending organizations will arrange the volunteer project as well as housing, meals, in-country transportation, and, in some cases, international travel. Moreover, many of them provide materials before departure, orientation upon arrival, and side trip and excursion options to round out your volunteer experience.
  • Lots of concrete options to choose from
    The range of options available through volunteer-sending organizations is staggering, ranging from an affordable two-week volunteer work camp to an expensive three month one-on-one volunteer experience tailored to your skills and interests. With all of those options to choose from, it's simply a matter of picking which is the best fit for you.
  • Less risk?
    Chances are that going with a volunteer-sending organization is a less risky endeavor, if for no other reason than you'll have someone to call should you run into trouble. Many volunteer-sending organizations offer ongoing support while you are in-country so you've always got that safety net should you encounter unsafe situations or be unhappy with your volunteer experience. And since they should tell you what you're getting upfront, there should be fewer surprises. Also, local organizations often get support from the volunteer-sending organization that coordinated your project, so there are essentially two groups providing staff support to volunteers. We kept the question mark there though, because, while many volunteer-sending organizations are reputable, there's really no such thing as a no-risk volunteer abroad opportunity.
  • More likely to find alumni to talk to
    Another reason volunteering with a program or organization might be less risky is that you're more likely to find former volunteers to talk to before deciding to go. With a built-in pool of people who have been there and done that, you're more likely to go into the volunteer experience with your eyes wide open to both the good and the bad.

Cons of going with a volunteer-sending organization

  • More comparison shopping required
    With so many volunteer-sending organizations and programs to choose from, you'll need to dedicate a significant amount of time to checking them out, weighing and comparing volunteer projects, locations, organizational reputations, prices, and other factors. Try to weed your list down to five potential volunteer-sending organizations and then start asking questions to determine the best fit for you.
  • Could feel a little limited
    Even with thousands of projects offered by volunteer-sending organizations, you still may not find the exact experience or location you were looking for. Or, you may find the perfect volunteer abroad opportunity but discover that it doesn't fit your timeframe or budget. Any time you're selecting from a pre-populated pool of options, you have less flexibility to tailor to your interests and needs and, if you're someone who likes to be in control of your own experience, that might feel a bit limiting.
  • Sometimes cost-prohibitive
    This is the argument we most frequently hear against going with a volunteer abroad program, since many volunteer-sending organizations do charge significant fees to cover volunteer project costs, staff support, housing, meals, tools, and other logistics. However, there are many inexpensive volunteer abroad programs as well, so while it may be discouraging if you keep finding great opportunities that are simply out of your price range, just keep looking. Keep in mind the analogy of buying a car: your options can range from purchasing an affordable used car to buying an infinitely more expensive new luxury sedan; both should be reliable transportation options so what it most likely comes down to is matters of preference and budget.
  • Less immersive?
    Another thing to consider when going with a volunteer-sending organization is how immersive your experience will be. While some volunteer-sending organizations make an effort to ensure that volunteers interact regularly with local citizens and volunteers, others may have international volunteers spending more time with each other than with the community. If cultural exchange is important to you, do your research to make sure that the program you select offers opportunities for genuine interaction.

Pros of going solo

  • It's all you
    When you go volunteer in another country independently, you are in charge of deciding where you go, when you go, what you do, how long you stay, what your housing will be, how you'll get around… you get the picture. Going solo puts you in total control of finding the volunteer opportunity that meets all your criteria.
  • Can be more affordable
    Going solo is a more affordable option for many folks, especially given that you'll be determining your own budget for such things as airfare, housing, meals, in-country transportation, and excursions. You'll also avoid the need to help pay for the costs of running volunteer-sending programs. However, keep in mind that it's still a good idea to help support the local organization you'll be volunteering with, whether by bringing your own tools or making a donation to help cover the costs of staff time to orient, train, and support you as a volunteer.
  • Might be easier to combine with travel or study abroad
    When you are in charge of your own schedule while abroad, you're in a better position to combine volunteering with travel or study. Rather than trying to squeeze them into the free periods offered by a volunteer abroad program, it's up to you how you'd like to balance volunteering, traveling, and learning.
  • A more authentic local experience?
    Some might argue that, by going on your own, you're more likely to have an authentic cultural experience as most of your interactions will be with local citizens and organizations, not program staff or other volunteers from your corner of the world. However, as noted above, many volunteer-sending organizations do offer authentic immersion experiences as well.

Cons of going solo

  • It's all you
    While it might be ideal to have total control over shaping your volunteer abroad experience, total control also means that you're on your own in terms of doing the research, assuming the risks, and figuring out where and how to get involved. Be sure to check out our Ethics of International Volunteerism section for some tips on how to make sure you're heading down a path of good intentions and check out our Getting to the Details: Questions to Ask section to help shape your research.
  • Harder to research and plan
    Most volunteer-sending organizations have a website where you can learn more about their programs and projects. However, going abroad to volunteer directly with a local NGO means that you may be less likely to find a website with all the information you're seeking. Similarly, it may be tougher to get in touch with former volunteers of the organization, potentially resulting in a fuzzier picture of what your experience will really look like.
  • More risk?
    With no volunteer-sending organization staff support watching your back, you're truly on your own should you run into any trouble or become dissatisfied with your volunteer experience (check out our section on Getting Ready to Go to learn more about how to set up your own support network while abroad.) Similarly, you may run into difficulties with the visa process, particularly if you are traveling to a country whose government might distrust international visitors or view volunteering as an act of civil disobedience; in these types of situations, volunteer-sending organizations can sometimes be better equipped to assist you with legalities and red tape.
  • Could potentially be a drain on local organizations
    In the best situations, volunteer-sending organizations are genuine partners with local organizations, providing needed volunteers while avoiding becoming a drain on the time and resources of the local staff. When you volunteer on your own, however, there is no guarantee that someone is looking at the big picture, including determining how other international or local volunteers will fill your role once you've moved on. Similarly, without the support of a volunteer-sending organization, unless you are fluent in the language, you might need significantly more support from staff to complete tasks that might be done far more quickly by a native speaker.

More to know

There are many more pros and cons to going on your own or with a volunteer-sending organization but this should get you started. At the end of the day, the best advice you'll get will be from fellow volunteers, so talk to or email folks who have volunteered with a program and/or have gone on their own. Ask them what they loved, what was hard, what they learned about the process, and how they might do it differently—or the same—the next time they volunteer internationally.

Also, keep reading this site, visiting our sections on Volunteering with a Program and Going Solo to learn more about these two options for going abroad.