I worked as an International Volunteer Coordinator in Nicaragua for a year from 2014 to 2015. It was an incredibly rewarding and totally exhausting year, but I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything in the world.
So let´s dive in to the ins and outs of being an IVC to spend a year (or more!) abroad.
An International Volunteer Coordinator (IVC) is exactly what the title intimates – you coordinate international volunteers for projects in the given country – but is likely to mean you will wear many different hats at any given time.
When I worked as an IVC, I was doing so for an NGO that brings in (mostly) North American volunteers to various parts of rural Nicaragua to assist with basic construction projects such as simple houses, biodigesters, or even school buildings. Sometimes the groups were involved in reforestation, art, education, or other parallel projects as well.
As an IVC, I was first and foremost in charge of the entirety of the volunteers’ experience. From the moment they booked, I was responsible for planning out their itinerary while in country, creating cultural events, booking tourism, arranging and budgeting for food and accommodations, emergencies, fun, comfort, and the safety of each member of the group. Groups ranged from 10-24 people.
I also worked with the rural community to ensure that volunteer accommodations and worksites were up to the necessary standards for each given group, depending on ages, previous experience, and expressed preferences. I ensured the preparation of cultural events, safety of food practices, and delivered and set up everything that the volunteers would need while in the community. We’re talking about hauling 25 kilo bags of rice and setting up and tearing down bunk beds every week.
Once the group arrived, it was go, go go! Translating, driving, heaving luggage onto bus roofs, ensuring the safety, health and happiness of each volunteer, acting as construction foreman, acting as one of the construction workers, acting as cheerleader and overall driving force of the operation, and being able to adapt the itinerary and plans to allow for any change of fancy or necessity that came up.
Sometimes I was up in the middle of the night when someone got sick or even if the toilet paper ran out, I was up early making sure breakfast was served on time, and I rallied the troops to ensure that everyone got a shower before dinner. The year also included a lot of reminders about bug spray and water and sunscreen!
It was exhausting 😉
But it was also an incredible study in flexibility, patience, and adaptability, highly rewarding work, and most of the time, it was a helluva lot of fun!
Where This Job Opportunity Exists
Anywhere there’s voluntourism, or an active NGO community, you’ll be able to find these kinds of roles.
In other words, most or all developing countries. Central America and Africa are your big ones, but there are similar roles to be found in South America and Eastern Europe as well.
An alternative to working abroad would be to actually coordinate volunteers in your home country, which is another viable option!
How to get a job as an International Volunteer Coordinator
Honestly, if you want one of these jobs you may have to hustle a bit. The paid ones are in high demand because they build your skill set, give you an incredible experience in another country (and often get you off the tourist track in that country), and are great for new University graduates.
Idealist.org is a hotspot for finding these and other NGO focused roles. You can search by job name or location and save searches to receive email updates of new postings.
Indeed.com is another one, though they get a ton of postings and not all are geared towards NGOs so it will take a bit more sifting and digging.
Projects Abroad is perpetually hiring for similar and other positions. I have no experience with them, but it’s worth checking out. Report back if you know more about this org!
Verge Magazine has compiled a big list of NGOs that hire for all sorts of international positions and also offer a ton of useful advice and enjoyable articles.
What Qualifications do I Need?
You’ll probably need a University degree, though not always.
A second language – which one depends on where you want to go. You may not need to be fluent, but you have to be able to have a basic conversation and be willing to improve on the go.
Prior international and/or volunteer experience will always be given preference. Don’t have it? Apply anyways. These organizations can’t run without IVCs and you never know when a role might crop up and you’ll be considered.
Soft skills such as flexibliity, commitment, energy, enthusiasm, and positivity are what they’re after. Demonstrate those and your chances of getting the job increase exponentially!
What Are the Working Hours and Conditions?
It varies, but expect it to more than your classic full time gig. With groups, you are on the clock 24/7. However it all really comes down to the individual organization and how they treat their staff.
My experience was flat out. I worked around the clock for three months (a day off every two weeks sometimes) and then had a period of almost two months where I got to take huge chunks of those days back. Then it was back on.
And expect that you might spend a lot or all of your time in very rustic and basic conditions. If the thought of taking bucket showers or shoo-ing a spider, chicken, or any other animal from your sleeping quarters scares you, this may not be the right role for you.
Many of these jobs will also have a very physical aspect (as mine did, with actual construction) so you should be prepared to ask questions about your duties and ensure you’ll be physically up to any task required of you before signing on.
Best part of the job?
There were so many! Let’s see…
- Getting familiar with a community and culture in such an intimate way, and forming lasting relationships with people I may never have gotten close to just by travelling.
- Getting the chance to travel around a bunch of the country while “on the clock” and learning a ton of the geography, culture, and history.
- Meeting people from Canada and the USA with whom I have things in common but might never have crossed paths with otherwise, and forming lasting relationships with them.
- Learning how to do basic construction. Anyone need a brick and cement home? I got you!
- Living much of the time off the grid and very rurally, without many basic comforts – I really learned what I was capable of and actually enjoyed the opportunity to unplug and get back to my love of reading.
- And I got to kiss A LOT of super cute babies. Like a lot a lot.
Worst part of the job?
- Sometimes people felt they had a right to your life and your privacy in a way that felt invasive or entitled. I tried to mitigate these feelings by recognizing most of the time it came from a place of genuine curiosity and not entitlement.
- That part where I had virtually no days off or time to myself for weeks at a time. A true blue introvert would probably really struggle in this job.
- Saying goodbye. To the community, most of all, but also to the new friends I made along the way and during each trip.
- Being worked into mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion – though, granted, I think which org you work for and how they structure your role would alter this greatly.
What can I expect to get paid?
This ranges from nothing at all to a basic living wage in the given country. These are what we would consider entry-level jobs so don’t take this role if your aim is to get ahead financially.
During my year as an IVC, I earned $700 USD a month, which was enough to survive where I was based – largely because while with groups I had minimal expenses. I was able to save a little and travel during my two month reprieve from groups but I certainly didn’t make any financial headway. I go into more depth on budget and costs in Nicaragua here.
do i recommend working as an international volunteer coordinator?
Absolutely! The experience was hands down one of the more interesting I’ve had and I loved being part of the rural community life. I feel I got to experience Nicaragua in a way that no backpacker or tourist ever will and have such an appreciation for what I’ve gained from that time.
The relationships I formed in that year are ones I will come back to for the rest of my life. Plus for the first time ever, I can really call another country my second home.
If you can score one of these jobs and earn enough to fund a year abroad, you’ll be glad you did. Working side by side with the local community, especially, is the best way to get to know a new country, culture, and language.
So, will you consider becoming an International Volunteer Coordinator??