The Job Description
A professional volunteer is someone who is volunteering their time – either for free or, as I plan to discuss here, at what is for all intents and purposes a very discounted rate – doing something that requires an education and would be considered a professional service.
Some examples of what these roles could encompass are Communications Advisor, Gender Advisor, Youth Development Program Manager, Agricultural Engineer, Finance Advisor, Microfinance Fund Development Officer, Accountant, Geologist, Teacher…and the list goes on.
Basically what I’m saying here is, these roles will (or should!) require a post-secondary education at minimum and likely a fair bit more. And you can do anything related to your current field of study or work experience!
The idea is that you will be coming into an organization and possibly a country where your skill set is in high demand, new to the education system and therefore difficult to find locally, or requiring a level of education or expertise that may be unattainable locally – and in many cases, some combination of these.
Where This Job Opportunity Exists
Almost anywhere, but really in developing countries. In developed countries we just call them “paid internships”. Same same 😂
How to Get a Professional Volunteering Gig Overseas
Honestly, if you know where to look and have professional experience, it’s probably a lot easier than you imagine. The application process, however, can be slow and cumbersome. Start planning and applying well in advance of when you’d like to go. They can often even push a start date (but you’re unlikely to get “hired back” if you’ve up and quit your job at home prematurely!) so be smart.
HERE ARE A FEW ORGS THAT HIRE THESE ROLES, TO GET YOU STARTED:
Cuso International is a Canadian-based org, heavily government funded, and they tend to place Canadians and/or people from the countries where they work (except in other countries) – rarely do they have placements open to US citizens. They cover housing, flights, vaccinations, training, and give a modest living allowance in-country. This is the org I went through, and there is certainly a fair bit of support offered, generally speaking, though it can vary from country to country.
SUCO is another Candian-based org and only open to Canadian citizens. They are almost identical to Cuso International (above) and in fact used to be part of the same organization. Everything that is covered is the same, but I understand that they’re living allowances are a bit higher.
United Nations is open to nearly anyone from any country, but with strict requirements including over 25 years of age with a post-secondary education and minimum two years professional experience plus good working knowledge of English, French or Spanish.
FSD International is US-based but from what I can tell, accepts qualified applicants from anywhere. Strong insistence on language skills being up to par for the location requested. Living allowance provided but amounts not specified.
Peace Corps is a great option for US citizens. All training, flights, in-country orientations, medical costs, and more are covered. Very modest monthly living stipend provided but lots of in-country support and benefits (like trips to other locations within country and fun retreats).
What Qualifications do I Need?
You’ll need a post-secondary education, probably a degree, in almost any field.
You will need prior experience in your field or something related and applicable.
Depending on where and what, you are likely to need a second language. Often they will give you time (and pay for lessons) to get your level up quickly in the placement country – but showcasing you have at least a base sets you apart and ahead.
Soft skills and loads of them. It should not be underestimated how difficult it can be to work in another culture, but then you add in different understandings of professionalism, communication techniques, and visions of hierarchy and you will need to be flexible, adaptable, calm, patient, and as positive as possible.
Some of the roles will require previous international experience because they don’t want to take a chance on outputting all those setup costs if you’re likely to get homesick and pull the plug.
What Are the Working Hours and Conditions?
They’re likely to be very similar to your classic 9-5, though some countries work up to 6 days a week, or may work slightly longer days. That being said, as a volunteer you generally have the leeway to work out a schedule that works for you. Just be aware that if you want to be taken seriously and be considered part of the team, you should at least start off working the same or similar hours to other people in lateral positions at the organization where you’re placed and adjust if necessary.
Another great highlight to these roles is that they tend to come with a LOT of vacation time, often up to a full month or even 30 working days within a calendar year plus national holidays.
Best part of the job?
- You’re living in another country and (usually) making enough money to survive. Sometimes you even make enough to travel a bit, too.
- You’re still working in your field and advancing in your career, potentially. At the very least, you’re abroad and doing something that won’t look like a gap or break in your resume – and will likely even look great to a prospective employer.
- It offers you an unparalleled opportunity to experience another culture from the inside out. Just travelling will never give you the same insight as working and living and commuting and doing normal, every day things in a new culture will give you. It’s an incredible way to live and learn.
- The best opportunity to really, finally, get that second (or third! or fourth!) language to stick in your brain.
- All those vacation days and somewhere new and exciting to explore them!
Worst part of the job?
- It’s possible you may end up being treated like you have little to offer based on culture or language barriers – obviously this isn’t going to occur everywhere, but it can happen. To avoid it, ask as many questions about the role and the team you will be joining before hand as possible. Find out how they might react to your own culture and whether your language skills are up to par.
- This isn’t a holiday, if it’s been organized correctly. You are there to work hard and learn and share and give – and hopefully, leave something behind. This is actually a good thing, but I put it here as a deterrent to someone just looking for a totally chill gig 🙂
- Feelings of homesickness can be compounded when you feel adrift in a different working culture. Do your best to prepare emotionally for not being as “good, productive, or lauded” as you might be used to feeling in your home country.
What can I expect to get paid?
This is going to vary tremendously from country to country and organization to organization. But the orgs I listed above for the most part cover your daily life expenses, and some may even leave you extra for fun stuff and even some travel on weekends.
I was earning $630 USD after certain deductions (pro-rated housing deposit and cell phone data) in Nicaragua, but my house was covered by the organization. This was by no means abundant in terms of living money, but it was sufficient to eat well, go out a little bit, and occasionally sock away enough for a simple weekend by the beach or something of that ilk.
Curious to know what living costs in Nicaragua can look like?
Here’s Bolivia, too, if you’re on a roll.
Will I have to cover any of my own costs?
Generally, no. Though you may have to cover some of your costs and wait to be reimbursed, or in some instances your preparation (like vaccinations) or even flights may not be entirely covered, the organizations I have listed above have been vetted as best I could for covering most (if not all) associated costs.
So what are you waiting for?