Turning volunteer work overseas into a paying job

All things considered, when looking for international work, it is generally easier to find volunteer jobs than to find a paying jobs.

That observation will probably surprise nobody.  Paid work can be hard to find, work visas can be hard to come by, and you can often volunteer without a specialized visa.  Plus, many volunteer positions are not as competitive, since you aren’t getting paid.

But this dynamic often poses a big barrier to people who want to have a longer overseas experience.

After all, when you are a volunteer, you aren’t making any money.  And in some cases, you end up losing money after you pay for expenses.

There is also an opportunity cost, at least with respect to money.  Let’s say that you could get a job back home that would let you save $10,000/year after taxes and expenses.  Even if the volunteer position pays for your travel and expenses, that’s a $10,000 opportunity cost.  Of course, the volunteer work may give you skills and experiences worth more than that, but you do need to keep this in mind while running the numbers.

Now, if you have a trust fund paying your bills, that’s fine.  But most of us don’t have a trust fund, and this often limits the amount of time people can just drop everything and work for free.

On the other hand, volunteering is often the easiest way to get overseas experience quickly.  And some programs, like the U.S. Peace Corps, can be an excellent way to build job and life skills in a hurry.  (Check out the video below for an example — my friend Rob Sarwark talks about how his bosses gave him more responsibility than others his age when he came back from his Peace Corps experience.)

This a bit of a catch-22 for us non-trust-funders.  Volunteering is the easiest way to work overseas fast, but it also carries one of the highest price tags.

So what can non-trust-funders do in this context?  More than you might think, if you know the right way to approach the situation.

First of all, if you can’t afford volunteer work at all (or don’t want to do it), you can look for short-term, paid positions overseas.  I have another post describing this issue in considerable detail.

Second, if you can (and want) to do volunteer work, but can’t afford to be without a salary for too long, look for:

  • Volunteer opportunities that pay for living expenses, so you at least don’t lose money (this includes the U.S. Peace Corps, the E.U.’s European Solidarity Corps, the United Kingdom’s Voluntary Services Organisation (VSO), or the United Nations’ Volunteer Program.  These programs will generally pay for your basic expenses and travel, give you insurance while you are a volunteer, and help you resettle at home once you finish your service.
  • Shorter volunteer opportunities that will put you in contact with people that might hire you to do paid work afterwards.  In this situation, you pick a volunteer job that will put you in a position to meet people that might hire you later, and show everyone what a great worker you are (so that they will want to hire you later).  Basically, you are using tried-and-true job hunting skills in an international context, using your volunteer opportunity to establish a professional network.

In terms of the first option — volunteer work programs  covers your expenses — these programs generally have a pretty standardized application process, possibly because many of them are linked with governments.  (In most industrialized nations, government hiring is notoriously standardized.)  In any case, that is not the basis for this post — I cover this topic elsewhere.

The second option, on the other hand, is basically what happened to me in Brazil — the contacts I made as a volunteer there ended up setting me up for paid work down the road.

Nonetheless, possibly the most successful example I have seen of transforming a volunteer experience into paid work is what my friend Rob Sarwark did in the Republic of Cabo Verde.

Rob joined the U.S. Peace Corps straight out of college, which sent him to Cabo Verde for two years to teach English and help a national university design a curriculum for teaching English as a Second Language, or ESL.

But it is what Rob did after his service with the Peace Corps that is most remarkable, and can serve an an example to others.

As you’ll see in the interview clip with Rob below, he came back to New York City after his volunteer experience was over.  And like many others in his shoes, started taking what work he could find to pay the bills while he figured out his next steps.

Still, he missed Cabo Verde, and wanted to go back — but couldn’t imagine a way forward.

Here’s where the power of the overseas network he built while in the Peace Corps kicked in.  While visiting his family in Chicago, his Cabo Verde network put him in touch with someone who was starting a high-profile new ferry service in the island country.  (And I mean high-profile.  I was in Cabo Verde when it started service.  The country’s prime minister was on board the first boat.)

That company was looking for people to help with marketing, and a bilingual college graduate with experience living and working in the country was a great choice.

Within months of that conversation, he was back on a plane to Cabo Verde, this time with a paying job.  And after he returned to the United States for graduate school, he founded a travel services company with a colleague of his, AITA Cape Verde, which facilitates group travel and academic/research trips to the country.

In other words, Rob has lived and worked overseas in a variety of roles, and it all started with a volunteer position.  And he’s now a librarian, independent scholar/writer, and consultant — check out his personal website at http://www.robertsarwark.com/.

Here’s the experience in his own words — it’s a few minutes long, but worth a listen by anyone with an interest in paid work abroad!

Rob Sarwark, co-founder of AITA Cape Verde, speaks about his transition from the Peace Corps to the private sector in Cape Verde.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.