How to Choose the Best Volunteering Option

No matter how much time you can spare or what stage of life you're in, choices abound.


Volunteer Vacations

Ever consider combining a vacation with service? After seeing people in need after Hurricane Katrina, "I just wanted to volunteer and do something," says Lisa King, 47, of Arlington, Va., who went to Mexico to build homes with Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program. The experience was so rewarding that King has taken annual, two-week volunteer vacations since. Last February, she helped build a town of modified mud huts in Ethiopia—pouring foundations, erecting the wooden frames, and even tossing mud to fortify one home's exterior.

Habitat, one of the largest organizers of volunteer vacations, has hundreds of projects around the world involving home construction and renovation, or disaster relief. No experience is necessary, but participants should have "an interest, curiosity, and commitment to serve," says David Minich, Habitat's global volunteer director.

Volunteers pay for their airfare and, on average, about $100 a day to cover building supplies, room and board, and transportation within the country. Since most projects require manual labor, you should be in good health. "I can honestly say that I have never physically worked so hard" or "enjoyed myself so much," says Salli Innes, 57, a schoolteacher from Brookeville, Md., who built houses in Guatemala two years ago. Her husband, Rich, caught a free ride by serving as group leader.

If you have less vacation time, you might try Globe Aware, which hosts one-week volunteer programs around the world. About 15 percent of the group's roughly 4,500 vacationers are families. "We're one of the few nonprofits that allow" them, says spokesperson Catherine McMillan. Families with kids as young as 6 months travel to such places as Peru, Costa Rica, and Ghana for roughly $1,250 a person, plus airfare. Volunteers build recycling areas, clear paths in the rain forest, make cheese, milk cows, and take part in many other projects. "It's kind of like a vacation that needs you," says McMillan.

Volunteer vacations are not for those who like to be pampered. But if experiencing a new culture, "meeting the people, working with the families, and feeling like what you do matters," they are a great option, King says. It's also less expensive than a standard vacation. King went to India for two weeks for $1,200, plus airfare, for example. And thanks to a handy Global Village widget, she solicited donations from friends and colleagues that helped defray some of her costs.

To learn about other volunteer vacations, you can check out Global Volunteers,, and Charity Guide.

Virtual helping hands

Chicagoan Summer Johansson, a 33-year-old student finance adviser, wanted to volunteer but couldn't fit traditional commitments into her schedule. The solution? In 2008, Johansson signed on to the online volunteering service of United Nations Volunteers, which looks for virtual assistance for a wide variety of tasks, including project development, design, research, writing, translation, and coaching. Johansson serves as a tutor and head coordinator with RESPECT University, which offers free post-secondary courses to refugees and displaced persons. She develops the syllabus, lessons, and assignments, then E-mails them to a ground liaison. "I currently have courses running in Afghanistan, Uganda, and Nepal," she says. Overall, the program used some 9,400 online volunteers of all ages in 2009. "All they need is a computer, an Internet connection, and skills," says Elise Bouvet of United Nations Volunteers, "and a commitment to making a real difference to peace and development."

While virtual volunteering may not offer personal one-on-one contact, it's more flexible than other options and is a great "CV enhancer," says Johansson. A number of sites can help you find virtual opportunities, including, which recruits for more than 74,000 organizations, and the HandsOn Network, an arm of the Points of Light Institute, which represents more than 70,000 corporate, faith, and nonprofit organizations. Finally, specifically matches young people with service options, over 1,700 of which are virtual.