International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

International Volunteering

  • Benjamin J. LoughEmail author
Living reference work entry



International volunteering is a form of immersive voluntary service performed across an international border. It can take many forms including unilateral service where volunteers from one country serve in a different country, multilateral service where volunteers from different nations serve together in one country, transnational service where volunteers from more than one nation serve together in more than one country, and other arrangements that are more complex (Sherraden et al. 2006). Although the forms of international volunteering vary, the ideal form is based on free will, uncompensated financially, motivated by humanitarian interests, internationally immersive, and formally structured (Lough and Tiessen 2018).


This entry provides a brief historical overview of international volunteering, along with changes to traditional forms of international volunteering. It presents a general classification for contemporary international volunteering programs and reviews how these forms differ in practice. Using the limited data available, it provides a snapshot of the scale and prevalence of international volunteering from the United States and globally. The entry then provides an overview of several contemporary debates about international volunteering. Finally, it outlines important areas for future research and practice.

Historical Background

International volunteering began as a movement in the early nineteenth century under the umbrella of enlightenment education and religious instruction (Smith and Elkin 1981). Work-camp movements and early missionary service rooted in civil society were the earliest expressions of international volunteering on a large scale (Woods 1971). In the 1920s, international volunteering manifest in work camps and volunteer armies devoted to reconstructing sections of Europe devastated by World War I (Rosenstock-Huessy 1978). In the 1930s and 1940s, international volunteers continued providing relief to post-war countries, as well as supplying emergency assistance and economic relief to developing countries (Devereux 2008). During the “era of development” that followed decolonization after World War II, states and transnational social organizations sent volunteers to help the newly freed colonies develop economically. This movement paralleled the growth of large transnational institutions, including the Bretton Woods Institutions of 1944 and the United Nations in 1945. It was within this system of international cooperation that most of the longstanding government-funded international volunteering programs [aka international volunteer cooperation organizations (IVCOs)] emerged (Lough 2015a).

Over the next two decades (1940s–1960s), many governments developed publicly funded IVCOs with the aim of providing development assistance and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Prominent early efforts include the UK’s Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), in 1958; the United States Peace Corps and Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), in 1961; Australian Volunteers International (AVI) and Norwegian Fredskorpset (now Norec), in 1963; and Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV), in 1965. The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program was established in 1970. These IVCOs all developed relatively similar program models, including 2-year placements with a technical-assistance orientation, living stipends, and a subsidized benefits package (Allum 2007).

Civic action around antiwar movements in the mid-1960s through the late 1970s increased public awareness of global affairs, including a desire for many to serve in a volunteer capacity across national borders. Although an increasing number of people seemed to be interested in traveling and volunteering overseas, few organizations existed to facilitate these placements. In response to popular demand, many smaller private international volunteering programs began to proliferate during this time (Pinkau 1977). These organizations provided more flexible alternatives to the 2-year model. Médecins Sans Frontières, established in 1971, and Habitat for Humanity, established in 1976, are two of many large nonprofit programs that were created during the late twentieth century (Ehrichs 2000). Private international volunteering programs continued to expand and flourish in the beginning of the twenty-first century. These new models embodied far more diversity in form and function that the earlier government-funded generation of programs. No global survey of contemporary programs is available. However, according to a study conducted by McBride, Benítez, and Sherraden, the majority of international-volunteer programs at the beginning of the twenty-first century were facilitated by nonprofit organizations (2003).

Key Issues

Contemporary Forms of International Volunteering

As noted above, the broad definition of international volunteering encompasses a variety of forms. While certain qualities may exemplify the “purest form” by definition, less ideal forms are also circumscribed within definitional boundaries (see also Cnaan et al. 1996). Table 1 illustrates variations in international volunteering based on differences along definitional axes.
Table 1

Spectrum illustrating international volunteering ideal form

Ideal form

Less-ideal form

Based on free will

Based on obligation/compulsion


Paid market wages or higher

Formally structured

Informally structured


Motivated by self-benefit

Immersive internationality

Limited internationality

In consideration of differences along definitional axes, some contest whether varied expressions of international service should be considered “volunteering.” Perhaps the most widely challenged expressions of international volunteering include missionary trips and activities that contain a stipend. While the reasons for skepticism vary, some believe that religious proselytizing is more highly motivated by social gains for the volunteers and their faith group, despite potential humanitarian contributions (see Guttentag 2009). Likewise, international volunteers often receive stipends and awards that may exceed the living wages of people living in hosting communities, which can undermine public perceptions of their status as “volunteers” (Lough et al. 2014).

Acknowledging the complexities of definitional issues, scholarship on international volunteering is typically separated by four categories or types: (1) voluntourism, or volunteer tourism, (2) short-term unskilled volunteerism, also known as international volunteerism for cross-cultural understanding, (3) short-term skilled volunteerism, also known as professional international volunteering, and (4) international development volunteering (IDV). Although these forms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are used as general categories in the scholarship of international volunteering. These forms of service are generally distinguished by variations in areas such as service duration; housing and living conditions; levels of institutional support, cost and remuneration; and their degree of mutuality and reciprocity (Lough and Tiessen 2018; Sherraden et al. 2008).

On one side of the spectrum, voluntourism placements are very short – lasting anywhere from a few days to about 3 weeks (Wearing et al. 2016). Although there are certainly many exceptions, volunteers usually live collectively with nationals of their home country, and they typically receive little orientation or training on activities or the host-country culture before going abroad. Volunteer tourists typically cover their own costs, and the placement model is “supply-based” or largely based on volunteers’ interests and time schedules (Perold et al. 2011). There are typically few eligibility requirements that might prevent volunteer tourists from participating. Consequently, young people without higher education or professional skills are more likely to participate in volunteer tourism than in other forms.

On the other side of the spectrum, international development volunteering (IDV) is long-term in duration – typically 10 months or longer. The long-term development volunteers usually live in a “home stay” with nationals of the host country, and they are typically required to participate in orientation and training sessions lasting a few weeks to a few months prior to serving. In addition, volunteers often receive sustained training and support by both sending and partner organizations during their placements. Long-term volunteers often receive a stipend during their service and an “award” or fellowship after they finish the service placement – particularly if supported by public agencies (Allum 2007). In contrast with volunteer tourism, IDV placements are typically demand based, with host communities requesting volunteers with specific skills or abilities (Devereux 2008).

Between these two extremes is a wide range of forms and durations of international volunteering, and they often overlap in practice. Short-term international volunteering is longer than voluntourism but shorter than IDV. The effectiveness of short-term volunteerism varies substantially depending on the skill level of volunteers (Lough and Tiessen 2018). Although the definition of short term varies, there is a general consensus in the field that international volunteers who serve for 3–16 weeks (4 months) are considered short-term volunteers (Engle and Engle 2003). Table 2 provides a summary of many key differences in international volunteering models – though categories are somewhat arbitrary in practice due to overlap and variations across service models.
Table 2

General typology of international volunteering programsa



Short-term international volunteering

“Grey zone”

International development volunteering


A few days to 3 weeks

3–16 weeks

16 weeks to 10 months

10 months or longer


Usually live collectively with home nationals

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Usually live in a “home stay” with host nationals

Institutional support

Little to no orientation, low support and training on activities and culture

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Lengthy orientation and training, sustained support by sending and hosting organizations

Cost and remuneration

Volunteers cover their own costs

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Volunteers typically receive a stipend or award

Education and skills

No eligibility requirements

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Generally require a bachelor’s degree or specific skill

Mutuality or “reciprocity”

Supply-based; little to no mutuality

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Demand-based; mutually agreed upon goals

aIn practice, these categories are not mutually exclusive, and they often overlap. This is portrayed for illustrative purposes as a general classification; many exceptions exist in practice

In general, the majority of contemporary short-term service programs primarily aim to promote international understanding and global citizenship among young people, while longer-term service aims to provide development cooperation and technical assistance (Allum 2012). As one notable exception, short-term “professional” or “skills-based” volunteers are often older and aim to provide technical assistance in areas such as technology, agriculture, capacity building, etc. (Lough and Tiessen 2018). Some scholars assert that short-term programs for unskilled volunteers that aim to straddle the divide between development cooperation and international understanding may fail to accomplish either goal due to differences in the capacities of volunteers and the institutional programming needed to accomplish these disparate goals (Simpson 2004).

Scale and Prevalence of International Volunteering from the United States

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004–2014 Current Population Surveys, which considers all adults performing unpaid activities in any organization outside of the USA and its surrounding territories, nearly one million people volunteer internationally from the United States each year. Although these rates vary annually, and somewhat parallel the state of the national economy, they have remained relatively steady for the past decade (Lough 2015b). About half of these volunteers could be considered volunteer tourists, and most are quite young. Fewer than 15% of international volunteers from the USA participate in longer-term IDV. It is comparatively uncommon for volunteers to serve in the “gray zone” between 4 and 10 months (fewer than 10% in the USA) (Lough 2015b).

To some degree, international volunteering rates also follow trends in tourism and travel. A survey administered by the Travel Industry Association of America sampled 1500 tourists and found that 24% of Americans were interested in vacations with a service component (MacNeille 2006). Based on these survey data, prevalence in volunteering abroad seems to be sensitive to fluctuations in political and economic conditions.

Contemporary Debates About International Volunteering

Contemporary debates respond to changing global economic, political, and social patterns and norms. For instance, internationalization and globalization seem to be driving demand for a labor force that is better prepared to work in international contexts or with populations from various nations and cultures. Against this backdrop, governments from many nations in the Global North are altering funding patterns and priorities for international volunteering to better prepare young people for these roles. This has sparked a global debate about whether funding from public and private sources may be creating a “supply” of international volunteers without a commensurate “demand” for the volunteers in host communities (Perold et al. 2011). This, in turn, has reignited larger discussions about whether neoliberal funding priorities are promoting the best interests of volunteers at the expense of host communities (Schech 2017).

Since the economic recession in 2008, multiple volunteer-sending countries have adopted a neoliberal economic philosophy toward international volunteering. Scholars have highlighted several ways that the neoliberal philosophy is influencing international volunteering. First, international volunteering programs are increasingly commoditized with an intentional increase in private- and corporate-sector engagement. Second, there has been a heavy promotion of short-term international volunteering in response to demand in Northern countries. Third, governments are funding international volunteering programs that strive to develop the marketable skills of volunteers while decreasing the emphasis on the development of host communities in the Global South (Baillie Smith and Laurie 2011; Schech 2017). Community advocates have expressed considerable reservations about these trends (Perold and Graham 2017; Simpson 2004). Indeed, research suggests that host sites in some low-income communities are overloaded and overburdened by volunteers (Perold et al. 2011), and some have argued that international volunteering in this context is another form of neocolonialism (Nalungwe 2018).

International Perspectives

Although no statistics measuring the prevalence of international volunteering on a global level are available, the scale of both public and private programs seems to be increasing. Since the latter decades of the twentieth century, international volunteering has expanded in many Northern countries – most especially from Germany, France, Japan, Korea, the UK, and the USA. As these patterns suggest, most international volunteering programs follow a North-South model in which volunteers from the Global North serve in low-income communities in the Global South. While a few governmental and innovative private programs support South-South and even South-North models, they are the rare exception; more attention and funding is needed to bring them to scale (Allum 2007; Plewes and Stuart 2007). Critics question whether more aid funding should be spent on creating programs that people in Southern countries can volunteer with, rather than exclusively funding programs for young people in Northern countries (Mati 2017; Tiessen et al. 2018).

Future Directions

With the growth of demand for opportunities to participate in international volunteering, it is likely that the practice will continue to expand. Regrettably, research lags practice, leaving the field under-studied and under-regulated. Civil society studies still have little empirically based knowledge of effective practices. Recent cross-cultural and comparative work has only started to assess effectiveness (Lough et al. 2018; Lough and Tiessen 2018). More research is needed to understand how variations in programs such as service duration, activities, living and working conditions, resource linkages, language skills, etc., may affect outcomes (Sherraden et al. 2008).

Greater coordination across the field of international volunteering organizations is also needed, as is potential regulation of international volunteer programs. With thousands of public and private volunteer-sending organizations in operation, some operate with little concern for issues located below the financial bottom line. In addition, potential volunteers often have a difficult time knowing which programs are socially responsible and receptive to the needs of host communities. Since 2008, some organizational networks have begun sponsoring field wide research and have begun drafting standardized guidelines to influence practice. Others have initiated a “stamp of approval” or “mark of excellence” process for member organizations to demonstrate that they uphold principle and practice guidelines (Comhlámh 2018). However, coordination across programs is still in the very early stages, and there is little empirical work upon which to build a solid foundation of knowledge. More research is needed to capture the voice and concerns of host communities and to convey their needs and concerns to decision-makers that develop and operate international volunteering programs.



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Further Reading

  1. Baillie Smith, M., & Laurie, N. (2011). International volunteering and development: Global citizenship and neoliberal professionalisation today. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36(4), 545–559. Scholar
  2. Baillie Smith, M., Laurie, N., & Griffiths, M. (2018). South–South volunteering and development. Geographical Journal, 184(2), 158–168. Scholar
  3. Burns, D., Picken, A., Hacker, E., Aked, J., Turner, K., Lewis, S., & Franco, E. L. (2015). The role of volunteering in sustainable development. London: Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO International) and The Institute of Development Studies.Google Scholar
  4. Graham, L. A., Mavungu, E. M., Perold, H., Cronin, K., Muchemwa, L., & Lough, B. J. (2012). International volunteers and the development of host organisations in Africa: Lessons from Tanzania and Mozambique. In SAGE Net (Ed.), International volunteering in Southern Africa: Potential for change? (pp. 31–59). Bonn: Scientia Bonnensis.Google Scholar
  5. Lough, B. J., & Oppenheim, W. (2017). Revisiting reciprocity in international volunteering. Progress in Development Studies, 17(3), 197–213. Scholar
  6. McBride, A. M., Lough, B. J., & Sherraden, M. S. (2012). International service and the perceived impacts on volunteers. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 41(6), 969–990. Scholar
  7. Okabe, Y., Shiratori, S., & Suda, K. (2019). What motivates Japan’s international volunteers? Categorizing Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCVs). Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 30, 1069–1089. Scholar
  8. Perold, H., Graham, L. A., Mavungu, E. M., Cronin, K., Muchemwa, L., & Lough, B. J. (2013). The colonial legacy of international voluntary service. Community Development Journal, 48(2), 179–196. Scholar
  9. Rehberg, W. (2005). Altruistic individualists: Motivations for international volunteering among young adults in Switzerland. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 16(2), 109–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Thomas, G. (2001). Human traffic: Skills, employers and international volunteering. London: Demos.Google Scholar
  11. Tiessen, R., Grantham, K. E., & Lough, B. J. (Eds.). (2018). Insights on international volunteering: Perspectives from the Global South. Bonn: Voluntaris: Journal of Volunteer Services/Nomos.Google Scholar
  12. Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: Experiences that make a difference. Oxon: CABI Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social WorkUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany