Why become a volunteer?

Being an Australian volunteer might be one of the toughest jobs you will have, but it will also be one of the most rewarding.

By being involved with the Australian Government's aid program, you have the opportunity to use your knowledge, skills, compassion and humanity to make a difference to people's lives.

You will help build the skills and expertise in an organisation so that they may be better equipped to achieve their goals. You will develop personal and institutional links for ongoing collaboration and knowledge sharing between Australia and its neighbours.

You will form enduring friendships with people in Australia's region, as well as develop a deeper understanding of how to work across cultures. Volunteering can be a mutual learning experience that can be personally and professionally life-changing.

Returned volunteers often talk about their unique personal and professional experiences from their international volunteering, with the most common rewards and highlights being:

  • personal satisfaction with making a contribution to the Australia's aid program
  • living and working in a developing country
  • forming friendships across cultures
  • developing skills in adaptability, resilience and leadership from working with limited resources and in different contexts
  • widening their skill set beyond a specific profession or specialisation.

For younger volunteers, gaining international experience and working across cultures within Australia's region can yield career benefits with new competencies and professional networks.

For older volunteers, volunteering can present an opportunity for change within a long established career or a new direction with retirement.

Returned volunteer Aaron Watson gives his top three reasons to become an international volunteer

Keen to put his studies in international relations and development studies into practice and ready for a change after working in the Northern Territory, Aaron Watson moved to rural Cambodia on assignment as an Australian volunteer funded by the Australian Government. He discusses his reasons for becoming an international volunteer.

1. Building skills and experience

When I arrived at the Social Environment Agricultural Development Organisation (SEADO) my boss encouraged me to go to the field with the staff to see first-hand their work in providing home-based care for people living with HIV, the livelihoods training they conducted for affected families, and to see the state of the roads. He took me along to meetings, provided short translations about occurrences and told me stories about the area after people had returned from refugee camps on the Thailand border and memories of the Khmer Rouge times.

It wasn't too long before I was being called on to write funding submissions, to improve training materials for local staff, to conduct project reviews and to show visiting donors around.

I spent most of my time working with key staff, adjusting my pace to learn and teach at the same time, and to figure out solutions that worked in both theory and practice.

It really was sink or swim. I provided advice on technical aspects of projects as well as ideas for organisational development. The buck often stopped with me to ensure the final product was high quality and would meet donor requirements.

My assignment allowed me to contribute skills and ideas which improved strategy and implementation but I always felt like I was learning so much from the local people and much of the credit for our achievements should be theirs.

2. Volunteering is an excellent way to meet great people

Great people are drawn to experiences like volunteering overseas. They are also drawn to helping in their local communities in Australia. I have met many smart, kind and generous people who will continue to do their part. People who took a break from busy careers or others that have made it their career to be an agent for change. I have realised that the world is not so big when you have amazing friends that are dotted around the planet.

I also met many local people who give endless hours to their organisations and communities, who carry a great weight and are a beacon of hope to all that know them.

3. Making a difference and longer term contributions

Cambodia is a wonderful place with a touching history, and like anywhere, it takes time to learn how to operate effectively in another culture and context. I was lucky to stay a few years and to see projects through annual cycles.

The best experience was returning to project locations a few years later to see that people who had trained as peer educators had become staff, some of the staff had gone on to get jobs with international NGOs and some of my friends had received scholarships to study abroad.

I was always humbled that people would say thanks on behalf of their country and would remember Australians who they had met many years before.

The lessons learned, friends made and satisfaction that I have helped improve the lives of others is certainly worth the pay cut, lonely moments and the odd days on the cross-cultural rollercoaster when living in a remote location.

Read more stories about Australian volunteers

Last Updated: 4 January 2018

"I am Filipino by birth. Being able to come back to the Philippines to do this kind of work, with an organisation that is often at the forefront of humanitarian initiatives, affects me at a deep level. It has made me grow as a person and given me an opportunity to reconnect with my heritage."

Danielle Naranjilla, Australian volunteer with the Philippine Red Cross as a Youth Engagement Officer


"I would never have thought my 1970s chef training in Glasgow would have taken me to volunteering with hospitality students in the tropical Kingdom of Tonga with my wife. Teaching students how to better meet the needs of English-speaking, Western tourists while they study in a second language and have limited access to resources has been a challenging yet rewarding experience."

Gordon Muir, Australian volunteer Cookery Trainer with 'Ahopanilolo Technical Institute


"It is not just the big successes that make me proud to be a part of this movement, but the daily, smaller moments of success: a bail request granted or a fair sentence given. Each of these successes means the law is being upheld and that someone is holding the justice sector accountable."

Kate Flower, Australian volunteer who was on assignment with International Bridges to Justice, a legal aid organisation in Cambodia