How to Volunteer with the United Nations

United Nations virtual volunteers make a difference from the comfort of home.
United Nations virtual volunteers make a difference from the comfort of home.
James Braund/Getty Images

If you're taking a second look at your career goals or just trying to find yourself, you may have considered volunteering for a humanitarian cause. Most of us have heard of the Peace Corps, but did you know that a related organization -- the United Nations -- engages thousands of volunteers yearly in more than 144 countries?

In 1970, the United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program. It promotes volunteerism and trains and mobilizes volunteers to assist with development projects run by United Nations partner organizations. Based in Bonn, Germany, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and its satellite offices administer the UNV throughout the world.

More than 70,000 people at any given time are in UNV's database, eager for the opportunity to serve in one of 100 professional categories. The typical field service volunteer is about 37 years old with five to 10 years of work experience. If the volunteer qualifies for an opening, he or she will serve for one to two years at a time -- the length of most UNV contracts, which we'll learn more about later. During that time, the volunteer may be stationed just about anywhere in the world you can imagine [source: UNV].

Another component of UNV is the online volunteer service, which matches more than 20,000 people with 2,000 partner organizations focused on sustainable human development [source: UNV]. From the comfort of home or an office, library or WiFi hot spot, a virtual volunteer can work with a grassroots organization, local government or UN agency. Virtual volunteers can do short-term tasks, such as designing a brochure, or lead a long-term project, like planning a hospital or creating a capital funding plan. He or she could even blog a few hours a week for a charity.

Only a fortunate few land the coveted UN internship. Before we find out why, let's get the details on how to volunteer with the United Nations.

Become a United Nations Field Volunteer

If you're selected for a UNV position, you'll sign a contract that stipulates your length of service.
If you're selected for a UNV position, you'll sign a contract that stipulates your length of service.
Siri Stafford/Getty Images

More than 7,500 people serve in United Nations volunteer posts each year. They fulfill one of three basic roles: peacekeeping, development or operations. More than 67 percent of volunteers come from developing countries, and 40 percent of those serve in their home countries.

If you have prior experience working in a developing nation, you have a better chance of landing a volunteer position with the United Nations. You should also be able to answer "yes" to all of these questions:

  • Are you at least 25 years old?
  • Do you speak English, French or Spanish?
  • Do you also speak the language of the country where you'll be assigned -- Arabic, English, French, Spanish or Portuguese?
  • Have you earned at least a bachelor's degree or a technical diploma?
  • Can you pass a medical screening?

If you meet all of these requirements, your next step is to go to the UNV Web site. From there, you can browse the job categories and locations to find out which openings fit your interests and skill set. To serve in your home country -- and more than 40 percent of field service volunteers do -- you'll apply at your local UNV or UNDP office. If your burning desire is to serve in a country other than your own, you'll begin the application process online at the main UNV Web site. You'll have to write an essay and undergo a stringent background check.

If you're selected for a position, you'll sign a contract with the UN that stipulates your length of service, usually one to two years. The contract is renewable based on available funds. You'll receive a stipend for yourself and up to three dependents from the sponsoring partner organization to cover your living expenses. You also get a lump-sum payment to offset the cost of your medical insurance or care.

You'll report to the organization that listed the job opening, which may be a grassroots organization or even a national government. You will work on specific development projects, such as teaching people how to prevent HIV and AIDS or promoting peace through conflict resolution training in a country that's recovering from civil war.

Occasionally, you may find a short-term assignment that lasts two to 12 months. These are special assignments; to get one, you need to have experience with disaster or electoral assistance or human relief. To apply for one of these opportunities, you'll contact the Special Operations office in Germany directly.

Become a United Nations Virtual Volunteer

A girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo looks on at the activity at a UN peacekeepers camp.
A girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo looks on at the activity at a UN peacekeepers camp.
Uriel Sinai/Stringer/Getty Images

Even if you can't commit a year or two of your life right now to volunteerism, the Internet has paved the way for you to become a virtual volunteer. You may be a student, a stay-at-home mom or dad, or you may have a disability -- that's OK. As long as you're committed to making a difference, you can serve the UNV's online volunteer program from a tour bus, igloo, dormitory or sprawling mansion. As you've probably guessed already, the demographic and number of online volunteers is slightly different from the field volunteer statistics: 40 percent are from developing nations and 3,000 people at any given time are serving.

Any organization that you may potentially work with through UN's Online Volunteering program must meet certain criteria. First, the organization must be a nonprofit. Second, the organization must prove that its programs "benefit developing countries and contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)" [source: UN]. The organization must also support the Charter of the United Nations and have a mission statement that echoes the UN's guiding principles.These are programs that deal with:

When you register online at the UNV Online Volunteering Web site, you'll have access to search openings with approved organizations. (You must be the age of majority in your home country to use the online volunteering site.) You'll then apply directly to the partner organization that has openings in your area of expertise. If you get the slot, you'll work directly with the organization that selected you, and they'll provide feedback about your work when you complete the agreed-upon project. You'll also provide feedback about working with them. Then, the organization will present you with a certificate of appreciation, acknowledging your service.

As we mentioned earlier, there are countless ways to volunteer online, such as by building a Web site or translating health education brochures. The beauty of online volunteerism with the United Nations is that you do the work at your convenience -- even if it's for a group thousands of miles away. You can continue to apply for projects with the same organization or try your hand working with different organizations registered with the online volunteering program.

United Nations Internships

Victor Logachev, a United Nations volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, distributes brochures about AIDS.
Victor Logachev, a United Nations volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, distributes brochures about AIDS.
Scott Peterson/Contributor/Getty Images

United Nations internships are highly coveted spots, but don't let that discourage you from applying. Before we go any further, if you have an immediate family member who's on staff with the UNV, you're ineligible to intern there. The selection process is highly competitive, and to be eligible, you need to be studying sociology, anthropology, economics, international relations, environmental studies or public or business administration. You'll also need to write and speak English. If you know French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese or an Eastern European language, you better your chances of pegging an internship. What's more, you must return to complete your studies after you complete your UN internship.

To apply, submit your curriculum vitae, a cover letter explaining why you want to intern with the UNV and the specific field that interests you. You'll find a document called a Term of Responsibility (TOR) on the UNV Internship Programme Web site.

UNV internships are like rolling college admissions; as they're approved, positions can start at various times throughout the calendar year. Internships last two to four months, and during that time, you'll work at UNV's headquarters in Bonn, Germany. Unlike UN field service volunteers, interns receive no compensation from the UN, so be prepared to foot all costs related to the internship -- including lodging, food and transportation. Some nations and organizations provide a stipend to cover your living expenses during UN internships they sponsor, so read the fine print.

But a UN internship doesn't guarantee you a job later with the organization. If you're interested in regular or contract employment with the UN, you must wait at least six months after you finish your internship with the organization before you apply.

One more thing: Hold your horses if you have plans to do a documentary on your United Nations adventure. Part of the agreement is that you're there purely to serve, and you must keep everything you experience confidential.

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Sources

  • Bullock, Paige. "UN Boast number of women peacekeepers." June 12, 2009. (June 12, 2009).http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-06-12-voa21.cfm?rss=topstories
  • Collins, Joseph et al. "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas." 2004. Penguin. http://learningservice.info/
  • CNN. "UN peacekeeper slain in Darfur." July 16, 2008. (June 9, 2009). http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/africa/07/16/un.darfur/index.html
  • Peace Corps. "United Nations Volunteers." (June 7, 2009). http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.former.unvol
  • The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. "The UNV Internship Programme." (June 7, 2009). http://www.cinfo.ch/mAny/mResource/pdf_IN_ST/ST_UNV_Internship_Fact_sheet.pdf