International volunteers have the opportunity to get to know a culture from the inside while doing valuable community service in a stimulating new environment.

In Germany´s aging society employed persons approaching retirement become reflective. This is absolutely understandable as such a new stage of life often means severe changes. However, those who reflect early on their perspectives for retirement and plan accordingly have the best chance for a positive start over.  When entering retirement we have an average remaining life expectancy of 20 years that can be used to do the things we have always wanted to do.

Experts recommend preparing for the new life situation some years before entering into retirement. Those who have already enjoyed numerous hobbies and intact friendships during their working life will also know better how to use their free time meaningfully during retirement. Nevertheless, this can be insufficient in the long run. It is advisable to additionally pursue an occupation which brings a structure into everyday life and gives the person concerned stability in his/her life.

Volunteering in Germany is not as common as it is in the United States: In Germany, 20 – 37 percent of people 50+are volunteering. In comparison more than 50 percent of people 50+ in the US, offering time or skills for a non-profit organization, a charity, school, hospital, religious organization, neighbourhood association, civic or any other group.

In both countries volunteering declines with each elder generation.

There is a wide range of volunteering opportunities for seniors. Most people in Germany volunteer in their communities/neighbourhood, the most popular areas being sports and the social sector. During recent years, there has also been a rising interest in volunteering abroad. Compared with local engagement, international volunteering usually comes with costs and seems more risky depending on the country. These two reasons, costs and the potential dangers often arising from missing knowledge about the country, often discourage seniors from going on an international volunteering program.

While these are valid reasons to shy away from volunteering abroad, there are enormous benefits that can by far outweigh the risks. Volunteering in a foreign country and culture adds a new intercultural and global learning component to a volunteering experience. They get to know a country and its people from a very different point of view than that of a tourist. International volunteers have the opportunity to get to know a culture from the inside while doing valuable community service in a stimulating new environment. Equally important are the benefits a host community derives from welcoming a volunteer and from the skills and experiences international volunteers bring.

People who want to volunteer abroad should be aware of the fact that even though they go to volunteer, they still mostly go to learn and not to teach – figuratively speaking.  Therefore it is important to have realistic expectations before joining a program. Very often, the projects may have their own plans and points of views on how things should be done and what should be done when. And these methods may differ immensely from the methods used and approved at home. In these instances, it is essential that volunteers receive training and information beforehand on how to bring in their own ideas without patronizing their hosts. In the end, the fact that volunteers are interested in the project, in the people and in their daily challenges that life has in store for them is what really makes a difference. 

Information about volunteering opportunities abroad including a realistic rating of possible risks are being issued for free from NGOs which work in intercultural exchange. Yet, the financing is still a deal breaker in many cases. Since it is extremely important that volunteers do not take away jobs, the projects in which the volunteers are based will have no financial means to pay for the volunteer or to cover any of the costs that arise like paying for the flight, housing, meals, seminars and logistics etc. Therefore, international volunteer programs come at a price and not all seniors can cover these costs themselves. In Germany, it has become common to create a “club of supporters”. Those supporters are usually private people, friends and local enterprises that donate funds to cover the costs. In return, they get first hand information on the volunteer’s experience abroad. 

It is well known that we have a large number of outstanding seniors with a wide range of talents and experience who would love to spend some time abroad. They are ready to use their skills and to do something meaningful while at the same time learning about foreign countries and cultures – and about themselves. To support these people and to encourage those who would otherwise not have the chance to volunteer abroad, two NGOS, the “German Seniors League” and “Experiment e.V.”, created a Travel Award dedicated those 50+.

The 2.000 EUR Travel Award is called “Active worldwide” (Weltweit Aktiv). Anyone over 50 can apply or can be nominated for this Award. A board of experts will do the final selection. Supported by Experiment e.V., the winner will choose the destination, program length and project that best suits his/her skills and interests. In addition to finding the right project, organizing housing and food and the logistics in-country, the sending organization Experiment e.V. will also offer a pre-departure orientation training and a post program meeting.  Once the participant has arrived in the volunteering destination, it will be ensured that the volunteer has local support. The volunteer will be put in touch with a local representative of the partner organization who will be there as a mentor and in case the volunteer needs in-country support.

The application phase is from August 15 to October 15, 2013. By November 15, the winner of the Travel Award will be announced. To encourage more seniors to use their skills globally, a documentary of the trip will be made available on the website of Experiment e.V. and Weltweit Aktiv

At any stage in life, international volunteering is a fantastic chance to not just give back but also to discover the world, broaden ones’ horizon and dive into a new culture. The benefits of an intercultural learning experience such as volunteering abroad are manifold. Participants of intercultural exchange programs often report that their experience abroad has not just helped them to acquire new language skills but that it has also changed their outlook on life. Many of the adult volunteers say that their stay abroad has helped them to become more tolerant and more flexible in their own way of thinking. They now tend to see “the glass as half full” more often than before their experience abroad, thus returning to their home country with new energy and new ideas on how to use their retirement phase in a most beneficial way. 

About the authors

Bettina Wiedmann is Executive Director of the Experiment in International Living in Germany (Experiment e.V.), an intercultural exchange organization that offers programs for all age group and promotes active citizenship in an increasingly interdependent world.

Bettina is also President of the worldwide network of the Experiment in International Living (Federation EIL), a non-profit membership association which facilitates the work of its autonomous member organisations in 23 countries.


Frank Leyhausen is General Manager of MedCom International.  MedCom International creates various campaigns and initiatives, always based on prior research data culled by company-owned senior panels. These panels aim to empower elderly people, allowing them to employ new product developments and services as well as to comprehend changing issues in health, social insurance and other relevant matters. Further, MedCom International has joined forces with NGOs and other enterprises to inform and educate seniors in their decision making processes.

Leyhausen joined MedCom International in 2001 after working in the marketing of financial industries for more than 10 years. During this time he was already involved in leading age related projects. He became general manager in 2005 and partner in 2006.At MedCom he set up the “demographic consulting” business unit where he and his team are focused on communication and innovative product development in all age related issues as well as in workforce management.

Frank Leyhausen received his degree in insurance business, marketing and direct marketing.



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