It started in Minnesota, by two people who had a simple idea, about waging peace . . .

In the past 35 years, Global Volunteers has mobilized over 35,000 volunteers to serve children and families in partner communities worldwide. We know that direct, hands-on service cultivates mutual understanding and respect, and helps build a foundation for international peace.  Thirty-five years ago, that idea was planted – and it grew. Our volunteer service worldwide nurtures local communities so that those we serve, will flourish.

Through the Years with Global Volunteers

We began slowly, and experimentally, to encourage humanitarian-minded Americans to invest short periods of time living and working with people in developing communities. In this way, local leaders gained the resource of culturally sensitive and open-minded volunteers, while the volunteers experienced a genuine, non-tourist perspective of daily life in the host community. This was the foundation of our Philosophy of Service. It’s hard to imagine today that this optimistic plan arose before the internet, before cell phones, and before most host communities even had electricity! With a dedicated board of directors and a paid part-time staff of one working from the law offices of Co-founder Bud Philbrook, we launched a wild journey to wage peace through volunteer service worldwide.  As pioneers in this field, we helped set the global standard for the “volunteer vacation” movement that followed decades later.

Early in our history, volunteers’ goal was to demonstrate the potential of true community service. Here, in 1988, volunteers and Jamaican villagers together help build a foot bridge in the Blue Mountains.

1984 – 1989

In 1984, Bud led two teams of four volunteers to Woburn Lawn, a tiny hamlet in Jamaica surrounding the famed coffee plantations of the Caribbean. There, volunteers  built chairs and desks for the elementary school, helped repair a village road, and painted a community center. The intention was to demonstrate that “average” individuals, with proper guidance, could contribute in a meaningful way to on-going development projects. This was a unique proposal…different from the standard top down approach.  Volunteers were anxious to lend their skills and energies to help improve local people’s lives.  From 1985 to 1988, Global Volunteers expanded to Guatemala, Tanzania, Indonesia and Mexico, where the work projects focused on agricultural and health projects, such as providing potable water, improving irrigation, expanding reforestation, repairing buildings and digging latrines.

Elderhostel volunteer Alice Ellis teaching conversational English to Indonesian military students in 1991.  Baby Boomers and their predecessors are the foundation of Global Volunteers’ stability and growth.

1990 – 1993

With a growing acceptance of “volunteer vacations” by the mainstream public, Global Volunteers set the standard for short-term volunteer service worldwide.  In this formative period, we extended our service opportunities into Poland, Costa Rica, Western Samoa, Russia, and Tonga. We also began working in the U.S. with a program launched in the Mississippi Delta. Global Volunteers proposed service opportunities to Elderhostel (the predecessor of Road Scholar, then the largest U.S. organization providing ongoing learning opportunities for American seniors), and became its first partner providing service programs to short-term volunteers. At this time, prominent media began to pay attention to our work.  Bud appeared on CNN Daybreak and Headline News, as well as on major-market news programs and in features in mass-circulation magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal and in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and many other national newspapers.  USA Today called Global Volunteers “the granddaddy of the volunteer vacation movement.” Meanwhile, internationally prominent travel author Arthur Frommer named Global Volunteers “one of the most exciting travel opportunities of today.”

2003: Volunteers on Mekong Delta programs in Vietnam visited Chánh An during free-time excursions. As the concept of combining volunteer service with worldwide travel became mainstream, Global Volunteers introduced “average Americans” to new cultures.


When the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam was lifted in 1994, Global Volunteers immediately established a partnership with PACCOM and Mekong Delta communities in southern Vietnam to help construct school facilities and teach conversational English.  In a continuous endeavor to address cultural stereotypes head-on, Global Volunteers’ Board of Directors accepted invitations to establish service programs in southern Europe.  The first team to this region was sent to Spain in 1994.  Three new “firsts” were established in 1996:  Turkey was the first Muslim country in the middle east region to host Global Volunteers teams. Ecuador was the first service program engaging doctors and nurses in providing critical health care for disabled children. And in China, Global Volunteers was the first nonsectarian American volunteer organization to work in the country’s heartland in 50 years. By the end of 1998, we were offering service programs in 10 additional countries:  Vietnam, Spain, Italy, Greece, China, Turkey, Ecuador, the Cook Islands, Ghana, and Ireland. During this time, we earned special consultative status with the United Nations – Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Global Volunteers’ unique grassroots connections were seen as effective avenues for local leaders to access the international arena. We were honored to be among only a very few U.S.-based NGOs identified to play this role, and aligned our programs with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which united nations to overcome global poverty and disease in eight critical areas. In 2015, those goals were updated as the Sustainable Development Goals addressing poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.

Volunteer Nathan Rowles posed with An Shang village children at the celebration of Project Peace in China.  One-hundred volunteers on the 100th team dedicated a state-of-the-art school and library to global understanding in Global Volunteers’ ground-breaking China-U.S. volunteer program.

1999 – 2003

In 1999, we celebrated a significant milestone: 15 years of international service partnerships! Much of Global Volunteer’s effort in 1999 was ramping up for one of the most ambitious worldwide celebrations of service: The Millennium Service Project. As Americans shared an anticipation of the “Best New Year’s Eve Ever,” 23 new host communities throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico hosted inspired volunteers who had committed – some as early as two years before – to mark the turn of the millennium in an act of service. As the new millennium dawned, world events threatened to forestall our steady growth (Y2K, embassy bombings, SARs), but Global Volunteers persevered. In 2000, new development partnerships were established in India, Romania and Ukraine – all centering primarily on support and care for impoverished, disabled, abandoned and homeless children in rural communities. The poorest of the poor – these are the faces which inspired Global Volunteer’s founders 15 years earlier. In 2002, Global Volunteers and the Sino-American Society, embarked on “Project Peace,” a joint effort to build a technologically advanced school and library in the remote village of An Shang, China – an emblematic plan in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2003, we began our partnership in Hungary, teaching English to enthusiastic, creative youth and young adults. Our media profile continued to grow – with a feature in People Magazine and an appearance on The Oprah Show.

Global Volunteers Australia volunteers Ed Schnipper and Danny Orthwein help load timbers for a new cattle corral on an indigenous housing project near Kennedy on the continent’s Gold Coast.

2004 – 2009

In 2004, Global Volunteers enthusiastically accepted an invitation to serve a small, resourceful aboriginal community on Australia’s northeastern coast. Our partnership with CAMU, the tribal housing cooperative, symbolized Global Volunteers’ dedication to comprehensive development, and fulfilled the Board’s goal to extend volunteer opportunities to all regions of the globe. In this year, we sent our 100th team to China, our 2,000th volunteer to Poland, and our 1,000th to Italy. During this time, we also established a new partnership in Peru – providing volunteer assistance to homeless, abandoned and orphaned children in Lima.  In 2007, we sent our 100th team to Ecuador.  with new partnerships in South Africa, Brazil and Portugal.  We ended 2009 with our 25th anniversary gala in St. Paul, MN.

Primary school teacher Mrs. Bakoto in Akrade, Ghana reads the Essential Services Prospectus, an outline for volunteers’ assistance on work projects to help raise the potential of children living in our volunteer service communities worldwide.

2010 – 2014

Global Volunteers codified 25 years of development assistance in the Essential Services Prospectus – a publication outlining the pivotal role of short-term volunteers as a delivery network for comprehensive development resources.  The “12 Essential Services Triangle” is derived from the innovative work of the World Food Program, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The Prospectus explains the services Global Volunteers delivers to at-risk children and families, and organizes work projects into the broad categories of eradicating hunger, improving health and enhancing cognition.  In 2012, Global Volunteers initiated The St. Lucia Project to (1) demonstrate that the 12 Essential Services enhance the intellectual capability of at-risk children, and (2) prove how a continuous stream of short-term volunteers, working under the direction of local leaders, help parents and community organizations deliver those services through sustainable development projects.  Meanwhile, as travel restrictions to Cuba were lifted for Americans, we leveraged a relationship established in 2007 to establish our Cuba NOW! program and become one of the first U.S. – based non-profit Cuba travel providers for Americans.  In 2014, we celebrated three decades of comprehensive development worldwide.

Global Volunteers’ Reaching Children’s Potential (RCP) Program, the ambitious extension of our three decades of development work worldwide, launched in Tanzania in 2016.  RCP Caregivers in Ipalamwa, Tanzania serve more than 250 families in three villages.  Here, they learn how to plant Earthbox container gardens.

2015 – 2018

2015 marked the 25th anniversary of our Poland partnership – a program that began with an invitation from Rural Solidarity, a movement stirred by Lech Walesa. Poland alumni, some from the inaugural team in 1990, enjoyed two weeks of service and special events conducted at Reymontowka, our treasured Poland “home.” Leading into 2016, we laid the foundation to extended the model developed with the St. Lucia Project, called Reaching Children’s Potential, to Tanzania.  This program builds on our work in the Iringa District of Tanzania since 1987.  Volunteers  help parents and community partners protect children from the conditions causing stunting through village-based Reaching Children’s Potential (RCP) programs. RCP provides families and communities the knowledge, technology and encouragement needed to ensure children can realize their full potential.  In 2018, the Ipalamwa Health Care Center was completed, and became the regional nexus for a ground-breaking effort extending comprehensive support, education, nutrition and medical care to three villages in the region, and a model of hope for rural villages worldwide. At the same time, we established our newest partnership – with a contingent of partners in Kathmandu, Nepal – offering support to abandoned children, marginalized women and students in primary and secondary schools.

Join us in 2019!

As we celebrate our 35th anniversary and our 36th year of service in 2019, we invite you – alumni and new friends alike – to join hands with us to Serve, Sponsor and Support children and families through new and exciting projects.  This is the year we ask you to reach out farther and longer to help us fulfill our partner’s requests for health, education and nutrition assistance.  Your skills, hours and dollars are multiplied exponentially in service programs for a week, or two, or three.  Never doubt how significant you can be to a child: Join us and make 2019 your best year ever!  Call, chat or email us to choose your next adventure in service.  Thank you!

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