For those of us who have made Paris home, whether temporary or permanent, volunteering our time to give back to our adopted community is a great way of paying it forward. And especially for those who feel cloistered within their expat community bubbles, volunteering with the locals can be an authentic way of getting to know what Paris is really like beneath the postcard-perfect façade.
But Volunteering in Paris Isn’t for Everyone
Looking for Long-Term Volunteers
If you come from the United States like I do, you might be used to picking up a few volunteer shifts at the local soup kitchen for Christmas or participating in an annual bake sale at your local nursing home. While there are certain times of year charities in Paris need more volunteers (the winter holidays and August heatwaves), they generally do NOT take on temporary (or “ponctuel”) volunteers. They prefer volunteers are properly trained and make a long-term commitment (usually six months to a year minimum) so they can be assured they’ll have enough qualified volunteers on all shifts. Be sure you know what kind of commitment is expected of you before signing up (especially if you are only a part-time resident). The larger charities usually have information sessions that address these issues.
Do You Have to Speak French to Volunteer?
Unless you’re only looking for volunteer opportunities in the English-speaking community organizations like SOS Helpline, you will absolutely need to understand and speak French to volunteer in Paris. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be fluent, but the information, registration, and interactions will all be in French, and charities are usually too understaffed and overworked to have the time to hand-hold people “practicing” their French. Of course it’s not a big deal if you don’t understand every word when you’re manning a collection table at a food bank or planting trees. But if you’re volunteering with organizations where you’ll be interacting with at-risk or otherwise sensitive populations, you’ll need enough French to carry on a conversation. Again, if you’re not sure, simply reach out to the organizers or attend an information session to be sure.
Voluntourism Isn’t a Thing in Paris
Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism”, seems to be quite popular these days judging from the number of emails I get asking about where tourists can volunteer in Paris. Sorry, the last two paragraphs make it clear that the city’s charities just aren’t set up for that. Travel blogger Dana Carmel was intent on making it work despite the warnings writes about her failed experience (I give her an “A+” for effort): “The Problem with Volunteering in Paris”
Ready to Volunteer! Where to Get Started
You’ve probably Googled to get to this page, but the best way to find information about volunteering is to go old-school: in person. No matter where you live in France, the best places to find volunteer opportunities are your local Mairie (Town Hall), community center, library, or house of worship. All of them will have a welcome desk with someone who can steer you in the right direction, but in many cases, they also will have a table or rack with flyers and brochures that you can find all sorts of information about local organizations and charities that may need volunteers. Attending events at any of these places is also a great way to meet people who would be happy to hear you’re looking to volunteer. Again, if you don’t speak French yet, there are plenty of Anglophone organizations in Paris looking for members…and volunteers (for those from the United States, here is a list of organizations from the US Embassy). Don’t be shy!
A big fat caveat emptor when trying to find info online: a lot of charities and organizations run by charities don’t always have the manpower to keep their websites up to date or respond to emails in a timely manner. If they list a FB page, that light have the latest events and calls for volunteers listed. I do try and update this each year or when I get new information, but do email firstname.lastname@example.org if any of the links are dead.
English-Speaking Organizations with Volunteer Opportunities
- SOS Helpline in English
I’ve been a longtime supporter of the SOS Helpline, which trains volunteers to staff their English-language listening line. They do twice-annual used book sales to raise funds, and hold regular informational meetings for potential volunteers.
WICE “Where Internationals Connect in English” is an anglophone cultural organization that’s been around since 1978. They offer courses and programs ranging from Visual arts to Food and Wine, and Languages. WICE has a wonderful work environment and gives you a great amount of flexibility and many opportunities to meet new people as a volunteer.
- Serve the City Paris
Serve the City Paris is part of a global movement of English-speaking volunteers that help the people in cities who are in need, focused on helping asylum seekers, refugees, the homeless and underprivileged foreigners in Paris. Volunteers help with food distribution, English lessons, social engagement and other activities in a kind and light-spirited environment.
BICE is the “International Catholic Child Bureau”, a non-profit committed to defend the dignity and rights of children. Volunteers are needed in the Paris office for administrative assistance, translations, and visitor welcome.
- The American Hospital of Paris
The non-profit American Hospital of Paris (in the suburb of Neuilly) is always looking for volunteers (they do state that you should speak both English and French).
- Cancer Support France
This charity assists English-speaking people in France being treated for cancer. Volunteers are trained to support those with cancer and their families and caregivers, and also to help with fundraising events.
- The American Library in Paris
Both adults and teens from 16-18 can volunteer at the American Library, with a 4-month minimum commitment expected. Opportunities include welcome desk, evening event support, shelving, graphic design and video editing.
- The American Church
The American Church in Paris needs volunteers for many different activities, both for church services (ushers and nursery volunteers) and assistance at events open to the public such as Bloom Where You’re Planted.
- The American Cathedral
The American Cathedral needs volunteers for their many programs, including adult education, Welcome Committee, Friday Lunch service for those in need, parish life, and their holiday Love in a Box distribution of gifts for children.
Volunteering Platforms (in French)
These websites offer searchable lists of different volunteer opportunities by location, time commitment, or type of volunteer activity throughout Paris and the Ile-de-France region.
- Je m’Engage
Run by the City of Paris to encourage not only volunteer work, but also to foster greater civic participation and community-building. They host regular information events in Paris where you can browse the tables to get brochures and meet the local organizations looking for volunteers.
A portal for volunteers where you create an account to find the best match for your own interests, availability and location.
- Je Veux Aider
This volunteer platform makes it super simple to find out how you can help, starting with three donation categories: time, money, and “other” (like used clothing or computer donations). You can find, using their search system, volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood for health, education, children, international, social, environment, etc. Sign up for their newsletter to keep up with opportunities throughout the year.
- Tous Bénévols
A portal for volunteer opportunities searchable by type, location, duration (including one-off volunteer experiences during the holidays).
- France Bénévolat
This website is one of the best for volunteer opportunities in France, with over 300 listings for Paris alone. They list all kinds of positions, from coaching sports teams to working with handicap children to admin work for Reporters Without Borders.
- Distribution de Repas
This page from the Paris City Hall website lists all of the soup kitchens and other food distribution points in Paris by district, with hours and addresses.
Charities in Paris that Regularly Recruit Volunteers
- The Armée du Salut
The Salvation Army needs volunteers to help with the holiday dinner celebrations on the 24th and 31st, as well as gift wrapping, gift delivery and other holiday preparations.
- La Banque Alimentaire
La Banque Alimentaire is also a food bank that needs long-term volunteers and donations.
Oxfam needs volunteers for their two shops in Paris, at 61 rue Daguerre in the 14th and 8 rue St-Amboise in the 11th. They collect and sell used clothing, books, CDs, and DVDs in French and English.
- Emmaüs Paris
Emmaüs always needs volunteers for help at their charity thrift shops around Paris and the suburbs.
- Restos du Coeur
The “Restaurants of the Heart” are soup kitchens and grocery distribution centers located throughout France. Founded by the late comedian Coluche in 1985, this popular charity is known for its spirit of solidarity and good humor. As a weekly volunteer at one of the mobile distribution units, I can say that the Parisians I’ve met here are nothing like the grim, cranky, cynics you see on the metro every day, LOL! They are always looking for volunteers with regular availability.
- Croix Rouge
The French Red Cross is a huge organization with many activities throughout the country. They sell holiday cards, organize toy drives, collect donations for particularly urgent international disasters (like Hurricane Katrina or the Pakistan earthquake). They also give regular first-aid and CPR certification classes in Paris. They are always looking for volunteers for everything from organizing book or clothing collections to office assistance and first-aid response teams.
- Secours Populaire Français
One of the most active charities in France, the Secours Populaire is similar to the Red Cross, with a focus on humanitarian projects within France in the fields of education, health, emergency aid, and human rights. They have a huge Père Noël campaign at Christmas (you’ll see the “Green Santa helpers” around town). They’re looking for volunteers of all ages (they even have a program for young children).
- Secours Catholique
A charity created by the Catholic priest Monseigneur Rodhain in 1946 after the horrors of the occupation during WWII. Today the organization is one of the largest in France, with local and international humanitarian projects. They recruit regularly for short and long-term missions in France and overseas.
- Tout le Monde Contre la Cancer
A non-profit French charity that helps children and families affected by cancer by raising money for research and organizing special events (such as toy distribution in hospitals at Christmas, gala concerts with French stars, vacations for the families and “make a wish” style gifts for the kids, such as a trip to Disneyland). They are looking for volunteers available for both one-off events or long-term activities in Paris.
- Les Petits Frères des Pauvres
Les Petits Frères des Pauvres assists and accompanies the elderly, including hosting a community Christmas dinner and delivery of Christmas packages. They need volunteers throughout the year.
UNICEF is an international organization supporting children. Aside from their charity works, they also need volunteers year-round in their Paris boutique (7 rue St-Lazare, 9th), but also to help sell their holiday cards at stands around Paris and the rest of France at Christmas.
- Apprentis d’Auteuil
Les Apprentis d’Auteuil help at-risk youth, always in need of volunteers for long-term projects in Paris and all over France. They also host an annual Marché de Noël, Les Féeries D’Auteuil fair and flea market in December and have a charity thrift store Auteuil Bonnes Affaires open daily.
- Société de Protection des Animaux
Established in 1845, the Société de Protection des Animaux (SPA) is celebrating its 175th anniversary in 2020. They always needs donations, but they also need volunteers to help out at their shelters throughout France (the one in Paris is at 39 boulevard Berthier, 17th. Even if you just have time to come and walk, pet and give attention to the dogs and cats, it’s much appreciated.