What you need to know:
- Volunteering abroad doesn't have to cost you thousands of dollars
- Volunteering abroad, however, isn't completely "free"
- Find low-cost volunteer projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America
Volunteering abroad is an opportunity to share your skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm, while immersing yourself in a unique culture and discovering new places. Many people, however, are surprised at the supposed high cost of volunteering abroad and choose not to participate in these life-changing opportunities. This is a mistake as there are, in fact, many free and low-cost volunteer opportunities abroad. Finding them and getting reliable information, however, can be quite cumbersome. The following information is intended to assist you in finding legitimate and valuable free/low-cost volunteer options.
The real cost of volunteering abroad for free
Anyone who has a skill to offer can find a free volunteering opportunity. The thought of paying thousands of dollars to give up your time for a good cause does not appeal to many people. You can find a free volunteer opportunity in almost any sector. "Free" means that your time spent assisting an organization or individual is free of charge. It does not indicate that your housing, food, and transportation are free. There are projects that offer these amenities (though less common), but keep in mind how these projects might be funded. Are you taking money/resources away from the organization as a result of having free housing, or are those additional amenities privately funded? If you are redirecting resources from the project, then you might be doing more harm than good. Therefore, the use of "free" in this article means that there is no program fee associated with the volunteer project.
If choosing to volunteer with a free program, it is important to go in with realistic expectations. Often free projects tend to be less organized and you really need to be a self-starter. You may be told to "take care of the garden," or "teach English to the small children." Could you start volunteering right away based on a single sentence of direction? You might also be dealing with language barriers or cultural barriers, and a free project often will not cover these challenges in depth.
If you volunteer directly with a project and they request a small fee, it is suggested that you give it to them. This monetary contribution often covers administrative costs or is used as a small donation to the project. The organization should be upfront about why they are charging a fee.
Why should you pay to volunteer?
The word "free" is flashy, eye-catching, and lures in many a do-gooder. But, there is a catch, and it is important to recognize the opportunity cost of volunteering for free. Whether you are a student, retired teacher, or father of four, you will save money by volunteering independently as opposed to volunteering with a large agency. But at what cost?
You may wonder why you are asked to pay a sizable amount of money to volunteer, when you could just donate the money to the project instead. What do you gain by paying this money and physically volunteering abroad?
You should consider paying to volunteer if...
- ... this will be your first time abroad.
- ... you have general hesitations about making your way around in a foreign country.
- ... you have a very specific type of field you want to work in and want reassurance that you will be of benefit.
- ... you have a limited amount of time to make arrangements and volunteer.
Volunteer organizations, such as Volunteering Solutions, provide you with reliable housing, food, transportation, a project leader, and contacts within the country. Essentially you can expect a hassle-free volunteer experience through a company like this. The project will be more organized since there is a paid staff-member organizing your trip. You will also have a representative in the country should an emergency arise or if you have questions. This might appeal to you, it might not, but again it goes back to what your volunteer goals and comfort level are.
How to find free volunteer projects abroad:
Once you have listed your goals for volunteering, you are now in a position to find opportunities.
- Travel guidebooks: Guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet, will often list opportunities in a Volunteer section at the end of the book or at the end of each section. These listings will include contact information and is a great way to find legitimate projects not listed elsewhere.
- Travel Forums: Next, take a look at online travel forums, such as Lonely Planet's Thorntree or Go Overseas Forum. You can search for previous posts or start your own thread requesting volunteer information. For example, under the Colombia section, you could request information on a volunteer project working with orphans. Travelers and locals alike will often read and respond to these posts.
- Websites: There are websites that list free or low-cost volunteering opportunities, such as SouthAmerica.net. These are good to use as a general search, but keep in mind that many projects have fees that may not be initially apparent.
- Social Media: Post or search for information on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. The online community is full of people discussing this topic and forming groups and posts as a result.
- General Online Search: Searching for "volunteer in Africa" will get you plenty of results, but might not be applicable to what you are looking for. Try searching for what really interests you instead. For example, searching "volunteer with Congolese refugees in Rwanda" brings up the American Refugee Committee. Searching by specifics of location and sector will result in much better results.
- Ask a local: If you have adequate travel time and are flexible, one of the best ways to find free volunteer projects is on location. Inquire at your hotel, at markets, restaurants, and schools once you get to your destination. Few organizations will turn down a free helping hand. You may be surprised at the number of grass root volunteer opportunities you find once you start asking around.
Evaluating potential projects:
Once you have found a volunteer project you are interested in, it is important to follow up with key questions. Just because a project allows you to volunteer for free, doesn't make it legitimate. These are the types of questions you want to ask:
- How are funds being used? If the project receives donations, where is the money going? Roughly what percentage goes to overhead vs. direct expenses on the project? Try to garner an understanding of how the project is funded and how it operates. Even if a bit disorganized, projects should be very open about the use of funds if they have nothing to hide.
- Is your volunteer role costing a local in the community a job? Are you contributing knowledge and skills that someone in the community cannot? It is extremely important that a local is not put out of a job as a result of your free work.
- If you are only volunteering for a short period of time, is it worthwhile for the project? Undoubtedly, you are costing the project something, whether it is time or money. Is their investment going to pay off? If you only can volunteer for two weeks, are you making it worth it for them?
- Ask for the contact information of former volunteers. There is no better way to get a realistic idea of the project, than from previous volunteers. You can ask questions about the project, the role you will play, the community, accommodations, etc. It is strongly recommended to speak with someone who has visited your potential project/organization in the past.
Remember, if something doesn't sound quite right, trust your instinct and walk away. There are plenty of other projects looking for volunteers.
What else can you offer besides your time?
Volunteering your time is a huge donation and not one to be overlooked. At the end of the day, however, virtually all organizations need money to continue running. Consider what else you can offer to a project in addition to your time. Projects are often willing to take on short-term volunteers due to the potential longevity of the relationship. Maybe you only volunteer for one week, but return home to do fundraising for the organization. Word of mouth is huge for small projects; tell others about it and share your experiences on social media outlets or in an email to friends and family. If the project is seeking more volunteers, register the project with online sites such as Idealist.org to allow others to find out about the project.
Volunteering abroad is a very enriching experience and mutually beneficial. While you walk away with a new cultural exchange, new friends, and a valuable learning experience, organizations benefit from your skills and new ideas that you bring to the table. Here are a few websites to get you started on your search for a free volunteer opportunity abroad.
Low-Cost Volunteer Programs in Latin America
- (Argentina) Union de lost Pibes
- (Bolivia) Proyecto Horizonte
- (Bolivia) Condor Trekkers
- (Brazil) Casa do Caminho
- (Brazil) AEC-TEA
- (Chile) VE Global
- (Chile) Ama Torres del Paine
- (Colombia) Fundacion Mariposas
- (Ecuador) IVHQ
- (Ecuador) Teach English, Volunteer
- (Ecuador) Sky Ecuador
- (Ecuador) Working Boys' Center
- (Ecuador) Ecuador Volunteer
- (Guatemala) Maya Pedal
- (Guatemala) Ninos de Guatemala
- (Guatemala) Mayan Families
- (Guatemala) Safe Passage
- (Guatemala) IVHQ
- (Guatemala) Trama Textiles
- (Guatemala + Nicaragua) Quetzal Trekkers
- (Haiti) All Hands Volunteers
- (Honduras) Honduras Children
- (Honduras) ProNino
- (Honduras) Farm of the Child
- (Mexico) Casa de Los Angeles
- (Mexico) Oaxaca Streetchildren
- (Nicaragua) Quetzaltrekkers
- (Nicaragua) Building New Hope
- (Nicaragua) Fabretto Foundation
- (Peru) Bemelsa
- (Peru) Fairplay
- (Peru) IVHQ
- (Peru) Threads of Peru
Low-Cost Volunteer Programs in Africa
- (Cameroon) IDA Africa
- (Cameroon) United Action for Children
- (Cameroon) Reach Out Cameroon
- (Cameroon) CAPEC
- (Ghana) Anmchara International School
- (Ghana) Cheerful Hearts Foundation
- (Ghana) Care Net Ghana
- (Ghana) Youth Creating Change
- (Ghana) Volta Aid Foundation
- (Kenya) Tumaini Miles of Smiles
- (Kenya) Volunteers in Community Development
- (Kenya) IVHQ
- (Kenya) Lisha Mtoto
- (Lesotho) Help Lesotho
- (Malawi) Back to School Foundation
- (Tanzania) Hostel Hoff
- (Tanzania) Ujamaa Hostel
- (Togo) PDH-Togo
Low-Cost Volunteer Programs in Asia
- (Cambodia) Volunteer in Cambodia
- (Cambodia) Angkor Association for the Disabled
- (Cambodia) Sustainable Cambodia
- (Cambodia) Angkor Hospital for Children
- (Cambodia) Sorya
- (Cambodia) UBELONG
- (Cambodia) Sangkheum Center For Children
- (India) ICA-India
- (India) Nirvana School
- (India) Alice Project
- (India) BGM Social Service Centre
- (Indonesia) B.A.R.C
- (Laos) Equal Education For All
- (Laos) UBELONG
- (Nepal) Tender Loving Care
- (Nepal) Ajamvari Farm
- (Nepal) Volunteer to Learn
- (Thailand) DEPDC/GMS
- (Thailand) In Search of Sanuk
- (Thailand) Akha Asia
- (Thailand) Baan Dada
- (Vietnam) SJ Vietnam
- (Nepal) Alternative Volunteer
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