Volunteer Abroad

How to Volunteer Abroad for Free

Photo of Steph Dyson
Steph Dyson
Topic Expert

Steph is a British travel journalist and former high school English teacher now based in Santiago, Chile. She left the classroom in 2014 and has since been traveling, volunteering and writing about off-the-beaten-trail adventures.

How to Volunteer Abroad for Free
Photo by: Ariana Navasero, IVHQ Music Volunteering Alum

Volunteering abroad is an opportunity to see a new country and culture in a vastly different way than through travel. Not only do you get to share your skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm; in return, you can immerse yourself in life in your new home, discovering places and contributing to a good cause to boot.

Unfortunately, the price tags on many programs are enough to scare off even the most committed volunteers. But, there are other options when it comes to volunteer abroad. Yes, there are plenty of programs that charge you to participate in their programs (and most of them have good reasons for doing so!), but, rest assured, there are plenty of low-cost or even “free” volunteer opportunities out there -- they’re just a little harder to find.

Free projects, because they're usually run by smaller organizations, tend to be less organized, so you'll need to take initiative to get as much out of the experience as possible.

We're here to help you on your search for free volunteer opportunities abroad where your money can go even further.

The Real Cost of Volunteering Abroad for Free

How to Volunteer Abroad for Free: The Real Cost
Photo by Kiersten, Teach English in Colombia with Greenheart Alum

Understandably, the idea of spending thousands of dollars and hard-earned free time to contribute to a good cause does not appeal to many people. However, if you have a specific skillset to contribute, it’s far easier to find a lower-cost or “free” option.

Be aware, however, that free projects, because they're usually run by smaller organizations, tend to be less organized. If you’re looking for an experience where you’ll receive training or have daily guidance, then a free volunteering experience is probably not for you.

However, if you’re someone who loves the challenge of being thrown in at the deep end, guided by your initiative and ready to take on whatever the experience throws you, then volunteering with an independent or no-fee program is much more up your alley.

Free is Relative

Of course, "free" is all relative. When we’re talking about a free volunteer program, we mean there’s no participation fee. Usually, this means volunteering directly through an NGO or organization. However, you may still need to pay for housing, food, airfare, and in-country transportation. Some organizations and projects offer housing and/or food as part of the volunteer arrangement, so it's possible to find a situation that’s essentially free except for transportation costs. Just ask!

Others, like English Opens Doors in Chile and The French Embassy's Assistant Teaching Program, get funding from local governments that allows volunteers to participate without paying any program fees. In some cases, you even receive a small stipend in addition to health insurance, food, and accommodation. Keep in mind, though, that these tend to be longer-term projects, so you’re less likely to find a trade-for-work deal if you only have a week or two to spare.

On that note, if you go for a free or no-fee program, don’t expect your host organization to be able to sponsor your housing or food. Although some organizations definitely will be able to help you with this, not all have the extra funds to do so, particularly as their priority is dedicating money towards the project itself. By expecting volunteering programs to cover these costs, you may well be redirecting resources from the project you’re supposed to be helping -- and doing more harm than good as a result.

To keep things clear, going forward, let’s keep in mind that “free” means “no program fee.”

Consider Total Expenses Before Choosing a Free Program

It’s also important to consider all relative costs and expenses. It can add up quickly: if, when you look at your overall budget for volunteering abroad, it ends up being the same as a fee-based program that includes housing, transportation, and food, you might not want to write off the idea of paying to volunteer quite so soon.

Related: Hidden Volunteer Abroad "Fees" to Watch Out For

Bear in mind that some projects may require you to fundraise money to cover the costs of the support you receive during your time there, although you’ll normally be expected to pay for your expenses in addition to the money you raise.

Be Prepared to Take Initiative

If you're planning to volunteer with a free program, especially one that’s locally-run, try to go in with realistic expectations. Free projects can be poorly organized as there’s never enough resources or hands to run the work that they’re doing.

You may be told to take care of the garden or teach English to small children. Ask yourself: could you start working right away based on those directions? Or do you need more support? You'll likely also have to contend with language barriers or cultural barriers, and a free project will rarely offer the same training or orientation for these issues as one with a fee -- which is why, ultimately, no-fee projects are a more realistic option for skilled volunteers than unskilled.

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How to Find Free Volunteer Projects Abroad

Now it’s time to start looking for opportunities. But where to start?

Online Volunteer Project Listings

We may be a little bit biased, but heck, you're here reading this article! Here on Go Overseas, we have a wealth of listings for volunteer abroad opportunities in all different price ranges and countries. Browse around to search for low-cost programs and read reviews to get a sense of what it’s really like or check out some of our articles where we talk to people about what it's really like to volunteer abroad.

We're not the only ones out there though. Here are a few websites that will help match you up with a no-fee volunteer project (though, you may have to pay a nominal fee for their services -- hey, they've gotta find a way to pay the wonderful people running these sites!).

You may also find that the truly "free" programs (where you receive bed and board in return for working) are heavily weighted towards environmental or farming projects rather than education or community volunteering opportunities -- for the latter, it’s more likely that you’ll be expected to pay your living costs.

Social Media

Post or search for information on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs. The online community is full of people discussing this topic and forming groups and posts as a result.

Travel Guidebooks

Guidebooks, like Frommer's and Lonely Planet, often list opportunities in a volunteer section at the end of the book or at the end of each section. These listings usually include contact information, which can be hard to come by elsewhere. These are especially helpful if you already have a specific destination in mind.

Travel Forums

Online travel forums, such as Lonely Planet's Thorntree are also an excellent resource. These will give you up-to-date information and firsthand accounts and advice from people who have done the programs already -- and offer a chance to ask those people direct questions about their experience.

Targeted Internet Searches

Searching for "volunteer for free in Africa" will get you plenty of results, but might not be applicable to the specific opportunity you're trying to find. If you’re hitting Google, be as specific as possible -- search “volunteer with endangered blue swallows in Uganda” instead. Being specific in the location and sector you're looking for will give you more useful results.

Your Personal Network

If you’re the globally-minded type, chances are you have friends, teachers or family members who are as well. Start asking around to see where other people have been and if they know of any opportunities –- you may be surprised at how many connections emerge!

How to Evaluate Potential Free Volunteer Projects

Low Cost Volunteer programs - Carlos Ignacio, IVHQ Bali
Photo credit: Carlos Ignacio, IVHQ Bali Alum

Once you have found a volunteer project that interests you, it’s time to do a little investigative work. Just because a project allows you to volunteer for free or a nominal fee, doesn't make it legitimate. In fact, sometimes lower-cost programs aren't the best run and it's especially important with free programs to make sure you're volunteering abroad responsibly.

What's more important than how much a project charges is where their spending goes. Transparency and focus on developing the community -- not making volunteers comfortable, is most important. These are the types of questions you want to ask:

  • How are funds used? If the project receives donations, where does the money go? Roughly what percentage goes to overhead vs. direct expenses on the project? It’s very important to get a basic understanding of how the project is funded and how it operates so you know you’re contributing to a good cause. Though they may not be organized enough to wave Excel sheets at you, legitimate organizations should be very open about their use of funds.
  • Is your volunteer role taking a job from someone in the local community? Are you contributing knowledge and skills that someone in the community cannot? You certainly don’t want your free work taking a job opportunity away from someone in the community.
  • 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, is it worth it for them (and ultimately for you)?
  • Ask for the contact information of former volunteers. Previous volunteers will give you by far the most realistic idea of what the project is actually like. You can ask questions about the organization, the role you will play, the community, accommodations, and so on. Unless you know the country well, it’s always a good idea to get some perspective from someone who’s been and can give you an opinion based on personal experience.

You can also delve deeper into whether the volunteering program is worth your time (and whether you're really a good fit) by asking yourself these questions before embarking on a volunteering project. And remember, if something doesn't seem right, trust your instincts and walk away. There are plenty of projects looking for volunteers, so don’t waste your time and energy on one that seems suspicious.

Low Cost Programs to Inspire You

To get you started on your search, check out a few of the inspiring low-cost volunteer programs we have listed here on Go Overseas.

Low-Cost Volunteer Programs in Latin America

Latin America is a hugely popular volunteer abroad destination. Choosing to volunteer here can also help your budget since, for North Americans, airfare tends to be more affordable than flying to Asia or Africa. Naturally, there are also a ton of organizations and projects throughout Latin America who are in need of volunteers -- particularly those with some fluency in Spanish or Portuguese.

Low-Cost Volunteer Programs in Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa receives more international aid than any other part of the world, has the largest percentage of U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers, and -- unsurprisingly -- has a huge need for volunteers in a variety of fields. Whether you're an architect, marketer, nurse, teacher, or IT specialist, you're sure to find an opportunity in need of your skills in Africa.

Low-Cost Volunteer Programs in Asia

Like Latin America and Africa, Asia has a ton of volunteer opportunities. It also, sadly, has seen a boom of orphanage scams, so be sure to do your research before applying to a project. Reading reviews on Go Overseas (like this one of a conservation and community development project in Africa) is a great place to start, but we'd also recommend getting in touch with a previous volunteer or two.

How to Make Your Low-Cost Volunteer Work Pay Dividends

How to Volunteer Abroad for Free: Pay Dividends
Photo by Amy, Nepal Earthquake Recovery Alum

Just because you're not spending a lot to volunteer doesn't mean your impact on the community will be lessened. Here are some ways you can amplify the impact of your work, without having to spend more dollars.

Offer Something in Addition to Your Time

Volunteering your time with a responsible organization is a huge donation. However, if you can only spend a short period of term volunteering (or even if you have the fortune to volunteer long-term), don’t forget to consider what else you can offer to a project after your time is up:

Build a Lasting Relationship

Because short-term volunteers typically aren’t cost-effective (unless they're providing a service that requires a high skill level, like with Operation Smile), many organizations are still willing to take them on in the hopes that they can form a sustainable relationship that lasts long after the volunteer leaves. For example, you might only have one week to volunteer but your contribution to the organization can continue long after you return home if you're willing to continuing fundraising to support their efforts.

Spread the Word About Your Volunteer Work

Word of mouth is huge for small projects, and it’s the driving power behind social media success stories -- remember that Brooklyn school that got $1 million after appearing on Humans of New York?

Tell others about your volunteer project and share your experiences on social media or in an email to friends and family. You never know who else might be inspired to go, especially once they find out from you how meaningful -- and affordable -- it was!

Bring Donations With You

Let’s be real for a moment: sometimes all an organization or development project needs is funding or resources they otherwise don't have access to. Schools need books, hospitals need medicine. Ask what sort of material good you can bring with you when you volunteer.

Why Should You Pay to Volunteer?

Whether you are a student, retired teacher, or a married couple, you'll pretty much always save money by volunteering independently, as opposed to volunteering through a large organization. Why then, would anyone pay to volunteer, when you could just donate the money to the project instead? What's the benefit of paying to volunteer abroad?

You should consider paying to volunteer if...

  • This will be your first time abroad
  • You are concerned about traveling and living on your own in a foreign country.
  • You have a very specific type of field you want to work in and want support to make those connections.
  • You have a limited amount of time to make arrangements and volunteer.

Volunteer organizations provide participants with reliable housing, food, transportation, a coordinator and contacts within the country. The project will typically be more organized since there is an experienced staff member organizing your trip.

You will also have support in the country to answer your questions and deal with any emergencies that may arise. For plenty of people, this level of comfort and safety is worth the cost – but it doesn’t necessarily appeal to everyone.

That said, it’s essential to also do your research if you plan on paying to volunteer as not all organizations are as transparent with their use of your money as others. It’s wise to ask the same questions you would of a free project to get a sense of exactly how responsible they are – and whether they deserve your funds.

Being short on cash doesn't mean you have to give up your plan to do some good in the world, it just means you have to look a little harder to find the right opportunity. There are effective volunteer programs out there for every budget, and there's nothing wrong with looking for an opportunity that will allow you to save your money for another good cause. (We've also got a helpful list of volunteer scholarships and grants you can consult to help make your volunteer experience more financially reasonable!)

This post was originally published in January 2011, was updated in April 2015, and was updated again in June 2018.