Note: I haven't included any pics in this post out of respect to the children that I have worked with over the years.
My first time volunteering I was a young 18-year old. It was my very first solo trip around the world and I had chosen to spend three months in Ecuador volunteering with street kids and improving my Spanish. I hadn’t saved very much money for this trip, about $20,000 for a full year of travel after flights and needed to find ways to travel cheaper for longer.
I learnt through my research online that the longer you spend in one place the cheaper your overall travels will be. This philosophy of slow travel really stuck with me and even now you’ll rarely find me staying in a country for less than two weeks.
I found a great looking organisation in Quito, Ecuador using Volunteer South America's website. We emailed back and forth a few times to make sure it was a good fit and then I paid my deposit. This experience cost $290 a month and included meals and accommodation in a volunteer house as well as twice weekly Spanish lessons. I enjoyed my time here so much that I stayed an extra 3 months but because I was feeling a lot more confident as a traveler, chose to find my own place to live and worked out a deal to volunteer for free.
That was my start in volunteering while travelling and I personally think that it can be a very rewarding experience for you and the cause you are trying to help as long as you do your research and enter into it for the right reasons.
Don’t pay thousands of dollars to volunteer!
If there’s only one thing you take away from this then let it be this point. I cringe a little bit every time someone tells me they’ve found a great volunteer gig for two weeks taking care of elephants or as a teacher in an orphanage and it only cost them $3,000.
Firstly, I have a serious issue with how much good you can do in two weeks, especially working with children. There’s been a lot of discussion around the fact that you cost the charity time and resources by having to train someone, only for you to leave a few days later. This is why you will likely find yourself in a very unappealing position, cleaning elephant poo in the enclosure when the elephants are not around or as a teacher’s aide where you fetch materials for the actual teacher and have no interaction with the kids.
Sure you’ll get your necessary elephant selfie or snaps of you colouring with the poor orphans but did you really do any good and could you have just sent all that money to a grassroots organisation that is trying to make something of their community from the ground up?
This has been covered a lot more thoroughly here and here if you’re interested in learning more. Just know that I volunteer often while traveling and the most I have paid was $290 a month and that was for food and accommodation. I also believe that anyone who actually wants volunteers will never want someone for as short as two weeks much less have a maximum period. That is a major red flag!
What if I have an actual skill?
There are also lots of opinions around about volunteering your time in other countries when you have a useful skill like a heath professional or a skilled worker like a carpenter or electrician. These skills are widely needed all around the world and if you have them then you should definitely go for it!
Be sure to understand, though, that there are some perceptions in the world that you are taking jobs away from locals who could be getting paid for it and also you could be working for an organisation that is profiting from your free labour. Make sure you understand how volunteers fit in with the local workers and why they are supplementing their time with yours.
What is grassroots volunteering?
When I think of grassroots, i think of organisations that are working from the ground up. Actual people from a community identifying a problem and creating a solution to help fix it. They may still use help from outside influences, including financial backing from generous investors but the cause is still personal and real. They work hard at the cause because it is what they need to thrive as a community.
The alternative of this would be if I went to Tanzania, for example, and I saw that there was a particular area that didn’t have a primary school. The kids had to travel long distances or just couldn’t attend at all. I could say to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could create a charity where we build a school and have volunteers teach the kids?” Then I started pestering all of my friends, maybe start a Kickstarter campaign or a GoFundMe page, eventually get financial backing, register as a charity in my country and then arrive with 20 volunteers with minimal experience in building anything or teaching and struggle along for the next few years eventually handing over the poorly built school with no long-term plans for paying a teacher to the local community to deal with.
Sure, I’ve done some good, helped some kids and all the volunteers and people who donated to “Cristal Cares” feel great about themselves. I would have spent a lot more money getting all those volunteers into the country when it would have been better spent just donating my time, energy and funds to a grassroots organisation who has the same intentions.
For more information on high impact giving opportunities I strongly suggest you have a look at Give Well’s website and specifically this excerpt from Peter Singer’s book “The Life You Can Save” on cost effectiveness of charitable organisations.
Where should I start?
These four websites are my go-to when I’m looking for volunteer opportunities around the world. They will give you a good starting point but always remember to do as much research as you can before you commit to anything.
- Worldwide organisations - http://grassrootsvolunteering.org/
- Latin American organisations - http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/
- Summer and Year Long Teaching Programs - http://www.worldteach.org/
- Eco/green organisations - http://www.greenvolunteers.com/ (this one you have to pay a small fee to access their database)
- Workaway and Helpx - More of a work exchange. Less helping charities and more volunteering your time in exchange for accommodation and sometimes meals. This could be babysitting for a local family, helping on a farm, a receptionist at a hostel or even helping on sailing boats.
- Local or expat forums on Facebook or online - Try searching for these online as they can be a goldmine for volunteer opportunities that don’t have a strong online presence.
- Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum - Always full of useful information and assistance from people who live in the area
- Couchsurfing - You can try asking in the country or city’s Couchsurfing group
My suggestion would be to choose the region/country that you want to volunteer in and then do a google search for organisations that are on the ground. Try “Cusco volunteer” and see what comes up or if you want to be more specific “Namibia volunteer street kids”. Play around with some different search terms until you get a good list of 20 or so opportunities and then spend some time researching their website, looking for participant reviews and emailing the ones that you like to see if they’re a good fit for you.
I have also gotten in touch with popular hostels in the city and asked them if they had any recommendations for volunteer opportunities. Hostels are in a good position to collect views from travellers who have volunteered with local organisations and can point you in the right direction or steer you away from the bad ones.
Even if you are not a hostel person, just remember that hostels are unique in this regard because of their social nature. You wouldn’t spend much time socialising with the staff of your hotel, would you? At a hostel, however, the staff and owners are always around, answering questions and potentially sharing a drink with the guests in the common areas. Feedback is a lot more honest after a few tequila shots and budget travelers always look out for each other.
What should I look out for?
This is the tough part. There are no global rules or regulatory bodies that provide guidelines on what is a good outfit and what is not. You will have to use your own common sense when vetting a company.
Perhaps it's easier to give you a list of definite don'ts and points to consider to help you decide:
- Don't work with anyone who offers for you to cuddle or take pictures with a lion cub, tiger, monkey or any wild animal. Riding elephants is also off the table. For example, anything that involves working directly with lion cubs in Africa directly contributes to canned hunting. There are greater implications to working with wild animals and if you would like to do work in this area be very careful about what you choose. Think about it carefully. What would they have to do to these animals to make them complacent enough to allow you to interact with them? Elephants, for example, are tortured when they are young to break their spirits. They are beaten with clubs, bull hooks, starved and deprived of sleep. Not really the stuff travel dreams are mad of, is it?
- Stay away from anywhere that will allow you to work with children for a period of less than 30 days. Please consider the impact many people entering and leaving an organisation can have on a child.
- If you can't clearly see where your money is going then stay away. The organisers should be able to advise how your fee is spent and if they can't then find somewhere else.
- Is it obvious how they are helping the local community? Are they working directly with them and constantly assessing and adapting their methods? Some orginisations start off with the best of intentions but over time, their methods become less and less effective. I recently heard of a sanctuary for orphaned gibbons in South Africa that doesn't allocate funds to desex their males, allowing captive breeding.
- If anything seems off or there is not enough information then just keep looking. Unfortunately, foreign aid in general and oversees volunteer is a complicated issue with many views on what is right and whether unskilled volunteering helps at all. The best that you can do is choose a program with plenty of information, reviews and a long history of helping the local community.
Why do you want to volunteer?
Be honest with yourself. What is the reason that you want to volunteer? Is it to make the world a better place? Is it to experience a different culture outside of the regular tourist activities? Is it to make long-term travel more affordable? It could be a combination of these and none of these are a bad thing. I am very honest with myself these days and know that I won’t really change the world with my volunteering activities and I probably will have little impact on the cause I'm working with.
Now that I’m older and I’ve been volunteering on and off for the last 12 years, I know the main reasons I volunteer are to get a unique insight into the lives of the locals and also to save money on my travels.
Orphanages and Voluntourism
Voluntourism has become a big enough industry that people with the worst intentions have cottoned on to not just how to profit from it but are also putting children in a worse situation because of the orphanage.
The way it works is the “founder” of an orphanage will start to traffic children from small villages or pay parents to take children away from them and place them in an orphanage. All of this so they can rake in donations from overseas investors and kind-hearted volunteers. Even worse, they will purposefully keep these children in awful buildings to encourage more investing. More sad children + terrible conditions = more donations.
There are certainly many worthwhile orphanages out there that you could work with but unless you can clearly see that the practices are completely above board then I suggest you steer clear.
Are there any pros to voluntourism?
The major positive and biggest draw for people is the peace of mind that you have handed your money over to a company that has promised to take care of you.
They include extras like:
- Pre-departure support
- 24-hour emergency phone
- Airport pick-up
- Welcome meeting
- Location orientation
- 24-hour in-country support
Essentially this is what you’re paying for. They do al the leg work, put you on contact with presumably good organisations so you don’t have to go through the steps I’ve detailed above and promise to be there for you if anything goes wrong.
For someone who has never stepped out of your own country, this can be an attractive proposition and I don’t blame you for this at all. Please consider, though, the impact that all that money you’re handing over to the for-profit organisations could have on the cause you’re wanting to help.
Just remember that the costs you pay do not usually include:
- Medical and travel insurance
- Visa costs
- Extra local excursions
- International and domestic airport taxes
- Personal Equipment
Do some research into how much it would cost to live in the country you want to volunteer in and then compare that to what you are being asked to pay. What’s the difference? Is peace of mind really worth that much?
As a case study, I volunteered with a local group in Oaxaca, Mexico at no cost to me. I did have to pay for my own food and accommodation, which they offered to help with. I found a great one-bedroom apartment in a lovely neighbourhood and ate either street food or in comodores and the occasional nice restaurant and I spent on average $200 a week. This also includes regular activities and excursions when I wasn’t volunteering. I could have cut the costs significantly by opting to stay in a private room in a nice hostel or even a shared room. I felt supported the whole time, staff were always checking in on me. I got a cheap sim card for my unlocked phone where I spent about $20 a month for calls and data so always had a way to get in touch with my friends. I had my own kitchen so I could create my own Mexican inspired dishes as well as enjoying visiting my neighbourhood market to buy local ingredients.
Here is a similar program that costs $1,990 for two weeks, almost 5 times the price! The accommodation is stated as “shared and basic” so it you were to do a further comparison with my favourite hostel in Oaxaca, Casa Angel, you could get a bed in a 4-bed dorm for $10 a night which includes a full buffet breakfast and easily survive on $100 a week. That becomes 10 times less than paying these people to volunteer with them.
Where does all this extra money go and how do the two options compare in terms of experience? I certainly enjoyed every minute of my time volunteering and never felt like I was missing out on anything. You really need to decide for yourself.
I would love if you would check out these two books. They will open your eyes to the world of Effective Altruism and help you find opportunities for the right reasons in the future:
Please share any advice you have on volunteering overseas or any experiences you’ve had with me in the comments. I’d love to know what you think!
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