As a traveler, volunteering is among the most immersive experiences that you can get, a front-row seat to the realities of life in a given place. There are few better ways to get to know people than by working alongside them toward a purpose of significance to their community. It builds camaraderie, it builds trust and you’re completing tasks and goals that would otherwise have faltered without your help.
Often prices for volunteer experiences are exorbitantly high. It’s not uncommon for program fees to run into thousands of dollars for a couple of weeks of volunteering. Sometimes it’s more than you would have spent traveling in that country on your own. So what’s with the prices?
First, there’s administrative overhead for the organization you’ll be volunteering for and for the organization coordinating the relationship. Then there’s the cost to the organization to cover your food and board, materials and supplies for you to complete your volunteer assignment, sometimes even a donation toward the particular cause you’re volunteering for. And the list goes on. So while the fees may be high, if you’re signing up with a well-run organization, it’s often money well spent. But frankly, regardless of whether the money is going toward something important or not, sometimes you just don’t have it.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you don’t have a lot of money, but you want to donate your time and skills:
Many volunteer programs include room and board and they go out of their way to make arrangements in order to provide a comfortable stay for their volunteers. But if you’re willing to rough it a little, Volunteers for Peace (VFP), is a coordinating agency that works with organizations in over 100 countries around the world to organize volunteer workcamps. Workcamps run for at least two weeks and cover every imaginable cause and project you can think of.
Because you may be sleeping on a cot with ten new friends instead of a private hotel room, the registration fee starts at just $350 USD, which includes room and board. There may be an extra fee for certain locations (notably, most places in Africa), but VFP’s registration fee doesn’t change, no matter how long your project.
International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is another organization that coordinates low-fee volunteer opportunities, sometimes for as little as $180 USD per person. While IVHQ fees do vary by place and project length, the longer you stay on a project, the less expensive it is per week. IVHQ keeps their costs low because they operate in “only” about twenty countries and place a lot of volunteers into each project - a great option if you like socialising and want to meet a lot of people from around the world.
Many volunteer program fees are high because there’s a third party that serves as a liaison between you and the organisation you’ll be volunteering for. Those agencies often also have higher administrative costs because they may be working over a broader area and/or they put resources into marketing their programs. However, many of the initiatives that require the most help - and cost the least!- are the small grassroots efforts that don’t necessarily attract international attention because they don’t have the resources or know-how to do so. If you don’t mind navigating these relationships yourself, there are resources that can point you in the right direction.
The International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE) has compiled a list of national volunteer agencies in countries around the world. The national agencies in turn track volunteer engagement and rally volunteer-run organisations within their respective countries. If you’re headed to a specific country and don’t mind doing some extra research, these agencies are great places to reach out to; they can put you in touch with smaller organizations around the country that need you most.
For a small membership fee, you can also search and read about opportunities online through Ecoteer, a website dedicated to connecting qualified volunteers directly with organizations around the world running ecotourism, conservation, and humanitarian projects.
If you’ve got some professional experience under your belt, take a chance at applying for some higher-level volunteer opportunities where you can put those skills to good use.
Agricultural Cooperative Development International/ Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA) recruits highly skilled volunteer consultants for their economic development initiatives throughout 38 countries. If you’re one of the lucky ones selected for a two to four-week volunteer position, all of your expenses (including flight to/from the site and immunisations!) will be covered.
If you’re traveling longer-term and have the luxury of time, you may find that informal opportunities to volunteer may arise if you’re open to the possibilities and vocal about your desire to contribute. Through conversations and new relationships, you may discover a community, group of people, or even one person who could use a helping hand. Many great initiatives and organisations have sprung from these simple interactions.
Of course, it can be a scary prospect to volunteer without the backing of a formal entity. Use common sense, stay abreast of health and safety issues, and make sure that you and the other party are on the same page in terms of goals and expectations.
As you’re researching possible volunteer opportunities, make sure you know what the program fees include and more importantly, what they don’t. While programs usually cover room and board, the vast majority will not include transportation to/from the site, vaccinations, insurance and the cost of visas (in some countries, you actually need a business visa even if you’re just volunteering - another cost and a headache!).
And, if you’re volunteering in an expensive location, miscellaneous costs can also add up, especially if you’re planning to stay in one place for a while and will probably want to go out and socialize or shop every once in a while.
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