Editor’s Note: Regular Matador contributor Hal Amen is embarking on a year-long volunteer journey in South America. He’ll be sending in regular dispatches; this is the first in his series.

Photo: The Pocket

The toddler cradled in his mother’s arms on a cold Shanghai street corner, pink hand outstretched. The family overflowing from its Chalco slum home on the fringes of Mexico City. Emaciated children, kindergarten-aged, hawking cheap souvenirs in front of Angkor Wat.

Common tableau to the seasoned traveler.

Photo: asalexander

We’ve seen so much. We’ve felt the steady accumulation of shock, sympathy, outrage, and intimacy such scenes engender. We’ve looked into others’ lives and tried to fathom the kind of help they need.

And then we reach the point where we’re ready to act, to engage. We’re ready to give back.

I’ve been at that point for a year now. But in grappling with how to respond to the volunteer impulse, I’ve come to realize that feeling compassion and doing something about it are two very different things.

It takes a flexible work schedule and some measure of financial stability, not to mention a fair bit of courage and determination.

And even when these factors align, there’s still the matter of selecting a compatible organization, one that works where and how you want to work. For me, that task was the most difficult.

Location

I’ve lived and traveled in Asia and witnessed stark poverty on that continent. Perennial stories of African impoverishment have nearly defined what it means to volunteer.

But need is non-geographical.

Therefore, you’re able to throw some personal preference into the mix. In my case, the desires to learn Spanish and visit South America directed my attention to that part of the world. Idle online browsing further narrowed the destination spectrum to three contenders: Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

Photo: NeilsPhotography

From the beginning, I knew Bolivia would likely win, being by far the poorest. But researching opportunities elsewhere allowed me to learn by comparison, develop a plan B, and ultimately decide that I’d like to participate in two projects over the course of a year instead of one.

Vocation

I’m not good with kids, nor am I a capable teacher. This automatically cut my options in half.

Instead, I was most interested in community organizing, economic development, and sustainable practices. I have no formal background in these areas, so finding an organization open to providing some training was essential.

Such restrictive parameters, strangely enough, made my hunt easier. Searching by process of elimination proved more efficient than trying to track down exactly what I wanted.

Over time, I accumulated a shortlist of webpage bookmarks for programs that met the majority of my criteria. Now all I had to ask was, “Can I afford this?”

Cost

Frustratingly, the answer was often “no.” No, I can’t cough up $1,000 dollars a week to conduct glacier research in Patagonia or staff a homeless shelter in Chile, no matter how many perks are included.

The more of these opulent price tags I found, the more I wondered, “How could it cost so much to give back?”

If you find yourself asking this question, chances are you’re paying a middleman—a most decidedly for-profit company—to place you with the actual non-profit with which you’ll be volunteering.

They do all the legwork for you: assess your skills, identify a suitable organization, arrange local accommodation, and provide orientation resources and language lessons. This assistance isn’t cheap, even if your placement company is honest and knows what it’s doing.

Obviously, then, if you can arrange something directly with the group you want to work with, costs plummet substantially. But this is much harder to accomplish armed only with Google; likewise, small-scale charities may not have the time or manpower to help you acquire everything you need on the ground.

So what does this mean? In my experience, the equation goes like this: more research = happier (and cheaper) results. If you invest sincere effort in the search process, the right opportunity will present itself.

Resources

Sites like Idealist, Volunteer Abroad*, and other volunteerism search engines are good places to start.

(*tip: Search by country and examine the end of the list first. The smaller, cheaper operations get pushed to the back of the returns.)

But nothing compares with testimonials from people like you who’ve been there, done that. Post a query here on Matador and to the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum, and check out Transitions Abroad to see what people are saying about the organizations on your shortlist.

Led by the resources above, I came in contact with Sustainable Bolivia, a Cochabamba-based nonprofit that both runs its own programs and places volunteers with local partner groups.

I’ll pay only for my housing and volunteer my time with an institute called Energetica in the area of renewable energy development. I start in two weeks.

While in many ways I have no idea what to expect, I feel confident that I’ve done my homework and uncovered the right position for me.

Now all that’s left is to go and see.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION: Did you know that more than 350 organizations from 35 countries are Matador members? Check out their profiles–and their volunteer needs–here.