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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.


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.


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?”


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.


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.

Volunteer Guides


About The Author

Hal Amen

Hal Amen is a managing editor at Matador. His personal travel blog is WayWorded.

  • Eva

    Great first post, Hal! Looking forward to following along.

  • cvos

    Thanks for the tips Hal. Many of us share similar dreams of joining long term volunteer projects.

    • bernadette

      To all of you out there I just came from Haiti and it’s terrible over there. It’s a month all ready and food is still not reaching certain place yet. If there’s anybody who knows how I could get help to these people please call. There’s a group of people include children at Fontamara 43 prolongee Haut Bel-Air they have no tents, I build a shelter with the tarpulin I brouth with me but it’s rainning now. Please anybody who could help or that knows someone who could help please call me at 347-444-0485 or call them in Haiti at 509-3745-8944. Please help.

  • Kjrstin

    Thanks for the tips. I've been doing similar research for volunteering in Central Asia. But, I had forgotten about Idealist. Good luck in Bolivia. I'll be interested in how it goes.

  • Audrey

    Great post! I'm about to start a similar search, but for short-term volunteer opportunities – the outline of your research process and practical tips are really useful. Thanks for this and good luck!

  • Devan

    Great article, Hal …….and of course, happy to have you with us at Sustainable Bolivia!

  • Hal

    Thanks for the support, everyone! I've actually begun my work already, and it's going great so far. Stay tuned for more!

  • Hal

    Thanks, Devan, glad to see you here!

  • beachnriver

    This is such helpful information. My daughter is essentially “volunteering” in Argentina as a research assistant. She signed a contract and will get “paid” w/room and board. She still had to front travel expenses and other living expenses. She is having the time of her life. The experience will help her to determine if she will continue her studies in grad school or get a “real” job (I had to say that, ha. I’m a mom, and this was an on-going debate between us before she left).Last we spoke she was interested in Americorp. I plan to forward this info to her. thanks. I will follow your posts.

  • Pingback: Volunteering in Patagonia: It’s All About Land

  • Laverne

    Our family found some amazing projects to volunteer with in SE Asia and they didn’t cost us a cent. The trick is to look for local organizations not foreign run projects. If you search “NGOs operating in ” then go to about page 18 of your results you will find them.

  • anon666


  • Heather Hutchison

    I really like this article, and I think it’s quite valuable for many individuals thinking they can’t volunteer because they can’t teach or can’t pay a lot to volunteer.

    I would like to refer to the section about Cost where you mention trying to avoid the “middlemen”…. While I agree that’s good advice for big international for-profit organizations, that’s not always the case for every project or organization with specific costs. I work for an intermediary volunteer organization after initially serving as a volunteer, and the work of certain organizations are important for successful volunteer projects. The organization where I work (a non-profit, Ecuadorian organization) does indeed provide an orientation and all the other things mentioned above, which is vital to enable cross-cultural interaction. Many volunteers arrive in Ecuador without knowing the local culture or what to expect at their particular project. If these volunteers went directly to the project, they would either impose their own expectations and culture on the project or have no idea how to handle the problems that arise due to cultural or linguistic differences. In either or both situations, the volunteer would leave the project without having made much of a difference or, in the worse case scenario, cause a lot of damage in the project and/or community. My organization ( informs volunteers what to expect at the project, how to handle culture shock, how to overcome obstacles in the project, and other similar tools to allow the volunteers to make as much of a positive impact as possible.

    Soooo….my advice: do be careful if an organization is charging more than $500 to register or in addition to living costs, but be aware that some intermediary organizations do provide valuable services at a reasonable price to make your program worth it. Weigh the price against the benefits to decide if it’s worth it.

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