As the interest in voluntourism grows, more and more “middleman” companies have swooped in to create customizable volunteering packages for travelers. These companies can charge upwards of $500 a week to place you in a volunteer program, and — according to their PR — to hold your hand if anything goes wrong.
This can be reassuring for first-time travelers, but by and large these commercial programs are ridiculously overpriced and often have questionable impact on the local community. Consider that many of these programs include only two weeks of volunteering followed by two weeks of adventure activity. How much of an impact can you have in two weeks?
These companies cater to the “Quick! Get a picture of me holding up this shovel and carrying a small Latino child, so I can show on Facebook how worldly and caring I am!” tourists.
Here’s how to find a genuine program for low-cost volunteering abroad and avoid falling into the category of ‘poser do-gooder.’
Do: Volunteer for as long as your itinerary allows.
Depending on your level of involvement, some organizations will ask for anywhere from a two-week to six-month minimum, but the one thing they’ll all tell you: The longer, the better. Two weeks is definitely not long enough to make a big impact, and can instead be draining for the administration who’ll need to take time out to train you.
Consider extending your volunteering to a month or longer. You may have to cut some sights out of your itinerary, but based on my experience it’s more than worth it. I extended my time in Peru from three months to six and was able to really connect with the community. Believe me, when you’re spending your last couple weeks playing football with local kids whom you’ve actually built a relationship with, instead of roaming around yet another ruin, you’ll be happy you’ve made the choice to stick around.
Don’t: “Squeeze it in” if you don’t have enough time.
Nobody says you have to volunteer. No one is going to judge you if you spend your vacation actually on vacation.
Do: Seek out organizations run by and employing locals.
Although it can be comforting to spend time with fellow backpackers who speak your language, be hesitant of organizations consisting of only foreigners. Not that they’re all bad, but locals will actually have an innate understand of community issues and the best way to address them within the context of local culture.
Don’t: Assume your only options are teaching English and taking care of kids.
For some reason, these seem to be the go-to options for volunteering abroad. But there are plenty of others out there. Hate kids? (Don’t worry, we won’t judge you.) Volunteer at an animal rescue center. Hate kids and animals? (Okay, starting to judge…) Volunteer to do administrative computer work for an NGO. Work on an organic farm. Help out with the elderly.
If you don’t enjoy something in real life, you’re definitely not going to enjoy doing it for free, in another language, in a foreign country. Just think of what you like to do, and go from there.
Do: Figure out your marketable skills.
Applying to become a volunteer is much like applying for a job. It’s not as competitive obviously, and most organizations will find something for you to do, but they’d rather place you in something you’re good at. Bilingual? Help with translations. Have experience in web design? Update the website. Got legit artist skills? Paint a new welcome sign! Seriously, whatever abilities you have, they can translate to the nonprofit world.
Don’t: Expect to volunteer for free.
This is kind of a weird concept and one that rattled me at first. I’m graciously volunteering my time, why should I have to pay? Unfortunately, that’s how its works overseas. While you should be wary of any companies that charge you ridiculous amounts for short volunteer programs, expect to pay something.
The weekly dues you’ll pay to volunteer will likely be going to a stipend for invaluable administrative staff. If room and board is available for volunteers, costs will likely be going to rent, food, and general maintenance. Not sure how much is an appropriate amount to be paying? It really depends on the location and organization. Volunteering in a touristy beach town in Mexico is going to cost more than super rural Indonesia, as the cost of living is higher. Contact the organization to ask where exactly the money goes. If the group isn’t transparent about their costs, be suspicious.
Do: Put your money where your mouth is.
If you still want to get some karma points but don’t have time to volunteer, consider donating instead of volunteering. Not everyone has months to spend giving back. If you really can only spend a couple weeks giving back, consider donating to the organization instead. Money goes a long way for these programs, and it will probably be more helpful than your inexperienced butt spending a week attempting to teach English to rowdy kids.
If you do donate, ask the organization if you can come in for a day and see how their programs run. They’ll be more than happy to indulge you with the obligatory Facebook photos, and you’ll have the satisfaction that you’ve actually helped.
Do: Make a sincere effort to connect with the community, not just your fellow volunteers.
Volunteering is a great way to meet other travelers, and you can walk away with lifelong friends, but that shouldn’t be your main reason for becoming a volunteer. It can be easy to fall into a trap of working with a community during the day and coming back to a house full of volunteers eager to let loose and party it up. That’s fine, but it’s not really that different from traveling and staying in hostels.
If the option is possible, do a homestay. One of the benefits of volunteering is being able to connect with a community. And what better way than living and developing relationships with a local family? You may not get the same party atmosphere as a volunteer house, but you’ll gain much more meaningful experiences.
Here are some good resources for volunteering opportunities: