1. Is a desire to help your real motive for volunteering?
This is a question you’ll need to address in a very honest way. There’s a lot of information on the internet peddling the idea that you can travel the world inexpensively through volunteer work. And it’s true up to a certain point. Volunteering can make for a great cultural immersion experience, where you can work in exchange for free accommodation, food or a small donation. But you have to be realistic, volunteering is not vacationing. It’s work. It’s going to be necessary to commit a lot of effort and responsibility to your cause, plus free time will probably be very limited. Usually, the more ‘tourist-like’ opportunities cost money and they’re not going to be cheap. Volunteering in this way can be fun, but it’s also going to be challenging so make sure that helping a cause is your real motivation. Don’t become a volunteer just to fulfill a travel dream.
2. Do you prefer a rural setting or a city?
Is this volunteer job located in the countryside with some ease of access? Is it in the middle of a city? Or is it in a completely remote area, a day’s journey away from the nearest grocery store? Consider if the location fits with your current desire and how tolerant you can be of each lifestyle. A city will always offer the excitement of having a beer after work, meeting strangers on the streets, or getting lost as a distraction from the daily routine. But the countryside can offer the complete peace and stillness that a city cannot. If you don’t pick a location that you know you’ll have an open mind to, you might become bored because it’s not meeting your expectations.
Personally, I’m more of a city person, despite my love for nature. When I began a volunteer job with horses in Tuscany, Italy, I had to follow a very strict routine and didn’t have easy access to any urban area. I definitely gained some moments of deep peace from this 4-week experience, but I found coping with my free time to be really difficult — especially considering that my nomad soul hates remaining in one place.
3. Which cause touches your heart the most?
Start your research by defining which field of work encourages you the most. Choose the cause you are passionate about, the one that you find yourself discussing all the time in social media or the one that’s been able to move you to tears. Choices vary from environmental care, animal care, children wellbeing, helping the victims of natural disasters, and more. This will make your search easier and it will for sure provide a uniquely rewarding experience.
When I began my search, animal care was clearly my preferred area. I wanted to give a hand to the intelligent and resilient horses who had often been abused and disrespected by humans. This work was very satisfying, even when it was monotonous and demanding.
4. Are you willing to get dirty and be very tired?
There’s a wide range of volunteer choices out there. Some are more formal and require a 1-year minimum commitment and a special work visa. Many others are short-term and involve hands-on tasks and only require a tourist visa. Volunteer work can often be physically demanding, so make sure you’re willing to get dirty, smelly, sweaty and tired. If not, you might be able to find an experience that focuses on more intellectual responsibilities.
Ask your contact what your daily routine is going to be like beforehand, so you can be sure that you’re at least willing to do it. Otherwise, what sounds nice might end up being your worst nightmare.
After one month of working with horses, the signs of my hard work were all over my body. I had scratches on my hands and arms, caused by the constant manipulation of hay. I was left with a useless, smelly and stained work outfit because believe me, wet hay stinks. I had a broken toe, caused by a 300-kg horse stepping on me and my fingers were in so much pain I could hardly move them. But my heart left feeling satisfied that I had helped these gorgeous and unique animals.
5. Are you more of a backpacker or someone seeking luxury?
Some of the volunteer projects, especially the non-paid ones, may offer very basic or no amenities at all. There is no doubt that rescuing and saving turtles by the beach in Greece sounds wonderful, but are you really willing to live for two months in a tent with no toilet? I am sure many people are eager to do it. There is nothing more fundamental for learning than stepping out of your comfort zone. However, no one knows you, and what you can handle, better than yourself. Just think about the kind of person you are and the type of experience you want to live.
I shared a room with four other volunteers — there was a sufficient toilet, kitchen, and a pretty big living room — in exchange for 50 euros per week to help with utilities. There was no internet on the farm, except in the office. That was quite annoying, especially now that we are used to 24/7 connectivity. However, it was a great chance to chat with a friend by the pool, to write, and read a book quietly.
6. Are you looking for a multicultural or local experience?
If one of your purposes is to make friends with similar interests and different cultural backgrounds, perhaps a better option is to volunteer with a more formal and structured organization. Generally, they will send back a complete guide with all the information that volunteers need like details on accommodation, daily tasks, costs, location, weather, etc. Sometimes they work with local travel agencies which offer volunteer programs as part of their services. These associations, normally paid, frequently place a higher number of multi-cultural volunteers. On the other hand, smaller organizations (schools, farms, rescue centers, elderly centers) which engage fewer volunteers will give you higher chances of being surrounded by locals.
7. Are you willing to pay to be a volunteer?
As paradoxical as it may sound, many volunteer jobs are paid, especially in the animal welfare field. The associations which have a well-designed volunteer program typically ask for a weekly fee of around $400 to $900 USD, all-inclusive. There are amazing programs helping elephants in Thailand, lions in Africa, turtles in Greece or Costa Rica, researching and observing dolphins, whales, seals and even sharks in all oceans.
But the truth is that they are expensive.
If this is your choice, always look for transparency in the way they use their fees. Think through if you would like a more organized and ‘touristic-type’ experience that will cost you money or if you prefer non-paid (they might ask for a small contribution) opportunities, looking for any kind of help.
In general, my best advice is to be conscious of what your real expectations are. Also, talk to previous volunteers in the same position. They can give you a more honest view of reality, including the job itself and the atmosphere. At the end, follow your heart. Help will always be appreciated. There is so much we can do out there.