Volunteering Overseas for Free
On this page we’ll show you how volunteering abroad doesn’t have to cost you thousands of dollars.
We’ll also talk about how ‘volunteering overseas for free’ might still have a cost attached (meaning that it’s not necessarily completely ‘free’) and how to find and judge potential low-cost overseas volunteer projects across the world.
Volunteering abroad is a great way to spend your time, as it gives you the opportunity to live and work in some of the most amazing places in the world (such as the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon Rainforest), to fully immerse yourself in another country’s culture and to learn about how they live, and it gives you a chance to help those less fortunate than you and to make a real difference in the world.
Whether your volunteer work sees you helping to protect endangered animals, the environment or children (and families in poverty), the cost of monetary volunteering abroad is sometimes more than some people are prepared to pay (no-matter how much good they’ll be doing or how great and life-changing their experiences will be).
There are now lots of great free/low-cost volunteering opportunities available to those who are prepared to do their research. The problem with low-cost/free volunteer projects is that it can often be quite hard finding them (and then assessing whether they’re legitimate or not).
Volunteering Abroad for Free – Can it be Done?
The more skills you have (such as teaching and healthcare) the more opportunities you’ll have to volunteer abroad for free, as you’ll have more to offer the world.
That being said, even if you don’t have any tangible skills (or qualifications or experience proving that you have certain skills) you still have a lot to offer, as volunteers are needed to do all sorts of jobs – from being research assistants to manual laborers.
Of course, most of the organizations you’ll be volunteering for will be charities or non-profit, so how can they possibly afford to ‘hire’ you as a volunteer if you aren’t paying them for the service?
Here is where the term ‘free’ is stretch a little. Volunteering abroad for ‘free’ usually just means that you won’t have to pay to assist the organization you’re working for (i.e. there is no ‘program fee’ attached). You won’t have to pay for the privilege of working as a research assistant (or whatever job you’re doing).
This may indicate, then, that you’ll be responsible for paying for the rest of your expenses. This means you may have to pay for your food, accommodation and transportation (including your flights).
Obviously each volunteering project will be different (and some may pay for more than others), so it’s important to check what’s paid and what isn’t before signing up. There is a certain moral aspect that comes into play when volunteering for free (if your accommodation, food, etc is all being paid for), as the charity/organization may be spending their money funding your stay instead of spending it on the projects they’re working on (more on this later). This is not always the case (as the accommodation you’re staying in might have been leased out free of charge by local property owners), but it’s certainly something to consider.
The majority of volunteer projects of this kind take place in Africa, Asia, South America and Mexico, but it’s not uncommon to also find them in Europe (and almost anywhere in the world).
Is it Better to Pay to Volunteer?
There’s a reason why lots of charities and volunteer companies advertise their projects as being ‘free’ – the word ‘free’ is eye-catching and instantly draws the attention of most people (because why should you pay for something when you can get it for free?).
Although the prospect of volunteering overseas for free seems great, on some occasions and in certain circumstances there are reasons why paying to volunteer is better than volunteering abroad for free.
Why should you pay money to volunteer when you can do it for free (or for an extremely low cost)?
As I mentioned earlier, by volunteering for free (and not paying for your food, accommodation, etc) you may be using up resources/money that could have been spent on the project, so you may actually be doing more harm than good.
You should consider paying to volunteer if it is your first time abroad (or your first time volunteering abroad). This is because you’ll receive more support and guidance, and you’ll have more people you can call on if things go wrong or if you’re having a hard time.
In addition to this, volunteering with paid projects is generally a better idea if you have a very specific idea of what you want to do, as paid organizations will make sure that whatever you’re doing is useful to the project (meaning you’re not doing something that you believe to be useful but that turns out to be a waste of time!)
If you volunteer with a paid organization, you can expect to be given reliable and safe accommodation, regular meals, the required transportation and to be given a project leader who will guide you through what you need to do and help you interact with the locals (when necessary).
Doing things this way means there will be a lot less hassle, and that the whole project will be more organized and well-run.
How Free Volunteer Projects Differ from Paid Ones
If you do choose to volunteer with a free program, it’s important to realize how they might be different from paid programs so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.
For example, because these projects are not funded by volunteers, the organizations involved often can’t afford to pay for the same level of administration and guidance(as paid programs have, meaning they’re far less organized, both in terms of taking on volunteers and in the way they operate.
If you intend to volunteer abroad for free, it’s important that you have a high level of independent and know how to use your initiative (which is why free programs are not recommended for first-time volunteers).
For example, upon arriving in a foreign country, you might simply be told that for the next two months your job is to ‘teach English to the school children’ (without any further instructions) and told to get on with it. It’s likely that you’ll be thrown in at the deep end and left to fend for yourself.
Would you be able to teach English to school children (or carry out a task) based on such simple and basic instructions (where you’ll be expected to work most of what you need to do out on your own)? If not, perhaps it would be better to look into volunteering with a paid program (as you’ll receive more support and guidance). There is no shame in paying to volunteer, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, as there’s no point you flying half way round the world and spending the next two months trying to carry out a task that you have no real idea how to do.
Last but not least, there’s also the language and cultural barriers to consider, as it’s going to be difficult to communicate and interact with others from another country if you don’t speak the language (and if you don’t have support from the organization).
How to Find Free Volunteer Projects Abroad
The first step in this process is to think about what it is that you want to do. Obviously you might be slightly restricted by your skills (or lack of skills), but don’t let that worry you too much right now (we’re just brainstorming). Think about the reasons why you wanted to volunteer in the first place… Was it to teach children? To save the rainforests? To protect the sea turtles? To build orphanages?
Once you’ve got an idea of WHAT you want to do and WHERE you might want to do it (i.e. in which country/region?) you can start looking at which volunteer projects are available.
Here are 3 of the best ways of finding volunteering projects overseas (hopefully a more definitive arrangement of free volunteering projects will reveal itself sometime in the near future):
1. Websites & the Internet – Most volunteering organizations have their own website (which you can get in contact with them from) and there are also several websites out there that contain a list of lots of different volunteering opportunities/projects.
Most of these websites can be found by using search engines. Note that when using search engines, it’s important to be specific as possible with your searches. For example, searching for ‘volunteering in Asia’ will bring up a lot of results, but most of them probably won’t be what you’re looking for. If you know what you want to do (i.e. teaching, building orphanages, etc) than try adding that into the search query. For example: ‘volunteer teaching children English in Kenya’.
2. Travel Forums – There are dozens of popular travel forums on the internet (such as Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forum or Bootsnall.com’s forum) worth taking a look at. These forums are often divided up by region, so take a look at the region to see if anyone’s posted about volunteering opportunities that you might be interested in. If not, start your own thread stating what kind of volunteering you’d like to do and see if anyone can help you.
2. Travel Guidebooks – If you know which country/region you want to volunteer in, try looking in one of the popular traveler’s guidebooks for that area (such as ‘Lonely Planet’ or ‘Rough Guides’). These books frequently list volunteering opportunities (and who to contact for further information), and you can be sure that the information presented in them is legitimate and trustworthy. You might attract the attention of organizations looking for volunteers, or you might get responses from travelers who have done something similar to what you’re looking for who can help you get started.
How to Judge Potential Volunteer Projects
Once you’ve thought about what you want to do and you’ve made a list of all the potential volunteer projects you’re interested in, there are a few questions to ask the organization (either directly or by researching them) so that you can filter out which projects are legitimate/useful and which aren’t.
1. Are the project’s funds being used well? Lots of volunteer projects receive donations (from all kinds of sources), so it’s good to know where/what that money is being spent on. Most projects are fairly open about how they use their funds and what they spend them on (especially if they have nothing to hide), so try to get a feel for how much of their funds are being spent on the project and how much are being spent on overheads/miscellaneous costs.
2. Is the organization making a difference to the community/area? Obviously all volunteer organizations will (at least aim to) have a positive effect on the area/people they’re working with, but some projects have more of a beneficial effect than others. Different projects may aim to do the same thing (i.e. teach English to children), but depending on who they’re run by (and how well they’re run), different projects will have more of a beneficial effect than others.
3. Are you volunteering for a short time? If so, is it beneficial to the project? You might think that ANY forum of volunteering is better than none (and you’d be right in most cases), but sometimes if you’re only volunteering for a short amount of time (let’s say two weeks) you might be costing the organization a lot of time and money but not giving a lot back in return.
The golden rule when asking these questions is that if something doesn’t ‘seem’ right, it usually isn’t, so be sure to use your intuition and don’t be afraid to walk away whenever necessary. There are hundreds of opportunities available for volunteers, so don’t waste your time on unwarranted projects.
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