How to Find a Cheap Volunteering Experience

Travel blogs, websites and agencies are flooded by testimonials by those kind souls among us who have spent time volunteering overseas, who speak of “travelling with a difference,” of rich and rewarding experiences, and memories that last a lifetime.

But it seems that volunteering comes with a price, and for those of us who may not have a mountain of money to spare and only have our time to give, it is hard to find an affordable volunteer experience.

So the question is: can you save the world while still saving your moolah? As a financially challenged young Australian wanting to volunteer in South Africa for 6-8 weeks during a longer 5 month African adventure, I decided to find out.

First option: Travel agency

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If you are a student or young person with a penchant for travel, chances are student travel agencies such as STA Travel or Student Flights would be the first stop in your search for the ultimate volunteering experience.

On a visit to these travel consultants, or by looking on the websites, you will encounter a plethora of all-inclusive organized volunteering experiences (often called “voluntourism”), which usually combine a short volunteering experience with a trip component, so you can volunteer and still see some of the country at the same time.

The expensive “voluntourism” packages

These trips are organized by popular travel companies such as Intrepid, Global Vision International, i-to-i and Cross Cultural Solutions, and are certainly a hassle-free and fun way to volunteer.

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They are a great option for solo travelers and a fantastic way to meet other like minded young people from around the globe, and definitely get you more involved in the culture of your destination than simply hostel hopping around the country.

However, the biggest downside to this glossy pamphlet heaven is that these voluntourism experiences are also hideously expensive. Having accommodation and all transport costs being organized for you by an agency certainly makes life easier, but it also allows the company to charge far more than what you might otherwise pay. For instance, I found that the cheapest month long volunteering experience in Cape Town (with only accommodation included) was still around US$2000, and a Cross Cultural volunteer program (including accommodation, transport costs and food) starts at about US $3000 for 4 weeks. Ouch.

Second option: Cheaper volunteer programs with non-for-profit agencies

Volunteering

If these organized voluntourism experiences come with too hefty a price tag for you, jump on the internet and check out some not-for-profit volunteer programs. There are certainly some very reputable organizations out there, such as the Global Volunteer Network, Village Volunteers and International Student Volunteers that offer a wide range of volunteer and internship opportunities throughout the globe.

These organizations are generally all inclusive as well, so accommodation and food are all paid for, but any profits the company makes go back to the programs that they support (f you have a look on the websites, you can usually see exactly where your money goes). Programs offered by these organizations also tends to be quite a bit less expensive than the aforementioned voluntourism trips, as the price usually only covers administration costs, and the inclusive packages tend to offer more basic food and accommodation for volunteers in smaller towns where it is cheaper. For example, GVN offers a six-week volunteer program in South Africa for around USD$2397, including all accommodation and food.

But what if that is STILL over your budget?

These NFP’s still need to cover administration costs and often budget to give money back to the programs they support, so the prices can still be much higher than the average cheap-hostel-and-market-food trip that most backpackers can afford. So what to do if that option is still too expensive?

Third option: Stay local

If you are that short of cash at the moment, perhaps you should think about staying local. If you only have a few weeks in another country, rather than spending it volunteering, use it to live el cheapo with a local, learn the culture, and open your eyes to new experiences- and then use these new experiences and enthusiasm to help others at home. Certainly, skepticism is rife as to how much help one can actually do in two weeks in a far-off third world country, but even when putting aside cynical views, there is no doubt that volunteering in your own home town over a longer period will make a world of difference.

Volunteering at home can still have an international flavor though. For example, in Australia organizations such as the Volunteer Refugee Tutoring and Community Support, Refugee Advice and Casework Service, and the Australian Refugee Centre organize volunteers for various legal, education, and community support for refugees and immigrants.

Fourth option: Organize a volunteer program yourself

Volunteering in Cape Town

In saying that though, if you are still determined to volunteer away from home, or as part of a longer trip in the region (like me), it is still possible to find a volunteer experience to suit your budget- but you will have to get out there and organize it yourself, without any other third party organizations involved.

With a little time and effort, the internet (and word of mouth) can help you find non-governmental organizations within the specific country or region you are wanting to go, that may not have the capacity to advertise for volunteers or to provide them with accommodation and food, but who may need your specific qualifications, experiencem or interest, for no cost to you.

Where to start

If you are planning on a more long-term trip, check out the BootsnAll articles on long-term volunteering and How to Add Volunteering to Your RTW Trip about how to plan for that experience.

For more short-term volunteering, the best place to start is to find a list of NGO’s or non-profit organizations, or specific organizations that you are interested in (e.g. refugee legal programs, environmental sustainable development programs etc), within the country or region.

If they have internet sites or blogs, have a look at those to see if they could benefit from your experience in a short time, and if so, try to find an email address you can send your letter of interest and CV to. Then email as many as you can, and wait for a reply! Often these organizations have minimal staff and limited internet, so get organized early and be prepared for a long wait between emails.

How I did it

As an example, I started off my search for an affordable Cape Town volunteering experience by finding lists of the NGO’s in South Africa (e.g. Prodder was a good place to start).

I then spent numerous hours looking on each one’s website and searching for email addresses to send my letter of interest and CV to. In the letter of interest, I asked them if they had offices in Cape Town, whether they took short-term volunteers, and outlined my experience and university studies and how I might be able to help them. A lot of the time the emails remained unanswered, and a lot of those that did reply did not have capacity to take on another person for that short amount of time. However, after months of correspondence, I ended up finding a refugee center that took regular short-term volunteers, and needed one for the time I was going to be in Cape Town.

While this process certainly took a lot of time and effort compared with simply waltzing into STA and booking an all-inclusive i-to-i voluntourism trip, it was definitely worth it. Doing it this way, I can find my own accommodation in a nearby hostel and buy my own food for a fraction of the price, and I am still able to give some of my time during my trip in Africa to help out a small organization which I know really needs the assistance.

The answer?

It seems that the financially challenged among us can indeed find a volunteer experience without a hefty price tag – as long as we are prepared to take the time and effort to organise it ourselves.

Learn more about volunteering by watching this video with Shannon O’Donnell, author of the book The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook

Check out the following articles and resources on volunteering:

 

Photo credits: davamarie, Platform London, Vision Services Adventures

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  • Eliza Anderson said at 2013-08-22T02:00:08+0000: Hi AllGreat article! Just one small correction. Intrepid Travel doesn't offer volunteer trips. We used to but have since stopped doing so. There's a number of reasons for this: 1. From local leaders, to using public transport and visiting projects supported by The Intrepid Foundation, we put responsible travel and local empowerment at the heart of all of our trips. We estimate that doing so meant that more than $60 million was contributed to local communities from our trips. 2. We found that our travellers are curious about the issues affecting the communities we visit. They are happy to visit projects and have volunteering as part of an overall travel experience but that they don't want it to make up all of their holiday. 3. There are specialist volunteer companies that are better placed to ensure the volunteering is useful to the local charities. The last thing you want is for volunteering to be a burden on small, under-resourced charities. We’ll leave it to the specialists to ensure that the volunteering benefits both the charity and the traveller.Anyone interested can read more about Intrepid’s responsible travel policy - http://www.intrepidtravel.com/about-intrepid/responsible-business.Thanks Intrepid Travel
  • Sumeda Bandara said at 2012-08-31T15:49:57+0000: Dear Sir, We are Green Adventure Sri Lanka volunteer project in Sri Lanka. We are based around Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. We are doing Elephant/teaching and community volunteer project now. We would like to joint with your company as a project partner in Sri Lanka. Please login our website.Thank you.Sumeda Bandara Project Designer Green Adventure Sri Lanka. ++ 94 77 60 40 245.www.pinnawalaelephant.com

Older comments on How to Find a Cheap Volunteering Experience

davamarie
17 July 2009

Great article! I do hope it encourages more people to volunteer abroad.

I am an alumna of a Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer program (Lima, Peru in 2003) and I now work for the organization as Director of Program Enrollment. Coincidentally, I also took the photograph of the children and volunteer in Cape Town posted in this article!

I wanted to point out that Cross-Cultural Solutions is, in fact, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization in the U.S., and all program fees are tax deductible for U.S. residents. I personally also did a great deal of fundraising for my volunteer experience abroad, and we have lots of resources to get volunteers started on the path to fundraising on our website at this link: http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/fundraising

Amy mentioned that our program fee includes accommodation, in-country transportation, and food. In total, 91% of the program fee goes toward volunteer and field expenses, which you can learn more about here: http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/whatitcovers. Program fees provide local jobs, provide volunteers with a safe and healthy living environment, and ensure that volunteers are not a burden to the local community.

If you have any questions about Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer abroad programs, you’re welcome to get in touch with us: http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/contact.

Dava Antoniotti
Director of Program Enrollment
Cross-Cultural Solutions

Jason Kucherawy
17 July 2009

A word about volunteering for free…

In most cases the money that volunteers contribute to the volunteer program (in the form of volunteer fees) has greater value to the charity and to the community than the work they do while volunteering. When you pay to volunteer with a reputable organization, your fees help sustain the programs. In return for your fees, you get to participate in a meaningful program (even if you don’t have training or skills needed by the community) and gain knowledge of another culture, understanding of yourself and others, and a greater appreciation for what you have. I think most volunteer travel programs are great for both the volunteer and the community.

I know of volunteers who worked with one of our partner charities in Peru and decided to break away and start their own program to avoid paying the fee to extend their stay. Against the advice of the charity they started a soup kitchen. It lasted a few months, created dependency, and now no longer exists. When they patted themselves on the back and packed up and went home, the kitchen could no longer be sustained and closed. It didn’t cost them much to do, wasn’t sustainable and had only the smallest temporary effect on the community.

Lasting programs need funding whether it is from government grants, fundraising, or volunteer fees.

Some of the most deserving and hard-working charities rely on the fees paid by volunteers to sustain their work, and I urge people not to poo-poo those organizations because they ask you to pay to work for them.

Jason Kucherawy
Director – Voluntraveler
http://www.voluntraveler.com

stevemce
02 August 2009

Hi Amy,
Good for you in finding the right org and volunteering independently.
For volunteers who are confident, well-travelled & well-prepared,
‘independent’ volunteering (read free/low cost) is a good option.

I wanted to point out that there are a number of websites that list
free/grass-roots volunteer opportunities worldwide (invariably the
sites were created by people who had the same problems you had
in finding local NGO’s to work with) here is a selection:

http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net (my site)
http://www.independentvolunteer.org
http://www.truetravellers.org

HTH

Steve
http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net

Ginny
04 August 2009

I’ve often found volunteer spots by Googling the name of the country and adding “volunteer”. Amazing what you find. Of course you then have to do all the appropriate checking before signing up.

Hydro
04 August 2009

There’s many more resources put forth by BootsnAll members in this forum thread: http://bit.ly/346vpG

MeghanD
13 November 2009

I’ve also struggled with finding an affordable way to volunteer abroad. After doing a lot of searching I created a website with all my findings, http://www.worldhelplink.com . This features some great programs around the world with little to no fees.

A Broader View
20 January 2010

A Broader View Volunteers Corp is one of the most affordable Non profit Volunteer organization in the USA, because is a non profit 501 charity all your fees are tax deductible. We offer programs in 22 countries with more than 166 programs that you can choose from, flexible starting dates, http://www.abroaderview.org
We offer the same service and even more than the expensive Organizations, checkout our feedback from our volunteers

junglebook
02 June 2010

These are also great sites for free and low cost volunteer opportunities:

http://www.volunteerworkthailand.org
http://www.volunteerlatinamerica.com
http://www.volunteer4africa.org

Angelo Elorm
20 June 2010

have you checked Disaster Volunteers of Ghana in Africa? they offer very cheap but quality Volunteering opportunities.website is
http://www.divog.org
Come and volunteer in Ghana

Angelo Elorm
20 June 2010

have you checked Disaster Volunteers of Ghana in Africa? they offer very cheap but quality Volunteering opportunities.website is
http://www.divog.org
Come and volunteer in Ghana