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
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
- How to Volunteer Abroad for Free
- Check out our Volunteering page, which has over 20 articles about volunteering
- Grassroots Volunteering
- Getting Your Boots Dirty: How Volunteering in Africa Changed Me
- How to Get Started with Voluntourism
- Is It Worth It? An Insider’s Thoughts on Voluntourism in Orphanages and Schools
- 7 Ways to Work with Wildlife Abroad
- From Tourist to Agent of Change: What You Need to Know About Voluntourism
- Five Reasons Not to Join the Peace Corps