Note: Today I’m featuring a guest post from Sarah Von Bargen, who writes about travel (and many other things) at the excellent lifestyle blog Yes and Yes. Keep an eye on her Radio Yes podcast, where she and I will chat about long-term travel in an upcoming episode. Here, Sarah shares four key tips for volunteering overseas:
There are lots of great reasons to volunteer while you’re traveling: You can work alongside locals, earn a bit of good karma or just have something to do other than sunbathe and look at ruins. Finding the right program isn’t always easy. After 25 countries and eight different volunteer programs, here are a few of the tips that I’ve picked up along the way.
1. Decide what you want out of the experience
Are you volunteering as a cheap-o way of finding accommodation? Do you want work experience? Are you really, genuinely concerned about the plight of the star-bellied sneetch? Or are you looking to hook up with a cute, dreadlocked idealist with an adjective for a name? Valid reasons, all. Once you’ve sussed out your motivation, it’ll be easier to find a program that’s right for you.
If you’re more concerned about the cheap lodging, it’s easy to find work-for-lodging exchanges with just about any hostel in the world. Just pop round and ask at the front desk what their policies are.
WWOOF and Helpx are also great resources if you want to organize something ahead of time. If you’ve got a cause that you’re passionate about, just try googling that along with ‘volunteer opportunities.’ When I punched in the words “volunteer sea turtle rescue” I got heaps of results!
2. Decide what you can afford
Oddly, some volunteer programs are incredibly expensive. We can probably agree we’d rather not pay someone to work for them. Of course, if you’re volunteering in a developing country, many organizations can’t cover your living costs and will ask you to pay your own way. However, these costs should be very minimal, since room and board in those countries is quite reasonable.
Free or cheap volunteer options in Europe are a bit harder to find because, well, doesn’t everyone want to hang out in Italy over the summer? But they are out there, if you give the internet a good scour (like this one restoring medieval houses!). Here are links to some free/low-cost volunteer programs in developing countries. And here are a few more.
3. Do your research
Of course, before you commit to anything/buy a ticket/send a deposit, you should know what you are really, truly getting into. Ask your organization for the email addresses of former volunteers and ask them for their honest opinion about the experience. Look into the local climate/culture/crime-rate/culinary style. You could easily find yourself involved with a ‘great’ program in a cold, rainy, dangerous city where only meat and potatoes are served – when you might prefer a ‘good’ program in a sunny, gorgeous city full of smiling people.
4. Keep in mind the ethics of international volunteer experiences
As we’ve established, the reasons to volunteer are many and varied. If you’d like to volunteer because you’re passionate about a cause, think before you spend any money. If you’re a marketing exec who cares deeply about the educational opportunities of Peruvian girls, instead of spending $1,000 on a plane ticket and attempting to teach the girls yourself – consider donating that money to an established organization that addresses those needs. Your $1,000 will give employment to a trained, local teacher who will be able to help those girls, and the surrounding community, more than you could have.
If you do choose to volunteer for your chosen cause, you’ll be most helpful if you volunteer within your area of professional expertise. NGOs need help with their websites, schools and hospitals need to amp up their marketing and fund-raising skills, refugees need physical and emotional therapy. Sure, it’s not quite as sexy as building a school in Africa with your bare hands or releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean, but you’ll be more helpful and affect more change. And isn’t that the whole point?