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February 15, 2012

Volunteering for backpackers: Finding free, flexible opportunities

If you’ve searched for volunteer abroad opportunities, you’ve undoubtedly learned that volunteering doesn’t often come free. You’ve likely come across many, many organizations that charge fees, often upward of $1,500 per week, to cover accommodation, food and support of a coordinator for the volunteer experience.

Sections like, “Why should I pay to volunteer?,” are featured so prominently on these organizations’ websites that it’s obvious they get these questions often – and for good reason: Most of us who want to give our time and effort to help others don’t expect to have to pay to do so.

After coming across several of these sites myself, I began to accept this as the status quo and started thinking about how I’d fund my volunteering. But then I dug a little deeper and found the other end of the spectrum: Organizations that pride themselves as resources for volunteer opportunities that don’t charge high fees. These sites often aggregate information about free or low-cost volunteer projects, providing links directly to the NGOs so you can cut out the “middle man” and coordinate your volunteer experience on your own.

This independent approach has an added benefit for long-term travelers – especially those who don’t have a set itinerary – as coordinating directly with the NGO often allows for more flexibility regarding length of volunteering and start dates. It also eliminates the need to pay for coordination of accommodation, food and transportation, which most backpackers are already accustomed to doing themselves.

Here are some of the sites that I’ve found to be helpful:

Latin America- and Guatemala-specific sites (because I was searching specifically for opportunities in Guatemala, I became most familiar with these sites):

  • VolunteerSouthAmerica.net – This site is simply a list of links to programs in Latin America; if you hover over the link, you can read a brief description of the project before clicking through. The site is a one-man operation by a volunteer from London who was inspired after discovering how difficult it was to find free volunteer opportunities in Argentina. There’s also a great FAQ that can help rookie volunteers and backpackers prepare for their first experience.
  • VolunteerLatinAmerica.com - For a fee of about $35 and completion of a short online form, Volunteer Latin America will email you a pdf list of 20-40 free or low-cost  opportunities that meet your skills and interests. The projects are mainly environmental.
  • Entremundos.org – Entremundos is an NGO based in Guatemala that connects volunteers with Guatemalan organizations in need. The site features a free database of opportunities – mostly focused in the Western Highlands region – which include a summary of the organization, volunteer needs and contact information for the program coordinator. If you prefer the assistance of a coordinator, for $40 and completion of a short application, Entremundos staff will assess your skills and interests and organize your experience.
  • WeGuatemala.org – Similar to Entremundos, this non-profit organization provides a free database of NGOs and volunteer projects, but the locations extend throughout Guatemala and the site also includes a specific section for medical volunteering. The site was started by a volunteer who has worked in 17 short-term hospitals as well as many other medical organizations and nonprofits throughout the country.

 

Multi-continent sites:

  • VolunteeringForFree.org – This site highlights a unique route to finding volunteer work: It lists hostels that help their guests find volunteer opportunities with local organizations for free.
  • FreeVolunteering.net - Working under the philosophy that “your time is a sufficient contribution; additional financial donations should not be mandatory,” this site includes a relatively small database of free and low-cost opportunities.
  • WorldwideHelpers.org – Worldwide Helpers uniquely requires volunteers to register (for free) to view the opportunities, contact the organizations and apply for projects. The site only features free or low-cost opportunities.
  • Omprakash.org – This organization clearly has a strong mission to help others and features an easy-to-navigate database of projects as well as opportunities to connect with other volunteers. Omprakash also offers competitive grants to help fund travel and living expenses for those aspiring to volunteer.

 

After weeks of researching and narrowing my options, I decided on an opportunity in Guatemala I’d found through Entremundos. I’ve found working directly with the NGO coordinator to be seamless, simple and flexible – in fact I’ve changed my arrival date twice with no problem. I also was pleasantly surprised to find that the NGO has provided support regarding details for arrival, transportation and accommodation recommendations – so there would have been no need for an official “middle man” coordinator anyway.

All I have to do now is show up to their weekly volunteer meeting when I get in town, and I’ll be ready to start volunteering the next day. It’s the perfect amount of informality yet structure for a backpacker like me.

Posted by | Comments (12) 
Category: General, Volunteering Abroad


12 Responses to “Volunteering for backpackers: Finding free, flexible opportunities”

  1. GypsyGirl Says:

    Looks like you’ve dug up some great info there, Angela! I’d like to add two other sites with great opportunities: http://www.wwoof.org/ and http://www.helpx.net/

  2. cloudio Says:

    sorry but when you have to pay to volunteer, this is not volunteering anymore.

    Any organization asking money should call things with their proper name. This if “funding” at best, taking advantage of good will of young people in most cases..

  3. DEK Says:

    Cloudio is right: this is fund-raising. Not that there is anything wrong with fund-raising. Just understand what you are doing. You are paying for the privilege of being able to say that you did volunteer work. If you want to do good, find a reliable charity and give them the money. You will forgo the bragging rights, but your money will do vastly more good for them to hire local people to do the work.

    These are possibly intemperate words, but I am appalled at the thought of spending $1500/week to “volunteer” in the third world.

    But then, I am easily appalled.

  4. Angela Fornelli Says:

    I agree with you both! I was surprised at the costs as well, and I’m glad I found these free options. There are many ways to volunteer without going through the official “programs.”

  5. Steve McElhinney Says:

    I think #1 and #2 have missed the point, this article is about *free* volunteering, with the comparison made to the ‘big money’ programs.
    Just be happy someone is flying the flag for the real grass-roots volunteer programs.
    BTW Thanks for plugging my website Anglea.
    Steve McElhinney

  6. Rolf Potts Says:

    In addition to all the information above, I might suggest “drop-in” volunteering, where you just offer your talents wherever you see a need, NGO or no, as you travel (especially in the developing world). I’ll often informally volunteer in English classes at schools overseas; the teachers and students love the opportunity to have a native speaker in the classroom.

  7. Joe3 Says:

    I just passed up an opportunity to “volunteer” in Haiti because I had out of town relatives visiting. I wanted to go – the cost was $1600 – fortunately…I didn’t have time to research innoculations, and whatever else it would take. I’m very HAPPY to see this article today and will devourer the contents tonight at work.

  8. Ted Beatie Says:

    When I volunteered in Haiti a couple of years back, I did it through Burners Without Borders who hooked me up with a small outfit on the ground right after the earthquake. The “buy-in” was $1200, and covered mostly food costs in a place where they were scarce. I raised twice that and donated the rest.

  9. Link Roundup – Money & Travel Edition | Travel Junkette | Adventure travel tips, photos, and inspiration - Travel Junkette | Travel Junkette Says:

    [...] Free and flexible volunteering abroad? Count me in. (Vagablogging) [...]

  10. Marha Robertson Says:

    I also used EntreMundos once I got into Quetzaltenango, I’m so glad someone else has found this gem. They helped me connect with the Union de Agricultores Minifundistas, an organizations that supports agricultural groups through micro-finance. It works perfectly with my Spanish school, and yes – has no charge!

    Anyone else interested should check out http://www.entremundos.org. Awesome.

  11. More travelers, less tourists... | Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Says:

    [...] Go where your presence matters.   Burma?  Egypt?  Greece?  Haiti?  Japan?   Skip the hotspots and go where your money matters.  Burma, Egypt, and Greece are all clamoring for international tourism to return.   As for Haiti and Japan, both nations who’ve been hit by disaster in installments, these nations can use your time and help either as an in-country traveler or as a volunteer. [...]

  12. Michael Elliman Says:

    Travellers in South East Asia might also be interested in the website I am currently establishing. Got a way to go yet, but here is the story so far:

    http://www.volunteersoutheastasia.com

    Also check out the Facebook page:

    https://www.facebook.com/SanukSanuk

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