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.
- 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.