An In-Depth Look at Volunteering

You know that really warm feeling you get about yourself when you do something nice for someone else? What about that feeling of gluttony and selfishness you get when you’re in a foreign country sipping your 5th cocktail of the night, served by someone who earns less in a month than what you’re likely to spend before you go to bed?

Well, you can maximise the former and minimise (though not entirely eradicate) the latter. Try a spot of Voluntourim.

If you’re on an extended break you really have no excuse for not volunteering on your travels. It goes without saying that everyone that reads Have Pack, Will Travel is of course very socially conscious and wants to give to those less fortunate – so I won’t harp on about the reasons why we should volunteer. Lets concentrate on the how.

There are so many companies that can sort you out with volunteering – It’s impossible to know where to start. So break it down into location, and what sort of work your after.  Obviously it’s a tad easier to get into turtle conservation in Costa Rica or Mexico, than it is in Russia.

The volunteer jobs often are based around wildlife, teaching or infrastructure. It really depends if you want to be in the trenches – literally, or if you think you’re better off in the classroom. Once you’ve figured that out hit the net.

Most of the companies that enlist you as an entry level volunteer require you to make your own way their, and pay a nominal fee to cover your accommodation, food and admin costs – and that’s fair enough. However, you need to be wary of huge companies charging exorbitant fees that are keeping a huge chunk of that fee themselves. Still, to have the security of a big company looking after all the arrangements is comforting, and very handy to fall back on if something goes wrong (not that you should expect it to).

The thing is there are an ever-growing group of grass roots organisations that charge only a minimal fee, if at all! The difference is support. The big companies have 24hr support, welcome packs and often follow up emails. The smaller grass roots places will give you an address and a phone number to contact, that’s it. It’s about knowing what you want and where to look.

Googling Volunteer Jobs in South America will spit out pages and pages of results, but the first 5 or so pages are dedicated to larger organisations that have high placement fees. Dig further and you’ll be rewarded.

For instance, in Peru there is Pisco Sin Fronteras, a non-profit organisation that is helping rebuild the town (Pisco) after a massive earthquake destroyed many of the buildings and schools. You can volunteer with them for 15 soles per day (about $5USD) which goes towards covering their operations costs, your accommodation and your three meals a day. This goes to show that volunteering (as it should be) need not be an expensive endeavour. You can’t live on 5 dollars a day for food and accommodation when travelling. A similar program with one of the bigger volunteering companies has admin and accommodation costs of $50USD per day, and meals not included.

Of course if you have some sought after skills or can volunteer long term, you’ll have absolutely no problem finding volunteer opportunities, you might even get paid! If you fit into this category just do a quick Google or check out Serveyourworld.com

For the rest of us – here’s my list of the best short-term volunteer resources. I’ve concentrated on grass roots organisations because I feel that if you are volunteering your time and skills you should be rewarded with at-cost living arrangements and the knowledge that what ever placement fees you are paying are going directly to the people that need them most.

The BEST resource on free and low-cost volunteer opportunities in Latin America is without a doubt volunteersouthamerica.net Despite the name there are plenty of volunteer opportunities in Central America, and there is a good ‘before you go’ guide covering what you’d expect from research, language and getting your vaccines.

Another good website is volunteerlatinamerica.com . There are a lot of free-to-volunteer placements here but you have to find your own accommodation and meals. Still, it beats paying thousands of dollars for exactly the same service.

independentvolunteer.org has a good list of volunteer opportunities globally, but generally these aren’t free though costs are low and just to cover administration fees and food/accommodation.  Another great website with global placements is vaops.com

One definitely worthwhile option is checking out some of the homestay websites like the7interchange, helpx.net or workaway.info. While they mainly offer homestay exchanges, there are some NGO’s looking for volunteers, like this orphanage outside of Kathmandu

A good book to consider getting in the planning stages of your volunteer opportunity is the lonely planet’s Volunteer: A travellers guide. It’s a handy book which goes into great detail explaining the differences between NGO’s,  grass roots companies and the bigger for-profit companies, as well as what to expect when your in your placement. It’s a great recourse so check it out, as is the Lonely Planet thorntree forum.

If you have any advice or volunteer stories, Please write them in the comments box below. I’m thinking about volunteering with the Pandas in China this year but it’s hard to find a cheap or low cost program, and I’d love to hear (see) your thoughts.

Follow Shane on Twitter or visit read about his travels at  SanchezJalapeno.com

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