Adventuring in a new country is always fun and exciting. The thrill of visiting an unfamiliar place and experiencing a different culture is such a special experience for most of us. But do you ever leave somewhere feeling like you wish you could do something more?
Volunteer vacations are a rewarding way to experience a country and culture on a deeper level. The hands-on nature of volunteering completely immerses you into a new culture and community. For many, this can result in a rewarding and life-changing adventure where you’re able to share your skills, knowledge, and experiences with others.
However, volunteering abroad isn’t always what people expect it to be. The magnitude of volunteering programs out there can make it hard to know where to start. If you’re serious about getting the most out of your volunteer experience, then it’s vital to do your research beforehand.
It’s important to find a program that is right for you. Be thorough with your research and make sure you’ll be donating your time to a reputable and trustworthy organization. Go in with an open mind and also be realistic about what you can achieve and expect in a specific amount of time.
Not all volunteering programs are created equal.
It all comes down to research and investigation. We can’t stress this enough! Start by thinking about where you'd like to volunteer and what type of work you’d like to do.
Once you have a shortlist of a few different programs, it’s time to put on your investigative cap. Google everything you can, read reviews, social media comments, and blogs about past volunteer experiences. Look for projects that receive support and work with the local community.
The United Nations has published research showing that skills-based volunteers play an important role in global development. You may be able to volunteer related to your professional qualification, specific education, or a special skill you have. Volunteers with valuable experience and information can make a real difference in developing countries.
Skills-based volunteering typically tends to be longer term, and you may receive pay or compensation in the form of board, food, and/or transportation.
Examples of just some of the organizations looking for skills-based volunteers:
Most of these organizations are trusted, well established, and have been running volunteer programs for years. As a skills-based volunteer, you’re not only seeing the world and doing some good, you’re also gaining valuable career experience.
While your initial reaction to paid volunteering might be a little less than positive, there is usually a very reasonable explanation behind those program fees. It’s an excellent option to consider, especially if you have a limited amount of time to donate, or you’re looking for a shorter assignment. It’s also recommended if it’s your first time traveling and living on your own in a foreign country.
Paid volunteering is typically more organized than free or low-cost programs. The organization provides you with reliable accommodation, food, transport, and contacts within the country. There is the support to answer any questions you have or deal with any emergencies that may arise. The benefits of this comfort and safety can make that program fee feel very worthwhile.
That being said, if you’re paying to volunteer then it’s extra important to do your research. Not all organizations are as transparent with their use of your money as others. Ask a lot of questions to make sure you’re comfortable and feel like they deserve your hard earned dollars.
International Volunteer HQ and Go Eco are great places to begin searching for pay-to-volunteer assignments. Their placement fees are relatively low and go toward meaningful community projects and local employment.
Free volunteering can sound like the perfect deal, but it’s important to know that "free" essentially means no program fee. Typically you will still be responsible for covering your flights, accommodation, food, and personal expenses.
However, some projects and organizations like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms do offer housing and/or food as part of the volunteer arrangement.
While usually harder to find, there are some excellent free or low-cost volunteering opportunities out there if you put in the time to look for them. A great place to start is Help Stay or Grassroots Volunteering. Their databases are full of free and low-cost opportunities at organizations and social enterprises all over the world.
Free programs are usually run by smaller organizations with limited resources. So things can be less organized. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to take initiative, isn’t afraid of a challenge, and truly wants to make a difference in the world then this type of volunteering could be perfect for you.
Of course, it goes without saying, beware of programs that sound too good to be true—they usually are.
Another option, especially for those on a long-term backpacking trip or don’t know where they’re headed next, is volunteering independently with smaller organizations you find organically as you travel.
Many organizations advertise for volunteers through their own website and social media channels. If you have a specific organization in mind that you respect, trust and would like to work for, try contacting them directly. They may already be looking for volunteers or may even be able to set up a volunteer assignment especially for you.
The real advantage of working independently with a local organization is that you get to handpick the organization that you work with. It's a deeper, more meaningful connection with the cause that you care about.
In love with Patagonia's new national park? Work in Conservacion Patagonica's organic garden. Have a soft spot for the San Juan Mountains? Become a trail information specialist with San Juan Mountains Association.
What you love will often choose you, and there's a volunteer opportunity to express your care. Dig in and explore.
No matter which type of volunteering opportunity you choose, do your research. It’s bound to be an incredible, rewarding, and life-changing experience you’ll never forget.
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