Volunteering to help others in faraway places is a very noble act. It also enhances life experiences for those that volunteer. People are needed in every corner of the world to share their skills and talents to make life a bit easier for others, while it adds positively to a volunteer’s Karma. Volunteers are surprised, however, that it often costs big money to participate in a volunteer program. A small industry has emerged of “volunteer brokers” that handle collecting money and arranging for the expenses incurred by the NGO for food, housing, insurance and similar living expenses. Sometimes the amount of money required by the brokers to participate is in the thousands of dollars. It may cost as much to “volunteer” as a regular holiday vacation would cost in a particular destination.
Why should you pay money to work for free? The volunteer broker industry counters that there are expenses that the local organizations simply cannot afford and this fee makes it possible for them to have volunteers come to assist. Plus they have their “marketing costs”, which often is employing people to spam the internet (one such organization, Volunteering Solutions, spams my favorite Reddit groups with literally hundreds of postings trying to get customers). That makes sense, but there are many potential volunteers that are not able or willing to cough up a couple of thousand dollars to participate.
There is a huge number of complaints on the internet from participants about the service these volunteer brokers provide. Many operate like any business, moving volunteers wherever they can in order to collect the fees, with little regard to enhancing the volunteering experience. Fees of up to $3000 to volunteer for a couple of months is not uncommon. And the actual cost of living in many of these places is very small (such as a remote Cambodian village), the accommodations are sparse and the communal meals are not great.
Anyone that is thinking about volunteering, should look online for reviews of the “volunteer hiring” companies. Be skeptical of what these brokers tell you and verify their claims. There is an earlier posting on this blog about how to evaluate a volunteering opportunity: http://americanexpatchiangmai.com/evaluating-an-overseas-volunteer-program-in-thailand-southeast-asia-or-anywhere/
Is there volunteering work available that does not require big money? Yes, but it often requires that the volunteers have some valuable skills and can handle their own transportation costs to the area they would be working. Usually there is little hand-holding, no airport pickups, no local transportation arranged. There are thousands of charities and organizations that are looking for help from passing travelers, and many are able to provide housing, meals and cover much of the living expenses for the volunteers. The volunteer, however, is expected to be an independent traveler that can take care of themselves in an exotic environment.
The list below of a dozen sites with non-profits requesting volunteers that cost very little or nothing to get involved with and help out:
- Volunteer Work in Thailand -http://www.volunteerworkthailand.org/volunteer-thailand.php - a large list of non-profits are listed here from all over Thailand. Most are free, while some request reimbursement for visa fees or medical insurance. Almost all provide free housing and meals, and some actually pay the volunteers for the expenses they incurred in volunteering.
- UN Volunteers – https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en/index.html – The United Nations coordinates a volunteering program for experienced professionals. If you are skilled in teaching, medicine, IT, writing or other skills, they have connections to organizations all over the world looking for help. There is no cost to volunteers, but almost all require volunteers to cover their own expenses.
- Independent Volunteer http://www.independentvolunteer.org/ – a huge list of organizations seeking volunteers. Some ask for small amounts of money to cover some of the expenses, like housing and visas, usually just a few hundred dollars for a couple of months.
- True Travellers Society – http://www.truetravellers.org/ – Volunteer projects from all over the world, most have no cost and some with very small money requests. Postings are made by volunteers about their experience which are very helpful reads. Go the Link Page http://www.truetravellers.org/volunteer-work-abroad-program-list/ to connect directly to the websites of the charitable organizations.
- WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) www.wwoof.net - Board and lodging is offered in exchange for a day’s work on the farm. Stays available from one week to many years, and with thousands of hosts available in 53 countries. There’s an opportunity suitable for anyone looking for actual farm experience.
- Se7en – http://www.the7interchange.com/Home.aspx – Listings of Free and Low Cost volunteer projects all over the world. It costs a small amount for membership in the association.
- International Volunteer HQ – http://www.volunteerhq.org/ – Listing here from all over the world with low charges for the volunteer to cover basic costs. Especially good for people that have never done overseas volunteering before with volunteer support, orientation, airport pick up, basic accommodations and meals covered. To volunteer in Thailand, for instance, the cost is between $300 and $500 per month (varying by the length of stay). The cost for each country varies according to the cost of living in each.
- The Peace Corp – http://www.peacecorps.gov/ Open to US residents and sponsored by the US government, there are a variety of projects in healthcare, the environment and business development. Those with educational or work experience are preferred. To join the Peace Corp, there is a commitment of 27 months, and this will be a life changer. After completion of the program, volunteers are given student loan assistance, “readjustment” compensation, and advantages in federal employment. While in the program, you will be given a small allowance, all expenses are covered, a generous paid vacation, language training, with medical and dental insurance. No costs whatsoever to the participants. For young college grads still figuring out the direction they want to go in life, this is a great place to launch their experience.
- VAOPS – http://www.vaops.com/ This site lists many non-profits seeking volunteers. Most have no fees, but require the volunteer to cover their room and board costs, which are often quite small.
- Help Exchange – www.helpx.net – A site with lists of hosts — non-profits, farms and small businesses — that are looking for help in exchange for room and board. This includes farms, schools, hostels and small cafes. There is a small fee to join the association and you cover your costs to get to the location.
- Work Away – http://www.workaway.info/ – Listing of volunteer requests all over the world. An excellent data base of opportunities!
- YMCA Chiang Mai – http://www.ymcachiangmai.org/ – request for volunteers to teach and tutor English to kids.
Here are some recent horror stories of “volunteers” that paid big money to help in charities that proved to be scams: Fake orphanages. Bogus animal sanctuaries. And crooks growing rich on Western gullibility… why do-gooding gap year holidays may be a horrifyingly callous con - The Daily Mail (UK) – 11 September 2013
Have experience volunteering? Please share your experience, good and bad, in our comments. And if you know of other sources that should be included in the above list, please send them to us via the comments to be added.