How to Volunteer Abroad for Free

Retha Ferguson

By  June 8, 2020

Hosting international volunteers requires a considerable amount of time and resources. But does that mean you have to pay to volunteer abroad?

The best things in life are free—and volunteering certainly seems to be proof of that.

In exchange for your time, you receive invaluable experience and a sense of purpose—all while giving back to your community.

Perhaps that’s why so many people are surprised when they discover there’s a huge price tag associated with volunteering abroad. Voluntourism companies and volunteer-sending organizations typically charge anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for overseas placements, leaving many would-be volunteers wondering “why would I pay to volunteer abroad?”

The answer, as it turns out, is relatively straight-forward.

“Volunteers are not free to an organization. They actually require quite a lot of investment,” says Claire Bennett, co-author of Learning Service: The essential guide to volunteering abroad.

If you’ve got the time and the initiative, there are plenty of avenues to find free or low-cost volunteer abroad placements.

It’s not just the cost of housing and food; from identifying projects and developing job descriptions, to training, preparation and supervision, volunteers require a considerable amount of time and resources to host

That doesn’t mean that you need to pay to volunteer abroad. If you’ve got the time and the initiative, there are plenty of avenues to find free or low-cost volunteer abroad placements.

Here are six tried-and-true ways to volunteer abroad without paying a cent (and in some, cases, even earn money for it).

1. Volunteer independently

International volunteering is typically structured like this: You (the volunteer) apply to a volunteer-sending organization. This organization then matches you with a host organization in another country—which they have already vetted and worked with to develop project goals and job descriptions—and provide support to you throughout your placement.

“Independent volunteering,” on the other hand, is the approach where you apply directly to a host organization, removing the middleman and eliminating fees in the process.

However, that doesn’t mean that this route comes entirely free of cost.

“If you’re just scrolling through ‘free’ opportunities there’s no guarantee you’re going to get what you want out of it,” says Bennett. “You either have to invest money into a good [volunteer-sending] organization that is going to do the legwork for you. Or, you invest a lot of your own time.”

It’s kind of like going to the thrift store—you might find a gem, but you have to wade through a lot of junk before you find it.

That was the experience of Kaelyn Lynch, assistant travel editor at Outside and a Verge contributor, who volunteered independently in Borneo, Indonesia and Burma. During her last semester of college, she devoted every weekend to researching free opportunities. The result of her “deep-dive rabbit-hole through the Internet” was a comprehensive spreadsheet detailing placements available at over 100 prospective host organizations.

“I wanted to find an organization that I felt I could contribute to, would fit my very-limited budget and was doing good long-standing work in the region,” says Lynch. The placements she found weren’t as organized, but she believes they were more fulfilling than if she had paid.

If you’re prepared to do the research and are comfortable going overseas without a safety net, there are three main avenues for finding free volunteer abroad positions:

1) Ask your extended social network.

Despite her extensive research, this is how Lynch ended up landing her first volunteer position in Borneo. It’s also one of the top methods that Bennett recommends.

It may be old-school, but reaching out to family, friends, colleagues, classmates or professors can be surprisingly effective, as they can often vouch for organizations based on personal experience.

2) Cold-contact prospective host organizations.

Remember: Just because an opportunity isn’t advertised, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (As an independent volunteer, you’ll likely be responsible for developing both your job description and work plan anyway.) The time-consuming task of reaching out to organizations can be made more manageable if you have a clear sense of the specific skills you’d like to contribute or what you’d like to learn.

Lynch also recommends basing your search on your ideal sector, rather than on your ideal destination.

3) Search for existing opportunities on online databases.

If you’re looking for a short-term opportunity, sites such as WWOOF, Workaway, Worldpackers and HelpX advertise thousands of opportunities to volunteer abroad. Typically, you have to pay a small annual membership fee (in the ballpark of $50 to $100) to join these sites and apply for the positions. Positions also tend to focus heavily on farming, conservation, teaching English and volunteer work at hostels or accommodation providers.

If you’re looking for a more substantive placement in education or capacity building, there are a number of free sites that list longer-term volunteer placements, including:

Omprakash: Far more than just a database of free volunteer opportunities, Omprakash is a non-profit that rigorously vets each of its partner organizations. Users apply directly to host organizations, who then assess each volunteer to ensure they’re the right fit.

Omprakash’s co-director and founder Willy Oppenheim explains the model was designed in response to the now-prolific “click and buy” voluntourism sites, where volunteers can purchase a trip even if they might not be the best fit for a host organization.

“From an ethical standpoint, [the volunteer abroad] space is over-commodified; relationships are being bought and sold. We don’t want to do that,” he says. “Our partner organizations have the full autonomy to define positions, including who, when and how to recruit volunteers.”

Omprakash also offers an online learning platform (with both free and fee-based programs) devoted to critical reflection and dialogue amongst international volunteers, which can be used as a pre-departure training program.

Freevolunteering.net: Best for destination-based searches, this website also has a corresponding Facebook group, where organizations post call-outs for volunteers.

Grassroots Volunteering: This low-tech site lists both free and paid volunteer opportunities abroad.

VolunteerSouthAmerica.net: Some of these listings may be out-of-date, but if your heart is set on South America, check here for free and low-cost placements.

The NGO List: Organized by country, this website lists non-profits that offer volunteer placements globally. While it’s a good place to start your search, you’ll need to contact each organization individually to verify the costs involved.

Verge Magazine's volunteer directory lists hundreds of volunteer programs and is free to use. 

For more information on setting up your own volunteer abroad placement, read Ann Halsig’s article “International Volunteering for the Independent Type.”

2. Volunteer virtually

If volunteering abroad feels cost-prohibitive, why not eliminate flights, accommodation and other travel expenses from the equation?

During COVID-19’s rapid spread across the globe in early 2020, volunteer abroad projects were cancelled, tens of thousands of international volunteers were called home, and “virtual volunteering” opportunities began to spring up. If people couldn’t contribute their skills in-person, at least they could give back remotely.

While the idea might seem revolutionary, the concept has existed for years. In 2015, Cuso International launched E-Volunteering, the first formalized program of its kind in Canada. Now, the number of organizations and websites offering virtual placements are too numerous to name. Here are just a handful:

UNVolunteers: Every year, more than 12,000 people contribute their time and skills through the United Nations’ online volunteering portal. Opportunities run the gamut, including translating documents, researching funding opportunities, helping draft project proposals, UI/UX designing, and providing legal aid advice.

Amnesty Decoders: Consider yourself an online sleuth? Amnesty International uses “decoders,” or online volunteers, to research and expose human rights violations. For example, one recent project saw more than 6,000 volunteers comparing recent satellite images of villages in Darfur with older ones to help find evidence of schools and homes being destroyed.

Idealist.org: This non-profit’s job board includes listings for thousands of virtual and remote volunteering gigs. You can refine your search based on issue area, the skills you have to contribute and the dates you’re available.

3. Get your boss to foot the bill

You might scoff at this suggestion, but stranger things have happened. After all, many workplaces—including Deloitte, PwC and Microsoft—already offer incentive programs where staff have the opportunity to volunteer abroad, while others offer paid sabbaticals for international service. It makes sense; international volunteerism is tied to higher employee retention, engagement and better teamwork. It’s also for this reason that many volunteer-sending organizations will help to organize corporate team projects; you just need to ask.

Much like convincing your boss to let you work remotely, this is all about planning and presentation. The ticket to success is communicating effectively to your employer how it will benefit their business—and how you’ll ensure your work gets done in your absence.

4. Apply to a government-funded placement

If you’re Canadian or American, your federal government has an invested interest in improving global ties and relations, including through volunteer abroad programs.

Government-funded placements usually aren’t short-term—you’ll need to commit for upwards of three months—but they come at a bargain. Although costs vary based on the sending organization, in most cases you can expect to have your food, accommodation, flights, visas, vaccinations, pre-departure training and re-integration support all covered.

Here are some of the most popular government-funded programs available to Canadians and Americans:

Katimavik: Not sure what to do this fall or thinking about taking a gap year? Katimavik is one of the best options for recent Canadian high school graduates. You won’t go overseas, but you will get to travel to two different Canadian communities, where you’ll volunteer and have the opportunity to initiate your own civic engagement projects based on Truth and Reconciliation or eco-stewardship. All expenses are covered, but you are asked to fundraise $1,000 prior to the program’s start date.

International Youth Internship Program (IYIP): Managed by the Global Citizens Program and funded by Global Affairs Canada, IYIP internships last for six months of more. Hosted by one of 12 Canadian international development organizations, these placements are open to Canadian graduates aged 19 to 30 from any discipline, including communications, law, small business development and STEM.

International Aboriginal Youth Internships (IAYI): Another Global Affairs Canada program, IAYI offers three- to six-month long placements for Indigenous Canadian youth age 18 to 35 in 16 countries worldwide. Hosted by Canadian partner organizations, interns can choose from a variety of sectors, including gender equality, human rights, agriculture and social services.

Peace Corps: Since 1961, Peace Corps volunteers have been contributing their skills and experience in 141 countries. Open to US citizens aged 18 and up, the classic Peace Corps program requires a commitment of two years (plus three months of training), while the Peace Corps Response volunteer program offers placements of three to 12 months for highly skilled professionals. There is no cost or application fee, but applicants may be expected to cover part of their medical exams. Upon completion of two years of service, each volunteer is provided with a stipend (around USD$10,000) to help with the transition back home.

Have a particular country in mind? Your destination’s government may also sponsor programs for incoming volunteers. For example, in partnership with the UNDP, the Chilean Ministry of Education’s English Opens Doors seeks foreign English teachers. Participation is free for volunteers aged 21 to 35; all you need to do is cover your flights to Santiago.

The Foreign Language Assistants in France is for those with a working knowledge of French; you’ll receive a stipend for teaching English abroad, as well as instruction in the French language. Spain’s Auxiliares de Conversacion program has a similar structure and mission.

5. Get paid to volunteer

Wait, doesn’t this one seem a bit counter-intuitive? After all, if you’ve been reading this article closely, you already know that organizations invest considerable resources into hosting volunteers. So why does it make sense for volunteers to get paid?

“The time investment given by a highly skilled volunteer offsets the management support that needs to be given to the volunteer,” explains Bennett. Translation? When an experienced professional donates their time for below market value, it benefits the host organization significantly. Offering a stipend to attract these volunteers only makes sense.

Let’s be clear: you’re not going to be able to make bank on a paid volunteer placement, but you also won’t go broke while you’re giving back. In addition to the cost of your flights and insurance being covered, you’ll receive a small monthly or weekly stipend to cover your living expenses.

Paid volunteer placements are typically funded by the government and facilitated by a volunteer-sending organizations. You’ll need to have a related degree, experience and expertise in your field and have at least a few months to spare.

Some of the most popular and well-known paid placement programs for Canadians and Americans include:

CUSO International
United Nations Volunteers
International Executive Service Corps (IESC)
WUSC
CECI
CESOSACO

6. Find funding for your experience

If none of the options above work and you’ve decided you’d like to pay to volunteer abroad, you don’t have to go broke to make it happen—you can fundraise for your project. Most volunteer-sending organizations will support you by providing online fundraising sites, and if they’re a charitable organization, they can issue tax receipts to donors.

Even if you’re volunteering independently and want to raise funds for your flights or host organization, crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe have made this achievable.

You may also be eligible for existing scholarships or grants for overseas experience or volunteerism, particularly if you’re a post-secondary student. Check with your university’s international office, students’ union and scholarship databases, and ask the organization that you’re volunteering with. They may even offer their own scholarships, such as Operation Groundswell’s Financial Needs Grant or Omprakash’s Ethical Global Engagement Grants.

Just like setting up an independent volunteer opportunity, finding and applying for scholarships requires plenty of time, so keep in mind that while it will lower your costs, there’s still a significant investment.

A final note on the true “costs” of volunteering abroad

While the adage of “you get what you pay for” is true of most things in life, it actually can’t be applied to volunteering abroad. Bennett says that price is not necessarily correlated with sustainability or even—if we’re being entirely selfish here—a positive volunteer experience.

As you seek out a volunteer abroad opportunity, most of your assumptions need to be flipped on their heads: There are unethical non-profits and ethical for-profits, all charging anywhere from nothing at all, to thousands of dollars.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you’re paying to volunteer or setting up your own free placement, the questions that you ask a host organization—and ask yourself—prior to volunteering should remain the same.

• Questions to ask yourself: What are my skills? Is my goal to share skills or to gain experience abroad? Can I truly make a meaningful contribution in the time I have available?

• Questions to ask your host organization: How was this project identified? What is the long-term goal of the project and how do international volunteers support that goal? How is the program funded? How are volunteers supported before, during and after their departure? Can you connect me with past participants?

If cost is your only motivating factor for choosing an organization, it may be time to seriously reflect on your role as an international volunteer.

“You really need think about what are the implications of moving across huge chasms of social and economic inequality and what the larger structural inequalities are that you’re complicit in,” says Omprakash’s Oppenheim. “If you’re failing to ask those questions, it’s pretty hollow. Volunteering is only truly ethical if it’s accompanied by serious reflection about deeper social issues.”

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Published in Volunteer Abroad
Jessica Lockhart

Contributing Editor

Although Jessica has travelled to more than 30 countries, her favorite place to throw down her bag is still her hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta. A freelance journalist, Jess has worked for international development organizations and tour operators. She’s conducted workshops in Vanuatu, perfected the use of a satellite phone in the jungles of Guyana and supervised teenage pool parties in the Dominican Republic. Although she's based in Toronto, Jess works remotely from all around the world.

Website: www.jesslockhart.com

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