Do you want to save the world? Well, you can’t but you can still do something..
Each year, countless backpackers and students head off into the wilds of Asia, Africa and South America in the hopes of making a positive impact through volunteering abroad….
Volunteering abroad options range from child care and bottle-feeding big cats to single-handedly building entire schools… You know, the kind of stuff that the average volunteer is simply in no way qualified to do…
So what’s going on?
Sadly, most big volunteering companies no longer see volunteering as a means to improve the world but as an experience to be packaged up and sold to idealistic idiots like you and me. It’s become a cynical business model profiteering of good intentions.
But it doesn’t always have to be this way. In this post, we will tell you all about different ways to volunteer abroad.
Cheap Volunteering In All of It’s Forms
Before we go any further and get into the finer points of volunteering abroad, let us take a few moments to reflect exactly what we mean when we discuss volunteering abroad. Well, the Oxford Dictionary defines the word “volunteer” as meaning;
- “a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task.”
- “a person who works for an organization without being paid.”
So when we volunteer abroad, all we are doing is a bit of unpaid work, in a foreign country. Simple enough right? In which case, why the hell did I feel ever the need to patronise you all by breaking out the dictionary you may well be wondering?! Well because over the past decade or so, volunteering abroad has become something of a properly loaded term and so I want us to get right back to basics before we go any further.
Now, when we talk about volunteering abroad, we are usually referring to one of two distinct categories of volunteering.
- Volunteering for a charity or non-governmental organisation. This can mean teaching in under-funded schools, digging wells in Africa or (God forbid) working in an orphanage. This form of volunteering is sometimes referred to as volunteering-tourism or (more disparagingly) “do gooder volunteering”.
- Volunteering for a private individual or company in exchange for bread and board. Common examples of this include hostel volunteering or farm work.
Both forms of volunteering can really add value to your travels when done properly. But, both forms of volunteering or also open to abuse and can go wrong and end badly if you are not careful.
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The Problems of Volunteering Abroad
As we said in the opening salvo, volunteering abroad did develop something of negative reputation over the last decade. But why is this?
Well there are a few reasons.
Firstly, the concept came to be associated with a certain kind of traveler who tended to view the experience as little more than a ‘rite of passage’ or a box to tick off as part of the whole “gap year” thing. Under and post grads alike flocked to schools and conservation projects across Southeast Asia joining projects for a week, taking a load of selfies, and then disappearing having achieved very little. We will touch on the “right kind” of person who should volunteer towards the end of this post by the way.
Now why this was ever allowed to happen so much for so long is largely because of the second reason that volunteering abroad earned such a bad rep…
And that second reason is that far too many shitty, cynical volunteering companies came to see the carousel of short-stay, half arsed volunteers as a golden opportunity to make serious money in ‘admin’ fees. In some cases, volunteers were charged $1000’s of dollars for placements and very little of the money ever went anywhere near the project they were working on. Before long volunteerism came to be seen as a slew of semi legit projects sending semi motivated volunteers whilst raking in hefty fees which presumably went on fair-trade shareholders champagne.
The third reason, is that even “private volunteers” working on farms or in hostels were been taken advantage of. Here at TBB we have heard countless stories of volunteer workers being forced to work long hard days by their hosts and in exchange given only basic rations and unfit beds.
Is Volunteering Abroad ALWAYS Bad?
Hell no. Volunteering abroad is absolutely not always bad. In fact, most volunteer experiences end very happily. But as we all know, bad news travels faster and further than good news and unfortunately the entire sector came to be defined by its worst elements.
In truth though Volunteering abroad is an absolutely awesome idea. It’s a way of travelling to somewhere new, living within a local community, doing something to positively contribute towards the local society, economy or environment all whilst having your bed and food provided for feee (usually…).
I’m all for volunteering. Totally 100%. And volunteering abroad is bloody awesome; it gives you a unique opportunity to properly get involved in a local community and some breathing space to reevaluate what is important to you.
On my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to volunteer a few times – I’ve worked on a kibbutz in Israel, spent time living in a remote community in India whilst laying water piping, volunteered in Nepal and Laos and taught English in Pakistan.
We will tell you how to find good volunteering placements but firstly, we need to name and shame some volunteer organisations that you need to avoid.
Voluntourism: The Terrible, The Bad & The Ugly
Before we go any further let’s get one thing absolutely straight – the worst volunteering projects you could possibly get involved with are orphanages and dodgy wildlife conservation projects. In Cambodia, many non-orphans are kept in orphanages in order to dupe tourists into giving donations.
Many elephant conservation projects around the world are badly run and animals are frequently mistreated – you shouldn’t ride elephants and if you volunteer with an organisation which promotes this you are just adding to the problem.
Avoid these kind of projects at all costs. Fortunately, if you bear with us we can help you find something much, much better.
Some Bad Volun-tour Operators To Avoid!
Unfortunately, volunteering abroad is a god-damn minefield… There are dozens of shitty volunteering organisations which are only in it for the money.
Many of these companies have a flashy website and social media channels and use these to pull in volunteers. They charge insane fees, sometimes as much as $1500 a week, and then send volunteers to projects which, often, the company in question has never even checked out. They pay the project on the ground a small handling fee to cover the volunteers food and board and keep the vast majority of the profit; basically acting as a middle man.
Case study number one: Madventurer Review
My friend Kate volunteered with Madventurer in Africa, she paid $1600 for a two week placement. Upon arriving at the local school where she would be teaching she discovered that no money had come in from Madventurer for months and the school was low on paper, pens, textbooks, everything.
The included food and accommodation was the cheapest of the cheap leading her to ask the question – where the heck did the volunteering fee go? Into corporate pockets, that’s where. I have heard multiple similar reports from other folks who have volunteered with Madventurer.
Case study number two: World Challenge Review
One of the worst scams out there, World Challenge charges as much as £4000 for a one month trip (not including flights!). The company encourages you to raise the money for the trip but if you only raise, for example, half of it then World Challenge keeps the cash and you don’t get to go. World Challenge has been in the press recently for a couple of volunteer deaths over the last few years which could have been avoided if the company had made proper arrangements; something which should be easy considering how much money they are making.
Usually, you can tell if a volunteering organisation is legit or not based purely on the price-tag. Unfortunately, volunteering abroad is big business and there’s plenty of unscrupulous individuals willing to charge willing do-gooders through the nose for the privilege of giving back. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for splashing some cash for a worthy cause but as you are dealing with a middle-man, your cash will not be getting where it needs to go.
Luckily, there are some decent volunteering companies and platforms out there…
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Cheap & Ethical Volunteer Abroad Projects
Volunteering is not only a great way to learn more about a local culture, make new amigos and do something useful, it’s also an effective way to cut down on your costs whilst travelling. But only if you do it the right way.
The right way is by doing your own research… Finding a local, preferably small, organisation online and then doing a ton of research into reviews, previous volunteer experiences and making a judgement call on whether the fees (if there are any) seem fair…
If you want to volunteer overseas and not break the bank, then there are many different ways to volunteer abroad cheaply. Of course, the cheapest way to volunteer abroad is to find a host yourself who doesn’t require any payment.
However, that can prove difficult, time consuming and risky. This is why there are now quite a few volunteer platforms and exchanges that connect volunteers with hosts for a very reasonable fee.
Worldpackers – The Best Cheap Volunteer Company For Placements
Worldpackers is a volunteering organisation that connects travellers with charitable and NGO volunteer projects all across the world. The reason we recommend Worldpackers is because all of their projects are legit – no fake orphanages and no commercial farms trying to bag some free labour. All of the projects they work with are properly vetted, regulated, certified and carefully monitored.
We have used them ourselves and you can read all about the time our Ralph volunteered in Vietnam via Worldpackers here. The projects they work with range from things like under-funded schools who need help with teaching and support to community farms in poor rural areas.
They do charge fees for placements but to the very best of our knowledge, the monies go towards managing and maintaining the projects that Worldpackers support, as well as the Worldpacker platform itself.
If you sign up via the link below, you can claim a $10 discount on membership using the code BROKEBACKPACKER.
Worldpackers: connecting travellers with meaningful travel experiences.
Workaway – The Best Cheap Volunteer Platform For Unpaid Work
Workaway is probably one of the best online volunteering databases out there and is certainly one of the biggest. Once you have paid a small fee to join the site you are able to contact thousands of hosts all over the world who are offering all kinds of projects from training falcons to building barns.
Workaway’s projects are an excellent mix of charity, NGO, good-deed type placements as well as businesses who are offering free food and accommodation in exchange for work.
My friend recently used workaday in Chile and found himself painting a bunch of holiday chalets that will be rented out for $100 per night once the (Southern Hemisphere) Spring season starts. In all honesty the host could have afforded to pay somebody to do the work but my friend was happy to do it because he got to stay in a $100 per night chalet for 2 weeks, free of charge. I once got to live above a community theatre in Colombia in exchange for some translation duties. So that’s the kind of thing you can land via Workaway.
Workaway placements do not cost any money. You have to pay a fee to join the platform but that is it. If any host on Workaway is asking for money then stay well away from them.
Much like Couchsurfing, this website works on a reference system so if a host has multiple bad references they should probably be avoided.
HelpX is an excellent little site that I have used successfully on a couple of occasions and it’s a great alternative to Workaway. Most of the projects are free to volunteer although some projects in poorer countries ask for a donation to cover your rent and food. A great way to volunteer abroad cheap.
It’s important to note that when you arrange a volunteering placement through an online database such as those above there is a certain element of risk. I have heard some tales of volunteers rocking up to find that the host is unreachable, the project is not as described or accommodation is not included.
Just keep in mind that you do need to keep your wits about you when using Workaway and Helpx. Some unscrupulous hosts have worked out that they can use the portals as a source of free labour and the occasional donation. The hosts are now regulated and vetted like the Worldpackers projects are.
Perhaps the Daddy of all volunteering abroad cheap programmes. WWOFFing is all about volunteering on organic farms. I’ve WWOFFed a few times in the past and have really enjoyed it. In general, you work four to six hours a day for four to five days a week.
You receive food and accommodation in exchange for your labour and, if you pick the right farm, you can have an incredible experience staying in a commune environment. Both Workaway and Helpx have organic farming opportunities listed as well and I would suggest checking those out first as they are cheaper to join.
WOOFING is really popular in expensive countries like New Zealand as an alternative to paying out for costly food and accommodation.
Although not as well known as Workaway, Global Work and Travel offers amazing travel programs in 60+ countries and volunteer experiences in 9 of them. What sets GWT apart, though, is you hardly have to plan anything. Global Work and Travel offers fully guided volunteering trips as well as a 24/7 support line. You’ll get help with sorting visas, airport pick up transfers and finding accommodation. They even offer flexible payment plans making it easier to get on that plane ASAP!
Know Thyself Before You Volunteer
Choosing a reputable volunteer organisation, volunteer platform and volunteer project are all excellent ways to help ensure that the experience is a worthwhile one. However, before you sign up or apply for anything, you should also take the time to have a quick word with yourself.
Before you even speak to volunteer organisations it is vitally important to take the time to work out exactly what you expect from a project and what are you are prepared to offer in return – because remember, the organisation will have expectations of you as well.
When choosing a project, ask yourself the following questions;
- What do I want to get out this? Free digs? Work experience? Redemption?!
- What skills do I have to offer? Can you teach? How about paint?
- Is there a certain cause I am passionate about? It could be children, animals or perma-culture.
- Is it possible to choose a project which enhances my career options? There is no shame in using the opportunity to get some work experience.
- Where in the world can I do the most good?
In general, I tend to steer clear of volunteering projects centred around children in orphanages. I believe that unless you can commit for a few months it’s not really fair to form a bond with a child and then leave after a week. There are plenty of other projects you can get involved with involving children so p-lease, leave the actual childcare to the experts.
The are literally thousands of opportunities to volunteer your time while travelling, for further inspiration on volunteering, HelpX and Workaway have a read of this piece by Two Scots Abroad!
If you are interested in teaching English abroad, really getting to know a country and its culture why not consider getting a TEFL qualification and making some money whilst you’re on the road; check out this article for further information.
Final Thoughts on Cheap Volunteer Placements
As we have said, we feel that there is still a lot of scope for good, ethical and cheap volunteer projects all over the world. By doing some research and taking our advice, we are confident you will have an absolute blast.
As ever, we love to hear from you. If you have ever had a good or bad experience when volunteering abroad, go ahead and let us know in the comments.
And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links. That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!