Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
How to Find Free Volunteering Opportunities around the World
avoiding costly & ethically precarious voluntourism agencies
Disclaimer: This article is part of a series titled “Volunteering 101: An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work” exploring the dynamics of volunteering with nonprofit organizations. My insights are based on two years of personal volunteering experience with nonprofits in Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as research and conversations with people involved in the sector. By volunteering I typically mean self-organized participation in grassroots projects as opposed to voluntourism or government postings, even though I will touch on these as well.
The idea of volunteering abroad is simple: you engage with local nonprofit organizations to help out at their projects. Finding the right grassroots organization to work with, is where your endeavor gets tricky. If you ask your buddy Google about terms like “volunteering abroad,” it will mostly bombard you with paid voluntourism opportunities. Not only is this concept counterintuitive (pay to work without pay), but making a charitable cause a business is also ethically precarious, as I elaborate here. I have dedicated the difference between volunteering and voluntoursim a separate article, which you might want to read up on before you start searching for volunteering opportunities, but here is the gist: organizing the trip by yourself, foregoing agency-backed all inclusive packages, will spare your wallet, give you a more authentic experience and is usually more beneficial for local communities.
So how do you find the right grassroots nonprofit organization with free volunteering opportunities and perhaps even the capacities to offer board and lodging in exchange for your work?
first things first
this article does not address volunteering opportunities in the commercial sector, e.g. at a hostel or in any other for-profit scenario – you can find these gigs easily on websites like Workaway or Woofing; neither does it deal with long-term volunteering government postings, such as offered by the Peace Corps or similar institutions around the world. Instead, this article describes how to find free volunteering opportunities (short-term or long-term) with local grassroots nonprofits (often NGOs) around the world.
Tamil Nadu / India education is one of the main sectors local grassroots organizations engage in
To volunteer with these grassroots organizations, you will need to get in touch with them directly and plan your trip autonomously as opposed to being backed by government institutions or costly voluntourism agencies. For seasoned travelers that’s a piece of banana bread anyway, but even for novices the struggle is mild and if anything a welcome challenge of sovereignty. Your local nonprofit will also accompany your steps, even though they can’t take them for you. The question is whether you want to organize the trip by yourself. Maybe you are willing to pay top dollar for a more convenient experience. Keep in mind though that this will inevitably take away as much authenticity from your experience as it adds comfort. Instead of immersing yourself in the real world abroad, you might end up merely observing it while hovering in a protective bubble that is much like home. If you don’t want that...
...let’s start the search for a raw grassroots experience:
Throwing keywords like “volunteering,” “volunteering abroad,” or “volunteer Africa” at your search engine will get you the aforementioned costly response: you will first come across numerous “affordable” volunteering opportunities, generously offered to you by the voluntourism industry. By “affordable” they typically mean something in the neighborhood of hundreds of dollars for a week and thousands of dollars for a month of volunteering. Names like VolunteerHQ, GoAbroad and GoOverseas will likely be on top of the list with paid and organic results.
Here is how you can avoid these voluntourism agencies and find free volunteering opportunities abroad:
Authentic grassroots projects, which don’t work with tourism agencies that offer Westerners voluntourism “adventures,” are usually happy about every helping hand and have no desire to charge volunteers. In some cases you have to pay for your own board and lodging, since your nonprofit might lack the resources to host you for free. That’s absolutely understandable and very different from charging volunteers for participating in the project itself. You might also find nonprofits that have the means to give you accommodation and food in exchange for the work you bring in. Keep in mind that as a volunteer you usually work normal 8-hour days and in the best case scenario you actually offer real value to the project in exchange for these benefits.
Salasaka / Ecuador free volunteer housing with a view
Now, let’s get to the practical part:
finding free volunteering gigs abroad while still at home:
This is the most likely scenario for potential volunteers and people who are reading this article right now: you’re still at home, planning your trip and the internet is your go-to place for inquiries. I would start with making up your mind about the activities you are interested in and about location preferences. There are many ways to do your little share as a volunteer: education, healthcare, conservation, etc. – the list is long and gustoes diverge. You can try to be helpful to one person, animal or tree at a time. Maybe you want to volunteer in the field you’re most interested in, or maybe the one you can best contribute to. Given the ample array of activities, there are many places of potential engagement, most notably in Latin America, Asia and Africa. On one hand these are the prime destinations because there is more potential for development projects in these parts of the world, and on the other hand because they are the faraway lands most volunteers want to immerse themselves in. By making up your mind about the type of work and place (if you have such preferences) you will determine more precise keywords for your search.
Salasaka / Ecuador Locals & Volunteers at
fire up your search engine and skip over costly voluntourism agencies
Say you want to volunteer in education: popular keywords to sift through the myriad volunteering opportunities out there would be “volunteering education South America,” “volunteer school Africa,” “volunteer abroad education” etc. I don’t need to explain search engines to you. Important, however, is how to skip over all the travel agencies that will charge you for a voluntourism experience abroad (unless that’s what you really want). Remember: we are trying to find authentic grassroots organizations that offer free volunteering.
First, you can skip over all paid ads on top of the search result page. A local nonprofit organization with free volunteering opportunities would neither have the financial means to advertise here, nor would its organizational culture allow for the spending of funds on marketing campaigns that attract volunteers. Google’s sweet spot is reserved for agencies that make money with voluntourism experiences and it is the money of voluntourists that pays for these ads. The next 1-4 pages of organic search results (between the ads on the top and bottom) will probably also be occupied by these costly voluntourism agencies. Search engines like them because their marketing budgets allow for great SEO. Hence, small grassroots projects get banned to the bottom of the search engine food chain. I know, you’ve probably never been to the far realms of a second search result page, let alone a third one. But, if you want to find free volunteering gigs at the grassroots, you will have to venture there and eventually you might scream “yahoo” upon finding what you were looking for.
To filter the results quickly without missing a legit and free volunteering project, skim through the descriptions. If you see phrases like “affordable volunteering” or “inexpensive volunteering,” move on – there will be a charge and it will be anything but inexpensive. If you’re not sure, check out the website of the respective organization. If the design looks very neat, fun and touristy, promising unforgettable experiences and adventures, you’re probably in the wrong place. To be sure, just see if there is a section about fees for volunteering or if they offer projects all around the world. That’s when you know for certain that there is no free volunteering to be found. Search on until you come across local organizations that represent themselves (rather than international tourism agencies that represent myriad local organizations and projects all around the world) with a typically simple website. Some of these grassroots projects specifically mention that they accept volunteers and often provide information on volunteer tasks, the application process and accommodation options.
what adding the word "free" gets you
If you add the word "free" to your search, you might make your life a lot easier. At least this will reduce paid voluntourism offers significantly. Instead you will now come across a lot of websites that also act as mediators, but put you in touch with nonprofits that offer free volunteering opportunities. The concept is that you pay a membership fee on most of these sites (like Helpstay), which is usually not all that costly and the far better deal compared to paying voluntourism agencies for the grassroots participation itself. The sites you will encounter, facilitate your search for a project if you aren't keen on sifting through the web yourself to find local nonprofits. It should also be noted that not every grassroots organization has its own website and that some solely post their volunteering opportunities on said mediating sites.
get in touch with your grassroots project
Once you found your grassroots project, get in touch with the people in charge to see if it is a good fit and to talk about dates and other details; these could include possible tasks based on your skills, guidelines and rules of the project, and how to get there. As mentioned before, you will have to organize the trip by yourself in terms of flight tickets, visas, bus connections etc. However, if you are ready to volunteer abroad at the grassroots, the journey itself should be little challenging; and if it is, well, all the better.
Tamil Nadu / India assisting in the classroom
while working with AID India
East London / South Africa kids at the
useful website resources to find nonprofits
There are some free websites that help you to find nonprofits and give you a lift around the tiresome Google search.
I found all my grassroots projects in Latin America on this terrific website:
The wonderful person behind it made the effort of finding and listing a multitude of free volunteering opportunities throughout Latin America. The entire website is basically a plain long list of links, sorted by countries and presented alongside project summaries. You just look for your place and field of choice and use the links to get in touch with the projects directly. Everything is free of charge.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find such a helpful resource for Asia and Africa, so that I mostly relied on Google here. I did, however find one of my amazing projects in South Africa (Imagine Scholar) through www.idealist.org.
Kamhlushwa / South Africa Imagine Scholar
Idealist is similar to Workaway and both offer volunteering projects worldwide. Idealist can be thought of as oriented a bit more towards social engagement; unfortunately though, in my experience, the majority of projects charges fees for volunteering. The deal on Workaway is usually this: work in exchange for food and accommodation. However, you seldom find nonprofit organizations here; most postings are hostels, farms and the likes. I don’t think there is anything wrong with volunteering at a hostel reception or bar and getting a bed in exchange. It’s a way to save a buck while traveling and to each his own. Nonetheless, I always preferred nonprofit organization for two simple reasons:
For one thing, I don’t like the idea of volunteering for businesses that make money. They have the financial means to pay employees and quite possibly I am driving a local out of his job here. I would rather help a nonprofit organization that is trying to empower a local community. For another thing, I will definitely get a better insight and a less generic experience in terms of cultural immersion, when volunteering with a nonprofit organization. After all, I will be working with locals rather than serving drinks to other travelers at the bar.
Another option is Woofing, which is specialized on farm work. Since permaculture and similar concepts are often part of a nonprofit’s sustainability efforts, you can possibly find charitable projects here.
Last but not least, there is my own nonprofit section here on MilesAstray.
I introduce projects in Latin America, Asia and Africa, which I have personally worked with as a volunteer. I can vouch for their legitimacy and hope some of my readers might volunteer with them someday or make donations.
while on the road
If you are looking for a free volunteering opportunity while on the road, an alternative to online research is to simply ask around. There are many projects near tourist destinations, which are naturally easier to find than rural projects that are totally off the beaten path. Good places to ask around are hostels. The people in charge might know of a project or even cooperate with one. Furthermore you might run into other travelers who have volunteered somewhere already or heard of somebody who has. Of course Couchsurfing hosts, restaurant and shop owners or any other local person might also be able to point you into the right direction. Aside from that, local nonprofits sometimes hang signs outside their offices or put them up in touristy spots in towns and rural areas to gain the attention of potential donors and volunteers. That's how a friend of mine came across La Esperanza Granada in Nicaragua.
one word of advice:
Unfortunately, like everywhere, there are some black sheep in the nonprofit sector as well, and you might come across them online or while abroad. Some could be flat-out scams, while others may operate in ethically questionable grey zones.
Take my time in Uganda: I stayed at Lake Bunyonyi for some weeks and every time I would go for a walk, a different local would chat me up and tell me about his nonprofit organization: orphanages, women empowerment, etc. Upon following up with some simple inquires, however, their stories would all fall apart – suddenly the orphanage was closed every time we stopped by, no paperwork whatsoever could be produced and generic pictures of children on Facebook were the only dubious backup for any claim. In the end all conversations ended with a request for money.
Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda attractive scenery attracting tourists has led to the common practice of using alleged nonprofits to ask for money
While these were pretty obvious attempts to make a quick buck, which could easily be unveiled by common sense, some other set ups are more subtle.
For instance, when I was in Asia I found a project called “Volunteer in Java” on Google without much of a search effort. As the person in charge explained to me later, a Lonely Planet writer had given this project near Jakarta quite an SEO boost. Unfortunately that writer must have been pretty naïve and advocated for an organization that turned out to be rather shady, at least throughout my stay. On our first day, another volunteer and I were sent to different city, supposedly to teach at a school. As it turned out, it was actually a language school (where students pay for classes) and it was enrollment day. We were given promotional t-shirts and minutes later the people in charge presented us on a stage to some 40 mothers as teachers of a language school we had never set foot in before. The situation was so perplexing that it took us a moment to realize what was happening: our project leader had rented us out to a for-profit language school, where we were used to deceive people with an alleged affiliation that was in fact non-existent. Over the next days we would teach in another language school and at a private home, while the project description had made it seem as though we’d be working at primary and secondary schools. Even though the project doesn’t explicitly call itself a nonprofit, its description makes it sound like foreign volunteers would contribute to a good cause, when actually the person in charge made money of all the lessons we were involved with. There was a certain finesse to the set up and many volunteers might not pick up on the dubious scheme at all; especially since it was still an interesting off the beaten path experience, which included teaching at a Javanese prison and other memorable moments. The problem with these kinds of projects is, however, that they distract from legit nonprofits that could use any helping hand and donation.
Now that you know the ropes of finding free volunteering opportunities abroad, you’re up: rev the search engine, skip over the voluntourism industry and dig all the way down to the grassroots. Or check in with some of the websites I mentioned, including my own nonprofit section. Volunteering directly with a local nonprofit organization is not only better for your wallet, but probably also the more beneficial contribution to a local community and the more authentic experience for you.
along these lines
Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
What You Perceive & What It Is: Volunteering Outlook vs. Actual Impact
subjective vs. objective evaluations of volunteering results
...it could be a little step on an individual level, like a kid having its first aha moment while learning simple math; or it could be the large scale implementation of a project that brings about systemic and sustainable empowerment of a community. read more
Volunteering Motives - Who Helps Whom and Why
Can volunteering abroad truly be selfless and whom does it actually help?
...we can all just go on a quest for our own motives to do something social (might that be altruistic or not) and do our best to actually contribute to the empowerment of local communities and the alteration of disadvantageous global structures... read more
Who Is That White Savior With the Complex?
Are Westerners trying to save the world on their terms?
...development assistance can be viable; unless it feeds into an individual or systemic White Savior Complex that results in the idea of one side helping the other and distracts people from the underlying issues and inequities. read more
Reality Check: Volunteering Benefits & Pitfalls
Are volunteering programs more helpful or harmful?
If implemented right, volunteering programs employed by grassroots nonprofits can add additional value to community-empowering projects along various dimensions. However, oftentimes benefits come alongside cultural and ethical pitfalls... read more