donate to grassroots organizations or volunteer with them
donations Finding the right cause to donate to can be challenging. Many people don't want their money to get lost on administrative detours in large organizations, even though they might be inevitable. The thought of not knowing how much money actually seeps through to the grassroots can be frustrating and deter people from donating. Throughout my journey I have worked with grassroots nonprofits as a volunteer for stretches from two to eleven months. I can personally vouch for all the projects you find below, but you don't need to take my word for it. All these nonprofit organizations accept volunteers and visitors, so you could stop by any time and see for yourself where and how far the money goes.
volunteering Another form of engagement, other than donating, is volunteering. While the basic idea is simple – instead of money you invest your time and skills to contribute – finding a legitimate project to work with isn't always easy. The tourism industry has discovered social engagement at the grassroots as a bestselling vacation package that can be easily marketed; after all you're going on vacation and get to be a do-gooder. If you think about it though, the idea is counter-intuitive: you pay to work without pay. Moreover, the concept of making a charitable cause a business is ethically precarious for reasons I elaborate on below. The projects I introduce here don't charge any fees. Some might even have the means to provide you with board and lodging in exchange for your work, while others ask that you cover your own living expenses.
Escuela Katitawa is a school in Salasaca, an indigenous town in the Ecuadorian Andes. The project encompasses an elementary school and kindergarten as well as a library and a plant nursery. The idea behind the school is to offer Montessori-like education and to uphold indigenous Andean culture, which has little to no place in Ecuador's public education system. Besides books, internet access and computer classes for the children, the library also offers English conversational classes in the evenings. Whoever is interested in practicing English can stop by five days a week and converse with volunteers. Volunteers also help out at the school and in the plant nursery, which aims at generating a more self-sustainable source of income, when donations are sparse. In charge of it all until 2016 was Robert Jeffords, an 85 years old amazing visionary, who is missed dearly since his passing. Now the project is run by local and international volunteers. Most donations come from former volunteers or their relatives, but money is often short. Escuela Katitawa accepts one time donations and reoccurring monthly payments through Paypal. Volunteers live for free in a wonderful house named "Pacha Mama". Breakfast and lunch is included. For dinners volunteers chip in a dollar and take turns cooking their favorite dishes - great international cuisine! They leave a $ 10 donation per week.
For more information or to make a donation please visit Escuela Katitawa's website.
Villa Santa Martha
Villa Martha (Santa Martha Foundation) is an orphanage in Picapiedra, a little village outside of Lima, Peru. Around 80 children live here and the age span ranges from babies to 17-year-olds. The kids are separated into boys and girls as well as into age groups, which all have their own dormitories and bathrooms. Each group has its own caregiver, while several psychologists oversee the daily routines and have personal conversations with kids and caregivers. Founder Papa Roberto visits regularly, while the day to day business is run by Tio Tom and his helping hands. A typical day starts with the kids getting up early, preparing for school, cleaning their dormitories and bathrooms, followed by a communal breakfast with the other groups. After school and a communal lunch there are tutoring sessions and leisure, before it’s time for dinner. On weekends some children have visits from family members and sometimes trips to the nearby countryside are organized. Volunteers sleep for free in the same dormitories as the kids and are provided three meals a day. They help out with the daily routines, tutoring sessions or whatever else might be needed at a given time. They are also encouraged to come up with own ideas and can implement individual projects for the children.
For more information or to make a donation please visit Villa Santa Martha's website.
La Esperanza Granada
La Esperanza Granada is an NGO based in Granada, Nicaragua engaged in children’s education. The project sends volunteers to schools in impoverished areas on the outskirts of Granada, to assist teachers in the classrooms. The project reaches more than 2.000 children and has recently started to operate its own learning centers. Ayudantes, local students who help out with the organizational processes, are rewarded with scholarships. They engage in office work and visit the schools and learning centers to supervise international volunteers. Most funding for the project comes from individuals, service groups and schools. Oftentimes whole groups come down to Nicaragua to provide not only funding but also manual labor, helping e.g. with the construction of new classrooms. International volunteers, who assist in the classrooms or tutor small groups of children, stay with La Esperanza Granada for days, weeks, or even many months at a stretch. They live in volunteer houses in the heart of Granada and pay a very reasonable fee for their accommodation. Volunteers cover their own living expenses.
For more information or to make a donation please visit La Esperanza Granada's website.
AID India's mission is providing high quality education for children in Tamil Nadu, a state in India’s south. Based in Chennai, AID India operates state-wide and reaches 25.000 children in 500 villages. Lately, the organization has expanded its operations to other Indian states too. AID India's Eureka program ensures high learning standards in countryside schools by providing new materials, methods, teaching assistance and evaluation tools. The staff of this reward winning nonprofit organization consists of highly decorated and enthusiastic people, often widely renowned in their respective fields of expertise. While the main focus of AID India is education, many other projects have been implemented, ranging from agriculture to relief efforts during the devastating 2015 floods in Tamil Nadu. AID India also works with international volunteers and interns, who help out with various tasks within the organization and cover their own living expenses.
For more information or to make a donation please visit AID India's website.
Big Brother Mouse
Luang Prabang, Laos
Big Brother Mouse, based in Luang Prabang, Laos, is a small publishing house on a mission to make books accessible all throughout the country. So far, many villages in Laos have none or little access to any kind of literature and there are few books published in the local language in general. Big Brother Mouse tries to change this by printing its own books and distributing them to countryside villages. Communities that have better financial means cover the costs partly or completely by themselves, while the rest is covered by donations. The distribution to poorer villages is covered completely by donations. Besides the distribution of books, Big Brother Mouse organizes workshops and runs a library in Luang Prabang. The library is very popular with local students also because of the conversational English practice that is offered twice a day, seven days a week. High school and university students come in to practice their English skills with foreigners, who stop by during their visit to Luang Prabang.
For more information or to make a donation please visit the website of Big Brother Mouse.
Greensleeves Children's Trust
East London, South Africa
Greensleeves is an orphanage outside of East London in South Africa, aiming at providing holistic residential care for abandoned and abused children. The Children’s home was funded by a local family, namely Aunty Di and her husband Ian; initially taking care of one child whose mother asked the couple for help, Greensleeves is currently home to almost 30 children. With a lot of love, generosity and the assistance of the local community, Aunty Di and Ian managed to construct several buildings on their farm, among which the main hall with kitchen, classrooms, bathroom facilities and computers as well as a separate school building and two safe houses with lovely dormitories for the children. Except for some older kids, who study at a local high school, all the children attend classes at the Greensleeves school. Volunteers spend time with the children to assist the onsite nannies and engage in various activities and workshops for the Greensleeves kids. The atmosphere at Greensleeves does resemble more of a family setting rather than an institutional facility; to further enhance this family environment, one core vision of the project is to build cluster homes where children can live as a family with a house mother. Volunteers have their own quarters onsite free of charge and are given three meals a day.
For more information or to make a donation please visit the Greensleeves website.
Kamhlushwa, South Africa
Imagine Scholar is a unique after-school program in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, reaching out to the most ambitious children in the local schools. Together, students and facilitators create a nourishing environment emphasizing personal growth, the finding and fostering of passions and the upholding of core moral values. Although Imagine Scholar has a record of outstanding academic achievements (like students attending the Yale-Program, the African Leadership Academy or United World Colleges), the main focus of the community enrichment program is character-building aimed at the empowerment of leaders; one day these leaders will be the vanguard of social and economic enrichment in their community and even today many of the students engage in charitable activities, business contests and science projects. As founder Corey Johnson puts it: “I’m incredibly proud of all the huge successes, but the real goal is to create good people. I’d be more proud if they become good mothers, fathers or coworkers, just good people; because that’s what the world needs.” Imagine Scholar’s dynamic approach to education takes student-centric methods to the next level: students are involved in all crucial decision-making processes from schedules to subjects and the selection of new aspirants. The vision is to have (former) Imagine Scholars run the entire program by themselves within the next years. Think tanks, TED-talks, creative and critical thinking exercises, communal reading sessions, communication classes, academics, chess and meditation are some dimensions of the holistic framework. Volunteers help with the day to day schedule and function as mentors. They live on site for free, are provided food to cook for themselves and receive a small allowance in exchange for a minimum commitment of two months (shorter stays are possible in some cases).
To get to know the amazing Imagine Scholars, have a look here.
For more information or to make a donation please visit Imagine Scholar’s website.
Let me first sum this up with one of my glimpses:
LIFE LOTTERY | Against all intuition, this is not a picture that speaks for itself. It doesn’t tell the whole story and is easy to misinterpret. One might toss it into a cliché-box somewhere in the mind’s attic, where it gathers dust quickly. Yes, these children are poor, but they are not “pity-poor.” They oughtn’t to be thought of as “aww these poor kids.” It doesn’t do their strength and fortitude and grace any justice. It denies them the agency to make the best of a hard lot. They have lives. They play, they laugh. Probably more than their spoiled cousins elsewhere. Having less is not the problem here; but having little or no access to the most basic resources, rendering food, shelter, hygiene, healthcare and education daily struggles, is a fundamental injustice. Pity doesn’t help these kids, nor does indifferent awareness. Only action can level out the odds of an arbitrary life lottery. We don’t choose the circumstances we are born into and there is little to no merit in where we end up being when given a winning ticket. A false sense of entitlement keeps us from redistributing resources and opportunities in this world more evenly – from the life lottery winners to the runner ups.
We don’t choose where we’re born. Some of us are fortunate enough to grow up in an environment with easy access to all sorts of resources, from food and shelter to education and health care; others struggle to satisfy even their most basic human needs, have their human rights violated, and are affected by corruption. Growing up where resources and rights are taken for granted, one can easily forget that the majority of people on this planet does not share the same privileges.
Donating is not about giving a monetary handout; it's about awareness, empowerment and change. I will be honest with you: if you are fortunate enough to read this and make a donation, I don't want to appeal to your generosity, but to your sense of responsibility. There is little merit of us being where we are today, if we had a head start into life, and a false sense of entitlement keeps us from distributing resources in this world more evenly, from the life lottery winners to the runner ups. I'm not envisioning a world, in which everybody has the same, but one of having the same opportunities.
Ten dollars might not go far where you’re from – they might mean as little as buying a beer. But, at the other end of the world, they might make a significant difference in someone's monthly budget.
If you ask me, it's a win-win. Being too attached to our every penny often distracts us from the true prerequisites for happiness, like moments over things and genuine social ties over chasing false recognition. In that we can learn from the ones who have less – they often have more space for what matters, while those who have everything have nothing but worries. I've seen this over and over again, all around the world.
So, if you feel like life has treated you well and you got something to spare, please have a look at the nonprofit organizations above and consider donating to them. Most of them focus on education and I believe that education is key for empowering people, fostering critical thinking, making informed decisions, and changing your life and with it your world and ultimately the world. I think of it as a basic human right.
A Homage to Education
empowerer, character-builder, freedom fighter
...I think education empowers people to take agency, think critically, ask questions and have a choice in life. It is the key driver in a person’s intellectual development and, more importantly, character evolution... read more
Assisting the empowerment of local communities at the grassroots is not all about money – a labor force and skills are needed on the ground. Volunteers are a free source of labor for nonprofit organizations and can be a valuable asset for their projects under the right conditions.
Volunteers can bring in a vast array of skills as well as new perspectives and ideas. Whether the impact is positive and sustainable often depends on the duration of the commitment, the turnover of volunteers and the applied transition process. Volunteering can also yield a mutually beneficial cultural exchange between the volunteer and local communities, which, in addition, fosters awareness of global inequities. On the other hand this exchange might backfire, for instance if (short-term) visits fuel generalizations and the spreading of falsehoods based on limited insights.
Any volunteering experience is highly individual and largely shaped by a volunteer’s motives, mentalities and attitudes. Some might want to make a difference, others intend to add a check mark on their CVs or travel on the cheap. Maybe you expect to change the world by volunteering for two weeks and end up disappointed; or you might feel valuable if you can just teach one kid some simple math. Some volunteers get frustrated with certain tasks, while others are happy to help out in whatever way the organization sees fit.
Of course, a positive experience also depends on finding the right project to volunteer with. Volunteering has become a profitable business for the tourism industry and if you look for volunteering opportunities online, you’ll mostly come across paid programs. Voluntourism agencies offer short-term all-inclusive packages and charge hefty sums for their services, which add convenience, but take away from the authenticity of the experience. This might not only be a drawback for you, but also hinder the awareness that comes with a more immersive set up. Such awareness is needed to drive a large-scale change in global policies, which would reduce the necessity for development aid in the first place. Moreover, the concept of making a charitable cause a profitable business is ethically dubious and it remains unclear how much money oozes from the intermediaries to the grassroots.
However, if you look a little harder, it’s always possible to get in touch with local projects directly. They typically don't charge volunteering fees and some even offer board and lodging in exchange for your work. They are happy about every helping hand and assist you gladly, even though you will have to organize the trip by yourself. To get inspired, you can find some fantastic projects I worked with on this page.
For more volunteering insights, based on two years of personal volunteering experience in South America, Asia and Africa, read through my mini-series below. It also includes information on how to find authentic and free volunteering gigs around the world.
Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
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
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
How to Find Free Volunteering Opportunities around the World
avoiding costly and ethically precarious voluntourism agencies
...rev the search engine, skip over the voluntourism industry and dig all the way down to the grassrootss... read more
Disclaimer: Miles Astray is the author and photographer behind all words and pictures on this website. The only exception is this page, where some photographs were borrowed from fellow volunteers (namely the pictures of La Esperanza Granada and Villa Santa Martha).
Volunteering vs. Voluntourism
self-organized engagement vs. vacation packages – structures, results and ethics
...organizing your grassroots engagement independently, might not only help your own experience and wallet, but also the community you work with. read more
What You Perceive and What It Is: Volunteering Outlook and Actual Impact
subjective vs. objective evaluations of volunteering results
...it could be a little step on a very individual level, like a kid having an 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