Why not do more than just visit a bunch of old temples and ruins when you travel? It is often possible for travellers to significantly improve the lives of people in destination countries.
Volunteering while travelling is a great way to make a difference but it's not just about giving. Living and volunteering in a foreign country is a great way to get to know a different culture, meet new people, learn about yourself, get a sense of perspective and even gain new skills. It can also be a good way to stretch a budget to allow a longer stay somewhere since many volunteer jobs provide room and board and a few pay a small salary.
Many volunteer programs are oriented toward youth since good health, a desire to explore, enthusiasm and flexibility are all assets in volunteer work. Some programs involve gap year travel for secondary school leavers, and others are mainly designed for recent university graduates or for young people in general. However, these are by no means the only opportunities; there are also programs designed specifically for retirees, and organisations like Doctors Without Borders who mainly recruit volunteers with specialised skills.
The patron saint of volunteering is Saint Vincent de Paul who did extensive work among the poor of France in the early 17th century.
Of course volunteering is not the only way to travel conscientiously; see our articles on Ecotourism and Leave-no-trace camping for some of the others. For some travellers, a working holiday visa is another alternative; these are bilateral arrangements between various pairs of countries that allow young travellers from either country to work in the other for a year or so.
While there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely legitimate volunteer projects, there are also some scams specifically targeting volunteer travellers. Some people will make profits any way they can, including exploiting both their country's poverty and your good intentions for their own gain.
All of the following are common enough to be worth watching for:
- Sometimes volunteer work is just a marketing ploy; the company is basically selling tours, but including some volunteer work both attracts customers and makes them more amenable to 'roughing it' with conditions that they would not accept if they were just paying for a tour. Some volunteering tours are quite reasonable deals, but others are seriously overpriced for what they actually provide. In the worst cases you could be paying as much as for a high-priced tour with good hotels and professional guides, but getting services — transport, accommodation and food — that a low-budget backpacker would not put up with.
- Sometimes volunteers are just cheap labour, especially for teaching jobs that need foreign staff. In particular, 'gap year' volunteers often work for much lower salaries and with fewer benefits than other foreign teachers. Since the students pay the same fees in both cases, this can be very profitable for the companies involved.
- Sometimes cheap volunteer labour is merely competing with local workers who would otherwise be hired to carry out the same tasks for local wages.
- Some companies offering volunteer opportunities charge outrageous fees. Of course all such organisations have costs to cover and some quite legitimately want to make a profit, but some go well beyond that. If a company wants a large sum to register for their service or to sign up for a trip, then it is worth asking some hard questions.
- Some volunteer organisations provide no proper visa, claiming that as a volunteer you need only a tourist visa rather than a working visa. This may save the employer money or trouble, but in many cases the host government allows no such claim and the hapless volunteer might be deported or even jailed for working illegally. If you encounter such a claim, check it very carefully using government sources as much as possible.
- A particularly heartless scam is the bogus orphanage; families in poor Third World locations are persuaded to give up their children to institutions on the pretext that they will be provided with an education or a way out of poverty. These children are then misrepresented to the traveller as orphans. Any money donated goes not to education, but to enriching the owners of the institution - which most often will not allow the "orphans" to leave. The usual caveats about the use of children for begging apply. Employing "voluntourism" to provide workers to these institutions is also problematic due to frequent departure of travellers (to be replaced by new tourists) creating a very unstable home environment for the child.
The best defense against all of these is to research and compare carefully.
- Compare the 'volunteer tour' to other tours on offer or to independent travel.
- Look at our English teaching article and sites linked there for information on the 'going rates' for teachers and on available jobs.
- Look at several sources of volunteer opportunities, including the cheap or free index sites listed below.
- Check whether organisations arranging placements are registered as non-profit entities in the sending countries.
- If possible, check the legal status of orphanages and other sponsoring organisations in the receiving countries as well.
Of course, do an Internet search on any organisation that wants a substantial lump of your money or time.
Careful research is also needed to verify the effort meets the needs of the local community, instead of merely what might sound good to prospective donors. Importing travellers as free labour to "rebuild a community", if the community already has many unemployed builders who cannot find work, is an expensive but unhelpful proposition. Likewise, proposing to "build a school" in a community which already has a suitable building but cannot afford salaries to hire instructors sounds great but accomplishes little.
Various agencies of Western governments send volunteers abroad: the US Peace Corps, British VSO, Canadian CUSO, Australian AVID, New Zealand VSA, French France Voluntaires and so on. These are among the best volunteer jobs. All the major expenses — immunizations, travel, etc. — are normally covered and there is support — training (often including very good language training), medical insurance, emergency evacuation if needed — and some sort of salary, though this is often rather small by home country standards. On the other hand, these positions are harder to get; they generally require citizenship in the sponsoring country and a university degree just to apply. Most also require a heavier commitment than other volunteer schemes, typically two years.
Many governments also run organisations to teach their languages abroad, and of course they hire teachers. These are not purely volunteer jobs — typically they cover travel expenses and provide a salary — but salaries are often lower than they would be at home and sometimes the working or living conditions are difficult. We have lists of such organisations for English and other languages.
There are also programs sponsored by host governments in various places. Many involve teaching English and mainly want native speakers who are new university graduates. Typically they use one-year (renewable) contracts, pay a salary and cover expenses such as airfare. See teaching English for details.
Various other government-related groups also sponsor volunteer programs:
- European Voluntary Service (EVS). Allows you to work abroad for 3 months up to a year, funded by the European Union, at some kind of charitable organization. Requires European citizenship or at least a residence permit.
- United Nations Volunteers (UNV). A UN program.
- World Heritage Volunteers. A UNESCO program mainly working on preservation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
When you come back, these organizations look good on a resumé, especially for jobs where your knowledge of the country and language will be of use. Both governments and international companies quite often recruit among former volunteers; any overseas volunteer experience may help but the government-sponsored programs are the most credible.
There are also programs in various countries that involve volunteer work on archaeological digs:
For archaeological volunteering, see also World Heritage Volunteers above, Past Horizons in the next section, and our article on Archaeological sites.
Index sites for volunteer jobs
Several sites provide online indexes of volunteer opportunities:
- HelpX. A web site that indexes organisations worldwide offering room and board in exchange for labour. They have a range of opportunities: farms, hostels, sailboats, ...
- Past Horizons. An index of archaeological projects worldwide that need volunteers
- Volunteer Stays (Help Stays). An index site mainly for opportunities in Ireland but with some elsewhere in Europe
- Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Involves working on an organic farm. You can be sowing seed, making compost, gardening, planting, cutting wood, weeding, making mud-bricks, harvesting, fencing, building, packing, milking and feeding livestock in any of 80 countries.
- Workaway. Hosts from over 100 countries with opportunities including gardening, babysitting, art projects, language learning and animal care. £23 to register.
- Working Abroad. Offers a range of volunteering projects around the world in the humanitarian, conservation & teaching fields. They also have a free online database of 2000 volunteer organisations for visitors to find suitable projects.
Nearly all these posts cover at least room and board while you are working, but few cover anything beyond that. Typically there is no salary and you are responsible for your own travel expenses.
A gap year is a a year (or other chunk of time) taken off, most typically between high school and university but also perhaps at various other times in life. Volunteering overseas is a common way to spend such a break; most famously, Prince Harry spent a gap year in 2004 volunteering in South Africa. Typically there will be a fee to participate in these programs, and participants are not paid. For more, see our gap year article.
Many of the major NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) involved in international aid also recruit volunteers and/or paid workers for various tasks. Examples include:
- Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors without Borders
- Oxfam, originally an anti-poverty campaign, now with broader gials
- UNICEF, UN International Childrens' Emergency Fund
- UNHCR, UN High Commission for Refugees
Many of their jobs are high-risk, involving work in war zones or epidemic areas. Many also require specialised training such as medicine or nursing. On the other hand, almost all cover things like immunisations and travel cost, and some also pay reasonably well.
Many churches or other religious organisations also send volunteers abroad, mainly either religious specialists (preachers, monks, nuns, ..) or people with important practical skills (doctors, nurses, teachers, ...). If you are a member of a religious congregation, then it is probably worth inquiring about their programs.
There are also various other organizations that recruit volunteers. These generally do not cover the major expenses such as airfares and travel insurance, and some charge a fee for placement. Web search for almost any country or region name plus "volunteer" or "gap year" will turn up many examples. Most will be worthwhile opportunities, but see also #Be_wary above.
Many volunteer jobs are in the 'third world'; see Tips for travel in developing countries.
Health can become a major issue when you are exposed to conditions and germs not found at home; see Stay healthy and Infectious diseases. At a minimum you need to see a doctor, preferably one who specialises in travel medicine, about vaccinations and other precautions well before your departure date, and to consider travel insurance.
If you pay US or Canadian income taxes and work as a volunteer, then you may be able to take a charitable deduction for some or all of your trip expenses. The tax agencies are very strict on which organizations' trips qualify, and if you combine volunteer work with vacation, you will have to prorate the deduction on your airfare.
More generally, tax rules get complicated when you live abroad. If you have income other than the volunteer salary then parts of the discussion at Retiring_abroad#Taxation may apply.
Even if you are not getting paid for your efforts, expect trouble if entering a foreign country without a work visa; one mention of WWOOF to US authorities is enough to get an unsuspecting, well-meaning volunteer strip-searched and turned back at the border if officials think the tasks could have otherwise been done by a paid employee.
Other ways to help
Of course volunteer work is not the only way to do something helpful while travelling. See Working abroad and Teaching English for some of the others. Our article on begging also has a discussion of other ways to help.
If you're only on a short trip, take time to visit an orphanage, hospital, etc. Those with more time can contact local NGOs, tourist offices, embassies, etc to inquire about longer term possibilities.
A few ideas are:
- Take books to drop off at schools in villages you pass through.
- Rather than bringing back all your clothes, medical supplies and equipment, leave what you can with locals - this also frees up space in your luggage for bringing back other stuff!
- Support local enterprise.
Also, be wary of helping at an orphanage as some of these who look for foreigners to come and help, might be doing so for the wrong reasons and not in the children's best interest. You might also find that the actual number of genuine orphans living in some orphanages is actually quite small as sometimes orphanages "recruit" children with living parents in order to attract paying visitors to come and help!