¨You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.¨
Volunteer Travel Definition
Volunteer Travel occurs in the words of Coghlan and Gooch whenever tourists:
¨undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment¨.
There are many types of volunteer travel, as well. I have, for example, participated in programs:
- Doing the grunt work (washing dishes) to put together a multicultural festival in Collechio, Italy (Emilia-Romagna) (Volunteers for Peace).
- Teaching English as a Foreign Language in Kaliningrad, Russia for a year (WorldTeach
- Some volunteer travel experiences are available only to people with some background in a given field and who speak the local language.
- Some volunteer travel experiences also involve traditional tours and staying in hotels in their program. (Global Volunteers and Amizade are two great examples, and I taught English and helped restore a classroom through an Amizade program near Cochabamba, Bolivia).
- Some volunteer travel programs are free or low-cost; others can be relatively expensive. (Some volunteer programs are also tax-deductible in the US and Canada).
- Many volunteer travel programs also include opportunities to stay in locals’ homes (and often eat meals there).
Since everyone is working together to achieve a common goal, workcamps and other volunteer programs make it easy for singles to form friendships. (In fact, I have that these are the single best programs for forming friendships.)
Watching turtles lay eggs; learning about rural Mexican life; hanging out with fun young volunteers; and consuming way too many tequila shots as a volunteer in Colola, Michoacan, Mexico (Volunteers for Peace).
They also are one of the budget vacation options available. (My experience in Colola, Mexico, cost me less than $200 for two weeks).
About eight years ago, the Today Show (a popular morning TV show in the U.S.A) featured a segment on volunteer vacations. According to the show’s producers, this segment received one of the largest numbers of viewer responses ever.
Why? I think it is because mankind is moving toward, as Lyndon Duke, a University of Oregon social scientist notes, a new era in which the predominant question people ask themselves is: “What difference can be made?”
The message that everyone should try to make a difference in the world pervades our popular culture. In a planet full of problems, many people realize that one of the most powerful antidotes to the problems that beset our world is to volunteer your time during your vacations to another cause.
The diversity of ways you can help is amazing. You can help while living in a relatively comfortable Western style existence or spend years living with locals in remote corners of the globe. The choice is up to you.
Why volunteer? Who should volunteer?
While the desire to make a difference is admirable, volunteering to work, particularly in another country, during your vacation is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Potential volunteers should think about what they want from the experience before they begin researching volunteer vacation programs. In the sage advice of How to Live Your Dream:
“Many people considering volunteering abroad begin by looking at the different volunteer programs before taking the time to look at themselves. This often leads them to feel confused and overwhelmed by all the options. Reflecting on why you are interested in volunteering overseas can guide you in deciding if volunteering is really the right option for you… Begin by reflecting on some basic questions about your interests in international volunteer work:
- Why are you interested in becoming an international volunteer?
- What life events have sparked this interest?
- What do you hope to get out of being an international volunteer?
- What do you hope to contribute?
- Where are you heading in your life and how does being an overseas volunteer fit into the picture?”
Keep in mind that you will not be able to change the Earth single-handedly. You need to be open, flexible, and understanding of locals. You also need to be dedicated enough to show up. Even though at times it may not be clear, the staff of the organization is depending on your assistance. If you don’t feel like you can (or should) give this assistance dependably you need to talk to the agency staff (and/or the director of your volunteer placement agency). Volunteer vacation is a bit of a misnomer. While it is a vacation, you are there also to serve. You shouldn’t just leave because it is not serving your purpose.
Remember you don’t know the answers. The people you are “serving” have often been victim of well intentioned “white saviors” who have made their lives worse. Many poor countries have been around for thousands of years and have ways to do things that make sense within the confines of their geography, politics, history, and culture. Your job, as a volunteer, is to learn these ways of doing things and to help relieve the workload for the existing staff. You are not there, particularly in the space of a couple weeks, to change things.
Good and Bad Reasons to Volunteer
How to Live Your Dream lists good and bad reasons to consider volunteering:
Good reasons to volunteer:
- Learn a foreign language
- Get to know another culture
- Have a better firsthand perspective on the impact of wealthy countries in the world
- Gain experience in a field in which you have studied
- Put your concern for others into action
- Learn more about yourself
- Share your skills and expertise by responding to a specific request from a foreign organization
- Be inspired by the efforts of people in developing countries
- Become a more effective advocate for changes at home that will help poor people overseas
- Live out your faith or religious beliefs through deeds and working for justice
Bad reasons to volunteer
- Escape a bad relationship or other personal problems
- Save poor people or lift poor people out of poverty
- Assuage your guilt
- Travel or have adventure purely for personal enrichment
- Unable to hold a job
- Unable to pass your classes
- Everyone’s doing it or your partner’s doing it
- Make religious converts
- Impress future employers
- You have an addiction and think that a change in environment will help you
What Can You Do as a Volunteer?
Volunteers can assist in any number of ways and projects. Some volunteers simply provide labor for construction and reforestation projects. Others use their training to provide intense medical care to people in poor villages. Still others help with office work, grants, teaching and training, computer programming, community activism, and a whole host of other projects.
Some volunteer projects send small groups of experienced technicians overseas to provide medical and managerial services. Most, however, are open to anyone.
What should you do to be an Effective International Volunteer?
While it is difficult to determine what will distinguish a good from a bad volunteer, there do seem to be some traits that most of the best volunteers share.
Here are the traits that How to Live Your Dream to be an International Volunteer identifies:
- Learn the language
- Listen before you act
- Be friendly
- Live simply
- Find allies
- Dress appropriately
- Exercise extreme caution in friendship, sex, dating, and marriage
- Work for sustainability and local control
- Share with people at home
Want an All-Expense Paid, Short Term, Unskilled Volunteer Experiences? Check Out Passport-in-Time and Pueblo Ingles
Passport in Time
In May 2006, I participated in a one-week volunteer Passport in Time project. The Passport in Time program is sponsored by the US Forest Service. The US Forest Service allows volunteers in the program to help the service’s archaeologists to prepare exhibits and do research.
The US Forest Service has a large variety of interesting projects for volunteers. Following Hurricane Katrina, a number of projects were developed to help archaeologists in the region inventory archaeological damage to the region and devise strategies to restore archaeological sites. One project that I’ve seen listed several times on the Passport in Time website involves recording stories and techniques involved in basket weaving among the Pomo Indians in far northern, coastal California.
The Passport in Time project in which I participated involved the preparation of a public information kiosk in the Ventana National Forest between Big Sur and King City, California. Since this particular part of the forest covered a wide range of microclimates (Big Sur is cool and moist and King City is dry and hot), it contained the state’s most pristine and varied collections of oak trees. As a result, many early California Indians populated the area. (Acorns from oak trees were vital to their survival.) The volunteers took photos of the trees and wrote descriptions of the oaks and their use by local Indians that will be integrated into the kiosk.
We worked six hours a day for five days. The USFS offered us free use of a campsite in the forest and did not charge us anything for participating in the program.
For more information on the program, consult the Passport-in-Time website at www.passportintime.com
Vaughn Villages in Spain provides free room and board to any native English speaker willing to spend up to sixteen hours a day speaking English to Spaniards. They have designed “Pueblo Ingles” in Spain as a place where Spaniards can go for two weeks and speak non-stop in English to native speakers.
While I cannot participate in this program because I speak Spanish, one student reported that the food and accommodation for volunteers was quite good and that the students were really great. (Note: the program does not want Spanish speaking volunteers because if the students learn that the volunteers speak Spanish, the students will not use English as much as they should.)
For more info, check out their website at http://www.morethanenglish.com/
Volunteer Placement Agencies
Most organizations have staff to provide support for volunteers. The level of support varies considerably between organizations. Some will take care of all of the details. Others will serve as a liaison between you and the local volunteer agency.
Most volunteer vacations require you to pay for these support services. The only exceptions are a couple agencies that require trained volunteers (like the International Executive Service Corps, which places highly skilled administrators to consult with small and mid-sized businesses overseas). These fees vary a lot.
Most volunteer placement programs also arrange homestays for volunteers because:
- many volunteer placements are in rural areas where hotels may be far away from the placement and
- homestays offer an inexpensive place for people to stay and experience life in the community where they are volunteering. (See the earlier section on homestays for more information.)
Here are some examples of the most prevalent types of volunteer placement programs.
- Upscale volunteer programs: Upscale volunteer organizations provide three types of volunteer experiences:
- Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org); Global Service Corps (http://www.globalservicecorps.org); and Global Citizens Network (www.globalcitizens.org), Cross Cultural Solutions (http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org) send teams of volunteers to work in villages in several countries on a variety of social service and education related projects.
- Earthwatch (www.earthwatch.org) teams volunteers with scientists doing research on a variety of ecological, cultural, and historical projects (including archaeology).
- Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org/gv) sends teams of volunteers to help build homes throughout the globe for two to three weeks at a time.
Upscale volunteer programs take care of all your needs including: internal transportation (other than airfare), housing and food, on site orientation, extensive background materials, evacuation insurance, and day to day assistance. As a result of all this attention, many of these upscale programs are expensive (often as high as $200-300 a day).
The projects send delegations of volunteers to the same community together. Group leaders accompany these groups to the site and help ensure that their daily needs are met. Usually, the upscale agencies have a limited number of countries where they operate. If you want to go to a particular country or work on a specific project, you need to have a flexible schedule since the number of delegations is limited.
Upscale organizations work hard to find a placement that matches your interests and skills. Most of the participants are older North Americans.
The upscale agencies often pay families to put you up in their home. Most of the homes are modest; but they are more likely to have Western-style conveniences than most other volunteer programs. You will stay in a moderate priced hotel for a couple days for orientation and transfers to the site.
- Workcamps: Other agencies, like Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org), Service Civic International (www.sci-ivs.org), and Joint Assistance Center (serves Indian subcontinent; www.jacusa.org) place you in organized workcamps.
Workcamps are organized by local committees. Typical projects include construction, environmental protection, and social service work.
The workcamps organize the volunteer’s accommodations and food. Usually you pay an administrative fee ($100-200) to a central office and an additional on-site fee (usually $10-25 a day) to the local workcamp for local accommodations and food. Often, the accommodations are in dormitories.
Many workcamps do not provide a lot of training, pre-departure support, or transportation to and from the workcamp site. Workcamps are available throughout the planet. It is easy to find workcamps throughout the year in many countries. Sometimes, however, if you want to participate in a particular workcamp, you may need to apply early. Do not be surprised if your workcamp is cancelled.
Generally, workcamp volunteers, though mostly young, come from varied economic and cultural backgrounds. Many people enjoy the intercultural interaction at workcamps even more than the volunteer activity. Read Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa by Tanya Shaffer for a moving account of her time in workcamps in Africa.
The costs, the tasks, and the working environments vary a lot between work camps. When I checked, some of the work camp projects included assisting in the work of a museum and craft center in Zimbabwe, renovating rampart walls in a small village in the French Pyrenees, and working on an organic farm and meditation center in the hills outside of Los Angeles.
Most VFP work camps require that participants pay a fee to VFP (usually $250) to support the organizations’ operations in the US. An additional fee (between $0-400; based on my sample of work camps from the VFP website) is often required to help the local nonprofit who organizes the work camp in the country you’re visiting.
Work camps are designed to include representatives from several countries. The local nonprofit sets a maximum number of participants from a certain country. Usually there is a limit of two people from the U.S.A. From what I can tell, however, since Americans seldom participate in work camps, you usually will not have problems getting the camp you select.
The camps are also designed to encourage the participants to get to know each other’s cultures and interact with the local population. Toward that end, the group leaders are expected to develop activities outside of the volunteer work for the volunteers to do.
- Short term informal placements. Many organizations accept volunteers for a couple weeks to a month. These organizations send a few volunteers a year to work on specific projects in EMERGING countries. Unlike the upscale and workcamp projects, volunteer placement is a small part of these organizations’ workload. Often, you may be the only volunteer on-site for these projects.
Many of these informal placements require trained volunteers. Some are involved in complex managerial and administrative projects like the International Executive Service Corps (www.iesc.org). A lot of these organizations provide medical care such as Interplast (Plastic Surgery; website: www.interplast.org) and Flying Doctors (provides medical care in rural Mexico; website: www.flyingdocs.org).
Only a few informal volunteer projects, such as the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC)/Ladakh (India) Farm Project (www.isec.org.uk) are open to short term volunteers without specialized skills. Agencies are more likely, because of the work involved, to take on non-skilled volunteers who are willing to spend six months or more on-site.
You can also make informal placements with organizations on-site throughout the globe. Since making these arrangements usually takes time, I would not recommend this strategy for short term volunteers.
Long Term Volunteering Abroad
Long volunteer assignments are often arranged either through a support agency (like World Teach or the Peace Corps. World Teach is described in the sidebar below called Life on the Other Side of the Moon) or through direct application to the place you’d like to volunteer. Most of the support agencies require a fee, usually around $4000-8000 a year. Some will make arrangements to provide college credit. Most of the assignments through private support agencies require a commitment of three months to year, though, of course, there is no penalty if you decide to leave early.
Joining the Peace Corps (http://www.peacecorps.gov) is one of the few ways that you can get all your expenses paid for as a volunteer. The Peace Corps will also provide you a stipend to help set up your life upon return to the U.S.A (usually equivalent to $500 or so per month for the length of service).
There are several things to consider if you want to join the Peace Corps, however, including:
- The Peace Corps requires a two-year commitment. Sometimes these assignments can be cut short depending on the political realities within the country. That said, I don’t know of any penalty, per se, if you fail to complete the commitment.
- Applying for the Peace Corps is competitive. Only about 15% of all applicants are accepted. Your chances of being accepted if you are newly out of college are less than 10%. The chances do improve considerably for older volunteers, however.
- The training for the Peace Corps is very intense. Usually you study the language, culture, and learn the appropriate skills for eight to ten hours a day for several weeks. A sizeable number of volunteers will decide not to complete the training.
- You will not have much choice where you will be assigned. I have heard of Spanish teachers being sent to French speaking countries and other seemingly bizarre mismatches between skills and assignments.
Non-profit agencies are more likely, because of the work involved, to take on non-skilled volunteers who are willing to spend a six month or more on-site. How to Live Your Dream contains a detailed list of organizations that are prepared to deal with long term volunteers. Most of these organizations require that you pay for your living expenses (usually only a couple hundred dollars a month) and transportation to and from the site. However, some are willing to pay your expenses for you.
You can also make informal placements with organizations on-site throughout the planet. Since making these arrangements is not as easy as it might seem (remember dealing with volunteers takes work for the organization. They also have to learn to trust you. As sad as it may seem, some organizations have been burned by volunteers), I would not recommend this strategy for short term volunteers. If you plan to just show up somewhere and find an assignment, plan on a month or two to find an assignment for you and carefully read the chapter of How to Live Your Dream devoted to finding a placement on-site first.
Generally, the best volunteer experiences are longer term. It takes a month to get used to your organization and to begin to see how you fit into the organization. As time goes on, you begin to make friendships and to become an integral part of your new community.
Other Group Travel Posts
- 10 Tips for Finding the Best Guided Day Tours WorldwideOne of my favorite things while traveling worldwide for eight years was taking guided day tours worldwide. Over the years, I have participated in around 400 such tours worldwide and gathered this list of tips to help you enjoy these trips as much as I have.
- 5 Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Finding the Best Small Foreign Language Schools Abroad for Long-Term Travelers and Expats over 50I love learning and teaching languages. I think more expats and long-term travelers would share my passion if they learned a foreign language in a small school abroad while living with a local family.
- Learning Vacations: The Best Kept Travel SecretMy favorite type of group travel is learning vacations. No aspect of group travel has so influenced who I am as a person and how I view the world.
- 15 Tips for Finding the Best Guided Multi-Day Tours Worldwide for Long-Term TravelersOne of my biggest surprises in traveling around the world for five years was how much I enjoyed guided multi-day tours. It is nice to have other people deal with arrangements. Many of the tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. My fellow travelers were usually kind and interested in learning.
- My Favorite Tips for Sightseeing Hassle-Free for Long-Term Travelers (Under Construction)Under Construction