Volunteering Abroad (ie: doing volunteer work while traveling) can be an incredible way to travel in a manner that gives you a deeper understanding of your destination, and positively impacts the community. While many would (rightfully) assume that volunteering is a free activity, there are many organizations who make a generous profit off of the volunteer industry, charging thousands of dollars (not including airfare) to administrate your trip, cover food costs, lodging, etc.
If you are a novice traveler and the idea of volunteering interests you, this can be an excellent option to get the best of both worlds: the opportunity to simultaneously take part in a guided trip and serve a foreign community.
It doesn't have to be this way however. For the budget conscious traveler, volunteering can be an excellent way to cut costs while still experiencing a different culture and country. Many volunteer programs will place you with a host family for whom you exchange your help for free room and board.
WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is the most well known venue for this type of work, however it is by no means the only option available. In 2012, Jacob and I spent a month in Sweden using WorkAway, an organization where volunteers can find host families in their choice of country for a variety of work options. Rather than just focusing on farming (though that is definitely a possibility), you can volunteer to work in cafes, art centers, hotels, boats, dog sitting, etc.
We volunteered to work in a seasonal cafe in the Swedish countryside, and loved our experience. Monday through Saturday we worked 6 hour days, baking in the cafe, helping in the vegetable garden, foraging for blueberries in the forest - though technically we were there to work, it was work we enjoyed immensely.
Every volunteer experience will differ, from location (obviously), to accommodations and expectations of work. For more information on avoiding the pitfalls of volunteering abroad, read here.
Most of the networks that provide work exchange keep their costs down by cutting out the middleman. Rather than simply being placed with a host, it is your responsibility to proactively find an opportunity and do the legwork to make it happen.
Here is a general break down on how to go about the process:
- Narrow down your options: Pick a general type of work/pick a continent or area and decide when you will be going.
- Create a short list of available opportunities that interest you: Not everyone will respond or need volunteers when you are free to travel - pick a few different places of interest to increase your chances of a response.
- Contact the hosts: Most work exchange networks are free up until this point, then charge a fee to create a profile and contact hosts. The fee is usually under $50 and covers a 2 year subscription. Make sure to include a short introduction of yourself to the hosts, and state the dates you are planning on (and if those dates are flexible).
- Continue the conversation with the host: Make sure you are comfortable staying with them! It's always a gamble to stay with strangers, so make sure to ask specific questions and feel the situation out. Many sites such as WorkAway have reviews of both volunteers and hosts, so you can make sure you aren't going to be blindsided.
- Pick an opportunity: Once you have settled on a volunteer placement, make sure your hosts know you are going, and that they have everything they need regarding your arrival and departure.
- Follow Up: Send a friendly reminder a day before leaving - most likely they wouldn't forget, but that way you know you won't be stuck waiting at the train station.
Here are a handful of prominent sites to help you start your search:
House Sitting Exchanges: