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8 Ways to Volunteer Abroad for Free (or on the Cheap)

By Amelia Laing

volunteersVolunteering overseas can be a great opportunity. It can allow you to do some good in the world, explore a new culture, meet new people, and even beef up your resume. Of course, once you start researching what it involves, it’s easy to become quickly discouraged. Who knew that doing good could cost so much?

But it doesn’t have to. Whether you’re taking a gap year after school, revisiting your days studying abroad, or just want a change of pace, there are lots of ways to avoid paying exorbitant amounts to volunteer abroad. In fact, if you play your cards right, you might even be able to go for free.

How to Volunteer Abroad on the Cheap

1. Know Where You Want to Go
Volunteering abroad is like writing a term paper. While winging it sometimes works out, it’s much better to have an outline in place beforehand. Knowing where you want to go will help you efficiently research programs, and will ultimately cost you less money. But be flexible by choosing a region of interest, rather than a specific country.

For instance, your heart may be set on planting trees in Mali, but perhaps there will only be a tree-planting program in Senegal. If traveling to a francophone West African country is your highest priority, you will benefit from being open-minded when choosing which country and which program you will participate in.

2. Know Why You Want to Go
In addition to doing good, it’s important to know what else you’re looking to get out of volunteering abroad. Do you want to improve your foreign language skills or boost your resume? Knowing your goals and purpose will narrow your search considerably. For example, if your goal is to learn about sustainable agriculture, you might want to check out World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). The more you know about what you want to accomplish, the more likely you’ll find a program that will benefit you.

3. Know Your Comfort Level
Before you go traipsing the globe, it’s important to ask yourself some questions: Are you comfortable in new situations? Does the thought of being separated from your smartphone stress you out? Can you do without a flushing toilet? Your honesty in answering these questions is paramount, and will help highlight or eliminate specific programs and locations. While one of the advantages of volunteering abroad is going out of your comfort zone, don’t take it too far. Know and respect your limits to ensure you’ll have a good time.

4. Do Your Research
Go Overseas and Idealist are just two of the many sites that act as a “volunteer’s Craigslist,” with many overseas volunteering opportunities to choose from. Volunteers for Peace is another site that offers a plethora of programs at little cost. Once you’ve found a program that appeals to you, investigate where the money is applied – some organizations spend the money they make on administrative and marketing costs, while others donate all the proceeds to local organizations.

Read reviews and forums, and, if you can, talk to people who have participated before. They can offer you a first-hand account of their experience, as well as insight and tips that might not be on the organization’s website.

volunteer abroad

5. Showcase Your Skills
Perhaps the best way to volunteer abroad on the cheap is to work with an organization that really needs your particular abilities and experience. While many people can teach English abroad, build houses, or hang out with kids, organizations really love it when you can offer a specialized skill.

Anything in the medical field, from nursing to dentistry, is almost a surefire way to volunteer abroad at low to no cost. IT knowledge is also in high demand. However, there are definitely opportunities for those who aren’t in these two hot-ticket fields, as many organizations value administrative, construction, and language experience, among a host of other skills.

If you want to volunteer abroad at little to no cost, approach the application process as you would a competitive job interview: Highlight what makes you special. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

6. Raise Funds
If you have the drive and the determination, you can persuade people to pay for your volunteering experience. Promise something small (letters, talks on your experience after you return) in exchange for financial aid.

A friend of mine wanted to go to Haiti to work as an EMT, and he fully funded his trip by setting up an account on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a site where people propose what they want to do, and how much money they need to do it. Friends and family post it to social media, and anyone who’s inspired by the mission, whether they know you or not, can donate $5 or more. People have raised the capital to publish books, do scientific research, and release albums through Kickstarter.

If you’re talented (or know talented people), you can supplement your online campaign by holding your own fundraising event. In a coffee shop or your own living room, you and/or your friends can play songs, recite poetry, or break dance – whatever you love to do. You’d be amazed how quickly an entrance fee can accumulate. Many people approach companies and organizations as well. The possibilities are endless, and all you need is determination and a little creativity.

7. Hop on a Plane
Some people cut out the middleman entirely by hopping on a plane and going to their choice destination. Once there, they stay in a hostel and simply ask around at schools, medical missions, and anywhere else that may be in need of volunteer assistance. I would not recommend this option unless you already have extensive experience traveling, are familiar with the culture of the country you’re traveling to, have lots of time, and can hop on a plane back home if you need to.

8. Network
Talk to people at church, in class, on the bus, at work – wherever. You may be surprised at how taking advantage of the six degrees of separation can help you find the perfect program. By talking to people who have volunteered abroad, you can get special insight into what a program does and what is expected of volunteers. You might even get a great volunteering gig that isn’t listed online.

Final Word

Volunteering is almost never completely free. Even if your room and board is paid for, many programs will still have you pay for your airfare. And if you’re unfamiliar with a country’s culture, or have never been abroad before, you might want to pay a little extra; you might need the extra support that other, cheaper programs might not have. But with a little creativity, passion, and drive, you can make your volunteering abroad experience much more affordable.

Have you ever volunteered abroad? What was your experience like?

(photo credit: Bigstock)

Amelia Laing
After graduating from Kalamazoo College in 2010, Amelia worked as a janitor and convenience store clerk to save money to move to Denver, where she now lives. She enjoys blogging for iTriage, a free smartphone healthcare application, and in her spare time she keeps up her French and Spanish skills by reading the classics. Her travels have taken her to five continents, including Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America.

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  • Shannon_ReadyForZero

    One of my closest friends volunteered with an organization in Greece. She was responsible for both living expenses and airfare but spread the news about her trip to everyone at her 300+ congregation in NYC. The pastor and the congregation supported her cause greatly and she ended up having her entire trip paid for through donations. She was able to do this because she was volunteering for a cause the church was already highly invested in. Now she’s back and trying to figure out ways she can go and help the organization in Greece on a more full-time basis.

    • http://www.facebook.com/amelia.lary Amelia Laing

      What an inspiring story! It’s amazing how volunteering not only enriches the individual, but also hometown communities!

      • Shannon_ReadyForZero

        It really is Amelia! We were all super proud of what she was doing and it was really great to see such an overwhelmingly positive response!

  • http://twitter.com/MeganOverseas Megan Lee

    Great tips – hopefully articles such as these will help people realize that volunteering abroad is within their means AND a wonderful way to add depth to their travels. Thanks for sharing!

    • http://www.facebook.com/amelia.lary Amelia Laing

      Volunteering is the best form of travel, in my opinion! Thanks for the comment!

  • http://www.susies-coupons.com/ Jamie

    These are great tips. I’ve been interested in doing these volunteer vacations but always found the cost to be prohibitive. I’ll look into kickstarter and do some more research into launching a fundraising campaign.

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