A Traveler’s Guide to Volunteering (and avoiding Voluntourism)

After seven months of travelling (+ many months of prior experience) in a variety of countries, I have learned an unexpected lesson: Trying to help people is expensive. There has been a boom of “voluntourism” opportunities all around the world – companies, organizations, and churches that offer a week, a month, a year of work at an incredibly high price (much greater than the cost of living in the areas one might be sent).

As someone ardently opposed to giving hundreds or thousands of dollars to an organization when what I want to do is help the people that need help, however that might manifest itself, I am putting together a list (both specific and general) for finding places to volunteer, engaging more fully with a culture, and not breaking the bank to do so.

If you want to go and volunteer somewhere, especially in my area of “expertise,” i.e. orphanages and children in disadvantaged situations, you should be ready and willing to pay to support yourself during that time. For example, in Ecuador, you probably want to prepare to live on about $600/mo (this includes rent, food, local travel, drinks on the weekends, nearby tourist activities, and that llama sweater I know everyone wants). If you sign up through a ‘voluntourism’ organization, expect to pay $1500 or more for a month in a place like Ecuador. If you are contacting places to volunteer independently, you should also be prepared to provide information about yourself because, especially in the case of orphanages, you usually can’t just go spend time around kids, adults with special needs, or those in dire poverty, without somehow vouching for your character and your intentions for doing so.

My recommendations are in particular meant for solo travelers looking to live cheaply, engage a culture, and do work that will make a difference in the area they are staying. It is also, of course, suitable for those who are traveling in groups, people traveling without the express purpose of volunteering but wanting to help where they can, and those who want to know how to approach finding reputable organizations to work with.

1.) If you want to find a place to volunteer, don’t look to the first links in a google search.

If you are looking to go somewhere and volunteer, and want to have an authentic experience, don’t google “volunteer india” or “volunteer at an orphange in africa.” What you will find is a lot of organizations willing to take a lot of your money in order to give you a month at a place that, comparatively, at least, needs less help than somewhere not connected to the Web and not operating through these lucrative agencies. Moreover, such organizations will surround you with other wealthy, privileged people, and you will probably be living in conditions that are not even close to the reality of most people in the area. I don’t mean to discourage or disparage people with money who want to go help somewhere – but I have been enough places to see the disturbing pattern of wealthy people visiting orphanages for a day to take pictures with the starving brown people, with children that remain nameless to them. I knew those children and I know that people who act in such a way reinforce the idea for the kids that no one is there forever, and that they will always, eventually be left behind. It was heartbreaking for me to discover that Eddy, a boy in Uganda I grew very close to, could operate an iPhone better than I could, while having no electricity in his cramped and filthy dormitory. He even knew how to change the screen to take a picture of himself with the camera on the front when the OS was in Dutch. Part of the reward of going abroad to volunteer is being immersed and in some ways forced into a new culture – and that means avoiding the familiar refuge of other privileged volunteers.

2.) Find blogs of people who have been to the areas that you are looking to go.

Almost half the orphanages and other organizations I visited because I found someone who had a travel blog and had visited or volunteered at a place near where I wanted to go. I found their blogs, emailed or messaged them to ask about their experience and if they could put me in touch, and then reached out to the organizations themselves. Every single time they were more than happy to help me and point me in the right direction. This was a great way to find places off the beaten path that needed a lot of help and that weren’t buoyed by frequent influxes of rich, foreign volunteers. (This is definitely one of the blog authors you can contact for Kazakhstan, India, Uganda, and Ecuador…!)

In an age of being constantly connected, finding such blogs or connecting to people who have traveled to spots you might be interested in is just a matter of dedication.

3.) Learn the language.

Googling “I want to volunteer in Kazakhstan!!!” isn’t going to get you very far. If you can read or understand basic Russian, you’ll go a lot further. The key to finding places that aren’t aimed at rich Anglophones looking for a month of feel-good service is knowing the language, or finding friends that know the language who will search and reach out on your behalf. In my case, that meant going to Kazakhstan and making friends. Normally, not speaking a language is not a reason not to go somewhere – you’d be surprised how far hand gestures and grunts will get you, and how fast you can learn the basics of a language – but when you are trying to find somewhere that really needs help, usually the only way to successfully contact them is in the local language. And when you go, you can learn it properly!

A great way to find places is going somewhere and asking around, if you have the flexibility and confidence to show up without a definite plan. When I arrived in Kazakhstan, I had very few concrete details with which to work with. I arrived, and asked around. For example, I heard of a journalist who reported on children living in an Almaty park that were now and then rounded up and dumped in an orphanage, usually only to escape back to the park. I would never have discovered these children if I hadn’t gone to Almaty, and I would not have met or heard of the priests who try to help them by giving them food and shelter at night if I hadn’t gone to Almaty and asked around. Usually you can find someone (or someone who knows someone) that has volunteered or donated or can point you to somewhere that would be happy to have another pair of hands to help.

4.) Make connections through anyone you can.

Do you know someone who went somewhere once? Email them. Asking around is a great way to find places to volunteer, or to find places to live that aren’t traps for, again, rich Anglophones who worship at the altar of Google. I found an amazing, comfortable place in Quito for really cheap. I found this place through a friend I met when I lived in hippie-communal housing in California, who connected me to her (Romanian!) friend in Quito, who connected me to another woman living in a communal housing type set-up with available rooms, which also gave me great access to volunteer projects in the city through my housemates. I have heard that a lot of people have success through Couch-surfing, and that also seems like a great way to go.

5.) Find churches or businesses in the US, Canada, and Europe that sponsor or fund programs or organizations that help those in need, and contact them.

This was one way I found a great program in Kazakhstan that provides nutrition and other basic supplies to children in orphanages, and it was founded by a graduate of Reed College in Portland. After contacting her and receiving a positive response, I was able to get in contact with people actually in Kaz and running the day-to-day operations. By emailing someone I found listed as a corporate sponsor of a program in Bangalore, I was able to get in touch with the director and managed to coordinate several weeks of volunteer work with children rescued from domestic work or manual labor. This was also a way I managed to get in contact with an off-the-grid orphanage in Peru. As one might observe, the possibilities are limited only by your efforts.

6.) If you’ve found a place, make sure you have information about their location, the people in charge, and whether or not they have had volunteers before.

Particularly as a young woman traveling alone, this is something crucial. I ran across more than one fraud organization that was collecting money on the internet for an orphanage that didn’t actually exist, and the worst was one apparently set up by a man in India who, after being contacted by me, tried to lure me to Orissa where he promised me a chance to see the kids but “more importantly, to visit the beach and go on trips.” People that act and sounds suspicious over the internet or on the phone are almost always bad news.

Make contact with the organization, get their exact address, several phone numbers, and names. It is always helpful to know if anyone else has been there as a volunteer, and if possible, to contact them.

7.) (Obviously) Be prepared for new conditions and a lifestyle without the usual creature comforts.

In my travels, this has meant learning to be without any Internet access for days or weeks, and months without Internet fast enough to load most webpages. It meant getting used to not having running water or reliable electricity, and often times showering only a couple times a week with a bucket of cold water. It means not eating food you are accustomed to for weeks at a time, and getting used to constant struggles when trying to communicate. I also had to get used to getting sick pretty frequently, and not having much ability to do anything but let it run its course. On top of all this, you have to be flexible and willing to create some structure for yourself – especially if you are going somewhere that doesn’t have much of a program for people who want to come and help. All of these, and the many other challenges one is likely to face, can and should be viewed as opportunities for growth and building character.

Volunteering shouldn’t cost you a fortune, and if you want to have an experience in which you both offer your help and learn from the people you live alongside, seeking out places to volunteer without going through a ‘voluntourism’ company will greatly increase your chances in this regard.

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