What is voluntourism?
Voluntourism is a buzzword for travelling somewhere to volunteer. It is a recent phenomenon but is wildly popular amongst soul searchers and travellers on a quest to find adventure and altruism. Volunteer vacations give you a chance to form a deeper connection to the places you visit by immersing yourself in the community and offering your time, skills, and energy towards making a difference.
What are the benefits of volunteering?
Volunteering in another country is one of the most rewarding and meaningful travel experiences you can have. It is a trip of a lifetime that changes the way you engage with the world and allows you to do something meaningful and travel at the same time.
In the greater scheme of things, the host countries also benefit from the inward flow of money voluntourism brings and are able to build stronger communities and economies.
“The friendships, the cross-cultural learning, and the life changes it inspires in volunteers who hopefully shift how they live, travel, and give in the future.” – Daniela Papi
Where can I volunteer abroad?
Many countries around the world offer opportunities for travellers wanting to volunteer.
Volunteer programmes are usually offered through charities and organisations. If you decide to contact organisations and charities directly you will most likely find that many countries around the world offer volunteer opportunities. Organisations usually only offer programmes in certain countries.
Some great resources for exploring volunteer projects and opportunities around the world are:
Remember. Choosing a country you have a cultural interest in can make learning the language easier and the whole experience more fulfilling.
What kind of volunteer programmes are available?
Join the organic movement amongst the wild herbs of Portugal or green hills of New Zealand with WWOOF. Help rescue and protect sea turtles on a conservation programme in Mexico with Projects Abroad. Or teach kids English on the tropical islands of Fiji with GVI South Africa.
There are thousands of different programmes to choose from. Some focus on climate change and environmental projects, some involve wildlife conservation, and some entail working with people or building houses. To make the most out of your experience you should choose a programme that benefits or interests you and taps into your skills.
If you want to volunteer but can’t afford to or don’t want to go abroad, there are also many great opportunities to volunteer in Africa.
How long do placements last?
For as short as 1 week to as long as 1 year. Although short-term placements are hugely popular, it takes more than a week to make an impact, so the longer you volunteer for the better.
What are the requirements to volunteer abroad?
Some organisations (such as the UN) require a university degree and at least two years of relevant work experience, while others simply require you to be over 16 and committed to making an impact. The language requirements can also vary – some projects may not have language requirements, while others will expect you to have a basic understanding of the local language.
The requirements for a particular programme are usually stated on the project page.
Do you have to pay to do volunteer work?
Yes. The amount you will pay depends on several factors:
- The programme you’re taking part in
- The length of your stay
- The organisation you use
- The country you’re visiting
For example: a teaching programme in Nepal can range from about R25,000.00 for 2 weeks to about R41,000.00 for 8 weeks, while a conservation programme in Fiji can range from about R55,000.00 for 2 weeks to about R98,000.00 for 8 weeks.
The cost usually includes accommodation, all meals, travel and medical insurance, airport pick-up and drop-off, induction and orientation, transport, equipment and materials, and community activities. But this can vary from programme to programme.
Flights and visas are usually excluded.
Can I volunteer for free?
Although free volunteer programmes do exist they are not what you think they are.
“Free” usually just means there are no participation fees. You would still need to pay for airfare, accommodation, and other costs such as food and transportation. There are projects out there that offer housing and meals, so with a little digging, you might be able to find a great project and save some money.
Remember. A portion of the money goes towards the host family and community development. By paying to volunteer you are making a greater impact in that community, and isn’t that what it is all about?
Where do I stay during the programme?
Where you stay will depend on the project and destination. You will either stay with a host family (which is the most common housing option) or in a hostel with other volunteers. For conservation projects in remote locations, you might find yourself staying in a bungalow or even a tented camp.
Can I volunteer with a friend or partner?
Yes. You can volunteer on the same project with friends, family, or significant other and most organisations can arrange for you to stay in the same accommodation.
Can I volunteer in more than one location?
Yes. You can either choose several short volunteer programmes or go for a multi-country volunteer programme. Although sticking to one location gives you a chance to really immerse yourself in the culture and community, combining multiple locations is a great way to experience more of the world. Many volunteer organisations offer multi-country programmes.
Will I need vaccinations?
Whether you need vaccinations depends on which country you will be travelling to. A vaccination for Yellow Fever is the only one that is legally required in some countries in Latin America and Africa. Immunisation against other diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis are recommended in developing countries but not legally required.
Do I need to speak the local language?
The language requirements vary from country to country, but for the most part, you won’t be required to know the local language. You should be able to find out about if there are any language requirements on the project page or from the organisation you are applying through. However, even if you do not need to know the language, learning basic words and phrases can make things easier and help you connect with the locals, which can make the whole experience a lot more interesting and rewarding.
When should I apply?
You should apply as soon as you have decided on a project and country. Some applications can take as little as 3 weeks to process, while others can take a few months, and popular programmes can be fully booked months in advance, so applying at least three months in advance is recommended. This will also give you enough time to arrange visas and prepare for the trip.
What is the application procedure?
- Explore projects and destinations (consider what you want to get out of the trip, how long you can commit for, programme fees, and requirements).
- Contact your chosen organisation and meet your programme manager.
- Decide on a project, country, and dates (a consultant will be able to help you decide which programme is the most suitable for you if you are unsure).
- Fill out an application form pay the registration fee.
- Once your application has been accepted you will be given access to information such as an in-depth programme guide, interactive training modules, pre-departure requirements, visa information, vaccination requirements, in-country office details, and accommodation details.
- Pay any outstanding fees.
- Organise your visa(s), flights, travel insurance (if applicable). Many organisations offer services such as travel insurance and language courses.
- Get vaccinated (if applicable).
- Catch your flight and begin your volunteer adventure!
The dark side of voluntourism
The ethics of voluntourism have come under criticism recently because it is often the organisations and volunteers who benefit not the people they are supposed to help.
Organisations have been known to exploit vulnerable communities and scam well-intending volunteers, while many volunteers are simply on a quest for exciting dinner stories and photo opportunities.
Medical and orphanage volunteering is particularly controversial because both are profitable industries that can create a dependency on foreign aid, take away local jobs, and create a market for orphans and fraudulent orphanages.
But this should not discourage you from volunteering abroad. You should just research the organisation or programme before signing up to ensure they are truly invested in making a difference.
Some organisations offering trusted volunteer programmes are:
- GVI (Global Vision International)
- Habitat for Humanity
- Projects Abroad
- United Nations Volunteers
Donating your time and skills is one of the most selfless and fulfilling experiences you can have and is something everyone should do at least once in their life. However, it is important that you volunteer for the right reasons.
You should volunteer because you are willing to donate your time and work hard to make a difference. You should treat it with the same seriousness as a job, respect the culture and country, and be humble and work hard.
Volunteering abroad will push you out of your comfort zone and may show you a darker side of the world, but it will also give you a chance to make unforgettable memories, meet new friends, and do your bit to make the world a better place.
And if that isn’t one of the best life experiences you can have, I don’t know what is.
“It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference. ” – Tom Brokaw
All information on this blog page was correct at the time of publishing and may change at any time without prior notice. Travelstart will not be held liable for loss or inconvenience resulting from the use of outdated or incorrectly noted information.
Featured image credit: @navreider_ via Instagram