The dizzying number of options within the volunteering landscape is enough to stall any travel plans, but there is value in slogging through the research and finding a good-match organization for your time and skills. Though paid placement companies and voluntours might be a better fit for some, I believe many travelers can benefit from a transparent network of independent volunteering opportunities (if you’re pondering assisted volunteering I have covered that process here). With that in mind, and because the GV team fields heaps of emails every week on where to even begin, here is a quick-start guide if you’ve thought of embarking on independent international service.
Researching the development and aid industries, as well as analyzing the arguments on both sides of the “is international volunteering helpful” debate is a great starting point for understanding your part in the international community. Here are a few resources to get you started:
- Understanding the developing world
- Consider reading books relevant to the industry, like The Elusive Quest for Growth or The Bottom Billion.
- Click here for the most recent news articles on the voluntourism industry.
- Consider reading my book, it gives an in-depth look and guidance toward ethical volunteer opportunities.
There are heaps of resources on this topic, and the first link above also includes a lot of followup links and places to learn more about the industry. We also cover these topics here on the blog, in the newsletter, and on the GV Facebook page, so consider joining the conversation and talk with others passionate about the topic.
As you’re researching the industry, consider your motivations and the reason you want to serve overseas. Conservation work is often in a slightly different category, but if you plan to work within communities then take a close look at what you have to give and the impact of entering the lives of these men, women, and children. Are you there to truly be of service, whatever that means once you arrive?
Independent volunteering includes a lot of variables, things can go wrong and these are often small, grassroots projects—they need you to commit to helping them. Ask yourself if you have the time on your trip to be valuable and of use. Though there are some great projects that take volunteers for days or a couple of weeks, these are much rarer. In general, give as much time as you can to serve if you hope to provide value to the projects you’re passionate about helping. If you don’t have much time, if you have other goals for your vacation, or if you don’t find a good-fit opportunity, consider searching our database to find worthy social enterprises near your vacation spots. It’s okay to admit a trip is better suited to visiting than aid work—go on holiday, enjoy, learn the culture and invest your tourism dollars in the local communities. Then, consider returning on a sabbatical later to give time and skills to support grassroots initiatives.
Before you move onto the next steps, you have now read up on the issues and major debates surrounding the voluntourism industry. Some people hurl accusations of the “white savior complex” at all volunteers, but by studying the issues and looking at your motivations you are prepared to choose an organization doing long-term, sustainable work within developing communities. You’ve also considered if supporting social enterprises is a better fit for your next trip. Ultimately though, you’re to the point that you have time, the right motivations, a region of the world or country, and you know your key skills and assets. Now it comes down to finding an independent, free or low cost organization that can benefit from your time/skills.
Grassroots Volunteering: We’re small but mighty. Our GV Ambassadors are committed to mapping the world of small grassroots projects all over the world. We’d love to have you look around, search by region, duration, or project scope and find something where you can be of service.
Independent volunteering websites: Our master resource list of free and low-cost databases. As GV continues to map the world, we recognize there are other databases doing great work to find and vet local projects. If GV doesn’t have a good fit project, head to this list to look for projects.
With the research part underway, it’s time to vet the project.
- Use the organization’s website to find relevant details. Check to see if there are fees associated with the placement, research the project descriptions, and consume all the information they have online.
- Then, if you’ve narrowed the list down to a couple, consider emailing them with additional questions (we have some ideas here). Free and low-cost organizations do not have much overhead to cover vetting volunteers (that’s you), so only apply if you are seriously interested in their project.
- In your communiques, cover their commitment to the project and community, as well as expectations they have for volunteers and if they believe your skills are needed during your time-frame.
Plan Your Independent Travel Details
This is the core of independent volunteering. Although you have more pre-research time than perhaps if you used a placement company, the real work comes when you plan your trip. Experienced travelers may know the ropes a bit about arranging transportation, avoiding scams, and setting up a home in a new place, but if you’re a new traveler you should definitely consider researching and preparing in-depth. Volunteer placement companies charge heaps for the hand-holding part of travel, to help volunteers navigate in a new place, a new language and a new culture. Independent volunteering has little to no assistance. You are planning a trip to this town and the details of your well-being are up to you.
Here are some ideas to prep for a volunteer trip, assuming your organization lacks facilitation. Also, this world travel resource page includes links and recommendations to act on each of these steps.
- Book at least your first few days accommodation in the city where you land.
- Research transportation from the airport to your hotel.
- Get your travel vaccinations (some of these take weeks, so plan early)
- Research your visa situation. Longer-term placements may require help from your organization, or you just may need to apply for a tourist visa ahead of time.
- Pack for your placement. Consider the realities of your new volunteer home and pack the right types of clothing and protective gear relevant to your project. Ask your organization if they have any recommended packing items for volunteers.
- Review the best volunteer travel insurance companies, and some of them marketed to volunteers aren’t great so do your research. It should covers you for your volunteer activities (some traditional backpackers insurance exclude certain volunteer activities).
- Consider gear insurance if your carrying heaps of electronics or valuables (often barely covered on traditional insurance plans).
- Research related to any dietary restrictions, consider downloading relevant travel apps.
- Spend your months while planning your trip also researching the culture via historical books, memoirs, and guidebooks (suggestions here).
- Consider learning some basic language skills.
Then you’re ready to leave! Pack light, bring enough money, and keep a good attitude—things will go wrong, or at least not how you expect them to go, so keep an open mind and a commitment to being of service and you should have a meaningful trip.