Do not pay an organization a fee for your volunteer work. I repeat, do not pay any money to volunteer!

Many organizations actually get away with this and are very successful at charging people to volunteer. This concept is very confusing. Many volunteers who have paid their fees are further confused when they learn others doing the same volunteer activities did not pay anyone. How does that work, and why do people keep on paying these organizations?

Some of these organizations are established, have connections with non-profit programs, and established places to stay. But do they have to up the price on everything? Having a connection at a volunteer location, language school and house to live in does not justify charging large fees. All of this information is available for free and very easy to find. It is just not good karma to charge extra money to someone who wants to do something positive.

To give these “paid for” volunteer organizations a break, they will make Mom and Dad feel a bit better. Also if you decide to volunteer for the summer a week or two before you need to leave, then this type of a organization may be able to help you out. But be smart about choosing one. Go with an organization that has a good and believable ethics statement, and a track record and that gives a certain amount of your fee to the organization where you will volunteer. Make sure to ask for a list of exactly what your fees are being used for. Also recommended is to ask the Director of the program where you chose to volunteer if they actually receive the money indicated by the volunteer organization after you have started to volunteer. If they do not receive funds, you should report the inconsistency. Somebody needs to keep them accountable, and if you don’t who will?

Now this is important, so pay attention! Volunteering can all be done on your own with no fees or extra donations. It is done all over the world by people like you and I every day. The experience will be much more rewarding, especially regarding costs!

My advice to everyone who wants to volunteer abroad is to do some research first. There are 1000’s of programs on the internet in which you can make your own volunteer arrangements and some even have a free place for you to live with meals as well! Of course, normally you will have to pay for your own travel, housing, meals and any extra expenses, but you should not be paying anything on top of those items (no costs for local management teams, no admin costs, no nothing). Some people have money to give, some people have time to give…many do not have both and even if you did have extra money to burn wouldn’t you rather spend it on the organization where you are volunteering.

Now regarding places to stay; a home-stay is supposed to be cheap. If your room and board at a home-stay is more than $80.00 a week in a developing country, then you may be getting rooked (personally I think 80.00 is high, but when you look at it as $11 a day for room and food it seems really cheap). You will get what you pay for or less. Meals in a home-stay will typically be consistent with what the local people eat, which is not expensive food. The experience is typically very rewarding so keep in mind you are not doing it for the gourmet meals and luxury accommodations. And understand the middle men, also known as “local contact” to the “paid for” volunteer organizations need to get some money in their pockets….but be careful! The more middle men there are, the more money out of your pocket.

First and foremost, here are my requirements for volunteer workers:

1) Know a basic level of the language. You will not have a translator following your around so be comfortable to at least trying to speak the language.

2) Try to volunteer for at least a month…more than a month is best. Some programs will not take volunteers for less than 2, 4 or even 6 months. I work with kids now, and see so many people come and go in the boy’s lives so quickly. Sometimes I can see the kids pushing me away because they know I too will be leaving, and I am here for a year! They need people that have the time to give, not someone that just wants to do a little volunteer work here and there. With that said, even children’s programs take just weekly volunteers sometimes. But you better make that week worthwhile. Mission groups are great for their packed-full- weeks of work; building homes, adding on to orphanages, activities with the kids, and so on! People with medical, therapy, computer or other skills are usually needed badly and most programs will take them for even a few hours!

3) Find out what is expected of you and then bring supplies for your work and have activity ideas and plans if needed. I have to tell you it drives me crazy when volunteers show up and then do nothing but hang out with the kids, or worse, just talk to each other. The children do not need to just sit around more, they do enough of that! They need new experiences and skills, and they are hungry to learn!

4) Girls (and sometimes boys too) you need to dress appropriately, shorts and skirts (I do not recommend skirts when working with kids at all, I have learned this the hard way) at knee length or just above the knee and no cleavage. I know it is hot sometimes, but come on!

5) Do not bring items of value with you to your place of volunteer work or even to the country you will be working in. I mean that $3,000 ring that someone special gave you can stay at home. You could bring some expensive items, of course you want your camera and probably your ipod, but be prepared to lose them as well, these things happen. I am not saying you will be robbed for sure, I am just saying if you bring things of value, be very careful and do not be surprised if they get stolen. Most places have a computer for you to use if needed, or the community you live in may have internet cafes. If you bring your own, ask about the availability of wifi connections! Many are not advertised and they are more plentiful every day.

Now with all that said, here are my steps to find a volunteer program and place to stay on your own:

1) Pick the type of volunteer work you want first (with children, in nature, community work and so on).

2) Pick a place in the world you want to work (developing countries will be the most affordable and need your help the most).

3) Do internet research with your exact needs (i.e. volunteer with children in Guatemala). If you need a volunteer program that offers room and board, be specific in your searches. Look at all links. Consider also searching for other organizations and companies that would obviously cater to volunteers for other activities such as language schools, tour operators, etc. These organizations typically have good web sites, speak multiple languages, and can frequently lead you to many volunteer opportunities. Some links might lead you to one of those paid places…but check them out too. You may get a name of a place you like through their website or they may have other factors for you to consider. Then look the place up on the internet on your own. If you can not find the place you read about on the internet, and if you are very adventurous like me, you can go to the place you want on your own, and just show up to volunteer. Most non-profit organizations in developing countries will not turn down a volunteer. If this is too scary for you and you could not find a place, email/call up one of those “paid for” organizations and find out about their volunteer opportunities. Tell them you need to research a place before you will volunteer for them. Voila…you’ve got yourself some names!

4) Once you find a few programs and I suggest finding at least 5 for further research. Find an email address for them, and email them. Make a list of questions (see my example questions below) for them. If they do not answer back right away, do not be offended, many countries work on a different pace than many of us from the USA, but be sure to email them again. Also, I would use a translate program too, to send the email in English and in the language of the country you are interested in. I would try emailing / calling at least 3 times before you give up.

5) If you cannot find a program this way, try this…look into language schools in the area. By this, I mean a school that will teach you the local language. Many of the schools have connections with volunteer programs for their students.

6) Language schools also typically have connections with home-stays. You may not go to the language school, but they may still set you up with a home-stay and volunteer work. Basically, if you find your own program to volunteer with and need a place to stay, going through language schools for a home-stay is the best way. If not, ask the place where you will be volunteering for suggestions on places to stay. You may have to get a hotel / hostel at first. Other volunteers at the location you choose may have suggestions as well, or they may even need a roommate. Also when looking for a place to stay make sure it is in a safe area (ask people at the location where you are volunteering) and look for a place that is also not too far from where you will volunteer (but be ready to walk 45 minutes to get there as well). Although you may live on your own, you may be able to eat at the organization where you are volunteering… especially if it is some kind of children’s program.

7) One more way to find programs to volunteer with is to search on the internet for expats (Expatriates are people living outside their country or origin) blogging about life in the country you are interested in (uh, like me). They may talk about a program they work with or they probably know a lot about programs in their area. Most bloggers are very helpful so feel free to ask questions in the comment area.

List of questions to ask a program where you want to volunteer:
1) What do they need volunteers to do at their organization?
2) What are the hours they need volunteers for during the day and for the week?
3) What is the minimum and maximum allowed volunteer stay?
4) What kind of supplies can you bring with you to help with your volunteer work?
5) Do they supply any meals and a place to live?
6) If they do not offer a place to live, do they have affordable options where you can get a room?
7) If they do offer a place to live, what kind of supplies do you need for your living space?
8) Ask for a detail description of the program, if you have not gotten one yet.
9) Ask about a dress code, so you can bring appropriate clothes.
10) Ask for a list of their rules and regulations so you can get familiar with them beforehand.

I hope this has helped some potential volunteers and did not scare any away! Please feel free to leave any questions for me in the comment area. I have a list of some volunteer programs in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras as well. Good luck and go have the experience of a lifetime!

~ by My Gnome Little World on August 9, 2009.


  1. In many circumstances you will need to donate to the volunteer programme you become a part of as unfortunately it takes money to refurbish a school, buy land to protect rainforest, build a house, pay teachers wages etc.

    • Yes it does, but that is a donation. If a organization is straight up about their costs (and not just saying on their website 60% goes the volunteering in the country) and be very clear where all the money goes, including that part of the fee goes to the program as a donation, then that is okay. But two of my biggest problems with “paid for” organizations, besides the cost, and this is my actual experience, is that the volunteers are not prepared for their work and that the organization does not really know where their money is going or have hyped up prices. I have been volunteering all summer with college age students from similar programs as yours and I am so disappointed as, honestly, most of them have not helped at all. Also, the volunteers have all complained to me about their services and that they do not like some of the volunteer programs they have to work with. I was wasting my precious volunteer time with orphaned boys to do the job of someone else that is probably being paid quite well. You are probably not in Africa working hands on with your programs and staff there, so there is NO way you know what is really going on down there. If you think you do, then you are naive. And by the way, this article is for those people who can no afford the extra money to spend on the fees organizations such as yours charge. One program charges 1000.00 to go to Honduras to volunteer for a month (that is without flight cost). I could volunteer arranging it on my own for under 500.00 (mind you getting the same things one would get through a “paid for” organization without the bad service). Good luck with your organization, as I think they are inspired by good will but are not turning out to be as altruistic as intended.

  2. Thanks for your advice to people to research an organization themselves. Another tip is that they can include in their search words ‘free volunteering’ ‘no program fees’ etc. I agree that $80 is a high price for homestay’s, because of this we have houses where volunteers can stay for $20 per week. The only thing you mention in your blog that I would be hesitant to endorse is the idea that those with therapy, medical or computer skills might be useful even for a few hours. Most programs will take a few hours for basic orientation, and anyone who is a specialist will normally need to be on hand for a longer time, and have a higher degree of fluency in the language.

    Good luck with your travels and with your volunteering.

    • I agree with you about the one hour volunteer, I must have had a brain fart. But with that said, if some doctors can come in for a few hours to do basic physicals on the boys it is appreciated where I volunteer. We had dental students come in to teach proper tooth brushing for just 1 hour, but they liked our orphanage so much that they kept on coming back in between their other volunteer duties! And by the way, your program is one of the volunteer opportunities I have come across that I will be recommending if anyone asks!

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