By Sabina Livia

Volunteer opportunities overseas are a great way to share skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm while discovering new places and becoming immersed in an entirely different culture. Unfortunately, many would-be volunteers shy away when they face the high costs associated with such excursions. This is unfortunate, as there are numerous free or relatively cheap volunteer opportunities overseas.


The cost of volunteering for free

Any skill is useful for securing a suitable volunteer opportunity abroad. The idea that activities involving giving up one’s time and skills for a good cause should cost impressive amounts of money is enough to scare away even the boldest of people. Free, in this context, refers to spending your time and knowledge to assist an organization or individual without any charge. It does not necessarily mean free lodging, transportation, or accommodation. If you opt to pursue a free program, you should follow this course with realistic expectations, as projects of this nature tend to possess fewer resources and may be less well organised.

When to consider paying to volunteer

Though the word ‘free’ is highly attractive, there are times when paying is more suitable. If this said cost is not too high, there are certain situations when paying an agency for volunteering is the best option. These include:

  • When this opportunity is your first time abroad;
  • You have some apprehension about moving around the foreign country;
  • You have a specialised skill and need to be sure you will make an impact;
  • You have a limited amount of time to make preparations.

Identifying volunteer opportunities overseas

Once you have decided to volunteer for free, it is essential that you make a good choice when identifying a suitable opportunity. A good place to start looking would be to browse through travel guide books. Books such as Lonely Planet often list suitable opportunities in the volunteer section at the end of the book. One may also choose to participate in travel forums where travellers often share their volunteering experiences. Such forums allow prospectors access to information from other volunteers by making requests or posting discussion threads. If you know someone in a foreign country, their advice can serve as a good starting point for your consideration. You can also contact not for profit organisations in the country that you wish to travel to, which coordinate and promote volunteering opportunities in that particular corner of the world.


Things to consider when volunteering overseas

Finding a free project does not mean it is either legitimate or credible. Once you find a project, ask questions such as “how is expenditure accounted for?”. If the project funding is mainly donations, you need to know the percentage of expenditure going toward overheads versus actual inputs. In legitimate projects, there should be no need for secrecy regarding finances. You may also want to know if your volunteer opportunity means that someone in the local community is left without a job. Your free work should at best add value and not lower the value of the community. In addition to that, another valid question is “if your input is for a short time, are your services beneficial to the project overall?”. Lastly, you may want to request contact information from former volunteers that have been involved with this particular project. You can, and should, rely on your instincts to keep away from projects that don’t really sound right. Above anything else, you should keep in mind is that the purpose of volunteering is meaningful participation and, if you cannot do so in person, cash donations are equally useful to many organisations.

What is the ideal outcome of any efficient abroad volunteering programme? As you walk away with a new cultural experience, new friends, and valuable knowledge, charity organisations and local communities should also benefit from your expertise and skills.

Measuring the impact of volunteering abroad

Many volunteers engage in these activities because they want to make a difference. Often times however, we are unsure of how to evaluate if the volunteer programme abroad has made a real difference or not. For those with specialised skills, this is much easier as they leave knowing how far they went into solving quantifiable problems. An accurate evaluation of  the impact of volunteering may require considering the programme’s design, aspects of the services provided, and measurable results. In this regard, results-based orientation serves for much easier measurement. The nature of work may also be of use to consider. If it is a practical task, it becomes much easier to see how much your volunteer involvement contributed. Lastly, the length of your stay is also essential to the overall impact of your contribution. However, you could use other mechanisms to measure and sustain this impact such as making local contacts, building strong relationships with other participants, and very importantly, a little bit of introspection. Regardless of what you come up with after this experience, cherish the thought that personal growth is one of the many benefits you are sure to have upon departure.


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