Everything You Need to Know to Volunteer Abroad for Cheap

by Christine Williams

Volunteering abroad has become increasingly popular over the past several years. Volunteering allows travelers to gain a unique and local perspective on a destination. You can develop a deeper understanding of a place by learning about its hardships than just stopping by for a night or two while traveling. More and more travelers are interested in giving back to the communities that welcome them in.

Unfortunately, what came from a good-hearted interest in helping the world has developed into a very profitable voluntourism industry. Organizations and businesses have sprouted up that take advantage of well-meaning travelers and communities in need. Some volunteer programs charge travelers an exorbitant fee, setting them up in projects that don’t really have a positive impact. This can be enough to dissuade any traveler, especially those on a budget. Luckily, if you’re looking for a low-cost volunteer program with high impact, there are options, and some of them are nearly free!

A volunteer teaching in the Philippines with a local teacher

You may not be able to entirely volunteer abroad for free, but you can get pretty darn close. Here are some strategies for finding a volunteer placement abroad that has high impact on the community and low impact on your wallet:

Look for transparency.

Volunteering abroad may come at a cost, but that doesn’t mean you should be throwing your money at an organization without knowing what it’s going toward. Look for organizations with a reputable history and transparency of their financial management. Sites like Charity Navigator rate nonprofits based on their administrative costs, accountability to its donors and other factors. For smaller grassroots organizations, it may be practical to go visit them on the ground before committing to a position. Get a feel for their programs and staff. Ask questions about their budget and where volunteer dues go. If something seems fishy, there’s plenty of other organizations that would love your help.

Remember why you’re volunteering in the first place.

Voluntourism has become a very profitable industry for middlemen looking to take advantage of well-meaning travelers. They package volunteer experiences that look more like vacations than volunteering. You should definitely be having fun, but remember that volunteering is about helping others (rather than getting gorgeous beach shots for Instagram!) Prioritize your impact on the community over your personal experience. If an organization looks like it’s more about grabbing photo ops of volunteers with a shovel in their hand next to a local kid than actually helping, beware. Some companies end up doing more harm than good. Be sure to research organizations that have sustainable volunteer opportunities. Don’t choose a volunteer placement solely based on price. Super cheap programs can sometimes cut costs on safety precautions and lead to sketchy situations. 

To avoid any scams, ask specific and thorough questions about what you’ll be doing. Some organizations will have testimonials from previous volunteers who you may be able to contact to hear about their experience.

Volunteer handing some goodies to a kid

Find something you love to do.

For whatever reason some people have this idea in their head that volunteering has to be a total drag. Good news, friends! Volunteering can be FUN! Actually, it should be fun. If you’re stuck volunteering with puppies when you hate dogs (okay, does anyone actually hate puppies?!) you’ll begrudge every task you have to do. An unhappy volunteer is a crappy volunteer. Finding a volunteer placement abroad that you love means you’ll be excited about the work you’re doing which means you’ll actually be more productive. Administration at the organization will take notice and may decrease your volunteer costs to encourage you to extend your stay.

When you’re doing your research, look for a cause that’s important to you. Volunteering abroad has become so popular you can pretty much help in any field that speaks to you. Have a thing for endangered sea turtles? Help hatch eggs on the beach in El Salvador! Love to read? Help out with a literacy volunteer program teaching kids to read in Zimbabwe.

While you should enjoy yourself, be aware that some volunteer programs that sound too good to be true, probably are. So, beware of programs that claim to allow you to volunteer abroad for free, literally. Also, if the volunteer housing is located in a beachside mansion complete with pool and jacuzzi, chances are it's going to be pricey. Be honest about what kind of living and work situation you’re comfortable with and how that fits with volunteer costs.

Find something you’re good at.

Okay, you’ve found yourself something that you love doing. Now ask yourself, are you good at it? Just because you love something, does not necessarily mean you’re good at it. I love singing, but I’m not particularly good at it. I’ll sing in the shower, in the car, even solo karaoke (after a few drinks). But I sure as heck won’t be volunteering to sing at an elderly home any time soon. That would just be cruel to the residents.

Figuring out what you’re good at and how that can fit with an organization’s needs will help you find the perfect volunteer position for you. Being a super valuable volunteer will make an organization more open to cheaper rates and can even open doors to opportunities to volunteer abroad for free.

Volunteers teaching kids some songs

Volunteer in developing countries.

The cost of volunteering abroad will be directly related to the cost of living in that country. As nice as it would be to live in a gorgeous beach house on the Caribbean coast and volunteer at a local school, you have to be prepared for the cost to be relatively high. Organizations in more touristy areas will charge higher dues because things like rent, transportation and supplies tend to be more expensive. You can also expect to pay more for things like food and activities. Impoverished communities will have a lower cost of living and, to be frank, generally need the help of volunteers more than a resort town. Developing countries in Latin America, like Colombia and Peru, and or other countries in Southeast Asia, like Thailand or Cambodia, are fantastic places to volunteer abroad, with plenty of people in need and low living costs! 

Volunteer long-term.

These days you can find volunteer opportunities for any length of time. If you only have a day or two to spare, then it’s awesome that you’re using your limited free time to help someone else. If your schedule is more flexible, however, consider volunteering long-term. Volunteering for long periods of time, whether that’s several months or even a year, will definitely cut down on costs. Sites like GoAbroad (us!) are a great resource for finding longer-term opportunities. In general staying in one place while traveling abroad is much cheaper than constantly moving around. All those long-distance bus rides add up quick.

Some organizations have a sliding scale for dues where your first week or two will cost more than the following weeks. The reason for this scale is that new volunteers actually take resources to train and assist as they settle in. The organization most likely also wants to encourage volunteers to stay longer and having lower living costs will make it easier for volunteers to commit long-term. Not only will devoting more of your time to helping out end up costing less, but you will actually have a greater impact on the community. You may also move up in the ranks at the organization and possibly snag an administrative position. Soon you may be running the place, and not having to pay anything at all! #dreambig.

Kids being lined up for a game

Stay budget-minded while volunteering.

Once you find the perfect low-cost volunteer placement you may think you’re set to go, but it’s crucial to continue to stay focused on your budget throughout your time as a volunteer abroad. Generally expenses like housing, food and other expenses are covered within the placement cost, but don’t assume these are included. Be crystal clear on exactly what you’ll be out of pocket for. Just as you do while traveling, maintain a set budget. The costs of those nightly beers and weekend trips with your new volunteer friends definitely add up. Stay focused on your budget so you don’t have to pack up and head home early.

So there you have it, now you know how to volunteer abroad for cheap!

Don’t forget: costs should not be your ONLY deciding factor in choosing a volunteer placement. Factors like location, volunteer duties, and community impact should all help you find the perfect program for you (not only if it will allow you to volunteer abroad for free!).

Ultimately, look for an organization that puts its community impact over everything else. No matter what you pay, the most important thing is helping those that are less fortunate. Right?!