Pay to volunteer? While many people assume volunteering is always free, going abroad to participate in community service projects often costs money. I realized this the first time I volunteered abroad teaching English in Thailand. After doing weeks of research, I found there are a lot of companies charging a small fortune ‒ sometimes thousands of dollars ‒ to have travelers come over and spend their time helping other communities.
Every program is different. Some are completely free but offer no housing or meals. Others may charge a program fee but set you up with accommodation and a local chef. Sometimes programs will also include orientations, airport pickup, language courses, cultural activities and 24/7 support. Keep in mind what you want to get out of your experience while browsing the following list of budget-friendly international volunteer programs.
WWOOFing is one of the best networks to use for having a worthwhile volunteer experience on a budget. The acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and allows volunteers to browse countries from all over the world to choose an organic farming project that most interests them. In exchange for labor, volunteers usually receive room, board and the chance to experience a culture from a local point of view. Opportunities can be anything from strawberry picking to working with animals to harvesting grapes on a vineyard and making wine. By participating in these types of projects, you’ll be contributing to positive ecotourism and helping to create a healthier planet.SE7EN
SE7EN is a free and low-cost volunteer opportunity network. Their focus is on social and environmental projects from around the world. What makes this option so affordable is that the middleman is cut out, as SE7EN simply lists the projects on their site and allows you to contact hosts directly. Usually, room and board is either provided or very cheap. Some project examples include:
- Teaching underprivileged children theater skills in Nicaragua (low-cost accommodation and certain meals provided)
- Transforming a townhouse into an art gallery and retreat in Italy (accommodation and breakfast provided)
- Teaching subjects of interest in Tanzania (accommodation and certain meals provided)
I’ve used International Volunteer Headquarters many times and highly recommend them. Their placements are very reasonably priced, and are especially great for people who have never volunteered abroad before, as full-time support, an orientation and airport pickup are included. Instead of putting you in a fancy hotel, they allow you to stay with local families and in local villages to really get to know the culture and help the people. Furthermore, certain recreational activities are often included in the price. Their programs, which generally include room and board, are located all around the world and range from about $200-$2,300, depending how long and where your program is. Some placement examples include:
- HIV/AIDS work and medical placements in Kenya
- Teaching English in Vietnam
- Building homes in favelas in Brazil
- Surf outreach in South Africa
- Women empowerment in India
If you’re really interested in doing community service abroad, have a couple years to spare and want to earn some money; Peace Corps may be for you. There are placements in 75 countries, and volunteers get the chance to work with a community in need for 27 months. The Peace Corps’ mission is to “promote world peace and friendship,” and areas of focus for programs include: health, education, youth and community development, business and information, and communications technology, environment and agriculture. What’s great about going overseas with Peace Corps is they provide you with language, cross-cultural, and technical training, so it can be great for your resume. There are also a lot of benefits, like possible deferment or partial cancellation of your student loans, a monthly stipend and $7,245 payment once the project is completed, free flights to and from the country, vacation days, free medical and dental care during the project and affordable health insurance for 18 months after. It’s more like having a very proactive job than the usual volunteer experience, and you won’t have to pay any kind of fees to participate.
VAOPS is a directory of free and low-cost volunteer opportunities, which allows you to save money by cutting out the middleman. Because everyone has different needs and wants, their programs vary in price, style, and what’s included. Some examples include:
- Doing conservation and recovery work in Torres del Paine in Chile (no fees, room and board not included)
- Helping protection efforts for the endangered Scarlet Macaw and Buffon’s Macaw in Costa Rica (no fees, $15 per day for room and board)
- Doing orphanage work in Mexico (no fees, free room and board, program is one year)
The United Nations is one of the most famous organizations in the world for helping communities in need and working to keep moral responsibility in check. What some people may not know is along with their staffed projects, they also host a volunteer program called United Nations Volunteers (UNV). Volunteers usually work for six to 12 months and can choose from placements in about 130 countries. Projects focus mainly on human rights, agriculture, education, health, information and communication technology, community development, popular, industry and vocational training. It’s free to volunteer with the United Nations and you’ll also be given a monthly stipend, medical insurance and annual leave.
Want to volunteer in one of the most naturally beautiful continents in the world? Volunteer South America is designed with backpackers and budget-travelers in mind. There are no middleman or agency fees associated with the programs, making them drastically cheaper than many others that exist. Although room and board will not always be included, being able to choose how you will live and eat for yourself can help you save a lot money, especially if you opt for a homestay. Some projects available include:
- Educating children in Nicaragua
- Helping to keep the weaving culture alive and give women economic opportunities in Peru
- Leading hikes to raise funds for street kids in Guatemala
While a bit more competitive than some of the other programs, Winrock places volunteers in diverse programs all around the world and even pays for airfare. When a volunteer position opens up, Winrock places the most qualified individual in the program. Some of their current volunteer opportunities include:
- Improving seed production for home gardening in Bangladesh
- Helping with cattle management in Ethiopia
- Forest biodiversity management in Lebanon
UBELONG offers one week to six-month volunteer opportunities throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia. While not free, their programs are very affordable and offer all accommodation and meals, orientation, 24/7 support and project supervision. There are also recreational and cultural activities included to help volunteers get to know the country better. Prices for placements range from $250 for two weeks in Peru to $4,320 for six months in the Galapagos, although most six month placements average around $2,300. Some program examples include:
Located in Greece, the Katelios Group works to help sea turtles. The main objective of the group is to “protect the natural environment on the island of Kefalonia, Greece.” There is no program fee to participate, although room and board is not included. The organization does work to provide volunteers with low-cost accommodation and suggests that participants cook meals together to save money. To give you an idea of how much you will spend, accommodation is usually about $200-$250 per month, while food is normally about $40 per week.