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A Guide to DIY Voluntourism

If you search for volunteer vacations on the Internet, you often encounter third party organizations that set up travelers with different volunteer projects around the world. These are generally full service organizations that do all the work for you — finding a volunteer project, providing lodging and meals, providing you with language lessons if you want, scheduling excursions, etc. It’s definitely easier to have someone organize everything for you so you can get right to work when you step off the plane. But you pay for these services.

There is a cheaper way – DIY voluntourism. Organizing your own volunteer trip isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does take a lot of time. You will spend time researching and contacting different local organizations to find what is out there. Most likely you will be looking into volunteer trips in some part of the developing world where things are much less organized or structured than you are used to. It is not as easy as simply looking up some websites and deciding on a project. In fact, the majority of these organizations don’t have the experience or resources to maintain a good, up-to-date website. You will need to contact these organizations by email to find out what they are about.

Additionally, once you arrive, you may spend a couple of days figuring things out on your own without a network of in-country people helping you. Full service organizations would supply a network of paid workers to make sure that all aspects of their services run smoothly. That said, if you are a more seasoned traveler or just an independent-minded adventurer and want to save money, then DIY volunteer trip is probably the way to go.

10-Steps to Start Your DIY Volunteer Travel:

1. Read some guides on volunteering: A couple of good books that cover volunteering abroad are Volunteer: A Traveler’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World (Lonely Planet) and Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others . They’re pretty comprehensive so it would be a good starting point to help you think about the areas you want to travel to, the needs and challenges of the areas and how you want to volunteer. Websites such as Idealist.org and Transition Aboard are good sources to get additional trip ideas/advice and hear about experiences of past volunteers.

2. Determine WHAT you want to do, and WHERE you want to go: Before you do anything else, think about what you would like do and where you want to volunteer. An honest self-assessment is key to making your experience a success because it defines your trip. We included a list of self-assessment questions in our post on “Keys to a Successful Volunteer Vacation.” Volunteer opportunities abound in areas of education, conservation, community development, health, business, administrative, and technological fields, so it is just a matter of deciding what you are most interested in. When deciding where you want to volunteer – the world is at your fingertips. But most opportunities are found in developing countries.

3. Determine your budget for the trip: Knowing how much money you have to spend will help you immediately eliminate more expensive travel options. Remember to factor in airfare, medical insurance, visas and other personal costs. In some cases, you will need to pay for lodging and meals.

4. Find local volunteer organizations: After you have decided on a country or region, the type of work you would like to do, and your budget, search for local organizations that offer volunteer positions in your interest areas. This can be quite arduous. Many of these organizations do not have websites that are well maintained and some do not have websites. You will need to search the Internet relentlessly and to speak with people who have experienced volunteering in that part of the world.

5. Contact all local volunteer organizations and do your due diligence: When you have a list of potential local organizations, contact them and ask them every question you can think of. This will be a slow and drawn out process, but is absolutely needed to assure you know EXACTLY what you are getting yourself into. Do not assume anything! Here are some questions to get you started:

*What is the overall goal of your organization?
*How long has the organization been conducting programs?
*What is a volunteer’s average day like?
*How many foreign volunteers will be working on my project?
*What kinds of resources are available to volunteers and workers in your organization?
*What kind of responsibilities will I have as a volunteer?
*How flexible is the program? Will I just fit in with a predefined system or work?
*What is the work schedule like? How much down time will I have for tourist activities?
*What is the area of the country like? Is it urban, rural, etc.?
*How safe is the communities your organization works in?
*Are accommodations and meals provided? If so, what kind and is there a charge for them?
*Is there a program fee? If yes, what does it cover?
*Would you provide a list of past participants?

6. Decide on the one volunteer project that interests you the most: Once you have decided on the local organization, don’t over commit. Find out about their cancellation or refund policy. Work with the organization to set up a trial period, where you feel out the program and promise to extend your volunteer service if it meets your expectations. If possible, do not pay all the fees up front. This protects you from being stuck in a program you hate because you already paid for it.

7. Ask your volunteer organization for help finding accommodation: The organization should be able to help you set up accommodation if they don’t provide any with the project. Ask them what other volunteers have done in the past, who you can contact, and how much it should cost. Most volunteer organizations will be able to put you in contact with people offering a variety of accommodation options such as homestays, private apartments, shared apartments, or hotels/hostels. You may be taking a gamble with the accommodations since they are generally not vetted for you by any third party organizations.

8. Contact references: Ask for a list of past participants and try to get in touch with them to see what their experiences were like. If possible, contact a few because everyone’s take away can be very different. After a few conversations you will have a bet
ter sense of the project than you would get from any organization’s website or brochure.

9. Map out your entire trip: Find out your volunteer work schedule so you can plan when to do your own excursions (half–day or day trips). Some projects take place only in the mornings, which leave your afternoons free. Other projects are a few days a week, which leave you with whole days to sightsee. It’s also important to find out how accessible you are to places you may want to visit. Some volunteer locations are so remote with poor roads or transportation that it becomes difficult to leave the site without elaborate planning and arrangement.

10. Be aware of the legal aspect: You are not allowed to do any paid or unpaid work if you enter a country on a tourist visa. Many organizations and individuals ignore that small print on the entry card and write “tourist” as the purpose of their visit. Organized tour companies called their trips “recreational activities” which is true because you pay them money to provide you with activities. You need to be aware of this “often overlooked” legal aspect.


Photo by alison.mckellar

Finally, be honest with yourself and go with an open-mind. Be sure this type of trip is something you really want to do. Your volunteer experience will be what you make of it. Think of it as an adventure, and enjoy yourself!

Check out our Budget Volunteer Vacations series, which spotlights low cost volunteer opportunities. We will also feature DIY trip by country in future posts – stay tuned!

We love to hear your volunteer travel experiences, especially those tidbits “no one ever told me about…” Drop us an email at info@travelanthropist.com.


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