9 Reasons to Volunteer on Your Trip

By Nomadic Matt | Published March 29th, 2010

volunteer overseas with hodrMoving around all the time is exciting, but after months of changing location several times a week, a traveler can long for a place to unpack their bags for awhile and try something different. Volunteering internationally is the way I choose to step off the backpacker trail and, since doing this, I feel like my life and my travels have both been enriched. I am giving my time and energy to people who need help but I am getting so much back in return that it almost feels as though I am the one benefiting the most. Volunteering is a great way to give back and get back while you travel. Here are 9 reasons to make volunteering a part of your next backpacking trip:

  • Get involved in the local community – As a volunteer you will often find yourself well off the tourist trail and immersed in a world that a traveler passing through would never experience. This will mean plenty of invites into people’s homes, weddings, trips to beautiful spots that aren’t in the pages of your guidebook, and getting to participate in local events like pig hunts, voodoo festivals, fishing trips, local soccer matches, and all sorts of really cool events.
  • Make new friends – Spending a bit of time volunteering will allow you to meet all sorts of people you would never have otherwise crossed paths with and working together towards a common goal makes it easy to make friends.
  • Become more socially conscious – Often volunteering will be done in parts of the world that are very poor with people living with less money than you might spend on a coffee back home. Living in a way that is different from your day-to-day life at home could help you to reassess your priorities and become more socially conscious.
  • Gain work experience – Volunteering of any kind looks great on your resume and international volunteering looks great for anyone interested in development work, disaster relief, teaching, social work or a bunch of things. It’s not paid  work experience but it will give you something to pad out your resume which is especially helpful for students or recent graduates.
  • Learn a new language – Spending time immersed in a foreign community is a great opportunity to pick up the local language. If you are volunteering in a remote area then you will have plenty of people who can’t speak English to practice with.
  • Save money – If you are able to find a volunteering opportunity where living expenses are covered, you will probably find that you don’t spend much money. Volunteering for weeks or months at a time could allow you to live more cheaply than you would at home.
  • Get fit – Not all volunteering opportunities involve physical work but there are plenty out there for you if you’re interested in getting sweaty. Disaster relief work and farm work are both great for getting fit and challenging yourself physically.
  • Have a base for more traveling – Volunteering isn’t all hard work and often you will be given evenings and weekends off. This leaves plenty of time for exploring the area and meeting locals. It’s a great way to get the local experience travelers so often speak about.
  • Help people – With all the other benefits you get from volunteering, it’s easy to forget the biggest one of all: the satisfaction that comes from helping out, even if just a little bit. While many people’s motivations for volunteering are different, one thing they all have in common is that they’re helping people in need and that brings with it a great sense of satisfaction.

There are lots of people out there who need your help and plenty of local organizations to volunteer with. You don’t need to pay thousands to volunteer, you just need to look a little harder to find placements that are free or charge a reasonable living cost. Make the effort to make volunteering a part of your next backpacking trip – you won’t regret it!

Kirsty left Canada in 2001 and has been traveling, working, and volunteering abroad ever since. She has spent 11 months out of the past two years as a volunteer doing disaster relief work. She has written an ebook called The Underground Guide to International Volunteering that she hopes will inspire other travelers. You can follow her travels on her blog, Nerdy Nomad.

comments 23 Comments

this is an excellent article and is so true. i did voluntary work in Nazareth house before, as a student in Cardiff with abused children and also worked with the drug addicts in Chowkit (notorious area in KL) as i am a pharmacist. eventhough it’s a different suburb only (not a different country) there are a lot of things one can learn from the people. The addicts were friendly and humble and not threatening at all. At the end of the day, everybody just wants a friend to listen and to talk to. I would love to volunteer whilst traveling too but unfortunately my trips span only 7 – 9 days tops. maybe i should quit my job (like you) and travel long term! thanks for the post. extremely inspiring:)

Volunteering for a short amount of time is tricky and that’s where the pay-to-volunteer people get a lot of their customers. When you don’t have the flexibility to be able to spend an extended period of time volunteering, these companies offer a way in.

While I think volunteering is a great addition to a trip, I also think that if you aren’t able to volunteer longer term, you might be better waiting until you can. There are some arguments about how effective short term volunteers are and whether, in some cases like working with children or teaching, short term volunteers are more disruptive than helpful. It’s an interesting debate.

The organization I’ve been following around for the past two years accept short term volunteers and plug you into the action straight away doing disaster relief work. Check them out: http://www.hodr.org

But I say just quit your job! :-)

I volunteered in Cambodia last year, and I’m not sure I can go back to a “regular” vacation ever again, and for the reasons Kirsty stated.

Abbie I agree. Suddenly travelling for the sake of travelling doesn’t seem as interesting as it once did. I feel like I need to do stuff rather than just see stuff to keep me entertained on the road.

The downturn I’ve had with trying to find volunteer experiences via internet searches is it often costs thousands of dollars to participate and you are left to cover travel expenses. I’m sure it’s different if you are looking locally but while stuck in the USA it has seemed more difficult especially when like agentcikay said you are doing short term travel experiences and can’t commit for multiple weeks at a time.

As I mentioned above, not being able to commit to multiple weeks at a time makes things tricky but there are ways to find opportunities before you leave home and I’ve written about a few in my ebook. Blogs are a good place to start as they usually give first-hand accounts. Emailing hostels in the area you want to work is often useful too. I’m always amazed at how many opportunities there are to volunteer listed on various hostel message boards. Here are a couple of good websites to start your search on: http://www.worldwidehelpers.org and http://www.truetravellers.org You need to register to see the listings but registration is free. Good luck!

Sebastian

I would love to do this. I’m very interested in doing relief work in Haiti or Chile for the recent earthquakes. I am having trouble finding any organizations or websites that will enable me to go volunteer for a month or so but not have to pay a load of money? Can anyone help me out and give me some direction on where I can find these free or low cost volunteer opportunities?
Thanks, -Sebastian.

If you want to work in Haiti, check out http://www.hodr.org as they are who I’m working with now. It’s a great setup but they may have already reached their max number of volunteers. But double check to see if there’s space. Check out the two sites I’ve listed above for a good start to your search for free and cheap opportunities. Or… why not buy my ebook? It’s packed with info.

Sofia - As We Travel

When traveling in a country you get to experience and see so much, and I think it’s important to give something back. Volunteer work would be the perfect way, and as you say I can imagine that you get very involved in the community this way.
Me and Nathan decided a while ago that next time we travel to any of these countries in need of help we would spend at least a short while trying to give something back.

Sofia that’s a good point. I agree that giving something back to the places that give you so much is important.

Excellent points! I”m planning to do this very thing as my first stop – India. I’ve heard India itself is not for the faint hearted, but the organization is excellent – http://www.childhaven.ca/

It’s Canadian (me too!), and adheres to the principles of Gandhi. Enough said for me. It will be eye-opening, a huge adjustment, but I’m looking forward to the change. :)

Jeri

This is a great post! My husband (Canadian!) and I (American) live in Papua New Guinea. There are lots of people who travel here, but they never really see the true PNG. They arrive at the airport and get transport straight to the nice resorts, and they miss the beauty of the culture. Even taking the time to walk down the streets with the rest of the population can give you a major change of worldview. I love your idea of volunteering as part of your trip. We travel with young children, but that would be a great thing to teach them as they grow and travel with us.

Beautiful post on volunteering while traveling! I frequently travel to remote places and find myself volunteering in the local communities. These volunteering sessions are usually rich and rewarding travel experiences.

ann

thank you for your share
i think it is very meaningful

Kay

Hi Matt, love the site, the tips and budget are fantastic, put my mind at ease a lot of the time!
I am in New Zealand at the moment, staying here for awhile to work and plan to get to South America around December. Right from the start I have wanted to stop and volunteer for 3-6 months, give something back and learn some Spanish. I have been looking at Bolivia and Peru. Would anyone recommend a project. I have seen http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/ and have looked at numerous sites, it’s just so hard to choose, it’d be great to hear some personal recommendations.
K

Danje Bowen

Hi Kay,
I volunteered in Peru for 2 months last summer, and had an amazing time there; both with my placement & socially with the other volunteers. The organisation is called Otra Cosa, who are an independent charity that I stumbled across on the volunteersouthamerica site you mentioned.. I recommend you check out their well-equipped site to check out all the info, but they are based in an amazing little surf town called Huanchaco in Northern Peru where the people are so friendly. The food’s nice & cheap, the beach is great, you can get Spanish lessons for next to nothing, and there are loads of placements to choose from!
Aahhh this just makes me wanna go back… Hope this helps!

Nice compilation, I think Volunteering especially in foreign lands makes one more empathetic and open to ideas and life. It’s a gateway to senses that one is not aware existed. Volunteering gives a purpose and makes you grateful for what you have.
Thumbs up to your article!

Great article, Kristy. We operate a volunteer abroad website – http://www.ecoteer.com and if we could say one common denominator of all our volunteers when they return is that, many of them felt that there is more to life than 9-5 job or sitting in a cubicle.

Believe more people should consider volunteering as part of their holidays, and our hope is that more Asians should consider volunteering at their own backyard too. This taking into account that most of our clients comes from the West.

Anyway, very informative article once again!

Beautiful post on volunteering while traveling! I frequently travel to remote places and find myself volunteering in the local communities. These volunteering sessions are usually rich and rewarding travel experiences.

Andrew Barer

Hello…

I want to bring a group of my High School students to Puerto Rico for 7-10 days. We would split time between volunteering our time and exploring/learning.

The key consideration is that our students here at Stamford Academy are very low income and our budgets are minimal. I need to find a grass-roots way to make this happen that would include us either staying with local families, camping out, or staying at a youth hostel etc.
Can you suggest any contacts for me?

Thanks!

Andrew

I completely agree with you. My main reason was to explore a new country and learn about their culture while helping out the community a little. I experienced so much more than that. It’s true that you get to know the locals while you’re volunteering. I was only in Costa Rica for a couple weeks and my volunteer group quickly became friends with the local bartenders and servers at our favorite bar that we went to everyday after volunteering. It was really great to be able to get to know people who had grown up there all their lives and to be able to compare the similarities and differences between our lives.

-Natasha

Hey, I read you article, and it does seem to be more about long-term volunteering, which can be useful. But encouraging people to volunteer abroad regardless of agency or situation is a little misguided. There is a lot of harm that international volunteer agencies do to the places they are purporting to help.

It is one of my desire to do volunteering work while on the road and will do just that when I resign from my day job and go on somewhere making my little contributions felt by the most people who needs me.

This article is very useful and one which I will value. :)

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