The options for volunteer travel have inflated exponentially over the past few years. If you tap “Volunteer Nepal” into your search engine, you’ll have pages of organizations that are willing to help you have a meaningful volunteer experience — for a price. Sometimes paying to volunteer is a worthy investment, but there are still plenty of places where a moneyless work-exchange is possible. Either way, volunteer-based travel increases the chance of genuine interactions with local peoples, providing experiences that are unique, rewarding and challenging.
I spent a year travelling the world and searching for the best volunteer experiences. I’ve tiled floors in New Orleans, taught English in Peru, herded goats in Israel, painted guesthouses in India and more. I’ve been lucky to stumble across some stellar situations, and I’ve also been blessed with some not-so-lovely experiences. The tough circumstances provided opportunity to for learning.
And speaking of learning, here are ten things that I’ve taken from my work-exchange-based travels.
- Be prepared to work hard. If your idea of ‘work-based travel’ is volunteering to sample pina coladas on the beach in Hawaii, then this type of travel might not be your shtick. I’m fairly certain that a cumulative amount of two weeks during this yearlong work-exchange have been spent hauling rocks. Often organizations, farms or restoration projects will allocate the menial, low-skill-requirement tasks to volunteers. The longer you stay, however, the greater your chance for more meaningful or skillful involvement.
- Expect to save money. For myself, one of the signs of a successful work exchange is how much dust gathers on my wallet. I have had weeks go by where I didn’t spend a penny (or Shekel or Peso). There is something gratifying about this type of exchange experience. A zero-dollar work site is easier found in rural settings where there are fewer distractions, such as the tempting lure of cool glasses of beer or the cultural calling of museums with admission fees or those one-of-a-kind hippie pants in the souks. But with the money saved on food and accommodation, there might just be extra budget to allocate to fun activities. [Tip: Always have a back-up fund available. If you’ve committed yourself to three weeks at a German farm, only to discover that it’s your version of hell on earth, you might need to pay for a few nights at a hostel to get a new game plan together.]
- Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. If possible, arrive on site with some boundaries pre-established. What will be your tasks? To whom will you be reporting? What is your working schedule? If both parties are aware of the expectations at the start, there is an increased chance of mutual satisfaction. All this said, it’s also important to keep in mind that communicational nuances vary greatly from country to country. In the western world, we tend to be quiteexplicit, but this approach won’t always translate well to other cultures. Sometimes you’ll just have to use your intuition.
- Read the reviews. Websites such as helpx.net and workaway.info have the option for people to share their experiences of a work site. Scan through these sentiments. Remember that what one individual’s idea of a great host might be misery to another person. Look for reoccurring themes in the comments. If something concerns you, ask the host. How they respond will inevitably impact your decision.
- Share a review. Contribute to the network of hosts and helpers by sharing your experience. If you adored your weeks at the tortoise refuge center, then shout it to the world. If the Australian vineyard was poorly managed, make it your responsibility to speak of your experience. Be honest and specific about what was positive and what was challenging. Your words will have the power to influence other people’s choices.
- Under-commit your time. If you think you want to stay for three weeks, tell your host that you’re interested in two weeks, with the possibility of an extension. If they like you, chances are they’re going to want you to stay. If they don’t like you, chances are you won’t like them either and you’ll feel ready to leave. In the world of customer service and work-exchanging, it’s always better to deliver more than you promised.
- Contribute something unique. Most hosts open their homes and/or projects to international helpers because they are interested in other cultures, cuisines, languages and/or artistic expressions. You are a resource with your own personal history, culture and skillsets. Offer to prepare a typical meal from your country. Bring photos of your family and life back home. Before you leave, learn three stories of the land you come from – practice the art of storytelling. If your stay was a good experience, leave a note when you depart. There is something powerful about the expression of a hand-written sentiment.
- Pay for it, if it’s important to you. It’s a wonderful question – should we ever pay to volunteer? Some folks think this notion is absurd. But the truth is that most volunteer work is laced with personal motives to engage in some sort of fashion with the world. Administrative fees are understandable for short-term positions, where it takes time (and therefor money) to train the ever-evolving flow of volunteers. So if you’ve always dreamed of helping at an elephant rescue sanctuary in Thailand, you might have to pay for it. But maybe it’ll be worth it.
- Consider the implications of orphanages. The idea of bringing joy to the faces of parent-less children is understandably appealing. However we must question the impact of the ‘temporariness’ that generally assumed in a traveler’s lifestyle. If people are constantly coming in, establishing relationships and then departing, what message are we sending to a child? If you truly are interested in helping, perhaps fundraising is your best gesture. Find a way to ensure that those people who are taking care of the children are themselves being cared for.
- Remember that you get what you give. Be a good human being. Be polite. Remember that you are in someone else’s space. Remain positive. Share your treats. Basically everything that you learned in kindergarten applies. The success of any volunteer position will go beyond your ability to shovel manure. Perhaps “success” might be measured by your ability to shovel manure with a smile on your face. Try it.
And don’t underestimate the connecting power of: