There are many, many organizations that place international volunteers but that require that the volunteers pay the costs associated with the placement (see later on these page on where to find credible programs).
Why do these organizations charge people to volunteer? Because it is much more beneficial to local, poor or developing communities to use funds to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, provide medical care, etc., than to use those resources to bring in an outside volunteer. The priority is not you, the volunteer, and your desire to help. Instead, the priority is local people being employed and being in charge of their own community activities. Volunteers from outside of a community are needed to fill gaps in local skills and experience, but it's not cost-effective for most organizations to pay for someone to come only for a few weeks or months. Therefore, if you want a short-term volunteering assignment, be prepared to pay for at least your travel and accommodations.
Volunteering abroad in short-term assignments, also known as "voluntourism", costs at least a couple of thousand of dollars. The costs include:
- Your travel within the country, and to and from the country as well
- Your housing during the trip (even if you stay with a local family, they are probably receiving payment from the organization to house you)
- Staff time to train, supervise and support you (translation, working with the local and national government, working with local people to create volunteering opportunities, etc.)
- Payment to local people to work with you (they may not be able to afford to donate their time)
- Government fees to allow you to work in the country
- Some or all of your meals
- Materials you will use in your volunteering
How can you fund your volunteering experience abroad?
Depending on how aggressive and persistent you are, it will take anywhere from a few months to a few YEARS to raise the funds you need for your volunteering abroad experience.
Also see saving money for travel - this offers advice on how to save hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in a short period of time for travel.
- Create a web site or blog about your quest to volunteer abroad. Note what program(s) you are pursuing, and what you hope to accomplish as a volunteer. Don't fundraise for your trip. Don't just say, "I really, really want to go!" You are raising funds for the results of your trip could be for local people, and for how you will use the experience after you return. Think about why YOU would give to someone trying to go abroad to volunteer: what message would make you want to give? Update your web site or blog regularly as you fundraise, with information about the country where you hope to serve, with information about what you are doing to prepare yourself for the trip, etc. Commit on your web site or blog to sharing photos and blogs from your experience during or after your time abroad, so that everyone who supports you financially (your investors, if you will) can share in your experience.
- Create a savings account at the bank that is only for funds raised for your trip abroad. You can create a Paypal account and have funds deposited directly into this account.
- Create a budget for your trip and post it to your web site or blog. Include all expenses and exact costs (or the best estimate): the program fee (and what that fee covers), additional travel costs (some program fees don't cover travel to and from the country), passport and visa costs, medical and travel insurance, special travel gear. Be clear about what you intend to pay for yourself (storage space for your things while you are away, international cellular phone, Internet access, vaccinations, etc.).
- Get a full-time or part-time temporary job in the formal sector (at a restaurant, at a shop, etc.) and save some or all of the money you make for your trip. Raising some of your own funds will encourage others to support you with donations of their own.
- Work a series of jobs in the informal sector (walk dogs, pet sit, provide child care/baby sit, do yard work for neighbors and friends, etc.) and save some or all of the money you make for your trip. You can be up front with neighbors, friends, family and other potential clients that you are working these jobs in order to be able to volunteer abroad; it may create more business for you. Again: raising some of your own funds will encourage others to support you with donations of their own.
- Have a garage sale. Ask friends, relatives, neighbors and others to donate items for your sale. Have large signs at the garage sale that say you are raising money for a volunteer-abroad experience, and have flyers with the URL of your web site where you will share information about your volunteering experience.
- Sell items on eBay. Ask friends, relatives, neighbors and others to donate items for your sale.
- Ask for donations on the web site or blog you create for your trip. You can have donations come to your special bank account through PayPal. The odds of total strangers donating to your cause are slim; if anyone chooses to donate online (and there won't be many), it will probably be your friends and family. Note on your web site or blog that you are also working in some way to raise your own money as well (showing that you aren't just asking for donations -- you are taking responsibility for at least some of your own trip expenses as well).
- Send emails and postcards through the postal mail, as well as FaceBook updates to all your friends and family, announcing the URL of your web site or blog about volunteering abroad and your intention to go abroad with a particular program. When they visit the web site or blog, they will not only learn about your planned trip, they will also learn that you are raising money for the trip.
- Make a presentation at your community of faith (church, temple, mosque, etc.) about your plans to volunteer abroad, your plans to share photos and narratives about your experience so anyone can virtually participate in your experience, what you hope to accomplish, etc., and then "pass the hat" for donations for your trip (you will need to ask permission from the community of faith in order to ask for donations after your presentation). Note that you are also working in some way to raise your own money as well (showing that you aren't just asking for donations -- you are taking responsibility for at least some of your own trip expenses as well).
- Turn your birthday party into a fundraiser for your trip abroad. Invite friends to your house or to a restaurant, and ask in your invitation that, in lieu of gifts, people make donations to help make your trip abroad possible. Note that you are also working in some way to raise your own money as well (showing that you aren't just asking for donations -- you are taking responsibility for at least some of your own trip expenses as well).
- Host a party, cookout or reception at your home, invite your friends (and encourage them to invite their friends), and show a film or documentary, and/or serve food, relating to the country where you will serve. The film or documentary could also be related to volunteering abroad, or it could simply be a movie you and your friends really love. In your invitation, note clearly that this is a fundraiser for your trip abroad and that you will be asking for donations; do NOT wait until the party, cookout or reception to tell invitees that you have invited them there in order to ask for donations. At the event, make a brief speech that you are raising money for a volunteer-abroad experience, and have flyers with the URL of your web site where you will share information about your volunteering experience.
- Get permission from your city for a temporary hot dog stand or baked goods stand in a part of your city populated by bars and pubs - and heavily populated by patrons. You will have to buy or make the food yourself that you are going to sell. Have a big sign on your stand that says why you are selling this food, and have brochures or handouts that have information about the trip you will be making. You also have to stay safe; this is not an appropriate activity for anyone under 21, for anyone doing this alone, for an area that is not very well-lit, and in a neighborhood where it would be easy to victimize you.
- Hold a fundraiser at a local bar, with the local bar's permission. Don't rent the facility; simply ask the bar if there is a slow day or night that you could use as a fundraiser for your cause. Ask a band or friends who sing to provide entertainment (with permission from the bar owner or manager), create a big wall display about what you are going to do as a volunteer abroad, have information to pass out about your web site and the experience you are trying to fund, and make a five-minute speech before and in the middle of the event saying what the event is about and how people can donate to help you make this trip happen. Note that you are also working in some way to raise your own money as well (showing that you aren't just asking for donations -- you are taking responsibility for at least some of your own trip expenses as well).
- Ask your parents for a loan, and develop a re-payment plan, in writing, for when you return to pay them back in a timely manner.
Track EVERY Donation In Writing
Keep a notebook or a spreadsheet and write down the name of every person who donates, and how much they donate. Thank these people after their donation with a card or postcard, handed to them in-person or via postal mail. Keep them updated about your fundraising efforts and, if you get to go abroad, what happens during your experience. If you do not raise enough money for your trip, offer to return the gift to the person, or to donate the funds to a charity. Give the person the option of getting their money back if you don't get to go on your trip for whatever reason.
What About Scholarships, Fellowships and Financial Aid?
Scholarships and fellowships for experiences abroad have to be tied to a university experience. If you aren't receiving college credit for this volunteering experience abroad, searching for a scholarship or fellowship is futile.
If this experience isn't in conjunction with your university and therefore isn't an official study abroad experience, but you want it to be, talk with the appropriate professors at your university. One of them may be willing to help you work with the university in order to get college credit for the program, which means it becomes an academic endeavor, something there are a few scholarships for.
Once you have official notification from your university that your volunteering abroad experience will be considered an official study abroad experience, make an appointment with your university financial aid office about finding scholarships, fellowships and financial aid that you might be eligible for. Also see:
The International Fellows Program (IFP) is a nine-month internship for recent U.S. college graduates and graduate students to provide on-the-job development experience in Africa. The Fellows provide technical assistance and training to community-based grassroots projects in Africa, including education, literacy, health development, HIV/AIDS, English as a Second Language, agricultural development, proposal development, managerial training, feasibility studies and small business development. Applicants must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and be a recent university graduate (advanced degree preferred).
The Peace Corps Fellows/USA program offers returned Peace Corps volunteers financial benefits such as scholarships, reduced tuition and university credit in advanced degree programs at 54 participating colleges and universities. Returned Volunteers who have satisfactorily completed their Peace Corps service have lifetime eligibility for Fellows/USA. Volunteers may choose to participate immediately following their Peace Corps service, or any time thereafter.
What About Finding a Sponsor?
Corporations, small businesses and foundations aren't interested in sponsoring volunteering abroad experiences of this kind. Most corporations and foundations are overwhelmed with such requests and have a blanket policy to always say no. There are thousands and thousands of people who are looking for funding for short-term volunteering abroad activities, so competition for funds can be fierce. Also, donations to fund your volunteering abroad experience are not tax-deductible; they are, rather, personal gifts to you. Therefore, most businesses or foundations aren't even going to call you back regarding your request, and if they do, they are going to say no.
Limit any business requests to small businesses that know you personally (you have worked there, or the owner knows you or your family very well). Approach them just as you would any of your friends and family. If you get even $100 towards your experiences, consider yourself VERY lucky.
What About A Big Fundraising Event?
Fundraising events are expensive. Even if you decide you will just have a cookout and invite friends and family to both attend and to donate to your trip, you will have to pay for all the food and drinks. If you want to have a event, keep it simple: just in your home or at a bar where you won't be charged to rent the facilities (which means the bar will be open to the general public, not just your invitees). Here is advice on Creating or Holding a Successful Fund Raising Event, but note just how expensive such an event can be, and how much work such an event requires, for very little return.
Where Do I Find Legitimate Fee-Based/Pay-Expenses-Yourself Volunteering Abroad Companies?
Before you pay to volunteer abroad, however, note that many of these programs are not worthwhile and, in fact, harm local people -- especially those programs focused on orphans. Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. For now, the campaign is focused on Cambodia, but don't be surprised if the campaign expands: an incendiary report by South African and British academics focuses on "orphan tourism" in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. Unless a program is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, and unless the program places volunteers for many months, not just weeks, stay away from the program.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of credible - or at least not-so-exploitative - Fee-Based/Pay-Expenses-Yourself organizations. Here are directories of short-term volunteering organizations, online and in print, that can help you identify credible programs:
I strongly recommend the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, by Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega, and Zehara Heckscher. It will give you details about what international volunteering really entails, why some organizations require that international volunteers pay, suggestions on how to raise funds for such, and an excellent overview of your options for fee-based overseas volunteering. But best of all, it provides tips and worksheets that can make your volunteering have real impact for the local people, and benefits for you long after the experience is over.
- Idealist.org International Volunteerism Resource Center (IVRC) has both advice and links to programs.
- There is a listing of the more-than-30 member organizations of the International Volunteers Program Association (IVPA) that is a good place to find reputable volunteer-for-a-fee programs.
- For people in the United Kingdom, there's the Year Out Group, an association of gap-year-abroad organizations that meet certain standards in order to be a member. The Year Out Group does not however organize or arrange year out programs, but it's a good place to find reputable programs.
- There is this web page of a massive number of links to organizations that place volunteers internationally; this is a mixture of organizations that do and don't charge volunteers for placements.
- The Learning Abroad Center Work, Intern, Volunteer (WIV) Database, hosted by the University of Minnesota, allows you to search work, internship and volunteering opportunities all over the globe. There are more than 500 programs to choose from, and you can search by keyword, region, type of program, etc.
- The Complete Guide to Finding a Job Overseas, from Transitions Abroad Publishing.
- Lonely Planet published the book Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World. It lists and reviews more than 190 organizations that provide short-term volunteer-abroad experiences.
Here are FIVE endorsements of pay-to-volunteer programs that I will make, but only because I know the people involved in these organizations, these organizations have excellent reputations among professional aidworkers regarding the work they do, I know these programs do not take just anyone with the money to go (candidates must have at least some basic skills - and often much more), and I know what these organizations are focused primarily on having a positive impact on local people (not just how warm and fuzzy they make the participating volunteers feel):
World Computer Exchange (WCE). Volunteers travel in teams of seven and assist local WCE partner organizations that have received WCE computers. Volunteers assist with troubleshooting, training and technical support. To be eligible, volunteers must be 21 years of age, have some prior tech skills, and a willingness to participate in technology-related tasks and education. For certain trips there are some language requirements. Trip participants also visit local families and enjoy a variety of opportunities to experience the local culture. Also, accepted volunteers must pay the costs for their trip (flight, etc.).
If you have volunteered overseas and paid a fee for the experience, I strongly urge you to offer comments about that company on Yelp, another customer reviews web site, or your own blog. Some of the most frequently asked questions on online groups, such as Also see: YahooAnswers or The Thorn Tree, are regarding experiences with fee-based volunteering abroad programs. People ask, "Has anyone heard of such-and-such organization, and is it a good idea to use them to go to Africa to volunteer?" You could help others make the right choices by reviewing the company that sent you abroad, on Yelp or any other customer review site.
Unite For Sight and its partner eye clinics and communities work to create eye disease-free communities. "While helping the community, volunteers are in a position to witness and draw their own conclusions about the failures and inequities of global health systems. It broadens their view of what works, and what role they can have to insure a health system that works for everyone..." This program was featured on CNN International. Volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, are 18 years and older, and there is no upper age limit. It is obligatory for accepted volunteers to purchase insurance coverage through Unite for Sight's recommended provider, and volunteers are responsible for all travel arrangements, visa vaccine requirements, lodging, airfare, food, and any additional expenses.
Global Xchange, a program of VSO UK, proclaims proudly, "Looking for a holiday? Look somewhere else." It's made up of two programs: Youth Xchange, which gives 18-25 year olds from the United Kingdom the chance to spend six months making a real difference to the lives of disadvantaged people; and Community Xchange, a six-week programme for community workers and practitioners to learn how to help young people become active global citizens, and how to get different cultures interacting with each other and exchanging ideas.
The Kiva Fellows Program requires a four-month commitment. It offers individuals from any country the opportunity to be officially associated with Kiva and to witness firsthand the impact and realities of microfinance, by working directly with a host microfinance institution (MFI). You do not pay a fee to Kiva, but you are required to undertake all travel and accommodation expenses yourself. A mandatory five-day training is provided (you must pay all expenses to attend). You must be at least 21 years old to apply. Here is the main page for the Kiva Fellows Program and here are the FAQS for the program.
GlobalGiving Foundation Field Visitor Internships. GlobalGiving connects organizations from all over the world with donors who can support their work. They are often looking for self-funded travelers who will be in a region for several months to act as representatives of the organization, conduct site visits of partner organizations and identifying organizations that would be a good match for the Global Giving fundraising site. Volunteers also organize informational workshops during these travels. Volunteers can weave these responsibilities into their tourism of a region. "You will work closely with GlobalGiving's DC staff in preparation for your trip, planning site visits, workshops, travel, and accommodations, while gaining skills in organization and cross-cultural understanding. Upon returning to the U.S., you will present your findings and experience to the GlobalGiving staff." This position is unpaid and program participants are expected to fund their entire trip including airfare, in-country travel and accommodations. GlobalGiving provides training, office support, travel medical insurance, a minimal stipend for communications costs and workshop funding.
A WARNING: Several individuals and organizations have posted horror stories about volunteering through the Institute for International Cooperation and Development (IICD), also affiliated with California Campus TG (CCTG). Both organizations are part of a Danish network known as "Tvind." Its volunteering program also operates under the name "Humana People-to-People". See Zehara Heckscher"s warning about this very shady organization for more details and links to other sources. IICD/CCTG/Tvind/People-to-People is not an organization I recommend.
Want to volunteer abroad and not pay? See this detailed resource on volunteering abroad, focused on how to become a skilled person that organizations like the PeaceCorps or UN Volunteers might be interested in. The process takes years, not weeks or months.
It takes more than your ability to pay
Quality pay-to-volunteer programs do not let just anyone go abroad, even if they have the money to go. Quality programs will also ask to see in your application and, perhaps, in an interview, that you have these qualities:
- Cooperation: The ability to work well with others, including people very different from yourself
- Sensitivity: An awareness and appreciation of other people's feelings, needs and perspectives
- Commitment to learning: You are there to learn from others, including the people of the community
- Adaptability: The ability to adjust to new situations, including those that are quite foreign to you
You might try PAYAway. "Through our sites we provide suggestions for staying away for longer by taking a gap year or career break, travelling around the world on a RTW ticket and information and job vacancies for finding temporary and seasonal work abroad." Many of these work-abroad jobs are not in support of nonprofit organizations - some are work in "tourism" or catering, such as house keeping jobs at resorts, drivers, and cleaners, some are to work in low-paying jobs on private farms, and live-in nursing and live-in domestic work. There are teaching & TEFL jobs as well. Sites for volunteering are also listed. It's focused on residents of the UK, but at least some of the programs it links to aren't limited to UK citizens.
You can also see The Working Traveller, which focuses on travel and how to finance a trip or stay away for longer by working overseas. It's got a lot of information about both volunteering and working abroad.
If you found this page helpful, let others know:
- transire benefaciendo: "to travel along while doing good."
Advice for those wanting to make their travel more than sight-seeing and shopping. This may be a better, cheaper option for you if you want to have an international experience and make a difference in some way.
- Vetting Organizations in Other Countries
A resource that can help you evaluate volunteer-placement organizations that charge you for your placement as a volunteer, as well as for people interested in partnering or supporting an organization abroad but wanting to know it's a credible organization, that it's not some sort of scam, or an 'organization' of just one person.
- The realities of voluntourism: use with caution
Voluntourism is really awful and really good. I'm totally against it and I support it. Confused yet? This opinion piece is my attempt to explain why voluntourism sometimes works and why, very often, it's dreadful.
- Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters
Whenever a disaster strikes, hundreds -- even thousands -- of citizens in the USA start contacting various organizations in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. But what many of these people don't realize is that spontaneous volunteers with no training and no affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from their home. If you want to be a part of the mobilization for a future disaster, here are tips to help you get into "the system," get training, and be in a position to make a real difference.
Using the Internet to Share Your Adventure During Your Adventure
Advice on blogging, photo-sharing, tweeting, etc. while you are traveling.
- Hosting International Volunteers
More and more local organizations in developing countries are turning to local expertise, rather than international volunteers, to support their efforts. However, the need for international volunteers remains, and will for many, many years to come. This resource provides tips for local organization in a developing countries interested in gaining to international volunteers.
Credits & Copyright
© 2010-12 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.
Please contact me for permission to reprint, present or distribute these materials.
How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas
Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Guide to Global Volunteer Opportunities, 12th Edition
Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others
The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life
Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World (Lonely Planet)
Frommer's 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference
The Insider's Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go