Volunteering Abroad – Pay to join or do it yourself?

Have you thought about volunteering abroad, but not sure about paying an NGO to organise your volunteer experience? Can’t you just do it yourself, or pay your own way? I’ve had the chance to try volunteering abroad in different ways, and I’ll share with you what I’ve learned. Before you volunteer, read this:

Paying to Volunteer – Nepal
In Nepal, I chose to join a small NGO that offered me the experience of helping a small school with its English Education. I found them online, checked out reviews from past volunteers, and decided to join.

The program included local language classes, cultural training, and a tour of Katmandu. After this introduction to local life, I was sent our to my assignment in rural Nepal. Krishna was my local contact, and the program included a homestay with his family a couple of hours away from Pokhara.

Together with four other international volunteers, we did our best to provide basic English language classes at local schools. I stayed for around two weeks, and had a wonderful experience. The children at the school were cheerful and eager to learn, and the other volunteers were great fun too. I went trekking with one of them afterwards, and I still meet up regularly with another couple of them.

Do It Yourself – India
I northern India, I decided to volunteer on my own, without using the help or services of an organising NGO. I was in Dhramasala, and like many places in the world there are people who want to learn and practice their English.

It was quite easy to get involved. There were flyers around town, and you can always find people who need help. I spent time at the centre for ex-political prisoners from Tibet. I shared stories with a buddhist monk called Pema, and I learned a lot about the situation for Tibetans in China. It was eye-opening to hear the stories first hand.

I went along to another chat group for displaced Tibetan young people, and one more group that was mainly for monks. The experience was enriching for me, and hope useful for the participants, but it did lack structure. Without an organising NGO, I came and went as a pleased, and sometimes got distracted by yoga classes and buddhist talks. Of course, those things were great too, but just not volunteering.

Pay your way – Peace Boat

Peace Boat is a Japanese NGO Cruise Ship that sails around the world promoting peace and sustainability.  I was lucky to join their 74th global voyage in 2011.  I was a volunteer English Teacher, and a Guest Lecturer in Social Enterprise.

What did it mean to be a volunteer with Peace Boat? It meant several hours of mostly fun work, most days of the 106 day voyage.   How much did it cost?  As a volunteer, all living my costs on board were met.  All food and accommodation.  However I had to pay my way to Japan, and all my costs in the amazing port cities that Peace Boat stopped in. And my alcohol, if I ever felt like a sho-chu or a chu-hi.

Since tickets for passengers come in at around £15,000 – £40,000 for this journey, you could say this was equivalent to three very well paid months.

Which is better?
All the experiences are amazing. Paying provides you with a professional service, training, care and support. Doing it your self provides you with flexibility. Finding an organisation like Peace Boat is incredible.

If you are a self motivated, confident traveller volunteering in a country you know, and you understand what it takes to be a responsible volunteer, then by all means, do it yourself.

If you are visiting a country for the first time,  want to understand more about the culture, and language when you arrive, have the peace of mind that you have someone to support and help you, and be connected with other volunteers, then I recommend joining a responsible volunteer operator.

But what does a responsible volunteer operation look like, and what does it take to be a responsible volunteer abroad?  That sounds like the subject of a future blog post.

For now, come and see what I am doing with responsible operator OpenMindProjects here at the project blog.  Simply “rate” my blog posts there and help OpenMindProjects win $5000 from the Tourist Authority of Thailand. Here’s the link to the Project Blog – check it out.

8 thoughts on “Volunteering Abroad – Pay to join or do it yourself?

  1. A great post, Richard, and pretty much confirms my own experience of volunteering, but it does very much depend upon what you want to do where and what contacts you already have or can acquire before you travel. Beware of NGO’s asking extortionate prices and offering nothing valid and always try to stay at least part of your stay with a homestay to really experience the culture – but be wary of what gifts you take; sometimes landlords etc can raise a family’s rent if they think that they have wealthy western friends and it creates long term difficulties for them.

  2. Nice post and Volunteer India specialises in volunteer work and volunteer programs in India. If you’re interested in volunteering in India, look no further! We offer background information, information on programs, weekly news and much more.

  3. A couple of year ago I decided to go to Africa but I did not wanted to go just to visit, I wanted to go to do “something”. I started to check volunteering and I found most opportunities quite lame or requiring a long commitment (from 6 month to a year).
    I then decided to talk to everyone about it until I found out that a small charity/NGO that I have collaborated for some years in Barcelona were running a project to set up computer rooms in Burkina Faso.
    I am an “IT guy” so when I talked with them about collaborating with them for free they were very happy. I paid the flights, visas and some expenses but that´s all.
    We did a bunch of stuff, not just setting up the computer rooms. I learned a lot, made friends and in general it was an amazing experience. Now I am setting up a business there with some locals and in a couple of months I am travelling again.

    My sister did something similar with a famous NGO. She collaborated with them for a couple of years and then she had the opportunity to go to India to do journalist work and translation, again without paying nothing else but the flights.

    So I would recommend to first do some local volunteer, create a network of people in the area and then sooner or later opportunities will arise.

    • Hi Fernando, thanks for sharing your great example, and adding useful advice for people who want to volunteer. You, and your sister must have had great experiences. Feel free to add links to projects you and your sister worked with, I’d love to see them. Cheers.

      • Hi Richard,

        Thank you for replying.

        We indeed had great experiences that somehow changed our point of view in different aspects.

        I went to Burkina collaborating with a small charity based in Barcelona called “Burkina Faso També” that means “Burkina Faso too” in catalan, something like “it too exists” because most people does not even know that the country exists (http://burkinafasotambe.org).
        I wrote a blog about the experience although I have to admit I never finished it. It is in Spanish but you can use automatic translation to check it http://burkinaproject.blogspot.com. The business that we are setting up now is only in Facebook at the moment: https://www.facebook.com/MoumBurkina.

        My sister participated in 2010 with Intermon Oxfam in a event called “Kaleidoscope 2010” that congregates young people from around the world “working with their communities to create positive, equitable and sustainable change”: https://d2300o44nbmh94.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/report-kaleidoscopeevaluation-2011.pdf. If you Google it you can see a bunch of pictures and videos.

        Hope you enjoy it.

      • Hi again Fernando,

        Thanks for sharing more of your story – it looks like it was a great experience for you!

        The business, Moum, also looks like it could be a pretty cool social enterprise. Perhaps you can link your blogging to your facebook page, and get more people interested that way.

        Keep working on it.

      • Hey! It is a really good idea!

        We would like to create a proper website to sell online but we work in “African time” so everything requires its own time, hehe (electricity for example took 3 months to be installed!).

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