Today’s guest post is from Kirsty from Nerdy Nomad and besides earning her income online, she dedicates much of her time to volunteering in various countries.  She’s an inspiration to me and I hope this post inspires more traveling volunteers.  (That’s Kirsty in the photo below – top/left, volunteering in Haiti).

volunteering, guest post, how-to, inspiration travel

When people imagine what their life would be like if they earned a passive income and were able to live anywhere in the world, their vision probably doesn’t look anything like mine. My guess is that most people would picture their days spent in paradise pursuing their hobbies, sunning themselves on the beach, exploring their new home and tapping away on their laptop from time to time.

I would bet that these paradise locations probably never include Haiti or Bangladesh and I also doubt that waking up at 7am to shovel rubble for eight hours a day, six days a week in the blistering sun in Sumatra probably doesn’t rank as an ideal way for a digital nomad to spend their time. It certainly wouldn’t have made my list back when I was dreaming of living this lifestyle but, now that I am, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

I have spent almost 12 months our of the past two years doing disaster relief volunteer work and I’m hooked. I want to share my experiences with as many people as possible so this post is meant as a short guide to including volunteering as a part of your next trip.

Choosing a Volunteering Experience

There are lots of options for giving your time in many different areas with all sorts of organizations operating within each. Take some time to consider what type of work you would like to do but also consider what sort of organization will be a good fit. Consider your skills and where they would be a good fit. If you are an unskilled volunteer you will have more options but be less in demand.

There are opportunities in several fields but the main international volunteering opportunities fall into one of three categories: development, conservation and wildlife and disaster response. Development work includes things like education, health and nutrition, construction and working with children. Conservation work includes environmental conservation, farming and working with animals. Disaster response work is where my passion lies and this will see volunteers helping out after major disasters either in a first-response role (searching for victims) or in the months after working to help those affected.

The early planning stages take more than deciding what type of work you would like to do and where. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What cause do you want to help?
  • How are you able to help?
  • In what part of the world do you want to volunteer?
  • When and for how long o you want to volunteer?
  • What do you want to get out of the experience?
  • Do you require support at home or in your home country before you leave?

Once you have a good idea of the when, where and what you will want to take a look at different organizations. Just because there are places out that there will accept you as a volunteer to do the work you want, it doesn’t mean that they’re the right fit for you. Check to see what they will ask of their volunteers: specific skills, work hours, days off, language abilities, etc. Also consider whether they have a religious or political agenda and, if they do, make sure if fits with your own ideals. Transparency is important so if they’re secretive about their operations, you might want to reconsider. Also take note of any rules or curfews they may have in place and whether they are okay with you.

Finding a Free or Cheap Volunteering Opportunity

The main reason I have found for people not volunteering on their travels is that they can’t find opportunities that don’t cost a crazy amount of money. The good news is that there are plenty of free and cheap volunteering opportunities out there. The bad news is that finding them can be time-consuming and frustrating. Just do a Google search for anything with the word ‘volunteering’ in it to see what I mean. You’re likely to be presented with what seem to be a lot of promising results but, when you take a closer look at each, you will find that they are likely to cost a lot of money. Volunteering is big business and loads of middleman-type companies have popped up over the years that promise to pair volunteers with experiences of their choice – for a fee. Most people I have met would love to volunteer but they aren’t willing to pay thousands to do it.

So how do you find these free and cheap volunteering opportunities? Word of mouth is the best way to find opportunities that have been tried and tested. Take note of opportunities mentioned by friends or people you meet on your travels but note that word of mouth doesn’t need to happen in person. Ask for recommendations on online message boards as well. Blogs are another way to get first-hand accounts and it’s how I found my first volunteering placement with Hands On Disaster Response. I was looking through Travelpod blogs for ideas for what to do in The Philippines, the first stop on my trip, and I came across someone who volunteered with them. The project in The Philippines was over but I bookmarked their site and took a bit of a leap of faith when I followed them to Bangladesh a month later.

Google and the other search engines have been saturated with the pay-to-volunteer companies but that doesn’t mean you can’t still use them. Instead of searching for terms like ‘volunteering in Kenya’ or ‘volunteering with children’, try to narrow your focus and go for something like ‘working in orphanages in Nairobi’ and so on. Be creative with your searches and you should find a few gems.

Good hostels usually have their finger on the pulse of the city or area and their bulletin boards are often filled with interesting experiences. If you want to do some research from home, gather a list of hostels and contact them to see if they know of any local volunteering opportunities.

There are also loads of websites claiming to offer free and cheap volunteering opportunities. Some charge a fee, some are cheap, some have a few listings and some have many. True Travellers is one that has a great reputation and around 150 free or cheap listings all over the world. Volunteer South America is a simple but excellent resource if you’re heading to that part of the world and the same goes for Real Volunteer Thailand.

Just Do It

Volunteering has added so much to my travels and to my life that I sometimes feel as though I get more out of it than I’m able to give back. It’s a great way to get really involved in a community in a meaningful way and learn so much about yourself, the place you’re visiting and you will probably even come away with a variety of new skills.

If you go into a volunteering placement knowing your own motivations, without too many expectations and with a bit of preparation then you are bound to come away having had a remarkable experience. I can’t imagine a trip without a stint as a volunteer and I encourage everyone I meet to give it a go. You won’t regret it!

About the author

Kirsty is the author of the blog Nerdy Nomad and she’s recently released an ebook called The Underground Guide to International Volunteering.  You can read more about how to volunteer in other countries by visiting her site.