Feature photo by chanycrystal

At a time when unemployment for people in their 20s and 30s is as high as it’s been in recent memory, many people are searching for something to do to fill their time. Naturally, many entertain the idea of volunteer work abroad as a way of keeping themselves busy and gaining interesting experiences while still giving back. However, a cursory Internet search will quickly lead you to realize that volunteering—at least through most organizations—doesn’t come cheap.

The cost of volunteering abroad through many organizations, such as Volunteer Abroad, can be prohibitively expensive, reaching well over a thousand dollars for a multi-week project (that doesn’t even include airfare). While it’s true that organizations like this can provide more structure and support for less-experienced volunteers who might want the reassurance of a large organization, what are the options for those who want to take on a little more adventure, spend a little less money, and make a bigger impact?

Probably the best-known alternative volunteer program is WWOOFing. Organic farms all around the world offer food and lodging in exchange for labor. Aside from transportation, WWOOFing is about as cost-effective as you can get, as well as supporting the green movement. Volunteers are often asked to pay a small fee to the WWOOF organization itself to help pay for the cost of running the network. WWOOFing also allows volunteers a flexibility that larger programs do not have; you can move from farm to farm, traveling across the country or continent and always know that you’ll have somewhere to stay.

There are also several websites that compile information about low-cost or free methods of volunteering in other countries. The 7 Interchange is a network that puts volunteers in contact with projects in need of their help. Projects are offered in more than fifty countries and range from agriculture to teaching. Independent Volunteer is a similar website that has listings for volunteer opportunities around the world. The projects that these websites list are going to be smaller and not as “professional” as those you might be placed with through a well-known group; a smaller, more budget-conscious organization might not have the resources that a larger one does in terms of responding to minor difficulties, but you can also feel better knowing that your resources, monetary or otherwise, are more valued.

For the most adventurous, there is always the option of just showing up in the country and hoping for the best. Obviously this isn’t advisable in every situation; your personal safety must be taken into account over everything else. However, there are often small places in need of help that don’t even have the time or budget to look for volunteers. When I was in Thailand, I originally started on a project with a large, expensive organization. When that ended and I was still dissatisfied, I simply showed up at the project of a friend of mine; the people could not have been more thrilled to see me, and not a word was said about me ever needing to pay for my volunteer experience beyond my food and lodging (which I never asked them to pay for). As I’ve traveled, I’ve encountered many people who have done the same thing—they began on large, expensive projects and realized that it would be cheaper and more effective to simply seek out a group that needed their help and offer it.

The opportunity to volunteer abroad is not something that is available to everyone; it is certainly a privilege that comes from being lucky enough to afford at least travel costs. However, for those who can perhaps pay for their ticket but not much else, there are plenty of options out there for low-cost volunteering—it’s possible to make a difference, regardless of your budget.

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