Reputable Low Cost Volunteer Programs

As you’ve read through this section, you’ve probably noticed that we like to make note of whether or not a volunteer organization or program charges a fee. There is a very specific reason for this – the topic of “paying to volunteer” is actually quite controversial in the volunteer overseas world. And there are people firmly planted on either side. As we mentioned in the volunteering placement fees page, there are advantages to paying someone to help you find the right volunteering job. These include:

  • In-country training and support
  • Housing and meals (sometimes)
  • Health/Accident Insurance (sometimes)
  • Help with the “leg work”

But it is possible to find a volunteer abroad job that doesn’t come at any cost to you. In most instances, this will be sponsored by a local community organization, and you will have to pay your own way completely (travel costs, housing, personal expenses, insurance, visa fees). These organizations may be more difficult to find, often because they can’t afford to maintain websites or translate their marketing materials into multiple languages that might attract more volunteers. There are certainly some exceptions (which are noted below!), especially as new types of organizations crop up to meet the fast growing demand for volunteer opportunities abroad.

Quick Fact: One of the most in-demand jobs for volunteers abroad is finding ways to attract more volunteers!

In short, there are generally two types of “free” or low-cost volunteering abroad jobs:

  • Local/community NGO placement looking for volunteers with specialized skills to fill a specific position (fundraising, accounting, health care)
  • Large government and privately-sponsored programs like the Peace Corps and UN Volunteers that require long-term commitments, professional experience, and offer some sort of incentive to volunteer (job experience, small stipend, airfare)

Where to Find Free and Low-Cost Volunteering Jobs Overseas

There are a number of reputable organizations that sponsor volunteers, and cover either some or all of the volunteer’s cost in exchange for anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 years of work. Below is just a sampling of available opportunities.

  • CHF International Visiting International Professional Program: People with more than 5 years of professional service participate in humanitarian aid work in developing countries around the world. Most stays are about 3 weeks, and CHF will cover all travel and volunteering costs. Learn more on the VIP Programs FAQ page.
  • Volunteers for Prosperity: A US government opportunity for professionals, and sponsored by US AID, VFP places volunteers around the world through local corporate and government partners. A complete list of partners is available on the VFP website.
  • Project Why: truly free volunteer jobs with children in New Delhi, India.
  • Winrock International: 2-3 week volunteer jobs abroad for people with professional experience. If you are a fit for an available position, they will work around your work/school vacation schedule. Current opportunities are available on the Winrock website.

If you are interested in learning more, there are a few websites that aggregate free and low-cost volunteer opportunities around the world (those that deal with specific regions are also mentioned in the regional articles on this site):

  • Coyote Communications “Reality Check” for International Volunteers: Lists all kinds of free and low-cost volunteer overseas options, and advice for choosing programs.
  • VAOPS (Volunteer Abroad Opportunities): An incredibly resource of international free and low cost volunteer programs, organized by region and interest area.
  • Volunteer South America: A very no-frills listing of many, many opportunities for free and low cost volunteering in (you guessed it!) South America.

What to Expect from a Free or Low-Cost Program

Just as there are benefits of paid volunteer programs, there are also benefits of not paying a dime to pack-up, move across the world and get to work! Of course, not paying a fee means that you have more money in your pocket, and have more control over how that money is spent. You can shop around for health insurance, housing, and food, for example.volunteering in mexico photo On the flip side of that is the need to create a budget and stick with it – because if something happens with your money, there won’t necessarily be a program director or support person on the ground to help to.

The greatest benefit of a low-cost program (specifically, those sponsored by local communities organizations and not multi-national nonprofits) is flexibility. Those volunteers who enjoy carving out their own role, and who have incredibly initiative typically thrive in environments that are less structured – this describes very many small organizations abroad looking for volunteers.

If you find a free volunteer opportunity abroad, it is really up to you to ask questions about your role, and you should attempt to get as much information as possible from your host organization. This includes things like work product expectations, work hours, time off policies (for weekend travel, etc.), even meal times! These should be worked out before you arrive in country, and you and the host organization will need to be comfortable with whatever you decide beforehand.

Of course, all volunteer programs are not the same, and as we’ve mentioned in other sections, the most successful volunteers are those that are flexible, and who balance their personal needs with the needs of their host organization. While this might take some getting used in both paid volunteer positions and free volunteer experiences, it’s probably the best advice any aspiring volunteer can get!

Quick Summary:

  • There are pros and cons to both paid and free overseas volunteering jobs.
  • Be wary of paid experiences that don’t offer any tangible benefits (health insurance, airport pick-up, housing, etc.).
  • Free and low cost volunteer opportunities abroad exist, but will take more “leg work” (i.e. research and Internet searching!)


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