How To Volunteer Overseas Without Paying An Expensive Agency

Today we have a guest post from Sarah who started a great website called The Ethical Volunteer, a site dedicated to accessing information on how to volunteer overseas without having to go through an expensive agency, and which addresses both the cost concerns and the ethics of volunteering abroad.

The first time I travelled overseas to volunteer, I booked for seven weeks. I stayed for five years. During that time, I opened and ran a hostel for volunteers, worked alongside local projects and learned a lot about life in developing countries and the impact that volunteering can have on a community struggling to just get by. I also learned how to not get myself killed on Tanzanian roads and some driving skills which I hope I will never need again.

Initially I travelled to Tanzania in 2006 when I was twenty four years old with an international ‘Volunteer Abroad’ agency that organised my accommodation, food and introduced me to a few local projects. My time with this agency was very safe and enjoyable and I had a wonderful volunteering experience. It became apparent to me very early on, however, that the price I had paid to volunteer was grossly disproportionate to the expenses I incurred during my stay. In a developing country, where the average wage was less than two euro per day and lunch could be purchased for fifty cent, I was quickly learning that the agency was making a pretty penny from my volunteering experience . But at the end of the day I couldn’t fully fault the agency for this; they had not lied or pretended the money they charged was donated to projects, I simply had not shopped around for a better deal. In fact, I hadn’t realised that there were ‘better deals’ out there.

Although I had backpacked through Central America, and so had some experience of developing countries, volunteering in the Dark Continent was still a daunting prospect and my primary concern was that I would be in safe hands. The agency I booked through, with their professional website and efficient service team, allowed for the comfort of knowing that I was travelling with a legitimate company. As with most prearranged travel experiences, however,  after a few weeks in Tanzania I realised that I had not needed the added ‘safety’ offered by having an agency organise my accommodation and food. Moshi, like towns the world over, had enough hotels and restaurants to accommodate the needs of most travellers.  I was well capable of looking after myself and the added security of travelling with an agency was mostly an illusion.

Also, I had begun to feel a little uneasy that I had spent so much money to volunteer in a country where most of the population lived below the poverty line; it didn’t seem right to pay such exorbitant fees to an international agency for the opportunity to volunteer for a community that had so little, especially while the profits remained overseas. The agency had filled a niche, it provided a service for those that wanted to volunteer but were nervous of going it alone, and this service did not come cheap. Living in Tanzania, it was quite clear, however, that there was no need for the high costs; the service that agencies provide could be carried out for a fraction of the price.

With this in mind, I stayed on in Tanzania after my seven weeks were up and within six months I had opened Hostel Hoff, a hostel in Moshi town that would provide accommodation and food, while linking guests for no extra cost to projects in town. It began small (it had to, I had no money…), with four beds and a dinner menu that was repeated every three nights, but soon the word spread and the hostel capacity expanded to twenty beds within eighteen months. Thankfully, together with the cook, we also learned how to prepare a few more meals. In the years that followed, myself and the volunteers that came through Hostel Hoff became intimately involved in the daily activities and long term development of the many projects that we supported, including local schools, children’s centres and women’s groups.

Through the organisation we founded, Path to Africa, we fundraised over 55,00 Euro, which our volunteers used to purchase building materials and equipment for the various different projects that were being carried out. We achieved much, not only because it was easier to match the skill sets of our volunteers with the specific roles at projects when we were acquainted with the current requirements of the project, but also because many volunteers were in a position to donate money as they had not given it to an agency.

The four years spent managing Hostel Hoff, in a town where our guests worked alongside those from various international agencies, taught me a huge amount about the volunteer industry. First and foremost, agencies are making huge profits. At Hostel Hoff, the average price for bed, breakfast, dinner and laundry is 12 Euro per night, which works out at 360 Euro per month. It is difficult to find any placement with an agency for less than 1000 Euro for the first month, and those that charge more have a higher budget for marketing, meaning that when you search online for a volunteer opportunity you’ll inevitably have to wade through pages and pages of fee paying agencies before possibly reaching anything that doesn’t come with a hefty price tag.

High fees, however, are not the only issue. The larger the agency, the less they tend to know about individual projects. By living in Moshi town and working alongside projects, I knew intimately how these organisations were run and so was in a position to recommend those that were an asset to the community and discredit those that were more interested in donor money than in the development of their projects or the welfare of those they were supposed to be supporting.

After four years of running the hostel, and three months shy of my thirtieth birthday, I decided it was time to move on and left the hostel in the hand of the new owners, Amanda and Simbo Natai. The hostel is going stronger than ever, but so are volunteer agencies. There are hundreds, probably thousands,  more now than when I first opened the hostel, and, therefore, even more clogging up the pages of search engines like Google. Leaving Tanzania, I was happy with how the hostel was running, but I felt that, in the face of the billion dollar ‘volunteer industry’ today, it wasn’t enough. It would be better, I thought, if I could use the model of Hostel Hoff to open volunteer hostels worldwide, but unfortunately I’m far too lazy for that. So I did the next best thing: I painstakingly contacted hostels all over the world to find out if there are any out there that are already linked with local projects or actively assisting their guests with finding placements for no extra cost.

There are, eighty three to be exact, at least that’s what I could find. The hostels are now all listed on a new site, The Ethical Volunteer, along with information about the projects they support and the towns where they are located. Volunteers can contact hostel owners and project co-ordinators in advance, or for those who are backpacking, they can simply turn up at the door and be directed towards local projects supported by the hostel for no extra cost. And these are only the hostels that I could find that are already actively connecting their guests with volunteer work. In the long run, the more exposure the concept gets, the more hostels should come on board, meaning more local businesses benefit from receiving more clients, more local projects will benefit from receiving volunteers who have chosen to work at that specific project and so are more likely to have a relevant skill set for the work, and volunteers benefit by saving huge amounts of money. The only ones who don’t benefit are the volunteer agencies whose services are no longer required, and I, for one, am happy with that!

For more information on volunteering through hostels visit:
Volunteering for Free | Avoid Volunteer Abroad Agencies

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About Keith Hajovsky

Exploring and photographing different parts of the world is my passion, and I enjoy helping others do the same. Whether backpacking, staying in 5-star resorts or anything in between, I believe experiencing and interacting with other cultures enriches our lives and helps us to better understand the complex world we live in.
This entry was posted in Guest Posts, Travel Resources, Volunteering and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to How To Volunteer Overseas Without Paying An Expensive Agency

  1. matt says:

    you are awesome, that is all

    Like

    • Josué says:

      Hi,
      I live in Costa Rica and I’ve been willing to be a volunteer for years, but can’t afford what they always demand, I understand that they charge certain amount of money, but still, it has not much sense, volunteering should be free. Is there anyone who could help me out?
      I would appreciate any suggestion, advise, etc.
      Thank you.

      Like

      • Brent says:

        I also want to volunteer over sea, specially in Africa somewhere with out having to go broke. The last place I just called wanted thousands which I don’t have. I live in America after all.

        Like

  2. Anouk says:

    If only there were people like you.
    I agree, you are awesome.

    Like

  3. I run volunteering projects for students at a UK university and I would always advise students to avoid companies that charge more than £200 max for administration. There are plenty of genuine NGOs out there and Sarah’s comments are definitely worth listening to if you feel confident to go it alone. However there are those who feel the need of a large organisation behind them for security – look at government backed agencies first, they don’t charge much at all – DfID, International Civil Service, International Voluntary Service, Concordia, Eurpean Voluntary Service etc.

    Like

  4. Johannes says:

    I am very grateful for the wonderful advise. I am planning to start a volunteer placement organization soon as we do not have one that is independent and many volunteers come through international volunteer placement agencies. With a local volunteer placement agency volunteers will appreciate the value and the touch.

    Like

  5. Viky Verna says:

    Hi, my name is Viky and I am one of the owners of Pacot Breeze Hotel. If you are thinking about volunteering/working away from home while making a difference consider Haiti among your options. You came to the right place for what you are looking for. We have been hosting travelers/foreigners for several years now and have helped hour hosts with a variety of purposes/passions. There are several volunteering opportunities available nearby (walking distance) from our location in several nearby schools, churches, NGOs, hospitals, orphanages etc… We can help with the arrangements for you if needed. We actually also need some help running our hostel with front desk work and greeting the tourists we receive weekly. Our past guests have also really enjoyed being able to learn about the amazing Haitian culture and also learning our languages (French and Creole). If you have not been to Haiti before I am sure it will be a great experience!

    The Pacot Breeze location listed is my family house where I grew up before I came to the US for my studies and so on… A couple of years ago we transformed it into a sort of Bed and Breakfast and added more stories and rooms to accommodate our guests. Volunteers are considered as preferred guests therefore for long-stay volunteering cases (several weeks) arrangements (price reduction) will be made.

    Thank you again for your interest. We hope to see you at Pacot Breeze Soon! Visit us on Trip Advisor, Airbnb and http://www.pacotbreeze.com.
    Contact me at vikygdverna@hotmail.com!

    Like

  6. Andy says:

    Why is it, All these adverts on TV About needing help, Yet if we want to really help, go to Africa say ? Help with the Water laying pipes,etc or Any other help we would love to offer, these so called companys want 1000,s of pound instead Hands on work ? I know they make millions every year, i cant understand them, Its about helping others yet if i said id go to Africa and work 7 days a week from 7 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon, Why would that be turned away ?

    Like

  7. Pingback: 13 Insights into Why You Have to Pay to Volunteer Abroad - Volunteer Life - Your Dream to Volunteer Abroad - uVolunteer

  8. Siva Batumalai says:

    Hi my name is Siva, and I am now attached with an international NGO called SOLS24/7 based in Malaysia, and it had been such a great experience so far. We accept volunteers/trainees/interns from all over the world and the great part is, you don’t have to pay a single fee. For more info you could always drop by our website any time, any where. We always welcome a new member to our SOLS family. Cheers :)

    http://www.sols247.org

    Like

  9. Natascha says:

    Here you can volunteer for free in Brazil: http://www.go-brazil.org

    Like

  10. Anabell says:

    Does anyone know where I can volunteer to where I don’t need to pay for airfare? Thank you1

    Like

  11. My name is John Cannot from Tanzania A managing Director at Volunteer Africa Countries if you want to volunteering in. Tanzania,Kenya or Uganda don’t hesitate to contact me we are placing our volunteer to their project for free only need to pay for your accommodation .And per month range about 150$ only.

    My email address johncannor95@yahoo.com

    Also if your planning to come as a tourist we offer safari and adventure for good price your can visit the website as well
    http://www.africadventuretours.com

    Like

  12. Hi, My name is Freddy and I want you invite to be part of the Foundation Yo VOY A TI. We work in Bolivia with people who lives in the street and are in an extremely poverty situation. We have many projects, like mobile school, football school, mobile clinic, microfinance and more. We are looking for volunteers that have the passion to change the life of the children. If you want to know more about our foundation. You can write us info@yovoyati.org. or you can visit our website wwww.yovoyati.org

    Like

  13. Pingback: Backpacking Tipps Teil 2: Möglichkeiten für deinen Auslandsaufenthalt - www.goingvagabond.de

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