“I’m going to teach English in Ecuador!”
This gleeful announcement was made to my dad in the summer of 2013, just three days after I’d flown back home to London from South East Asia. Still in the travelling mindset, I was already plotting my next volunteer move.
Although it may sound like a spontaneous decision, the idea was actually a long time in the making. Ever since secondary school I’d kept two travel destinations secretively in my head: India and South America. I knew I wanted to spend a long time in each place, and with my appetite whetted by four whirlwind months in India, it was just a matter of deciding on a suitable volunteer project to kickstart my South American adventures.
Eighteen months later I’d volunteered my way through nine different projects in four countries. I taught English to Ecuadorian teenagers, painted roofs in Brazil, made artificial limbs in Bolivia and worked as a journalist in a Colombian newsroom – among other things.
Want to know why?
Why I decided to volunteer in South America
Those who know me will already know the answer to this. I’ve always loved volunteering – even though I’m increasingly aware of the stigmas that surround the concept (unethical projects, money-grabbing companies and the dangers of exploitation, for a start).
For me, the decision to volunteer in South America was simple: jetting off on a one way ticket solely to travel didn’t feel enough to warrant the trip. I know from experience that working with a volunteering project gives a focused sense of purpose and direction to your travels; provides you with the chance to meet new and interesting people; and offers a wealth of experiences that you probably wouldn’t find on the backpacker trail – not to mention providing a pretty amazing learning opportunity.
That’s the major reason why I travel, after all: to learn about other cultures and to have my opinions challenged and altered. (I also inadvertently get myself into embarrassing situations – but I think that’s only to be expected.)
Well, that last paragraph is the bitesize reason I give when people ask – but over the years I’ve received a lot of emails from readers asking how I find volunteer projects, where they should volunteer and how they can find the perfect project. So I thought I should break the whole idea of volunteering down into a bit more detail: the process I go through when I want to volunteer, from the initial search for projects to arriving in-country and settling down to work.
So strap yourself in, potential volunteers. Here we go.
Step One: ask yourself some basic questions
(NB: This step of the process can easily be used for choosing volunteer projects in any part of the world)
If you want to volunteer abroad, you’re probably interested in experiencing a different kind of travel – but just like any trip, there are some parameters you need to set up for yourself first: the wheres, the whats and the whys to help you determine exactly how you’d like your volunteering project to go.
Where do you want to volunteer?
Ok, so you know you want to volunteer in South America. Problem is, that’s still a pretty big continent with some uniquely different countries – so start off with a brainstorming session about location.
- Environment: Are you a city person or more into trekking through mountains and jungle on a daily basis? Would a rural village setting be something you’re keen on, or do you want to craftily take some surf lessons when you’re volunteering ? If you consider what your optimum volunteering environment would be, it’ll make your research a lot easier to manage. For me, the idea of spending five months in Cuenca, Ecuador really appealed when I was researching where I’d like to teach English.
- Must-see attractions: Each country in South America has a famous site that tourists flock to. Maybe exploring Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands is your ultimate add-on trip after a volunteering project, or you have visions of careering across Bolivia’s Salt Flats in a 4×4. Peru offers ups the ancient site of Machu Picchu while Colombia has a wealth of tangled jungle and golden beach across its Caribbean coast – and focusing your attention around a specific place you want to visit can help you define which part of South America you might volunteer in.
- A pre-decided travel route: many people already have a flight booked when they decide to volunteer which can certainly help. But if you have no idea of what route you’re going to travel along then use this to your advantage! I managed to link at least three months of my South American travels together via the various volunteer projects I’d earmarked in different countries.
How long are you going to volunteer for?
Timeframes are a tricky thing: although you might love to take a year off and dedicate yourself to one volunteering project, the reality also means planning around specific commitments – like birthdays, weddings, and regular employment.
Knowing the amount of time you can volunteer is key, as it can influence what type of project is available to you: for instance, many places stipulate a minimum time commitment from their volunteers, particularly when working with children. It’s also sensible to give yourself a window of free time at the planned end of your volunteering stint, as there’s every chance that you’ll want to explore some more of the country with your new friends.
- One day or less: Popping your head around the door doesn’t really constitute volunteering in my book. You’re almost certainly not going to incite actual change: it’s more about seeing a situation first hand that educates or gives you more perspective. That said, engaging in spontaneous acts of kindness – like buying a meal for homeless boys in Colombia – is still a lovely gesture. Just make sure you’re actually being helpful!
- A few weeks to a month (short term): A project of this length will probably be focused more around your personal cultural learning experience than directly helping others: it takes a couple of weeks to get to grips with what you’re doing, and before you know it the project will be over. I’d recommend working in a non-humanitarian capacity (maybe with animals or in hospitality) to ensure you’re not making fleeting connections with vulnerable people, as it may be upsetting for them after you leave.
- 1 – 6 months (medium term): Upwards of a month is my preferred amount of time for volunteering. You’ll get to know your surroundings, connect with the local community and have time to make a worthwhile contribution to the project.
- 6 – 12 months plus (long term): The longer your dedication, the better the reward. Volunteer programmes of more than six months can often be set up through your local council and many American colleges offer college credits for volunteering abroad. If you’re keen to volunteer for a year or more, American citizens have the option of Peace Corps (27 months of service) while Brits can volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), who ask for two years professional experience in a specific field – and both give their volunteers a basic living allowance to help with finances.
What skills can you offer?
Many volunteer projects don’t need a specific skill – which is actually worth thinking about in itself. If you’re not qualified to do the job at home, why is it different when you’re abroad? The fact that you speak English wouldn’t qualify you to be an English teacher in your home country, after all.
What skills do you love to improve on in normal life? Are you a fantastic photographer, guitarist, artist, filmmaker or football player? While you definitely don’t have to volunteer using your profession, I completely advocate the idea of volunteering using any specific skills you might have. That way you’re really providing something useful to a community that may not otherwise have access to that type of expertise and talent.
After all: volunteering can be about challenging yourself, but it can also be when you play to your strengths.
What kind of project do you want to do?
If you don’t want to volunteer using a specific skill then it’s all about indulging your passions.
Do you want to teach circus skills to children? Work with endangered turtles? Use your hands by building bikes from scratch in a favela? You might have a burning desire to go deep into the Amazonian jungle, get to know the rural communities of Bolivia, or work in an office environment on the edge of Copacabana beach.
Tell someone you’re volunteering abroad and they usually assume you’ll be teaching, helping in an orphanage, or putting up houses in a community building project. But there’s no limit to the weird and wonderful volunteer opportunities available – you just have to search them out.
- Humanitarian: apart from volunteering to teach English you could be a teaching assistant in a school or a daycare centre, work in an organisation that helps the elderly or the disabled, or even support and educate communities regarding human rights, sexual health, and female empowerment.
- Wildlife & Conservation: Working with animals might mean shovelling poo at a rehabilitation centre or it could mean releasing endangered turtles on beautiful beaches. Usually it includes the daily feeding, cleaning and exercising of animals – be it in a wildlife preserve, a shelter for street dogs or helping with an animal rescue team. Conservation wise, you could be collecting the data of endangered species or helping to raise awareness about the importance of preserving rainforest and marine environments.
- Hospitality: From making beds and manning hostel reception desks to cooking, bartending, waitressing or making coffee, hospitality is probably the volunteering role that feels most like a ‘real job’. As a result, you should at least be getting free accommodation, if not the occasional meal too – so these positions are best found through a work exchange program like Workaway, HelpX or WWOOFing.
- Outdoors: Become a ranch hand in Argentina, or a hiking guide in Torres del Paine. You could work on a building site, use your sports skills to train kids in football, tennis, hockey or in watersports like kayaking and surfing. You could even work in agriculture, helping out at an organic farm and raising awareness in the surrounding community about sustainable farming.
- Online: There’s a growing demand for help with online work, be it social media, web development and design, or the bare basics of site construction. If you’re less on the technical side there might be need for proof reading and translation.
- Skill-specific: Many volunteer projects are structured to provide a training ground for people already pursuing a particular profession. That means medical work like nursing, physiotherapy, dentistry, and veterinary; language based for translators, interpreters, and bilingual teachers; and volunteering in a legal or human rights capacity.
Step Two: searching for your volunteer project
Once you’ve decided on your preferred destination and what you’d most like to do there, it’s all about specifics.
In terms of research, the internet is your best friend. While there are countless companies offering volunteer placements, tons of people also write about their personal experiences while volunteering – so get Googling like crazy, trawl social media, ask your friends and find recommendations from travel bloggers.
What type of organisation will you volunteer with?
Some people want to volunteer independently while others need the backing of a volunteer company’s know-how. Everyone’s preference is different.
In my experience, organising a volunteering project months ahead of time will cost more thanks to paying for all that pre-organisation. It’s easier in the long run to find grassroots organisations online, send a few emails with your potential dates, and keep the communication going. Once you’re in-country it’s even easier to find places to volunteer – plus you’re more aware of the timeframe you’re working with, and can check out the place before committing.
- Volunteer placement organisations: Useful if you’re a first-time volunteer, a GAP year traveller, uneasy about organising a project, or your parents need reassurance. These ‘middlemen’ sites feature projects of various types in various countries, and they’ll match up your specifications with a project as well as including ‘in-country support’ and a host of other benefits. Bear in mind that the bigger the company and the more projects on offer, the more they’ll charge and the less communication they’ll have with the project on the ground. In a nutshell: The easiest yet most expensive option: they run as a business so can make a profit.
- Aggregate websites for grassroots organisations: These sites give small, local organisations the chance to advertise themselves in an easily navigable place. There may be a small fee for using the website itself, but you’ll mainly be in direct communication with your chosen organisation instead of through a middleman. They’re usually the first place I go for project ideas, as I’ll usually end up communicating with someone actually involved with the project as opposed to a facilitator. NB: Two great sites are Volunteer Latin America and Volunteer South America, which have hundreds of projects categorised into free and low-cost sections.
- NGOs & charities: Volunteering directly through a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or a charity means opportunities to work with people who have extensive and in depth knowledge of the project’s community and surroundings. There’s also opportunity to volunteer in relief efforts (like fall out from natural disasters and emergency situations) although specific skills may be required. In a nutshell: as a registered charity or non-profit they’re unable to make a profit, so any money paid should go directly to the project.
- Independently: This option costs the least, can be arranged at the last minute and gives you the most flexibility for your dates and what you’re willing to do as part of the project. Out of the box thinking and research is key here: look online/talk to people about local community projects in the area and utilise any friends’ contacts. A friend of mine simply walked into a local Peruvian high school and asked if they’d like him to assist with English classes, and they were overjoyed! The downside of independent volunteering is that there’s more chance for things to go wrong, but if you travel on the edge then this won’t phase you.
Planning: Start planning whenever you want! I’ve planned projects a year in advance, complete with Skype interviews and going to training sessions – and I’ve picked up a flier in a local cafe, visited the provided address and started volunteering that afternoon. While rinsing the free airport wifi somewhere in Brazil I ended up finding the newspaper job I spent three months at in Medellin. You never know when your research will pay off.
Ask questions: Do you have to provide a TEFL or CELTA certificate for a teaching project? Should you bring your own tools to a building site? What vaccinations do you need if you’re working with animals? Does an organisation working with children require a CRB check? Don’t hesitate to get in touch with the organisers and ask for advice, particularly about any extra preparation you can do ahead of starting the project – like the artificial limb clinic in Bolivia who sent me a list of appropriate Spanish vocabulary before I arrived.
Step Three: consider the ethics of your volunteering project
I volunteer because it makes me happy to think I’m contributing something when I travel. But altruism is only part of the volunteering process, and the ethical implications of being a volunteer are really important to consider.
Are you really helping to instigate change, or is your voluntary work taking a possible job role away from a local? As a volunteer, are you doing more harm than good to the subjects of the project? You need to be aware of how the local community will benefit as a result of your presence.
Think just as carefully about those organising the project. What do they hope to accomplish? Do their beliefs align with yours? Are they dedicated to making a difference in their community instead of just making money off volunteers? Many companies give primary focus to their volunteers instead of to the people they’re supposed to be helping – so if you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You can even ask for the emails of past volunteers to hear their personal experiences.
Finally, be aware that just because you want to give your time and energy to a community doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy yourself. Volunteers have been known to take on too much responsibility and pressure, which is unfair on all parties. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of!
Should you pay to volunteer?
One of the most hotly contested topics about volunteering is whether a project should charge a fee for prospective volunteers. Many people are vehemently opposed to the idea, and I totally understand why: if you’re giving up your time and energy for the sake of helping others, surely you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege?
The buzzword is ‘support’. Volunteer companies get away with charging extortionate fees that go towards ‘administration’ and ‘in-country support’, promising that a volunteer won’t have to organise anything for themselves throughout the project. These services may be useful for first-timers, but I don’t think it’s necessary – especially when you’re already in-country and hopefully have travel insurance to cover you.
In comparison, there are the projects – particularly local grassroots ones – which are run by people who want to help their community but don’t turn a profit. They might rely solely on donations, meaning every penny counts.
Over the years I’ve taken part in a number of volunteer projects that haven’t charged me anything, but I’ve also paid fees to different volunteer companies: sometimes to match a pre-determined fundraised amount, sometimes for accommodation/food that can only be arranged by them (i.e. staying with a host family), and sometimes for those aforementioned ‘admin fees’ (which I was sadly more susceptible to paying when aged eighteen). I’ve even chosen to donate money at the end of a project, because by that point I know exactly where it’s going.
Paying for volunteering will always be a grey area in my opinion. If you feel it’s justified then that’s your call, but the only way to really feel comfortable about it is to properly do your research, and find out exactly what your money will be used for. It’s also worth remembering that the smaller and more local the organisation, the less ‘logistical’ payments you should be making.
Can you earn money while you volunteer?
Being a volunteer is not the same as employment, and that comes with both benefits and drawbacks. On the plus side, you won’t be held to a contract (which I preferred in Ecuador as I didn’t know if I wanted to teach long-term) and you’ll be volunteering alongside dedicated people who are working solely for the passion of it.
The downside is working each day without a salary, which can be a strain if you’re either travelling long-term or have a tight budget.
Luckily, many people combine travel with freelance location-independent work. Writers (myself included), graphic designers, web consultants and tech developers all work online and just need a good internet connection to earn money. Look at the skills you already possess and try to work out a way for them to be profitable when you’re travelling.
NB: don’t expect your volunteer organisation to offer you a job at the end of your project! However, if you’re keen to work in the charity sector then previous volunteering experience will be a plus point.
Step Four: prepping for your South American lifestyle
Now you’ve worked out what project you’re going to do, it’s all about logistics: sorting out a place to stay, what food to eat, activities to be doing and general fun to be had. You should also be ready for some culture shock, as long-term living in South America may mean being faced with poor sanitation, an increase in visible poverty, the language barrier or unexpected cultural differences.
NB: this also applies to anyone who’s looking for general South American travel advice!
Accommodation: where will you stay?
Volunteering usually means staying in one place for anywhere from a few weeks to six months. For those travellers more used to hostel living it’s the first time they’ve put down something resembling roots on their trip, and that new ‘pseudo-home’ environment can feel pretty strange.
In my experience, you might find it quite difficult to find organisations that offer free accommodation. While a number of places will help you find a host family or offer much cheaper housing alternatives to be shared with other volunteers, you have to remember that most organisations are essentially charities, and any spare money goes to the recipients of said charity – so their ability to ‘help’ their volunteers is restricted.
If you’re left to your own devices it’s pretty easy to find hostels and hotels that reduce their prices for long-term guests, and CouchSurfing is also a good resource.
On a budget? Look for volunteer projects that exchange your work for free room and/or board, or where you can employ a specific skill that an organisation will benefit significantly from, as they might then offer you accommodation in return.
Failing that, there’s always the camping option. Admittedly not my favourite, but you might like it!
Food: what will you eat?
Meat eaters and sugar lovers, rejoice! South America is filled to the sugary brim with all your favourite foods.
I’m talking about ‘menu del dia‘ plates of rice, beans, fried platano and fried chicken. Late night kebabs from loudly shouting vendors on street corners. Paper cones filled with popcorn, or highly greasy strips of pastry-dipped-in-sugar. Even a wobbling square of flan covered in icing and sprinkles.
Spending a long time in South America might mean re-adjusting your eating habits – and vegetarians and vegans will need to plan ahead. Luckily there’s a firm focus on fresh produce all over the continent, and every town or city will have at least one huge market where you can bargain happily for the fattest and most flavourful fruit and veg with cantankerous old women.
It’s honestly more fun than it sounds.
On a budget? Volunteering long-term means hopefully having access to a kitchen which keeps costs down, but it also means striking up friendships with market stall owners, restaurant staff, and other people working at your project to give you the good stuff.
Failing that, dining on a questionable yet cheap street kebab always tastes better when set against a Colombian beach sunset.
Safety and legality: what are the risks?
Volunteering in an unfamiliar environment means entertaining the prospect of bizarre incidents happening. There might be a broken collarbone caused by an errant horse; an unexpected transit strike leading to a day of hiking and heatstroke, or even papier mache animals covered in fireworks balanced precariously on a schoolchild’s head.
- Vaccinations: whether you love needles or hate them, getting vaccinated for diphtheria, polio and tetanus, hepatitis A & B, typhoid and cholera are all recommended for South America. So are yellow fever and rabies, although to a lesser extent. Anti-malarial pills are a good idea but always research the side-effects as they affect every person differently.
- Travel insurance: just get it. You never know how necessary it’s going to be until you’re already in a bad situation.
- Visas: these differ depending on what passport you travel with. Most can be purchased on arrival at the border, but some require pre-planning – like the extended visa I needed for five months of teaching in Ecuador. Check out South America Living’s visa guide for US, Canadian, Australian & UK travellers.
- Length of stay: please keep aware of how long you’re legally allowed in each country! While some countries have unlimited border crossings, Ecuador only allows foreigners a maximum of 90 days in one calendar year. Don’t do what I did and spend all day going back and forth across the Bolivian-Argentinian border for basically no reason…
- Proof of onward flight: I’ve never had issues with this, but others have been stopped on entry to a country as they can’t prove they’re going to leave. Some border crossings are more prone to this than others, so do some research.
Language: do you need to speak Spanish?
Seeing as I wasn’t prepared to leave the continent until I was fluent, I’m a little biased on the subject of Spanish – but there’s no doubt that the better your grasp of the language, the more opportunities that open up.
Almost every country in South America speaks Spanish (and I speak from experience that you can just about get away with pretending Brazilians understand your muddled Spanglish…) – but speaking Spanish isn’t essential to volunteering.
If you’ve got the basics and you’re keen to improve, there’s no end of opportunities to practice. I went from Spanish newbie to near-fluent in just eighteen months thanks to my various volunteering projects.
Alternatively, you can focus on Spanish classes by studying at a school that also offers volunteering opportunities to help their students meet new people and give something back to the local community.
Activities: what will you be doing?
Though it’s obviously a personal choice, there are lots of ways to maximise your volunteering experience – particularly if you’re in one place for a long time.
Think what skills you can offer at your volunteer project. How about setting up a football club or teaching people photography? Help out by telling your interested hostel friends how they could also volunteer, or if you’re good at social media you could offer to update the project’s website or Facebook pages.
Say yes to impromptu invitations. You’ll probably end up doing weird and wonderful things through the volunteering network you’re involved in: things that are paradoxically seen as completely normal in that country, like Saturday afternoon rodeos with a bunch of Ecuadorian teenagers.
Get involved in the local culture. Whether it’s through dancing lessons, cooking class or language exchanges, becoming a part of the community feels fantastic, will help you make new friends and probably improve your language skills too.
Entertainment options change depending on your environment. Living in the jungle will be amazing, but there’s less likelihood of a buzzing nightlife. This is when that pack of playing cards becomes indispensable, and you learn to whittle things with a machete.
People: who will you meet?
Volunteer projects can be the perfect antidote to travelling alone – particularly if you’re worried that solo travel means you’ll find it hard to make friends. I always find myself growing really close to the people I volunteer with, as we share common interests and are all working for the same cause.
Because you’ll be working within a local community, there should also be ample chances to befriend locals too. Practice your Spanish skills with taxi drivers and street food vendors; look up local CouchSurfing events; find yourself a favourite cafe or bar that you visit each day, and soon you’ll be making friends everywhere.
Even spontaneous photoshoots with Bolivian kids who are fascinated with your iPad.
Step Five: want a volunteering secret? Go with the flow
Once you have a country and/or project in mind, the next step in the process is actually making a decision. You might have sorted every element of your volunteering plan before you step on the plane – or you might have planned absolutely nothing. And you know what? Either way is totally fine.
I knew I was initially heading to South America to volunteer, but I didn’t expect to string my travels together with consistent projects. As a result, most of my half-made plans changed dozens of times from one week to the next. I switched projects on a whim, missed flights to travel with people I never expected to, and never regretted it for a second.
That’s the beauty of travel: to stay in the moment and wing it when you feel like it.
Will you change the world by volunteering?
Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learnt from volunteering (and it might sound cheesy, but just bear with me). You won’t change the world – but that’s ok.
It’s more about the learning experience – not just for you, but for everyone involved. There’s so much negativity and misunderstanding in the world that I feel the importance now more than ever to cross into other people’s worlds in an effort to understand their lifestyles, know what struggles they face and what they can teach us, and to see how we can work together.
Volunteering means meeting locals who’ve set up initiatives that both help their communities and provide employment for them. Meeting foreigners who’ve relocated and now dedicate their lives to these projects.
You’ll end up viewing countries through the lens of what projects you can volunteer with. Your interest in the social structures of each country will develop, as will the awareness of their political systems because they will always filter through to those people at the bottom – who you’re invariably involved with through volunteering.
Your social consciousness and your sense of right and wrong will get stronger. You’ll help people out just for the sake of helping them.
Volunteering my way through South America has been my best travel experience to date. Thanks to all the bizarre projects I worked on and the wonderful people that did them with me, I fell in love with the entire continent – and so can you.
South America (hell, the entire world!) is your oyster. Now get out there and change it.