Volunteer your way around the world: landing gigs easily, creating a stellar profile, and more!
Volunteering was one of the methods that helped me stretch my travel budget in the early stages of my round the world trip. When you are beginning as a long-term traveler, this is the best way to learn about other cultures and improve your travel game.
You will meet a lot of people who will be your friends forever. It’s so much easier to make friends if you are volunteering because of the same setting you are all in. While it can make you lasting friendships, it will also teach you how to thrive solo. Imagine going to a place where you don’t really know anyone and then you are expected to just figure things out yourself right then and there.
The good thing about it is you can get to stay in a place you like for long periods of time. The minimum stay for a volunteering gig is 10 days and the maximum is 3 months. It all depends on your host. This is the best way to eat, speak, cook, sleep and breathe a culture that is far away from yours.
A lot of new long-term travelers confuse this type of volunteering with charity but this is not the case. The keyword in this type of volunteering is work exchange where you can get food and accommodations for free in exchange for a 5-hour maximum work daily, with 2 days off per week. Please take note that you won’t be monetarily compensated for this but there is a possibility to earn from tips if you are volunteering in a tipping country.
How Volunteering Works
Sign up for a volunteering site, find hosts, apply, and start to volunteer. Most volunteer travel program websites categorize the gigs by region so you can just pick an area to see what’s available. Some hosts require Skype Interviews in order to know you better. They have the right to decline if they don’t deem you fit
Getting to your host
This, you will have to do on your own. Hosts don’t pay for transportation expenses but they will give you instructions on how you can easily get to them. Some hosts who are located in remote places might arrange transport for you only if it is very difficult to reach.
The free food provided is usually very good because they are cooked by the locals. If you are hosted by a family, you will sit down with them and eat whatever they are eating. A special food menu is made for volunteers in hostels and restaurants aka staff food.
You will be volunteering with other people so you will share a common space with them. Most hosts have designated dorms (6-8 beds) for volunteers. Family businesses run volunteering jobs have private rooms that can accommodate 2-3 people max. In each volunteering listing, you will always see the accommodation type description. If not, ask the host.
Types of Volunteering Jobs
Anything you can think of! You can volunteer in a hostel bar, a wildlife sanctuary, a farm, create/design a website, and more! It really depends on what the host is looking for. Again, listings have full descriptions of the job including what is expected from you during the stay. House rules apply, too.
Where to find volunteering jobs
Workaway is usually centralized on cultural exchange and learning. Travel cheaply and stay for free, whilst making a difference to the communities you visit. Put your existing skills to good use, or try something new you‘d never normally get to do and pick up new skills along the way. There is an ever-growing list of 1000s of active hosts in over 155 countries offering all kinds of places to stay.
[Annual membership fee: $33 USD for an individual account; $43 USD for couples (or 2 friends)
Discover hundreds of volunteer abroad opportunities in 80+ countries worldwide for free.
HelpX is an online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farm stays, homestays, ranches, lodges, Bnbs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.
[2-year membership fee: $22 USD for an individual account]
Get hands-on experience on organic farms, gardens, and smallholdings – all offering food, accommodation, and learning in exchange for practical help on the land. They have individual websites for each country so the search will be personalized and easy!
[Annual membership fee: $22 USD for an individual account; $34 for a couples (or 2 friends) account]
A volunteering website specializing in countries affected by natural disasters. The application process is longer than usual because they have to make sure you will have the capability to respond or live in a disaster zone.
[No membership fee but fundraising is expected, but not required. This organization relies heavily on donations]
Aside from volunteering gigs, they also have paid opportunities for real employment. The website is easy to use because of its filter feature.
[No membership fee]
Contact and book your stay with any of our hosts, all who require a few hours of honest help and in return are offering accommodation. Not sure if food is included but you can discuss this with hosts. [Annual Membership Fee: $22 USD for an individual]
All Out Africa is a group of companies based in South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, and Botswana. It includes a non-profit foundation, social enterprise, and responsible travel business. The non-profit foundation arm implements important social and conservation projects and runs two research centers. The social enterprise arm offers volunteer, student, and internship experiences that do social and environmental good. The responsible travel business arm offers responsible cultural, wildlife and adventure tours and runs two lodges. Our goal is to share our passion for southern Africa’s people, places, and wildlife with the world and offer experiences that change lives. [Free listing]
Do Good as You Go strives to connect a network of hundreds of modern day explorers to use what you know, to do good as you go with communities around the world. Develop, create, grow as a Global Citizen. [Free listing]
A platform for independent skilled traveling idealists (volunteers). On this website, you can find and contribute projects all over the world that could use some help. [Free listing]
How to easily get volunteering gigs
There might be numerous websites to look for volunteering jobs abroad but you are not the only one applying. I’ve observed that long-term travelers and backpackers always have the same interests so there is a tendency that one host is receiving a lot of applications and he/she can only host a certain number of volunteers. How will your application stand out?
Put an effort into your profile.
After signing up, this is what most people forget: putting an effort into their profiles. Sure, you already fill out the important and personal details but that doesn’t stop there. Your host needs more information about you – something more personal. They want to know your interests (aside from traveling, of course), what kind of food do you eat, what’s your goal in traveling the world, etc. Even your family background can be a crucial part of the selection!
Headline. Not all volunteering websites require this but if you are to describe yourself in a short phase, how will you do it? A headline is one of the highlights of your profile. It’s kind of similar to “current mission.” Sample of a catchy headline: Honest, hardworking, and reliable backpacker from the state of Texas available to volunteer.
Bio. This is where you have to sell yourself, most especially if you do not have any previous volunteering experience. It is usually difficult for people to understand online profiles so being articulate and straightforward is preferred. Introduce yourself briefly, including what have you been doing before you started traveling the world, your career background, a little something about where you grew up, your hobbies, and what made volunteering an interesting choice to sustain your travels. Remember that hosts are not after your skills. They are not looking for a cleaner — they are looking for real people who are outgoing, charismatic, and kind to work with.
Experience. Of course, your experience should be the bulk of your profile. Where have you volunteered? How many volunteering gigs have you done? What did you do? The experience should be authentic and very specific. Tell them about how you loved being around pets or how you’ve taken cared for horses in Argentina. Any relevant experience related to volunteering should be in this part of the profile. Write something. Tell your story!
Photos. High resolution (and good) photos should be up on your profile. Make sure that the images are clear and that they reflect your personality as a person. Do not stage photos like you raking leaves outside your backyard or even cleaning the kitchen. Photos make lasting impressions and if you present your true authentic self, you can surely land a volunteering gig anywhere in the world. Show yourself in different situations. Put some pictures from your travels. This way, they can see how much you’ve trotted the globe, and most likely, it will reflect that you have the ‘outside world’ experience aside from your comfort zone. Hosts love travelers, I tell you that! You can also include photos of your pets and some local experiences abroad.
Include your social media profiles. Social Media has been the easiest way to get to know people from all over the world because it’s comfortable. Everyone’s life is broadcasted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc so showing yours to the hosts will give them a more visual idea of who you really are. In my experience, I always give my blog link and it works – I always get the gig through showing my blog even if I only had 3 posts when I started volunteering a few years ago.
Personalise your application letter
In the first stages of my volunteering, I made an e-mail macro which I can just copy/paste and mass send to all hosts but this technique didn’t last long. There was one time when I was rushing to find a host. My visa was expiring and I had to leave the current country I was in so I immediately went to a volunteering website to plan my next move. The macros are really good but I forgot to change dates and edit the salutation. I only realised the mistake when I already pressed send. The worst part is I sent it 10 hosts! Yikes!
What I learned from using email macros: highlight the part where you need to change info. You can create your application letter on Google Docs and use the highlight feature for you to easily see what needs to be changed.
This was the macro I sent to hosts. Those highlighted in yellow are the ones I change depending on the details of the host. This letter is very short and straight to the point but you can understand all the important details with a personalized approach. Short and compelling letters are the ones that always work given you:
Address the host with their first name. Do not put sir/madam. They are not employers. Not all volunteering listings have the name of the hosts so how will you know? Check the references from previous volunteers. You can usually find it at the bottom of the listing. All volunteers mention the names of their hosts when writing references because they are already on a personal level of relationship. Once they see it, they will know that the message is intended for them even if they don’t have any idea who you are. They will read it either way.
Be specific with time. Tell them where you currently are and when you are planning to volunteer with them. This way, they can give you an exact answer. All hosts have volunteering calendars. It is very important to include your availability because they also base their hiring on it. For example, a host will prefer someone who will stay 2 weeks or longer. This will save them time and energy in training volunteers on what to do. However, you will never know the competition. If you can only stay 10 days and another volunteer who can stay longer is applying at the same time as you are, he/she will most likely get the gig. I don’t mean to discourage you or what but still, try your best! It’s always best to write to hosts 2 weeks prior to arrival. This way, you can secure a sure volunteering slot and plan your next move easily.
Make them know you browsed their profile
Volunteer listings have photos and full details about the work you are going into. For example, if one of the requirements say, “Volunteer should be outgoing, fun and friendly,” you can put “I am a very social person and I like talking to people. I also know a few drinking games and can help with organizing hostel events.” Find a specific detail in the listing that will fit you and put it to your advantage.
Don’t copy/paste your bio
This one is the most unnecessary application info that I have encountered. I’m not sure if I mentioned but when I volunteered in a hostel bar for 3 months, they liked me and employed me as a paid bar manager so I had my fair share of accepting volunteers. A lot of them write something about themselves that I can easily access by browsing their profiles. This just makes your application long and hard to read. I’m telling you, “feel free to browse my profile” is enough.
In the endnote, always hope. ”I hope to see you in 2 weeks” is a great line that always works. Assuming you’re already in gives them an idea that you really want to come to them and volunteer. You might be sending the same application format to different hosts but they don’t know that! Making them feel your willingness is one of the factors that will land you the job.
Know your rights as a volunteer
Unfortunately, not all hosts are the same. A big bulk of listing is taking advantage of volunteering websites to avoid paying real employees and this is not the true essence of volunteering.
Volunteering gigs should be focused more on cultural exchange rather than hosting foreigners to work without pay. Below are some of the rights you need to know if you plan to volunteer:
This is not a 9-5 job!
Maximum volunteering hours is 5 hours. The rest of the day should be dedicated for you to explore the city you are in and/or do something else. If a volunteering job is more than 5 hours, then don’t take it. Might as well report it to the website and ask why they are asking for so many hours.
If food is not included, say no
Don’t apply to listings that don’t offer food. By default, food should be included for volunteers. Sure, you agreed to work without monetary compensation but the food is very important in your shift. What if you have a 12:00 – 17:00 shift? You won’t have time to make lunch because you will be packed with a lot of tasks. You can’t even go out to grab food during work hours. Demand for food because it’s the right thing to do. If you don’t, you are contributing to the already high numbers of abusive hosts.
Clean working/living Environment
You will come across filthy kitchens and dirty dorm rooms but you won’t know this until you come. Upon arrival, if you see something wrong (i.e. dirty volunteer dorm toilet), tell your host right away. Along the way, it will be the volunteer’s job to maintain cleanliness but there should be thorough cleaning schedules by the host (or their paid staff) at least once a week. Unsanitary living environments will increase the risk of you getting sick and you don’t want that! You want to be healthy so you can travel farther.
Volunteering tips and advice
Volunteer in places that will have an impact on you
Don’t just think about the volunteer work free food and accommodation because all volunteering posts have them. Think about how a certain program will have an impact on you and how you think it will contribute to your well-being.
Determine your skills set
All the applications are made online so you have to be clear on what you can and can’t do. A lot of organizations rely solely on volunteers most especially hostel bars. For example, if they ask for “experience in bartending” as one of the qualifications, ask if there is a need to know how to mix drinks or if it’s just a service kind of job. Although most jobs don’t require previous experience, make sure you only venture into something you have knowledge of.
Hit two birds with one stone
When choosing a volunteering gig, it’s best to combine your goals. Look for posts that will help you be efficient in your travel goals. For example, we know that the cost to travel to Galapagos is very expensive. Lucky for us, there are a lot of volunteering placements there that can get you to the island for free. However, they require a minimum 3-mo stay for volunteers because it can save them time and energy. If you’re willing to stay in Galapagos for 3 months, then it’s a win-win situation for you.
Consider your hosts as family
You are not a guest on their property. You are there to help them. Make sure to have a genuine connection to your host such as telling them about your family or cooking your country’s traditional food.
Always ask for a reference
After volunteering, ask your host to make a reference about their experience in hosting you. Most hosts won’t do this unless they want you to do the same for them. References will make your profile stronger and it will make your search for the next volunteering gig quickly. Remember that hosts prefer volunteers who have comments/reviews from other people.
You can volunteer forever but it’s not sustainable
Volunteering is only a stepping stone for you to be accustomed to being out here. It only cuts costs but money is not coming in. If you want to pursue a higher level of long-term traveling, you can leverage volunteering to get ideas and angles on how to sustain your life on the road.