Finding a Volunteer Project in South America

Volunteering is something Iain and I spent hours painstakingly researching when we were preparing for our trip to South America. The obvious questions for us were: what type of volunteer project should we choose, where should we volunteer, and how should we begin organising our volunteer trip? It was a daunting task deciding where, not only, to donate our time, but also our money from the thousands of projects out there on offer.

How to choose a type of volunteer project?

For us working at an animal rescue centre, an orphanage/school, a construction project, or teaching English were all considerations. And really we made the final decision by being brutally honest with ourselves. What would we enjoy most and what type of project would we get the most out of? To all the selfless do-gooders out there, this might all sound a bit me me me, but really you need to be enthusiastic about a project to do any good.

The reality for me was: I wasn’t sure I was physically fit enough or skilled enough to be part of a construction project 24/7. Also having never worked with children before I couldn’t promise myself that after a week or so a group of them wouldn’t drive me crazy. I love kids but usually kids that I can look after for a few hours and then give back to their parents. An after our episode with Tannat the stray dog we picked up in Argentina, I’m sure you can appreciate why working with animals became the focus of our efforts. Choose something you love and you and the project will both be happy with your work there.

Tannat
Tannat

How to begin organising your volunteer trip? Cutting out the middleman.

When beginning our search online it was easy to be lured in by the glossy websites or middlemen offering “life changing experiences” all over the world. You’ll know ones if you’ve begun by typing “volunteer abroad” into Google. Tempting as the pictures of volunteers holding turtles or the close-up shots of jaguars seemed at first, with prices way over £1000 for 2 weeks these projects were an unrealistic option for us. Despite these companies promising pre-departure support and local orientation on arrival we like many had to question what justified these prices. From a little research and speaking with projects that had once been involved with these companies, usually only a small portion of what the volunteer pays actually goes to the project itself.

True or not, why would you pay £1000 when you can pay a tenth of that for virtually the same experience? We chose a project were we paid a little under £100 for 2 weeks directly into the hands of the project. For that our food and accommodation were included as well as a donation for materials for the project. And to top it off we didn’t have the nagging question in our minds as to what our money was actually paying for. The organisation was upfront about all the costs involved with the project and we could see exactly where our money went.

IMG_6289
Working with the materials, our money helped buy.

How to find the free/cheap volunteer projects?

Having ruled out going through ones of the large companies, we had to search a little harder to find and contact the projects themselves. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as adding “free” or “cheap” to your original query in the search engines. The commercial middle-mans still appear…£1000 is cheap in some peoples definitions apparently?! We luckily stumbled across this website which proved invaluable for our search in South America.

http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/

Anything but glossy, this basic website offers a list of “grassroots” volunteer projects throughout South and Central America. Simply web-links but it allows you to contact the projects directly yourself.

Not travelling to South America? Don’t worry these websites/lists do exist for your chosen destination; you just have to be a bit more creative with your search. I suggest searching for “lists of free volunteer projects in …” or “volunteering aboard for free blogs”. For most travelling and backpacking, blogs and first hand advice are a vital source of information. Likewise when you’ve narrowed down your choice of project it is worth searching for a few blogs written by people who have actually volunteered there. They might simply have useful advice about getting there or what to pack but they may also help you avoid less authentic, money grabbing organisations.

Which volunteer project should I choose?

As I said before reading blogs on the projects can be really helpful, but here are a few of other tips for choosing the right project.

Read the websites – sounds simple but get as much information out of the website as possible. Read all the information available but don’t be afraid to contact and ask for further info if you cant find what you need. Reading newsletters and updates from the projects can be very reassuring.

Contact multiply projects – I’m not saying email them all, keep to those within your chosen field, but it’s a good idea to contact a few as they may not all have availability for your chosen timeframe. Also a friendly, enthusiastic email response from a real person goes along way to cementing your decision to volunteer. We emailed multiple projects but it was Olivia’s quick, personable response that ensured we were on the next plane to Esperanza Verde.

Talk to other travellers – if like us you were already on the road when you were finalising your decision of where to volunteer, other backpackers can be an excellent source of information. They might for example know of smaller/start-up projects that perhaps don’t have a web presence yet.

Use social media – you will find lots of projects have a Facebook page or perhaps a group set up by ex-volunteers. Most of the projects wont be on review sites, such as Trip-advisor, but it’s always reassuring to reach out to a few ex-volunteers if possible.

Louie Arrives
Louie, a young male squirrel monkey rescued from the Black Market

There are thousands of projects out there, offering all sorts of different work as a volunteer. Research your project carefully; ensure you know what will be expected of you as a volunteer and what you will get in return. You don’t need to pay a lot of money to have an amazing and fulfilling time. Nearly all the volunteers I have met, whether they volunteered for 2 weeks or 2 months have come away with an unforgettable experience. Good luck with your search and do contact us if you would like any further help or advice.

Although this blog post was created to help you choose volunteer project in any field, but if like us you have an interest in animals you can read more about our experience at Esperanza Verde here or watch the video below.

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