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Independent Volunteering Abroad

By Jenny Williams

Sure, you could drop a couple of grand on a two-week AIDS camp/safari in Tanzania—but why pay to work when you can do it for free? Independent volunteering abroad—that is, making all your own arrangements without the support of a third party—is definitely cheaper and potentially more rewarding than signing up with the spring-breakers’ package deal. You won’t find these opportunities on websites or forums—they don’t exist until you create them.

First, figure out what you want to do and where you want to do it. Save elephants in Thailand? Fight corruption in Kenya? Get online and find organizations with missions that resonate with yours; a great place to start is the directory on WANGO. Websites such as Idealist, TransitionsAbroad, and InternationalVolunteer offer additional references and can help spark volunteer ideas, though many of their opportunities are set programs. Nonetheless, they’re a great resource for reading other volunteers’ stories and getting a feel for what’s out there.

When searching, aim for the smaller, local organizations rather than the impenetrable bureaucratic fortresses of the UN or Save the Children. The small-scale orgs often understaffed and thus more welcoming to extra help. You’ll also have more freedom in choosing responsibilities that best suit your abilities and interests.

Once you’ve found some interesting organizations, the next step is to contact them by email to ask about possible volunteering opportunities. Brief them on your background (resumes help) and tell them when you can start and how long you can work. You’ll be surprised—or maybe you won’t—at how many organizations are thrilled to welcome someone who’s willing to work for free.

Some people skip all that and just get on a plane. This can also lead to some great positions, but you have to be willing to take a risk and spend a few weeks in limbo. Another tip: network shamelessly. I got connected to an NGO in Uganda through my parents’ neighbors’ daughter’s husband’s colleague’s father. No kidding.

You must also be able to commit enough time so that both you and the organization benefit. Three months seems to be the consensus for an absolute minimum, though six months is a more reasonable norm. Anything shorter and you probably won’t have time to learn much from—or contribute to—the project. If you’re really pressed for time, schools and orphanages sometimes welcome short-term volunteers to teach English or play with the kids.

Draw up a contract with the organization you’re volunteering with to clarify expectations on all sides. How long is your term? What costs of living, if any, will they cover? Setting things out in ink at the beginning could prevent awkward confrontations in the future (you mean you won’t pay for my DSTV?).

Remember that doing it independently means just that—once you’ve landed a position, you’ll most likely be responsible for your own housing, food, and transportation. This is what you would have been paying a program to deal with for you. But I dare you to try and spend $1167 in a Nepalese village in two weeks. It ain’t gonna happen. To aid the settling process, infiltrate the city’s community of ex-pats, diplomats, and aid workers; many will be happy to offer their advice and cynicism. Expatriates help for the more practical end.

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