Volunteering Abroad: Self Structured vs. Organized Programs

Your bags are packed and your location has been circled in red on a map on your wall, but there is one last issue that remains to be decided: do you go it alone or enlist the services of a professional volunteer agency?  The above is a common scenario for students wishing to go abroad to volunteer for a summer, winter vacation, or gap-year.  The decision isn’t always an easy one, and both options have their advantages and disadvantages. The following are 3 of the most common debates and considerations.

Autonomy vs. Efficiency

Going it on your own requires ample time to settle, establish connections, and acquaint yourself with the culture – time of course being something that you, a volunteer with a limited window, don’t always have.  What’s more, you can’t exactly show up in a village center with your working gloves and expect them to immediately put you to good use; as an outsider, you often don’t possess a developed sense of the work that needs to be done.

When you elect to go through a volunteer organization, what you’re really doing is requesting that your efforts be appropriately managed and directed with an objective that you can approve of.  As you don’t know the culture or the environment, most volunteer organizations will handle housing and transportation for you.  And, because you don’t know what needs to be done, the volunteer organization will tell you.  Most organizations are required to state in their packaged information how and where you will be spending your time, so you can consider which feels most appropriate to you and your goals.

Freedom vs. Accountability

This one is huge.  For better or for worse, many of us carry into our experience expectations of travel that we’ve lifted directly from books, films, and television.  Among the most vivid and lasting of those impressions is that of the solitary traveler, the allure of the open road and the expanse of the unscripted experience.  We desire freedom and autonomy, the flexibility to go wherever the fair wind blows us.  The good news is that this experience does indeed exist. The bad news is that, in practice, diving into a foreign country without strategies for housing, transportation, and work may not be the most efficient use of your time.

Stretching a Dime vs. Planned Expenses

At some point, while researching your options, you remarked to yourself that this might be cheaper if you went it alone. You’ve probably read about how cheaply one can live abroad, but the prices you find yourself looking at know seem to refute this notion.  There are homestay fees, travel and tours, visas, and food expenses. Altogether, your month abroad is starting to look pretty expensive.

If you do decide to go it alone, do your research.  Read as many blogs on the region as you can find.  Familiarize yourself with the prices of common necessities like taxi fare, bottles of water, and bedrooms in hostels.  Ultimately, this can save you as much suffering as money.While it’s true that if you’re careful you can find ways to maximize your dollars, it’s also true that traveling abroad means opening yourself to the unknown. The unknown is often expensive. Local taxi drivers will see you coming a mile away, kids will rob you blind with chicles, and there is practically an institutionalized ‘foreigner tax’ on everything you will want to touch. The flat rates of professional volunteer agencies may seem expensive at first, but once you compare them to the actual cost of faring the same amount of time on your own, you’ll usually find they’re pretty comparable.