What to look for in a Workaway to volunteer abroad
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More and more, we’re coming across travellers who are volunteering their skills (or just their willingness to contribute) abroad in order to extend their travel time without breaking the bank. While there are many services and agencies out there who are on hand to match you with a place in which to volunteer (here’s a good explanation of a few of the most popular), we decided to go with Workaway.info; mainly because the registration fee is only $44 USD a year for a couple, giving us access to the kinds of projects we had the skills to contribute to.
From our experience with Workaway, we put together a list of things you might want to consider when applying for volunteer spaces (and when applying, do note that you shouldn’t put all eggs in one basket as lots of people you email never bother to reply).
1. Bed & board from your Workaway
Let’s be direct here; if you’re going to be working for free, are you still going to have to pay for your dorm and food? If so, unless the cause is really important to you, is it logical to stay long term in this place? Most placements on Workaway are for eco-farming, nannying or hostel work, and the work you do isn’t to be scoffed at as easy, so there’s no shame in making sure there’s something in it for you. While the savings aren’t usually great on a bunk and a meal or two a day, they can really help you to stretch out your funds and stay longer. We chose to do our Workaway in Costa Rica, because it was one of the most expensive countries on our itinerary and therefore we felt our bed & breakfast savings would be worth it.
2. Travel community vs immersion
Are you looking for somewhere to chill and immerse yourself in nature or culture? Or are you looking for a place to become part of a family of travellers with whom to make the most of your days off? For our first workaway, we chose the latter, in a hostel that housed up to 14 volunteers at any one time. After so long on the road, meeting new people every 2-3 days, it was incredible to be surrounded by the same people for 3 weeks and really get to know them. We have no doubts that we’ve made some friends for life there!
However, we are also interested in one day doing something smaller scale, where we can get away from the tourist trail and feel more immersed in local life. You can usually gauge the type of atmosphere a place will have by looking at the photos, reading the reviews and just emailing them to ask how many volunteers they usually take on.
3. Quality of reviews
While not all Workaway placements will have this, a long-running account should have reviews at the very bottom of their profile, both from volunteers reviewing the placement and the placement reviewing their volunteers. Don’t just look at how well the volunteers describe their experience (remember that if they made friends whilst there their outlook is likely to be more positive!), also look at how the account rates their workawayers. Watch out for many negative or hidden reviews, which may allude to poor expectations of what their volunteers should do or the inability to manage people well. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
4. What can you offer the Workaway host?
Are they going to make the most out of your skills? Are you going to feel fulfilled for the next few weeks or months of your life? There are tons of different task types for any given placement; so make sure you’ve messaged the account directly to clarify what you will be doing, and if you have a particular skill (in Lozzy’s case, photography), suggest it as a potential project for them. Ensure you know exactly the kinds of things you’ll be up to during your time with them before confirming your stay.
5. Responsible volunteering
This is arguably the most key of all your criteria for choosing a volunteering placement. While it may not be so relevant to hostel work or a language-practicing homestay, you need to be sure that what you’re doing – however good your intentions may be – is helping rather than hindering the very people or place you’re trying to support.
For example, by helping out at X, are you really giving an advantage to the local people, or by working for free are you just taking a job that could have employed a local?
Is the volunteering organisation you’re paying money to actually putting that cash into the community, or is it going to a corporate team in an office overseas?
Working with kids is amazing and feels really rewarding at the time, but if you only have a few weeks to spend with them, are you benefiting the children or just your own sense of altruism? How many volunteers spend 3 weeks being best friends with these children and then saunter off to some other beach to continue their exciting lives, leaving the kids feeling cast aside and putting them at risk of developing attachment issues?
And if you’re really not sure why responsible volunteering is a hot topic, check out @barbiesaviour to see the damaging mentality of ‘White Saviour Syndrome’. Lots of food for thought!