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Why work for free
By: Eric Tiettmeyer (justin) 2012.04.01



Working with a variety of organizations in 7 countries, BaseCamp offers tailored volunteer training and mutually benefiting placements. Volunteers work in schools, social and healthcare programs, building projects, as well as conservation work with wildlife. Travel with a purpose. See website.


Why would you ever work for free? It seems everyone who has, loved it. Is it for you, and if so, what should you do?

The thought of working for free in another country seems to surprise many college students who are asked about it. "Why volunteer abroad," they ask, "when I can easily get a paid job?" That is easier said than done, of course. Although a paid job abroad can be an excellent way to fund an extended travel excursion as well as gain professional experience, it also requires significant effort to land such a job. Researching positions, sending resumes, and hardest of all, figuring out international hiring laws and regulations make a job search abroad very difficult. In Europe, for example, members of the European Union are given preference when applying for a job, making an applicant from the U.S. fight an uphill battle. People interested in working abroad often turn to volunteering instead of searching for paid positions.

While many people envision volunteering abroad as working two years in a developing country on basic necessities, there are a variety of alternatives and opportunities worldwide to fit any person's motivations. Volunteers circumvent the difficult legal battles and paperwork hassles of permanent hires by going through volunteer organizations that have already established ties with host countries. Opportunities exist to enhance your professional skills while volunteering, much like an internship. Volunteers usually have flexible schedules that allow personal exploration of a region. Volunteers feel it is one of the best ways to interact with a community in an environment where one feels they are making a difference. Probably the single most powerful aspect of volunteering is that while one does not get paid in cash for work, experience and satisfaction never have poor exchange rates.

The reasons for working abroad in a paid or unpaid opportunity vary from person to person. However, for the most part, a large motivation is to incorporate a love of travel. According to Ron Krannich, author of Jobs for People Who Love to Travel "Rather than seek just any job, they want jobs that enable them to pursue a unique and enjoyable lifestyle where travel plays a central role." With that in mind, the motivations to go abroad should not land someone in a full-time job without the flexibility to travel. Clearly though, the choice to volunteer abroad is more complicated than that. Below are five motivations and advantages to volunteering abroad.

1. Helping out. The desire to help other people in an immediate, hands-on experience is the root from which all volunteer efforts grow.

2. Flexible schedules. Because many students work abroad as an excuse to travel the world, volunteering usually offers more flexibility. Paid jobs abroad are not much different than in the U.S.- 40 hours, 5 days a week. For the avid traveler, this puts a damper on expected travel time.

3. Integrating with the local culture. Volunteer opportunities offer unique experiences in working with local residents. Whether the volunteer position is in a humanitarian environment or not, you are likely to work with a diverse group during your stay. According to Sunil Oommen, formerly of Cross Cultural Solutions, "Volunteering is about learning culture sensitivity and learning other cultures. You discover the true treasures, which are the people." In addition, volunteering abroad opens a unique window on your own culture and challenges the way you'll see it upon returning.
When faced with no first-world luxuries such as running water, electricity, most people come to appreciate what they have at home. However, one also comes to appreciate the sophistication and education locals have, which begins to erase stereotypes. According to Kate Shackword, of Operation Crossroads Africa, volunteering makes people "look at the roots of their miseducation."

4. Easy placement/paperwork. Volunteer organizations are likely to place you in a safer, more organized opportunity than what you may find searching for a paid job or volunteering on your own. Because they take care of all the placement, it's easier for the volunteer to adapt to a new culture rather than deal with the bureaucracy and politics of working abroad.

5. Volunteering pays, sort of. Volunteer organizations, usually acting as non-profit organizations, do charge participant fees to go abroad. This often confounds a potential volunteer who holds the attitude, "I'm working for free already, why should I pay?" But if one looks at the overall costs for travelling abroad, as well as the services, connections and opportunities offered, volunteering fees may be worth their weight in gold (or rupees, baht, or birr). Global Service Corps, a non profit organization that offers volunteer abroad opportunities from two weeks to one year in Costa Rica, Thailand, and Kenya, breaks down how participant fees are spent. According to their brochure, 40% of costs go to field expenses, including pre-trip preparation, hotels and homestays, excursions, food and transportation. Another 36% percent goes to both processing applications and material and expanding and improving the programs. And finally 24% is used for administrative tasks and marketing tasks. Reputable organizations such as Global Service Corps, who break down where your money goes, distinguish themselves from the rare programs trying to make a quick buck off alternative tourists.
Be sure to ask any volunteer organization their breakdown for costs, especially field expenses for sending you abroad. Use this percentage for field expenses to calculate how much it will cost you to travel on your own. Using a guidebook for that area, calculate how much it would cost for you to find your own accommodations, food, and excursions if you went without the organization. Often, prices are comparable because the organizations arrange special fares you wouldn't have access too. Most importantly, take into account the fact that you are paying for thier services as an organizer - you'd be hard pressed to find that job helping a Kenyan carpenter if you were looking on your own.

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The Two Camps
In most scenarios, volunteering abroad means offering a humanitarian service in a developing country. Volunteers are usually placed in either a work camp or a community service-oriented position. Most volunteer positions are in developing countries, but even in first-world countries, local hotels, restaurants and service organizations are looking for foreigners to add some international flavor to the establishment. They exchange room and board for work.

Work Camps
In work camps, participants take part in construction, landscaping, or irrigation. According to Shackword these work camps are easily defined, start and end with the same group, and usually include shorter work days. A drawback to work camps is that they are often held in locations that are dangerous or difficult for the unprepared volunteer. However, harsh physical locations and tough manual labor are the challenges that make work camps rewarding. The nature of the work sometimes becomes monotonous, working on the same project for an extended period, but as all work camps point out, this isn't a vacation. It's hard work, for a good reason. If you're looking for a vacation, you shouldn't be volunteering anyway.

Community Service
Community service includes volunteer work in education, health and nutrition, and urban development. In addition to working with individuals and helping a community, there seems to be more flexibility in these opportunities. However, in these programs, volunteers are usually thrown into an ongoing project, so while trying to adapt to a completely new culture, these volunteers must also quickly learn their responsibilities.

Dispelling Rumors about the Peace Corps
The U.S. government run Peace Corps is probably the most diverse and largest volunteer organization in the world. Besides job diversity, a long history, no fees, and a large support network, Peace Corps offers a $6,000 readjustment stipend after volunteers complete their service. Participants with a bachelor's degree are encouraged to apply for opportunities in agriculture, education, health and nutrition, community service, and urban youth development. Yet the Peace Corps, and other volunteer groups for that matter, have been criticized that the locals can do fine without the help of their organization, and that volunteering abroad is simply an ego booster for the volunteers themselves. In Jobs for People Who Love to Travel, Ron Krannich mentions that "for many people, development work becomes more of a personal ego trip than one of concrete long-term accomplishments." Not so, says Peace Corps spokesperson Dana Topousis. According to Topousis, Peace Corps recruits go only where the need is, and this need is specifically requested by a village/town leader to the Peace Corps. Topousis adds that usually only one volunteer is sent to each community for a period of two years. Volunteering is an intense experience wherever you go, and with whichever program. It's important to find a program whose philosophy towards volunteering matches your own.

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Student Travel Europe, Global Travel, Paid Internships, Volunteer Overseas, Youth Hostel