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The cost of doing good

Volunteering generally means that you're donating your time and not being paid. So it might seem a little counterintuitive to think that, in most cases, you'll need to spend money to volunteer abroad. After all, even getting to your country of choice will likely cost at least a few hundred dollars. In addition, many volunteer abroad programs require fees to help offset the costs of setting up your volunteer experience, supporting staff, providing housing, and other logistical details.

The bottom line often is that, while you may be donating your time, it is often not free for an organization to host you—even those NGOs that don't provide things like housing or meals will still need to set aside valuable staff time to train, support, and manage volunteers. And, as is wisely pointed out in this Transitions Abroad article, when we volunteer in our own communities, we don't expect organizations to pay for our meals, transportation, or housing, so why should it be any different in communities abroad?

Considering that most people going to another country to volunteer want to contribute time and resources rather than becoming a drain on them, it often makes sense for the costs of supporting volunteers to largely come from the volunteers themselves (for more information on why it makes sense for volunteers to help pay for service abroad, check out these pieces by Comhlamh and Cross-Cultural Solutions). Fortunately, there are lots of options to fit what you can afford, from service abroad that provides you with transportation and a stipend, to paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for an all-inclusive volunteer abroad program.

Before you send money...

It's important to develop a rapport with your host or sending organization before you pay any money. Be sure you've gotten your questions answered and that you feel comfortable about your plans before paying any fees.

This page will help you learn more about potential costs for volunteering abroad as well as some tips and ideas for budgeting, raising funds, and finding an international volunteer opportunity that fits your financial expectations and realities.

Budgeting for international service

Just like anytime you travel, you'll need to budget for both in-country and at-home expenses. For example, your volunteer abroad budget might include:

  • Fees for securing passport and any applicable visas
  • Any necessary vaccinations
  • International flights, rail, or buses
  • Transportation in-country
  • Housing
  • Meals
  • Insurance (if you don't have regular health coverage or your insurance won't cover you abroad, it's recommended that you invest in affordable travel insurance)
  • Language classes or materials (if needed or combining with service)
  • Program fees (might apply if you're going with a volunteer-sending organization or program)
  • Miscellaneous spending (shopping, entertainment, in-country travel, etc.)

At the same time, your at-home budget will need to cover the bills associated with the life you've left behind (especially if you'll be out-of-country for more than a few weeks), including such costs as:

  • Rent or mortgage payments (unless you've sold, moved out, or sublet; keep in mind that all three of these options take time to set up!)
  • Storage fees (for storing your furniture, car, etc. if you've moved out)
  • Credit card payments
  • Student loan payments (you might be able to defer these)
  • Kennel costs (to keep Rover or Mittens happy and healthy while you're away)

Of course there are creative options for minimizing these costs. For example, subletting your apartment would reduce or eliminate your housing costs without the need to give up your home. Similarly, storing boxes in a friend's garage and lending out your car will save on storage. Finally, if you have student loans, be sure to call your loan provider to see if they will defer payments while you are out of country.

To work out an overall budget, try writing down your typical monthly costs. Put a check mark next to those that you'll continue to pay while you're away and then, using the bulleted lists above, add in expected additional costs for your time abroad. The total will be your basic overall budget, providing you with a rough idea of how much you'll need to save, raise, or earn to fund your volunteer abroad experience.

Raising money

Once you've got a working budget, you can start saving or raising money for your volunteer abroad experience. There are lots of creative ways to do this; here are some great web links to learn more:

If going with a volunteer-sending organization, you might also see if your (or a friend or family member's) employer offers matching gifts.

To check out a sample fundraising budget, read chapter 7 of "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas" by Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega, and Zahara Heckscher. Also, if you're going with a volunteer abroad program, be sure to ask if they have suggestions, offer support, or can share sample fundraising letters.

Finally, you might consider checking out some of the following sources for scholarships, grants, trusts, or fellowships; please note that many of these are affiliated with higher education and/or study abroad (speaking of, don't forget to also check for scholarships offered by your own university if you're a student):

But aren't there volunteer abroad options where I don't need to pay?

We thought you might ask that. Yes, there are service abroad programs where your out-of-pocket costs are minimal. However, many of these service programs are either long-term or require that you have a needed skill set; for example, many health organizations provide funding for doctors and medical personnel to serve overseas. Check out this list of organizations that provide funding or stipends for international service to learn more:

For further information about skilled and stipended volunteer abroad opportunities, visit our section on skilled volunteering and this webpage by Jayne Cravens (many of the above listed programs came from this article). Also, if you know of any additional stipended international service programs that we should list here, please let us know.

Finally, if you can't find a stipended opportunity that fits your timeframe or interests and other volunteer abroad program fees are simply too high for your budget, you might consider going independently, putting you in control of how much you can or would like to spend on your housing, transportation, meals, and other costs. To learn more about going abroad on your own, click here.