Thanks for visiting the site. The origins of volunteersouthamerica.net
date from early 2005 when I was looking for free, grass-roots,
volunteer work in Argentina. I soon discovered that finding volunteer work that didn't
involve paying a middle-man/third party a large amount of cash was
much more difficult than I had expected;
the result was many happy hours
spent searching on Google, internet travel forums &
obscure Spanish-language websites for a suitable volunteer work program.
In the end, for various reasons, I didn't volunteer in 2005; but I had found a
number of interesting volunteer programs and realised that
lots of other people were in the same boat as myself - looking for genuine grass-roots volunteer work in South America. I didn't want my 40+ manhours of research to go to waste so I posted what I'd found on volunteerargentina.net,
which later became volunteersouthamerica.net.
This Volunteer FAQ consists of things I've learned since putting
the site together, useful stuff that has come up in forums and things I think
potential volunteers should know.
Important: the Scams and Warnings
section of the FAQ is a response to a number of
I have seen volunteer placements on the web that cost thousands, your website lists free placements, what's the catch?
The catch is 'support'. The big ticket volunteer companies
offer 24 Hr support, sometimes in-country support and hopefully some
fairly robust public indemnity/fly-you-home insurance cover.
This website is for travellers who are well-prepared, confident,
independent - and who don't need such support.
The knock on the big companies is that a large part of your placement fee is eaten up by
western company overheads such as
staff/advertising/administration etc; leaving just a tiny
amount (if any) for the organisation you are actually volunteering with.
I am thinking about volunteering in a few months time, what should I do now?
1) Start learning Spanish (or Portuguese for Brazil).
You will be far more effective as a volunteer with at least some basic language skills under your belt
and you will also learn (improve) more quickly once you are out there. See:
Do I need to learn Spanish?
2a) Do some prep I; Get a 'Region' Guidebook for South or Central America.
Region (multi-country) guides have good, concise information on Visas, Health,
Travel, Dangers, Maps etc.
Do some background reading. When buying a Guide Book, always check
the publication date on the inside front
or back cover, don't buy anything more than ~12 months old.
For Central America, a good region/volunteer guide is the
3) Get your Vaccinations/Jabs organised.
Your Doctor or any good Guide Book will have details, you'll need
Jabs for some of the more interesting diseases
prevalent in the region (e.g. Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A).
Be aware that not all Jabs can be administered in one
session and some are multi-part, requiring a booster shot a few weeks after
the initial dose - so get this
organised well in advance. Modern day vaccinations can last for 10 years, so even if your
fall-through this time around, you're still likely to make use of them at some point.
For more on this subject see:
4) Get some independent travel experience.
A lengthy volunteer/travel stint in SA/CA can be challenging for a
young or rookie backpacker.
Take some time out to travel independently and get used to life on the road before you head off to volunteer.
For those of you in based in Europe, a couple+ of weeks independent travel,
perhaps in Scotland or Spain (to
practise your language skills) would be a good choice to get some
backpacking miles under your belt.
5) Don't Over plan or get overly hung-up on detail.
You will need to prepare, but not everything has to be signed & sealed before you travel,
if you have language skills, a good knowledge of where you are, what you want to do, it's certainly
possible and maybe even preferable to make all your volunteer arrangements
from out on the road.
Many volunteer programs will take your application more seriously if you are already
on the ground in SA/CA.
I get my flight paid or free accommodation while I volunteer?
Unless you are a Spanish-speaking doctor who can volunteer for an extended period, you won't get your flight to South America paid for
(and even then, only one or two programs actually offer this). It is possible however for long-term volunteers to get free basic accommodation
and maybe free food while volunteering,
the programs that offer this are usually those working with children, typically they require volunteers
to have good Spanish or Portuguese language skills and commit to working with the organisation
for somewhere between 3-12 months.
If you can't commit for that length of time, you'll have to cover
your own food & board costs while you volunteer
or work at a
program that provides low-cost accommodation for its volunteers.
young, I have no money, no Spanish, I'm a rookie backpacker and I've
only 2-3 weeks to volunteer, can you recommend a program?
My advice is don't volunteer at this point in your life.
To volunteer independently you need at least 3 of the following:
Age, Money, Time, Language, Experience;
i.e. you'll need to build up sufficient cash to support yourself, learn some Español,
make time to volunteer for at least 1 month (preferably longer) and get some
independent travel experience under your belt.
It is possible to be a productive volunteer at age 18, if (and it's a
big if) you
are mature, confident and have prepared properly.
The two factors that will most affect your marketability
as a volunteer are your Spanish speaking ability and the length of
time you can volunteer. If you can push to ~3 months of
volunteering, along with a decent level of spoken Spanish, you will
have an excellent choice of available
There is a certain irony here; although this website is about
*free* volunteering, its not meant for people who have no money.
This site is for hard-working volunteers who have alot to offer and are determined to make a difference in
helping people less fortunate than themselves.
do organisations need foreign volunteers when there must be
thousands of local people in SA/CA who can help?
Many volunteer organisations do actually have local people working
with them, usually on a long-term basis.
A mix of local & foreign volunteers does work well in most
situations and I have given some reasons why organisations
actively recruit foreigners below. But first, a comparison I want to
make: In the UK, in March 2009, there were ~2 million unemployed people, yet despite those numbers, everyday a plane-load of Aussies & Kiwi's arrives in London and those guys
find work within a fortnight...
Foreigners can find volunteer work in SA/CA ahead of locals
for the same reason that Aussies/Kiwis can find jobs in a tight job market
in the UK.
Volunteers in South/Central America tend to be high calibre individuals.
When I was a volunteer coordinator (Ecuador 2007) we had students
from some of the top US & UK universities work with us, we had Medical
students, Officers in the British Army, skilled artists, team
with good jobs and good work records. We also had 'ordinary' people who were just brilliant with the kids.
Local program directors have cottoned-on
to the fact that foreign volunteers bring a lot to their organisations.
To be clear on this; I'm not saying that Brits or anyone else are
somehow better than people from SA/CA, I'm saying that the guys we
send over to SA/CA usually do a great job as volunteers.
Another reason is financial. Quite often, foreign volunteers
choose to make a cash donation when they leave a program.
There's something about
seeing the work an organisation does at first hand, and knowing that a donation will genuinely benefit someone in need. Some volunteers also stay
involved with the organisation after returning to their home country, helping with such things as website design, fundraising and publicising the work the
Do I need travel insurance with specific cover for volunteering?
Yes you do. Many independent volunteers only have standard 'backpacker' Travel Insurance - that's a mistake.
You should get cover for your actual volunteer work, particularly if you are working with animals or doing hard physical labour.
For a list of Companies that provide Travel Insurance for
volunteers, see p60 of the following book:
VOLUNTEER A travellers guide to making a difference around the
world, Pub. Lonely Planet, ISBN: 9781741790207
[July 2010 update] There is now a second edition of this book, same
9781742200859 Do I need to learn Spanish? How
important is it?
Travelling to South America with no (or minimal) Spanish is a bad idea (ditto: with Portuguese for Brazil).
You will be far more effective as a volunteer with decent Spanish.
Your volunteer program will expect you to be largely self-sufficient, which may include things like travelling
to the volunteer site in a remote part of the country, without decent language skills that will be a nightmare.
I advise all volunteers to have intermediate level conversational Spanish before getting on the plane. What that means is getting your head down for
6 months of serious (part-time) effort learning the lingo. The good news is that Spanish is
a relatively easy language to learn; there aren't many irregular
verbs, and pronunciation of the written word is straightforward. There are also plenty of free web-based teaching resources out there.
Make time to learn the language properly - it will payback in a big way.
One option to improve your language skills is to start your trip with a language course, this can be done in most SA/CA cities and it's
fairly easy to
arrange - you don't have to book this up from home; just visit a
language school when you are out there. Most schools have courses starting every Monday, they will
first test you to assess your proficiency and you'll join
an existing class of 1-6 students. I'd suggest that 2-4 weeks (of 4 hours per day) is the optimal length of time to attend a School,
it should provide a good boost for your language skills, without sending you stir crazy.
Quito in Ecuador is the city
with the most and cheapest Spanish Schools, but IMO places like Baños (Ecuador), Sucre (Bolivia),
Arequipa (Peru), Antigua (Guatemala), Bariloche or Buenos Aires (Arg) - and there are lots of others - are
more pleasant locations to spend time learning the language.
Finally on the subject of Español, when you're looking at
Spanish learning resources (podcasts, books, CDs, etc). You can think of
Spanish from Spain as being the same as Latin-American Spanish.
Surprisingly, your Spanish will also work in Brazil -just.
I'm an older volunteer - will I fit-in with a group of twenty-somethings? I know this is a real concern for older volunteers (by
'older' I mean mid-thirties +plus), but the fact that you're even
thinking about this issue
is a positive sign. It's true that most independent volunteers are in their early-to-mid 20's, but there are volunteers of other age groups
out there, including 'Seniors'.
Volunteer programs themselves will usually welcome older volunteers, you may find that you are closer in age and
experience to the program Director actually running the organisation.
The issue of 'fitting-in' to a team with an average age somewhat less than your own can present problems, however it really
does depend on the
approach/attitude of the older volunteer, i.e. you. Older volunteers usually have solid work records (i.e. prior to volunteering) and very often
they have certain 'core values' that have seen them be successful in the workplace, that's fine, but problems can arise because most 23yo
volunteers don't have those values. What that means is you'll have to compromise, perhaps significantly, to fit into the team and use the full
extent of your 'people' skills to be productive while keeping everybody else on-board.
If you are unwilling or unable to take orders from a twenty-something blonde Dutch backpacker, then be sure to select a volunteer role where you
can set your own agenda and work independently.
Any new volunteer who arrives into a team situation with a "I
wouldn't do it that way" attitude isn't going to last long, and that
particularly applies to older volunteers. Frivolous Applications.
In 2007, I spent 6 months as a Volunteer Coordinator for an
organisation in Ecuador. As a VC, a big part of the job was dealing
with applications from potential volunteers. I soon learned that a
big proportion of applications were from people who, although
well-intentioned, were never going to volunteer with us!
either treat you like a Travel Agent, or ask lots of detailed
questions (usually related to their lack of funds), then they disappear; never to be heard from again.
By all means apply to organisations you are genuinely interested in volunteering with - that's what this website is about,
but don't contact anybody until you have started your prep, can finance your travel, and have
pencilled-in your probable start/end dates. When applying, tell the
organisation what you can do for them,
show that you've checked their website and emphasise your experience, self-sufficiency and reliability.
Don't ask about Visas, living costs or local accommodation - sort all that stuff out
Another perennial problem for VC's is receipt of 'copy &
pasted' emails (i.e. sent to multiple organisations)
"Please send more information" emails. Again,
you won't be taken seriously with this kind of approach.
You may have
noticed how some organisations 'hide' their email addresses or ask
volunteers to complete long & detailed application forms - these are
all techniques used to discourage time-wasting applications. One Director of a volunteer program in Argentina has introduced a USD $100 application fee to a previously free program,
to ensure that only volunteers who are fully committed to the cause will apply.
A final point on this; if you are in contact with a volunteer
org and you decide not to work with them for whatever reason - drop
them a line to say thanks/sorry/good luck, it'll help the VC and
it's also the classy thing to do.
More Prep: Don't fly into a war
For the most part, South & Central America is safe for volunteers,
but countries in the region can be volatile and you should
ensure the area you are visiting is secure. It's easy enough to do this online; In the days/weeks leading up to your departure, check &
websites such as fco.gov.uk, bbc.co.uk & cnn.com for current information or
news stories on the countries you'll be visiting.
It's important to do this several times prior to departure, to get a feel for what the normal 'noise level' of news is from the country you'll be visiting,
and then to see how that compares to the situation just before you fly.
in South and Central America.
Contrary to what you may have seen on
Ricky Martin Pop videos, many (rural) areas in South and Central
America are quite
conservative. As a volunteer, you may be expected to adhere to an informal modest
dress code, there may also be rules on drinking alcohol, and even restrictions on your movements & behaviour in the evenings and on your days off.
This particularly applies when you are working with children, i.e. where you are expected to be a role model.
Volunteers with rock'n roll attitudes,
nose rings, tattoos, planning-permission hair etc. will go down like a lead balloon at these rural programs. So please tone it down, lose the metalwork and cover
up (especially women) if you intend working somewhere miles off the beaten track. Am I cut out to be an independent volunteer?.
There's probably more than one reason why you want to volunteer in SA/CA; to improve your Spanish, immerse yourself in another culture,
meet some new people or get out of your comfort zone.
IMO these are all valid *secondary* reasons to become a volunteer.
Your main motivation/reason should be to make a difference,
however you can, so the world can be a slightly better place
compared to when you started, and if that's not the case,
my advice is don't volunteer; go travelling, backpacking or
do something else.
You should be volunteering for positive reasons not negative ones. Volunteers whose main motivation is to save money,
extend their low-cost travel or break away from the job/rut you're in back home, are volunteering for the wrong reasons.
When the going gets tough, and it will when you volunteer, it's usually those guys that head for the exit door.
Volunteering independently isn't for everyone, you need to be confident, self-reliant and have what it takes
to fly to the other side of the world, get stuck in and make things happen.
In most cases you'll be boarding the plane without being 100% sure
of what you're letting yourself in for, 'Independent' means you won't be met at the Airport and the first test of your mettle (and Español)
will be negotiating a non-tourist price for a cab ride to your hotel - with a baying mob of taxi drivers.
You'll then need to travel to your volunteer placement - usually via the Bus station where you'll meet all manner of interesting
who'll offer to 'help you with your bags'; then a 10-hour ride on a Chicken bus... don't forget to handcuff your daypack to something solid
and if you go to sleep, don't expect to see your iPod again.
Being independent requires you to be 'switched on' for most of the time and to be aware of what you're doing, where you are, and
of potential dangers (...of places like Bus stations), if you're an 'air head'
you'll learn all this the hard way, when your stuff goes missing
[e.g. Google: tomato ketchup distraction scam ].
As a volunteer, you take responsibility for your experience
and the impact you have on the organisation you work with.
Your volunteer Job (and you should treat it as Job) will require your 100% full-on commitment
and you'll need to be punctual, hardworking, reliable,
patient, self-sufficient and a good role model. You'll also need
stick-ability (don't quit your assignment early).
OK, you'll have fun and nobody's expecting you to be
Mother Teresa, but if you haven't
shown any of the above qualities in your most recent job or in the
last 12 months at Uni/College, then have a think about whether
volunteering is the right option for you (that's a polite way of saying that it isn't).
Why volunteering can & does go wrong.
Even for the most diligent and hardworking of volunteers, your
experience could still be an absolute nightmare
through no fault of your own, why? because Volunteer_organisations_aren't_perfect.
This point bears repeating because many people have a romantic idea of what volunteering is about and what
can be achieved.
The fact is that most volunteer orgs have minimal resources
and the work is tough and challenging
- your first day in-post is unlikely to match your rose-tinted expectations...
Some volunteers will respond to the chaos of a grass-roots volunteer program by taking control and
getting things done, others will run for the hills with sob-stories of how the 'organisation' is a joke and the website bears no relation to
the reality on the ground...
As a volunteer you may well have to tough-out
some difficult situations.
You'll need to be prepared
to work under a well-meaning but disorganised Director;
to follow instructions even if you don't fully agree with them;
to control your frustration when progress is agonisingly slow and to work-well as a team, with fellow volunteers - some of whom will be annoying.
You'll also need a general 'no freak-out' attitude when things go wrong;
which they will.
All this plus cold showers, bugs, altitude, language difficulties, irritating & petulant kids, etc. etc.
I hope you're getting the picture that your volunteer stint isn't going to be a walk in the park.
Scams and Warnings FAQ
Do you check-out, verify or
visit the volunteer programs listed on volunteersouthamerica.net?
No I don't; verifying the listed organisations is your
I do give my opinion about certain volunteer programs (visible when
you hover the cursor over the web address) which is based on
feedback received and/or my general 'gut feel' about the
organisation, and I also keep my ear to the ground and remove a
handful of programs per year
because of complaints received or if I believe that standards have
What I'm saying here is that the programs listed on this website are passively, not actively verified.
The purpose of the site is to show you what's out there in terms of free and low-cost volunteer programs.
Verifying the organisation(s)
and more importantly, checking your selected organisation is right for you is
something you'll need to do for yourself.
How should I verify that a given volunteer program is legitimate?
The best way to find out about the work a volunteer program does is to contact one or more ex-volunteers and learn about their experience with the
organisation. A good starting point is to search for volunteer Blogs online, or search/ask on internet travel forums for information about the
Lonely Planet Thorntree forum is probably your best bet for this
(see also the forums at: bootsnall.com,
travellerspoint.com, tripadvisor.com plus Facebook groups).
Failing that, ask the program itself if they can give you the contact details of any former volunteers.
When you do get in touch with a former vol, be sure to ask what
and worst points about working with the organisation were.
I would suggest that there is a greater need to 'verify' volunteer programs where you pay a Fee
(i.e. those in the Low-Cost section of this website) compared to the
Free to participate programs.
If an organisation is going to rip-off its gringo volunteers, charging high volunteer Fees is the most effective way to do it.
If a volunteer program is free or charges very low-level
fees, it's a pretty good bet that they genuinely need you for your
work - there
is no financial incentive for the organisation to have you there -
and for volunteers who want to make a difference, that's pretty
important. And if there is any skullduggery taking place at a free
volunteer program, you can simply pack your bags and walk away.
Why paying to volunteer Fees =equals= A can of worms.
Volunteering works best when no money changes hands between the volunteer and the Volunteer Program,
I much prefer the set-up where volunteers organise and pay for their own food & board, whilst volunteering for free,
comparison to paying the volunteer organisation a 'Fee' (which is nominally for food/accommodation).
Some volunteer organisations operate in remote areas, and volunteers *have* to live-in, that's
however be aware that when you pay the organisation you are working for, it creates a
conflict of interest;
Do they really need your volunteer help? or are you just a cash-cow to pay the bills (or worse, to line the owners/directors pocket).
The reality is that *some* fee charging 'volunteer projects' are simply money-making businesses in disguise.
I believe that all the Fee charging volunteer programs listed
here (i.e. those in the Low-Cost section) are legit,
however where the Fees are high, say > USD $350 per month (i.e. an
amount that more than covers your basic food and
you are within your rights to ask how the 'extra' money is being used. If the cash is used to cover genuine volunteer costs,
to buy supplies for the organisation and keep the program running, then fine.
However if the program director is driving around in a gold-plated Mercedes and has no other visible means of support, then be suspicious ;-)
To be serious though, this is more a question of degree... because many grass-roots volunteer programs are run by an individual (or family) who
may have given part of their land/house over for use by the volunteer program, most people would agree that they are entitled to receive
some compensation for that, however it should be proportionate;
nobody should be living a nice, middle-class lifestyle, driving a
funded by you wanting to help street kids in Peru.
Finally on this; If you are going to volunteer in a program that requires Fees, you should always sign-up
(i.e. pay) for the
*absolute* minimum period, then extend your stay when you are out there.
This also applies if you choose to take a room at the 'volunteer house', which is an optional extra with some volunteer programs.
Take the room for the minimum period only, you'll likely find better, cheaper accommodation elsewhere.
I have received a number complaints from volunteers who paid a few months of Fees up-front and then were disappointed (to say the least) with the
accommodation/volunteer work. Don't be too trusting; don't make that mistake yourself.
How do you tell a legitimate
volunteer program from a 'business in disguise'?
At face value (i.e. from your home country) there is no way to be 100% sure about any given volunteer program,
here are some guidelines to help you read between the lines,
when viewing a volunteer program's website:
In general, good/worthwhile volunteer programs do the following...
o They either don't charge participation fees at all, or perhaps charge a
single, one-off 'application' fee
regardless of how long you volunteer with them.
(I like one-off application fees as a means of discouraging
o Any fees charged are reduced after the first month, second month, etc. to encourage long-term volunteers.
o They demand high standards from their volunteers, e.g. insisting that vols have good Spanish,
asking for a
long-term commitment (of months) and say what they expect of you.
o They require that volunteers have relevant Degrees or specific practical trades or skills.
o They have a 'difficult' application process (again to weed-out
o They ask you to work long, hard days.
o They warn you of the difficulties (the downside) of volunteering with them,
whether it be physically,
emotionally, or practically (e.g. Bugs, Altitude, lack of Western comforts).
o They have their Directors/VCs names, pictures, phone numbers on the website - i.e. they're accountable.
o Their websites have personal stories/ a personal touch.
o They have a wish-list of specific items they ask volunteers to bring/purchase, as opposed to vaguely asking
for cash donations.
o They don't pressure you to take their in-house Spanish lessons, or accommodation.
If a volunteer program does some or all of the following, you need
to check out the organisation carefully:
o They charge monthly fees for participation,
with little/no reduction for long-term volunteers.
o The Fees are high > $350 per month.
o They charge big fees but are unable to demonstrate that the money is
used to benefit/fund the project.
o They ask for their money/fees in advance.
o They have a professional, slick-looking website.
o There is no Spanish requirement, they will accept short-term volunteers (1-2 weeks).
o They are more interested in your ability to pay than your
suitability as a volunteer.
o They have a sell-sell-sell attitude, Accommodation, Spanish lessons,
Guided sightseeing tours etc.
o They are anonymous, no names on the website, the site
Animal Rescue & Rehabilitation Centres
(ARRCs) - Are you being conned?
I believe that the Animal Rescue/Rehab Centres (ARRCs) listed on
this website page are legit (if you disagree let me know), but if you are planning to volunteer at an ARRC, go in with your eyes
open; consider the following (my opinion);
o For some ARRCs the temptation to rip-off their volunteers is hard to resist.
o Working in some ARRC's may be counter-productive if they
maintain a 'stock' of animals to attract volunteers.
There is a view some in western fund-raising circles that *all* South American ARRC's
First, here's how an ARRC should work:
Take one local (wo)man or family, who has a genuine concern for the local fauna, include some land
probably owned by the man/family; build some infrastructure, animal enclosures etc, and there you have your ARRC(!)
Over time, Police recover smuggled animals, mistreated circus/performing animals, illegally held pets etc. and they send them to the ARRC.
The ARRC rehabilitates and releases animals into the wild where possible, and where an animal cannot be released
(i.e in situations where it won't survive) the ARRC provides them a peaceful and contented existence in a spacious enclosure.
International Volunteers work in the ARRC and in some cases run the entire ARRC.
Volunteer fees fund the maintenance/building of infrastructure and pay the bills: food, materials, Vets fees, etc.
This (above) is plan-A; its win-win-win; Volunteers love working with the animals, volunteer Fees fund the
animals are released into the wild whenever possible.
Here's how things *can* go wrong with the above scenario (and what you should be aware of when checking-out an ARRC):
1) ARRC Owners get greedy and 'skim' a large percentage of volunteer Fees for their own uses.
It's very tempting for unscrupulous owners to lower standards of animal care, use cheaper food-stuffs,
reduce maintenance and cut-corners in order to save cash; and then spirit-away surplus funds under the noses of
volunteers. Established ARRC Owners usually find that they can increase their volunteer fees by pretty much
anything, volunteers love animals and will still keep coming.
In an ARRC with a full complement of paying volunteers, you should be seeing progress (i.e. new infrastructure/
repairs/improvements/Rehabilitations) on a monthly or even
weekly basis. If the centre appears to be spinning its
wheels with no real development taking place, you are entitled to ask, why?
Just one more thought on this, by way of balance...
The care of Animals and the financial viability of the organisation are (or should be) joint priorities for any ARRC.
In the real world this is complex because there is a balance to be struck between controlling costs and maintaining
standards of animal care.
All organisations that work with animals have budgets/financial constraints of one kind or another and expenditure must
so don't necessarily assume that dark forces are at work when an ARRC owner talks about cheaper ways of
The question is; what are the ARRC's priorities? is (properly funded) animal welfare a genuine priority for the ARRC?
or does the
Owner take his cut of the volunteer Fees first,
then plead poverty when it's time to spend some cash on
the Centre and/or rehabilitating his animals?
2) Big Cats (or other volunteer-friendly animals) as bait.
Volunteers *love* working with big Cats: Jaguars, Pumas, Lions, etc.
Any ARRC that can offer work with Cats will have volunteers queuing out the door;
The problem here is that there is a temptation for an ARRC to maintain a 'stock' of Big Cats to attract volunteers.
This is where your volunteer presence may even be counter-productive, if the ARRC 'obtains' its Cats through
illegal/black market trades, or worse,
allows in-house breeding to produce cute Lion Cubs destined for a life in
captivity, then by volunteering, you are making the plight of those
animals worse, not better.
You'd have helped more by staying at home.
3) R is for Rehabilitation.
The second 'R' in ARRC stands for Rehabilitation: Preparing and
releasing animals back into the wild.
It's probably the reason you wanted to
volunteer with Animals in the first place.
Rehabilitation is complex, requiring both expertise & resources.
If a given ARRC seems reluctant to
rehabilitate, ask why?
Good ARRC's will rehabilitate whenever possible (its the reason they exist) the rip-off
guys keep their costs down by operating more like a Zoo,
they'll find excuses not to rehabilitate, or worse
they'll tell you they are sending certain animals away "for rehabilitation",
but they'll end up in another
so-called ARRC a few miles up the road. It's happened.
An ARRC will (or should) treat animals differently according
to whether or not they can be released back into the wild. Animals
than can be rehabilitated must have *minimal human contact*
during the rehab process, so if an ARRC doesn't allow you to
directly interact with the animals, that is usually a good sign. By
the same token, be suspicious of ARRC's that show pictures of
volunteers bottle-feeding gorgeous Puma Cubs or otherwise
holding/stroking animals. It may be that the animal in question is a
'tame' former pet and in the circumstances the ARRC is doing all it
can, but if the ARRC is selling itself as a place where you can
interact animals, especially big cats, check it out thoroughly
before offering to volunteer. Again, I want to stress that to the
best of my knowledge, the ARRCs listed on the main page of this
website are legitimate.
Scams and Warnings - A Summary
There are more questions than answers in this section of the
FAQ, but I hope I've given you some insight as to how best to
evaluate a volunteer program
and an idea of what questions to ask and what to look for.
Evaluating a South American organisation from your home country can
never be a 100% exact science,
but that's not a reason to skip your research; Paying volunteer fees upfront based solely on
what someone has written on an organisation's website is a bad idea, you should spend
some quality time checking on your chosen volunteer program.
Take notice of the advice given earlier about signing up
(paying fees) for the minimum period initially, then extending your
stay as required - after your first 2 weeks in post, you'll know a
lot more than you do now,
and you may well see things differently.
Finally, if you believe that a volunteer program listed on this
website is rotten - please get in touch.
FAQ For Volunteer Organisations
How do I get my volunteer organisation listed on volunteersouthamerica.net?
Drop me an email with a few lines about your organisation and why it should be included.
If your organisation charges no (or minimal) fees to
volunteers you will be listed, no problem. I won't list organisations that are overpriced, too commercial or where the volunteer
information/requirements/details specified on your website are too vague (see the next question).
volunteer information do I need to have on my website for my organisation to
I like websites that are concise & easy to navigate, be aware that potential volunteers have probably seen around 20-50 other websites before
getting to yours, so make the volunteer information easy to find
(e.g. on a single page directly accessible/linked from your main
page). Include all or most of the following information - ignore any points that don't apply to your organisation:
1) Provide a brief overview & description of the program/organisation the volunteer will be working for:
What do they do, how big/small they are; it's ok if there is no "organisation" as such.
Why is the
Organisation's work important? Include where the program is located and the name of the nearest big town.
2) About the Volunteer Program:
Explain what the volunteer will be doing.
What is expected in terms of (working) hours per day, days per week
etc - if it's flexible then say so.
Does the volunteer have to pay fees to cover food or admin costs etc?
Accommodation arrangements; do volunteers pay for/organise their own accommodation?
Can the Organisation assist the volunteer (e.g. with contacts) in finding low-cost accommodation, what will
the ballpark cost be?
4) Volunteer Requirements:
What level of Spanish or Portuguese does the volunteer need to have?
What is the minimum period you will accept volunteers for?
Are there age limitations? Can *anyone* volunteer?
What skills are needed e.g. Teachers, Medical, Trades etc.
5) Other information - what is life like for the volunteer?
Pros: e.g. grass-roots, non-commercial, beautiful location, hot springs, jungle.
Cons: e.g. remote location, no internet, miles from town, no hot water, bugs, altitude, temperature.
6) Contact Details/ How to apply:
Contact names, email, location address etc. (include what
language to communicate in)
Explain what the application process is, e.g. can travellers already on the road in South America apply?
My organisation needs volunteers but doesn't have a website, can you help?
If you represent an organisation that accepts overseas volunteers but doesn't have a website, we can create and host a basic web page
for you within volunteersouthamerica.net, where you can publicise your organisation and create a reference point for potential
volunteers. See the
as an example of an internally hosted program, this service is provided free of charge and takes about 7 days to set-up.
I'm starting my own volunteer project
in SA (or bringing volunteers to an existing project for the first time) will you support this?
I am generally happy to support newly-established 'gringo-led'
volunteer organisations. I've listed a small number of such
start-ups; some have grown and become established, others have failed.
Here are some of the pitfalls
in creating a new volunteer project in SA/CA:
It is not enough for a well-meaning backpacker to create a
nice website for a project and then walk away, that won't work.
Volunteer programs need a dedicated, long-term Volunteer Coordinator to respond to volunteer requests and liaise directly with the project.
This person doesn't have to be physically located at the project itself, the role could be undertaken by anyone with regular and reliable
access to the internet. The VC role can be a daily grind, so it's usually best if one of the project's founders takes the job. That means you.
Community buy-in: Are the majority of the local community fully behind the new
project? Or are they just saying the right things when the
gringos are around? A volunteer project is nothing without genuine
local support from the community. Actions (from the community) speak
louder than words. If your main support comes from a couple of
English speaking students who are hoping to study in the US in a few
months time - then forget the whole idea.
How will the project income/benefits be distributed within
the community? Volunteer projects work best when no money changes
hands between the volunteer and the project itself (other than maybe
a donation when the volunteer leaves the project). If your project
does charge fees to the volunteer (e.g. to cover accommodation costs
in a remote area) then what are the ground rules for who gets the
cash and how it's spent? You may also get dragged into politics
here, e.g. if one family always hosts the volunteers this can
be divisive and undermine the project. Make sure the benefits of utilising
volunteers are spread evenly around as many community members as possible.
Finally: Long-term commitment. It will take between 1-2 years
for any project to become established, and 3-4 years to become
self-sustaining. If you aren't thinking in terms of those
timescales or can't commit yourself long term, then you are wasting everyone's time.
Don't start the project if you can't see it through.
I am creating/updating a new website for a project, I need
more traffic/hits, any rookie webmaster advice?
Make the website informative yet concise, such that visitors can 'fast-track' to the volunteer information page to get an overview of
the organisation and the volunteer work on offer.
Be especially clear on what the fees are, if your program doesn't charge fees then say so - in big letters.
You'll need to direct (Google) search engine traffic into your website; that means optimising the site for specific chosen
key words: The best words to optimise on are: "volunteer + place-name" as it's very common for volunteers to search on this
type of phrase:
e.g. volunteer Peru or volunteer Buenos Aires, etc.
Your chosen keywords need to appear in 4 places; in the URL (web address), in the HTML page title, in the HTML page description & keywords,
and in visible text on the page the visitor actually sees.
e.g. to optimise a volunteer website for the (fictitious) 'SmithSon School' in Banos (Banos in Ecuador)
I would choose a URL (website name) of: www.volunteerbanos.org/net/com/info or volunteerecuador.org/net/com/info
and have the following HTML settings:
HTML Page title : <title>Free Volunteer work
opportunities at the Smithson School in Banos, Ecuador.</title>
HTML Page Description:
<meta name="description" content="Free independent volunteer work opportunities at the SmithSon School in Banos, Ecuador">
HTML Page keywords : <meta name="keywords" content="Volunteer
Ecuador, Free Volunteering, SmithSon, School, Volunteer Banos ">
Plus the following visible text on the main page of the
"Volunteer at the SmithSon School in Banos, Ecuador".
Get some inbound links and spread the word about your organisation. Contact all the relevant organisations listed in the
'Volunteer work resources' section of this website, and register with those organisations or ask them to link to your
website, most webmasters will ask for a reciprocal link - be ready
to set this up promptly.
Finally: think about the longer-term maintenance of your
site, i.e. who will look after the site when you move on?
Make the website simple and easy to maintain, does it really need to
be in 2/3/4 languages? Free, basic websites can be created using
webs.com, weebly.com, blogspot.com and others. For something
advanced (and better) try using drupal, joomla, or similar web
authoring or CMS (Content Management System) tools that require minimal technical know-how to
update/maintain website content.
Don't forget to give the Director the access codes/passwords and the
ability to make changes to the site when you move on. I have seen
*several* instances where a helpful volunteer has created a nice
'hosted' or paid website for an organisation, then 2 years on, when
the web hosting/URL fees are due - which means the site goes offline
- the volunteer has long gone and only he has the passwords/know-how
renew the hosting.
About this Website
This website isn't just about volunteering, its about
supporting people/organisations who have nothing;
it was created out of a belief that a potential
volunteer should be able to find a real, grass-roots
organisation online easily, and go out and help; without
middle-men, without paying fees. It's that simple.
There is however a widely held view that you have to pay
to volunteer in SA, and it's easy to arrive at that conclusion;
Internet Search engines are dominated by the 'big ticket' commercial
volunteer placement websites;
while I don't have any
issues with the
big boys per se, there is a problem; The fierce competition between these well-funded, professional
volunteer 'agencies', coupled with the fact that Google
can't distinguish grass-roots volunteer websites
(the required search key-words are
too weak) has resulted in a
corporate brickwall, which makes grass-roots volunteer opportunities
very difficult to find online.
Volunteersouthamerica.net is my attempt to solve that problem; A
hand-edited list of the real/free volunteer placements in the region
combined with a basic filtering system - I hope you find it a useful resource.
This site is just a load of web-links.
I don't get it..?
This site does 2 things:
1) Filtration:- If you search for volunteer opportunities online, you'll get 250,000+ mostly commercial (website) hits
on Google, that is a lot of links to check through.
This website filters the results down to the top ~100, real, non-commercial, volunteer programs and delivers this data
to you in what I hope is an easily digestible form.
2) Support of grass-root volunteer Orgs:-
This site links directly to the volunteer organisation's web-address, sending traffic (i.e. potential volunteers) straight to the organisation's home page.
A direct web link also boosts the organisation's Search Engine ranking (i.e. the site will appear higher in Google search results).
All that sounds obvious, but for most commercial volunteer websites, it's not in their interests to do this (support);
they won't disclose the local organisations they partner with, and certainly won't (web)link to them, they keep that
information secret until you sign-up as a customer. Why? Because if they did (disclose), you'd be able to just rock-up
and volunteer direct with the local organisation, without paying their middle-man fees.
I understand the need for commercial confidentially/secrecy in business, and in general I don't have too big a problem
with the commercial guys. But this policy of non-disclosure doesn't help grass-roots volunteer organisations get their
message out - it holds them back.
The sad fact is that many small independent volunteer orgs are squeezed-out by commercial operators, who are
better-marketed and more prominent on Google - the grass-roots guys are weak because the commercial guys are strong.
This site levels the playing field by giving the smaller, lesser-known volunteer orgs - that do such great work - the
oxygen of publicity, telling the world about them, with no faff and without charging a penny.
Will you partner with my Organisation? Help me with my Dissertation; Be interviewed for my Press article? etc.
For general questions such as these;
If your request means I have to spend time online, plugged into a PC, then sorry, but No.
However, if the request involves
buying a round at a local pub, chatting about
travel, volunteering, South America or
whatever... Tell me where & when and I'll give it due consideration ;-).
Can I take/borrow your volunteer
listings and re-post them on my own website?
Yes you can, but on condition that you link back to volunteersouthamerica.net with a few words to acknowledge where the
information came from. When using data from this website, please
support the end-program by linking direct (hyper-link) to the
home page of the volunteer program, from your own website.
Around 15 other websites have used my listings since the site
launched, some have asked me first which I appreciate.
Other websites generally assume that the volunteer listings here
are static, however this site is updated regularly;
consequently there are numerous outdated versions of this website
posted all over the internet.
Can I change the 'hover-text'
that appears when I mouseover my volunteer program's listing?
Yes you can. Just send the updated text to the email address at the
bottom of this page. When writing your speil use the same format and
style as used on the other listings. If you're not sure what to
include, give me an outline of what you want to say and I'll do the
Can I help you with the website?
It's great to receive offers of help for volunteersouthamerica.net,
however for the general day-to-day running of the site, I think that
it works best as a one-man operation. Having said that, lots of
people have supported the site in various ways since it launched in
2005; Some of them are listed as 'Contributors' on the main page; a
number of established Webmasters also gave advice & supported the
site in the early days - Let me take this opportunity to say a big
thanks to everyone who helped.
One way you can support this website is to send me some feedback
from the volunteer organisation(s) you have been involved with (See:
Help me update below) you can also promote any of the
organisations listed here simply by linking to their website
(and maybe linking to volunteersouthamerica.net as well :-) e.g.
from your Blog, Facebook or web page. By creating a
click-able link to a program, you are effectively 'voting' for that
website and raising its profile within Google; given the problems
that grass-roots volunteer programs have being found online
this is the kind of support these organisations desperately need.
Western Sahara 2011
Help me update.
If you've had a good, bad or indifferent experience with any of the
volunteer programs listed here, I'd love to hear from you. You can
write a full 'trip-report' for publication, or just a couple of
lines as an update; it's entirely up to you.
Ditto if you find any mistakes, dead links or (especially) if a
volunteer program fails to respond to your emails.
Thanks in advance for your feedback.