How goes the travelling volunteer?

by Paul Goodchild on April 16, 2010

Word count: ~2000;  approx. reading time: 15 minutes.

A source of inspiration

It’s been over a week since the 2nd wedding ended, of 2, that I was to attend along the way in my travels.  Much of the time since then has been spent with friends of the wedding and the wedding couple themselves.  Otherwise, I have spent my time relaxing and recuperating, since the last month has been on-the-go partying, eating, and travelling with little or no time for much else.  In the past 2 weeks I’ve completed 3 books and I’ve started a 4th which forms part of the basis of this post.

So how has the volunteer with travelling concoction gone so far?  Well I’ll tell you… not quite as expected.


There is no doubt in my mind that the number one disappointment(s) in our lives is failure to meet/fulfill expectations – either those of ourselves, or those of others.  Even when we’re trying to manage our own, and we think we have them sufficiently lowered, often our expectations get a little bit mixed up in the ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ part of our brain and we get a little frustrated and upset along the way.

Armed with this understanding, I approached the whole thing with an open mind and ready acceptance of anything that will happen.  It’s an illusion we create for ourselves when we say that we are ready for, and/or expect, the worst.  If we expect the worst, which if we’ve defined it properly and in such a way that it’s crap(!), you’re not going to go ahead with it.  You might be ready to accept the so-called worst and deal with it, but there’s no point in “expecting the worst”.  Better to stay at home with a good book.

So I wasn’t expecting the worst, just deluding myself into the thinking that if the worst happened, I’d be able to handle it.  What I hadn’t done was try to work out beforehand how to handle it if it does indeed go pear-shaped.

Let me be more specific…

First off, the “worst” hasn’t happened yet.  That’s a long way off, but one of the things I had not wanted to happen was a complete inability to find volunteer work at no cost – $free.  I don’t even mean those that don’t provide board and accommodation, I simply mean the inability to find work with an organisation that doesn’t want to charge you for privilege.  Absurd you might think?  I thought so too.  I guessed, hoped, fervently prayed, made sacrificial goat offerings, in the hope that I would be able to easily find places with whom I can work/assist wherever I “land”.  Surely, in these lands of not-so-plenty there would be organisations crying out for an extra pair of hands, especially one that might be able to offer them professional IT support for $free.

For example, while in Bali (at the time of writing) I contacted 5+ separate outfits, most of which didn’t reply, one that got back the same day with a positive response (in whose offices I am now typing), and one that (S.O.S.) actually replied saying:

“I am afraid that we do not currently have any volunteer opportunities available, but we very much appreciate your interest in our organisation. We advertise volunteering opportunities through our website and eNewsletter, which you can sign up for on the front page of our website.”

All very polite and professional, but it still amazes me that an NGO/charity organisation will turn down a free pair of hands, and that they “advertise” opportunities in sources that you can only reach once you sign up for a newsletter.

‘So what?’, you might say, “Sign up for the newsletter and stop whining about it.”.  Well it’s not the newsletter that is the problem, it’s the general difficulty and number of barriers that stand in the way of someone who is young, healthy, and experienced, in offering their time and knowledge to assist an organisation working for a good cause.

The missing link

So what exactly am I missing?  Well if you haven’t taken a close look around you lately, this is 2010 and we’re in the throws of a capitalist society/economy – a world that is ultimately ruled by the international corporate wealthy class.  The big companies, and their hotshots dictate domestic and foreign policy, and generally find every which way to squeeze your money from you.  It’s par for the course at this stage, and when you’re working and living within the system, it seems perfectly normal for you to do a quick Google search and come up with nothing but paid voluntourist holidays.  ‘Please, go help the orangutans for 2 weeks of your yearly vacation, but we’d like to take a few thousand dollars from you for the privilege.’  Don’t you just love that all-over-warm-and-fuzzy feeling you get when you do good things and help monkeys?  You’re donating money, and your time.  High five!  Go team!

Okay, I’m starting to sound like a raving volunteer fanatic.  I haven’t actually lost the plot yet (but I’m working on it!).  What’s the missing link?  Capitalism.  Money talks and when something becomes popular, like say, volunteering in your spare (vacation/holiday) time, why not make a bit of cash of the new consumers and act as an agent to help them.  See, in principle I have absolutely nothing against that idea, and might even do the same at some point.  The problem lies in degree.  At what cost do you provide these services, and how much do you “give back” to the organisations you’re supporting through this agent-type venture.  That’s a nebulous question, and I don’t have any answers, and certainly nothing specific for the big “voluntour” operators out there.

Am I’m a little cynical? Perhaps.  But a little cynicism is healthy in appropriate doses, and assists in defence against absurdity.

Cue: Inspiration

I just began reading Three Cups of Tea upon strenuous recommendation from a friend.  It took me long enough to get my hands on the book and now that I have, I’m glad it took so long and I’m glad it arrived at this point in time.  Why?  Because I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated at the inability to find volunteer work in Bali.  One organisation held promise, and I emailed, then a few days later followed-up with a call to them and was assured someone would either get back to my email or call me.  Nothing happened.

I talked with many Balinese about what I wanted and usually the first 5~10 minutes were spent explaining the ‘volunteer’ concept: me work, but no get money.  A great many confused faces I have seen when I broke it down like that, but that’s usually the point when they understood most clearly what I was looking for.

After much searching, I still wasn’t getting anywhere until a friend emailed me this link. Oooh nice, I thought.  So off I went in search and after contacting another few that I thought were appropriate, only 1 replied to me (same day) and that was 2 days ago.  I’m now in their offices writing up this article.

But this didn’t help the feeling of foreboding that was growing.  How would I find opportunities everywhere else I went to?  I had also started some preliminary research for the Philippines (which I guessed might be my next destination), but it also proved elusive.

Back to the story… I was reading the book this morning and had just finished chapter 3 and I taken completely by surprise at how suddenly emotional I had become.  Tears were streaming down my face.  And I wasn’t in a dimly lit corner of my room, but in full view in a very busy and popular cafe.  Er…WTF?  So what was going on?  The chapter ended with this:

“I will build you a school,” Mortenson said. “I promise.”

Now granted, that alone seems very benign and I’m sure you also weren’t moved to tears, but it was the few pages that preceded this, over-viewing briefly the basic struggle with education that children from this particular village (and many more) were having.  And?  Well, here I was, sitting in a cafe in Bali, unable to find anywhere I could volunteer with that remotely fits my model, drinking a (admittedly delicious and it was my 2nd) latte because I had little-else better to be doing.  I knew there were causes out there for which I could be working if only I could get connected to/with them somehow.  I didn’t quit my job to drink lattes in cafes in Bali.  I did it to travel and work… to give my time and money to causes that are far bigger than I am.  The frustration was just getting a bit too much it seemed and this book was highlighting to me what I wasn’t doing.

The power of focus

Here is a man, Greg Mortenson, who builds schools in the mountains in Pakistan (well I assume this is what he’s done as I haven’t read past Chapter 3, but this book isn’t a suspense-thriller novel) and I can’t find basic work for nothing.  Sod that!  So I left with the resolve to do some more research and approach it slightly differently to how I have been.  This afternoon I have found perhaps 7 or 8 sizeable websites, some very promising indeed that will likely assist me in locating work where I go.  Or perhaps more specifically, the places that I go will be dictated more by the work that I find.  And that’s one of the big paradigm-shifts, if you’ll excuse this over-worked term, of today.  Rather than go specifically where I would like to go, instead get the work first and then follow it.  Pretty basic you might think, but not really.  Adaptation is closer.

Also, rather than search endlessly for sites belonging to organisations, search for people who do the same as me – search for volunteers, find communities of people who do this already since I doubt I’m exactly trailblazing.  If such communities don’t already exist, or aren’t mature to be of much use, create my own.  And that was one of the pennies that dropped this morning… if the solution to my problem doesn’t exist in the form of existing communities, create my own!  My idea is to create a forum where people like myself, who are travelling and in need of this information can come together to share their experience and knowledge of projects and organisations that require and provide for the “entry-level” volunteer.  By entry level I mean simply those volunteers who think it’s abnormal to have to pay exorbitant fees to an agent for the privilege.  Don’t misunderstand, I have no problem paying my way – accommodation/board and some administrative fees – while volunteering (though I would prefer not to obviously),  but silly agent-fees are not an option.

Reading that book today gave me the focus that I needed to get stuff done.  I was beginning to lose faith in the system and the ideas upon which I had begun this journey in the first place.  If a man can build a school, I can at least find work and maybe even provide the public tools for others to do the same.  Time will tell…

Please feel free to add your comments, and even better, share this post with other people you know using the links provided below. You may also find related and similar posts in the ‘Related Posts’ section, also found below. Thank you!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave April 16, 2010 at 14:09

Wheeeey, I feckin like this article! It’s a good insight that I’ve wanted to hear!


Paul Goodchild April 17, 2010 at 08:03

Glad you like. It’s a lot of work finding work =)


Bunny May 1, 2010 at 20:46

hi wollie… come to china… lots of volunteering opportunities it’s crowding us out… plus u can live with me so it’s “free” accomodation 🙂
but i understand the frustrations, perhaps it’s easier if you are “introduced” into the volunteering network locally? i met one person who knew everyone in beijing about the charity work, and bingo, suddenly my offer to work for free with the limited skills i have was in high demand!!! but perhaps it’s china, all about the connections 🙂
miss u


smatsu June 10, 2010 at 22:31

Paulie, this is a fantastic book. I highly recommend it! And I think the chapter about how Greg acknowledges the pressures of NPO work in a country without infrastructure is rightly said then overcome to a degree, is inspiring. I think people need to understand that it’s usually a case of what people need vs. what we (Westerners) think they need. Altruism in the West is an important thing, don’t get me wrong, but what we can achieve in our short(er) terms according to what is needed in other people’s terms needs to be acknowledged. And I’m not downplaying your role or others at all.

I think charities’ biggest mistake and misfortune is not using willing and able volunteers to their fullest ability, and therefore not hiring a volunteer coordinator. ! I think you and so many talented people have a lot to give, yet charities don’t yet know how to make use of your fantastic abilities and resources. The #1 key missing resource is HR I think.

As for books, I also highly recommend “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, about why democracy, free thinking and women’s rights are so important in any society, and have such a dramatic affect on a countries’ outcome.

Looking forward to your future posts!


Paul Goodchild June 11, 2010 at 16:37

Hey Smatsu! 😉

Thank you for the feedback – you’re absolutely right, probably the biggest hurdle to any NGO is human resource management, both in terms of volunteers and otherwise. They seem to be terrible at it. Part of my thinking of helping going forward is putting in an online tool/resource to help volunteers find “free” opportunities, and more importantly once it is mature, facilitate matching between volunteers and NGOs. It’s just a thought for now, but more on that as it develops 🙂

Glad you like the post, and happy to know you’re following along! =)


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