There are immense benefits of volunteering. You get to experience the country in ways that are pretty much impossible for tourists. You get valuable experience and sometimes training in the area you are interested in. You give back to the community. You get an exciting break from your main career or studies. BUT, if you do a quick google search for “volunteering opportunities in South Africa” or any other warm country with spectacular nature, you’ll quickly realize that you can’t really afford it.
How can donating your time, skills and travelling costs not be enough? Why should one pay thousands of dollars to come and work in often quite challenging conditions away from home? The only answer I have is that demand creates it’s own supply. It can at times be challenging to arrange your own accommodation, transportation and itinerary, so people prefer to just pay the fee and have it all taken care of. The fees that a lot of non-profits have are often much higher than what you’ll spend if you’ll arrange your own accommodation and rent a car/use public transportation. High costs of volunteer programs are usually motivated by the lack of funds and your money will most likely be used for the project in one way or another, so if you have the money, it might be worth it to spare yourself a headache of arranging your travels.
There are many reasons and situations when one can’t and shouldn’t really pay for a volunteering programme though. If you are just a student or a fresh graduate, in the middle of career change or just for whatever reason would really like to keep your costs low, I have good news for you. There are plenty of non-profits out there that will be happy to have you with no additional costs. They will often help you with travel advice, accommodation and sometimes even food in return for your time and skills.
Here are the three steps you need to take to make your free(or at least cheap) volunteering adventure happen:
1. Decide what it is you want to do.
Do you want to work with animals? Do you want to try yourself as a nature guide? Are you interested in nature conservation and ecology? Perhaps you are a native English speaker or would like to teach computer skills or be a sport instructor. Or maybe you are considering a career in social services and would like to get experience in an organisation supporting human rights or working against domestic violence.
2. Decide where you want to go.
Narrow down you geo-search as much as possible and keep in mind the practicalities. Will you handle staying for a few months in a Nature Reserve in the middle of nowhere or living in a rural community far away from a big city? Plan what you want to do and experience when you are not involved with your volunteering project.
3. Search for small and medium sized NGOs…
in the picked area and field and go crazy sending your resume and cover letter to them or looking for an official volunteering programme form. If you are motivated and have necessary skills and qualifications, the NGO will be happy to have you. If there is no information on the organization’s website regarding volunteering/internship opportunities, don’t be put off and contact them anyway. Non-profits are always under-staffed and screaming for people. They might not have time and resources to put together a full blown volunteering programme, but if you are self-reliant and motivated, you’ll be more than welcome to join in and help out.
Here is a list of organizations in South Africa, mostly in the Cape Town area that I put together when I was looking for opportunities to get more teaching experience and/or get some exposure to field biology and nature conservation. All of these NGOs provide free (or almost free) volunteering opportunities. The minimum stay is usually 6-8 weeks.
Nature conservation and ecology.
1. At SANCCOB you get to become a sea bird rehabilitator for a minimum of 6 weeks, you do have to pay a donation of $140, but you get pretty valuable training for it as well. Besides, penguins are just too cute.
2. Greenpop plants trees all around Cape Town and in Zambia. They offer a variety of skill-based volunteering roles that can help to kick-start your career in the environmental industry.
3. Conservation at work educates farmers and private land owners on conservation issues and sustainability in the Western Cape. Contact the manager directly to find out about the current volunteer opportunities.
4. The Cape Leopard Trust has many interesting projects in the Western Cape, including of course leopard conservation, black eagle research and environmental education. They don’t have any official volunteering program, but with some relevant skills and a lot of motivation you can totally come on board and experience some of the greatest Nature South Africa has to offer.
5. Cape Town Environmental Education Trust(CTEET) is the organisation I’m involved with right now during my stay in South Africa. Their main focus is on youth development through exposure to nature and environmental education, but there are possibilities to participate in sea bird and plant conservation as well. I will definitely be telling you more about them too.
6. River Lodge backpackers seem to have a really nice thing going with different volunteering opportunities ranging from conservation projects and farm stays, to working in the travel industry and social development. It didn’t really work out for me, but it does not hurt to try for you though. I suggest arranging things with them in advance though, because the staff seems to be really busy.
7. Wilderness foundation is supporting several projects within nature conservation, education, social development in Southern Africa. I haven’t contacted them myself, but they seem to be doing a lot of exciting and useful things in Southern Africa.
There are of course many other possibilities in nature conservation, that are often not as easy to find, but the general strategy is to explore different nature parks and conservation projects in the area you are interested in and find an associated non-profit and establish a connection with them. Check out other nature reserves in the Cape Town area here for example. A good strategy is to also check private game lodges and contact them for a combination of work/volunteering opportunities.
Education and social development.
For most of the projects in education the minimum stay goes up to 3-6 months, you will probably need a lot more time to get started and involved in a program. So I would recommend it only if you do want to get teaching experience and training for your career. Quite often you will also need a relevant undergraduate degree(not necessarily completed) to participate.
1. Scalabrini center in Cape Town provides English courses and job search help to adult refugees and immigrants. You can get involved in all aspects of the project.
2. Help kids offers internship opportunities to international Social Work students. You’ll get to work with intervention services, abuse prevention and outreach.
3. SAEP‘s focus is early childhood and youth development and they always need volunteers, especially with teaching qualifications.
There are of course many other projects in South Africa, it just so happen to be that I’m drawn mostly to Cape Town. But I hope this little guide will help you discover your own dream opportunity.
Contributing to a good cause isn’t really as difficult as it seems and certainly is one of the cheapest ways to see the world. So get started on your search and good luck!