I have the soul of a nomad. My parents tell me I was born this way; I was made to wayfare around the globe, seeking knowledge and love from every corner of the planet. But, as you probably already know, it can get quite expensive to make your way through the world, no matter where you are stationed. This is why I sought a way to go (and keep going) for a long time.
- $40 USD annual fee
- Willingness to work hard
Originally, I was very interested in volunteering abroad. It’s important to be culturally aware, sensitive, and responsible when navigating new places and people. As an educated, English speaking American with a bit of good fortune, I knew I had to consider the effect that colonialism has had on the world and my place within that world, which led me to analyzing my skills. What could I truly offer a region? Even though I have skills to offer, I found myself frustrated with the multitude of organizations with opportunities for “voluntourism”. This specific type of volunteering is a form of tourism where a portion of your time touring around is devoted to doing some sort of charitable work.
This was not the experience I was looking for. I wanted something where long-term volunteering was the focus, where there would be ample opportunities for cultural exchange; tourism was not my priority. I was weary of some of these organizations imposing their cultural beliefs and trying to “teach” over taking the opportunities to learn from the culture and regional specific knowledge.
If you're ready to commit to a career in the non-profit sector, see how to land a job with the American Red Cross Overseas.
So when a friend recommended Workaway to me, I knew I had found the more grassroots form of volunteering I was seeking.
Workaway is like the “Uber” of volunteering. You have independent hosts who are seeking volunteers and independent volunteers who are seeking hosts. Workaway is the means of connecting the two. The opportunities are vast and varied, including tasks for every kind of traveler seeking any kind of experience. From farm work to teaching English to working in hostels to working with animals, Workaway provides countless other forms of cultural exchange. Some of these include NGO’s, local businesses, or even directly in the homes of locals or expats. You have the ability to build and create the type of experience you want. And one of the best parts? It operates in most places in the world.
Workaway’s platform is very user friendly, but I will fill you in on some of the basics.
First, know that Workaway requires an annual fee of $40USD. As hosts need to scout prospective volunteers, Workaway also requires that you build a profile with some basic information such as if you have a driver's license, if you have any allergies or special dietary requirements, or whether or not you are a smoker. You need to have a picture of yourself on your profile, your age, nationality, type of work you want to do, and where you plan on traveling to. After you fill in this information you are set to start searching for hosts.
The best way to find hosts is to search by region. I was traveling throughout Southeast Asia--the Workaway options for this area are abundant--so I narrowed my search by filtering by specific country and type of work I wanted to participate in. Once you have decided on a few that sound promising, you can reach out to the hosts expressing your interest in their project.
Some helpful tips for having a successful Workaway experience
1. Read the reviews
The reviews will reveal a lot about the project and how good the experience was for previous volunteers. In my experience, this is the best way to pick an awesome Workaway.
2. Check out the response rate
If you want to ensure that the hosts will get back to you, check out the response rate before reaching out to give you a better idea of how available the host is. Sometimes, the locations of the Workaway’s are pretty rural and might not have constant internet access--this does not mean they aren’t a great host! Just make sure you save yourself some time by planning ahead.
3. Check out the “last minute listings”
If you are an off-the-cuff traveler (like I tend to be), the last minute listings will be your best friend. The Workaway’s on this page are seeking help right away and usually have a lot of things for you to get busy with.
4. Note the calendar bar on each listing
On the Workaway listings they have a calendar that tells when they have space to take new volunteers and when they are full! Before reaching out, make sure you check this out to confirm that their availability matches up with your plans.
5. Be prepared to work!
This is a cool and untraditional travel experience, but it is meant to be a fair trade! Use the system that is set up for you to actually do the work required. Many people volunteering use Workaway as a cheaper alternative to a hostel… that’s not what it’s meant for! Get in the spirit of the barter system and trade your hardworking hands for a satisfying hot meal and a well-earned good night of sleep.
6. Write a review
Always remember to leave a review for your host when you leave a Workaway. It helps them attract more volunteers and also gives them the ability to write feedback for you which can help you attract other volunteer opportunities in the future.
My Workaway Experience
I’ve done a couple of Workaway’s now, including a hostel in Penang, Malaysia, a cultural exchange in Changurrayan, Nepal, and an Organic Rice Farm in Kedah, Malaysia.
I stayed at the rice farm in Kedah for the longest amount of time, totaling around 5 months. I can easily say it was one of the most profound and life-changing experiences of my life. The farm is situated deep in the Malaysian Jungle in a village about 2 hours north of Penang Island. My daily routine was to wake up and eat breakfast before work started at 10 AM. We worked until it was too hot to continue, usually between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM. We then took time to rest, eat lunch, explore the beautiful surrounding nature, and chat with volunteers or the host family. After lunch we had a few more hours to rest before starting work again between 4 and 5 o’clock. We usually worked until 6:30 or 7 PM. We had the rest of the night to do whatever we wanted to do.
Because we were so deep in the jungle, we didn’t have access to wifi when we were on the farm. There was no TV, no computers, no technology in general. It gave all the volunteers, farmers, and family members genuine time to connect with one another on a deeply intimate level. It was a great opportunity to experience a community living environment and learn how one might develop something similar in different environments. I got to connect with nature, people, culture, and life on a deep and spiritual level.
I truly felt (and still feel) forever changed from this experience.
While staying at the farm, I was able to participate in many different cultural experiences and events. I went to a memorial service, a few weddings, and was even able to help run and participate in an agricultural conference hosted by the farm. This gathering of farmers from all over the country helped create a local network to better serve each other and the future of farming in Malaysia. These experiences helped me grow in my cultural understanding of Malaysia, as well as exercise my organizational skills and empathy.
Anyone can participate in the Workaway exchange as long as you can pay the annual fee. If you are looking for a deeply life changing experience, new learned skills, and connections with people from places all around the world, I would highly recommend starting with Workaway. I hope everyone finds it as soul quenching as I did and creates an international family that will stick with you for years to come.
Most Workaway commitments start at 1 month and can last as long as you're willing to do the work. For another long-term volunteer opportunity, see what it takes to volunteer in Phuket, Thailand.
Good luck and safe travels!
If you have any further questions, inquiries or simply want to follow along on my travels, find my contact info here.