Free and Low-Cost volunteer work in South America

Volunteer FAQ

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 complaints received.

There are four parts to this FAQ:
 A FAQ for Volunteers; Tips advice and guidance
 Volunteer Scams and Warnings FAQ; How can I tell if a Volunteer Program is genuine?
 A FAQ for Volunteer Organisations; How to get your program listed
 About this Website - How, When & Why.


FAQ for Volunteers
 Are there any websites similar to yours but for other regions, e.g. Africa, Asia, etc?
The best websites I know of are www.truetravellers.org, www.volunteerworkthailand.org and www.omprakash.org see also the 'Voluntary Work Resources' section on the main page of this site for other volunteer listings websites.
If you know of any other good volunteer resources (SA or worldwide) get in touch and I'll add them to the site.

 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.

2b) Do some prep II;  Volunteering independently isn't for everyone.
 What do you have to offer a volunteer organisation? What do you want to do? What are you actually good at?
 Put together a shortlist of volunteer programs. Most programs don't require you to 'book' a place months 
 in advance (there are exceptions), so at this stage please don't mailshot dozens of volunteer programs.

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 travel plans 
 fall-through this time around, you're still likely to make use of them at some point.
  For more on this subject see: www.travel-vaccinations.info

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.

 Can 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.
 I'm 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 volunteer programs.

There is a certain irony here; although this website is about *free* volunteering, it's not meant for people who have no money. This site is for hard-working volunteers who have a lot to offer and are determined to make a difference in
helping people less fortunate than themselves.
 Why 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 Oct 2019, there were ~1.3 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 2012) 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 leaders, trades-people 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 program does.
 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 2017 update] There is now a second edition of this book, same title, ISBN: 978-1786578679

 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 2012, 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!
These guys 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 for yourself.

Another perennial problem for VC's is receipt of 'copy & pasted' emails (i.e. sent to multiple organisations)
or "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 zone.
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 & re-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.

 Conservatism 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 folk, 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 iPhone 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 responsibility.
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 dropped.
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 organisation. 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 the best 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,
in 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 fair enough; 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 $400 per month (i.e. an amount that more than covers your basic food and accommodation costs), 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 4x4 car, 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,
however 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 frivolous applications).
 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 frivolous applications).
 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 > $400 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 contains generic/bland statements.

 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.
 o There is a view some in western fund-raising circles that *all* South American ARRC's are corrupt.

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 Centre, 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
 be controlled, so don't necessarily assume that dark forces are at work when an ARRC owner talks about cheaper ways of
 doing things.
 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
 developing 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).

 What volunteer information do I need to have on my website for my organisation to be listed?
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.

3) Fees/Costs:
 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 Fundación_Luz_del_Mundo page(s) as an example of an internally hosted program, this service is provided free of charge and takes about 7 days to set-up.
 Can I advertise my organisation/project on volunteersouthamerica.net for FREE?
You can place a short-term banner advert on the right-hand side panel of volunteersouthamerica.net. This service is available to any organisation listed on the site, or any non-commercial org in the volunteer sector, if you are unsure whether your organisation qualifies for a free Ad, please get in touch (my email address is at the bottom of this FAQ).
Here are the key points:
 o This service is available free of charge to volunteer and non-commercial organisations.
 o Adverts are short-term, i.e. they are displayed for 0-3 months.
 o This service is intended for use by volunteer organisations who are in urgent need of immediate volunteer help.
 o Adverts (banners) must be 358 pixels wide and no more than 358 deep, the Ad must be in .jpg .gif or .png format.
 o Please provide specific date information in your Advert; e.g. "We need English Teachers for Jun/Jul/Aug 2016"
Your Advert must be in a "Wanted Ad" style, similar to this (you can put your own colours & spin on it):

If you wish to place an advert on the site, please email your banner to the address at the bottom of this FAQ.
 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 website:
 "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 slightly more advanced (and better) try using wordpress, 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 volunteer 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 many thousands of mostly commercial
 hits (websites) 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 support the
 local volunteer organisation in this way; i.e. they won't disclose the local partners they work 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 volunteer org, without paying their
 middle-man fees.
 I understand the need for commercial confidentially 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 and helping them get their message out.

 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 consider it ;-)
 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 20 other websites have used my listings since the site launched, some have asked me first which I appreciate.
Other websites incorrectly assume that the volunteer listings on this website are static, 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 rest.

 I'm going to create a volunteer website to support local grass-roots volunteering, like yours but .. { insert your idea here }
There are 3 big challenges facing new start-ups:
1) The online volunteer market is very competitive so unless you have a significant marketing budget or are prepared to
 put in a huge effort in self-publicising the website (alongside the effort of web design, content, administration, etc),
 I'd say; don't bother - the road ahead is too difficult unless you have adequate resources (human or cash).
 A Volunteer website needs around 8k - 10k unique visits per month to work effectively (defined as: The site reaching
 critical-mass, 'find-able' on Google by volunteers & Media, and effective in sending a trickle of volunteers to the
 listed organisations).
 Don't take your idea any further until you have an idea of how to reach the required traffic levels.

2) Maintaining a website over extended period is a daily grind; your commitment to the project will be tested.

3) Making the website pay (i.e. financially) is difficult. It's also difficult not to compromise what the website
 stands for, when you let advertisers through the door. If your site is going to be free-to-air with no adverts, see 2)

 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; 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 send me full details, or just a couple of lines to keep me in the loop; 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.

 How can I contact you?
My email address is: steve@serpost.net

Steve McElhinney