Volunteer/Help Exchange FAQ

Friday, September 30, 2011  at 6:58 AM
Written by Chris Coulon.

While we have been traveling over the last several months, Danalynn and I have also picked up the side occupation of European migrant labourers.  Quite a bit of our time here in Europe has been spent living and interacting with families in exchange for volunteer hours.  The name of the game is to provide some of your time and skills in return for room, board and cultural immersion.  Anyone can do it; we’ve run into volunteers both younger and much older hailing from many different countries around the world.  There are several organizations that offer their networks to help connect you with hosts, as well as other volunteers.  Some of the more well known organizations include:

-          WWOOF
One of the most well known organizations and definitely boasts an exceptionally large repertoire of hosts; however you need to sign up and pay a fee for each country individually.  In addition, since each country is run as its own organization not all countries have the option to read reviews left for hosts by previous volunteers.  These opportunities are specialized almost exclusively on certified organic farms and you are almost guaranteed to get experience in green agriculture.

-          HelpX
For this trip we have sided with this organization, for several reasons.  Its onetime fee for a yearlong membership covers all countries with participating hosts.  This proved important for us as we have used it in several different places, including the UK, France, Spain, Switzerland and Kenya.  It also provides the opportunity for volunteers to leave reviews of their experiences with hosts, allowing you to read third party reviews but also to email former volunteers directly with any questions.  These opportunities are broader than just organic farming, including anything that a host may need help with from general chores, remodeling, caring for animals etc...

-          Work Away
This organization is similar to Helpx, where the work may vary.  Unfortunately we do not know much about this site as we have not had the opportunity to use it ourselves.

There are more organizations and plenty more to learn about the ones that we have listed.  A healthy dose of research always helps before taking the plunge and signing up.

harvesting hazelnuts for helpx by Danalynn C
Harvesting hazelnuts at a Helpx in France

We have received many specific questions in regard to these volunteer opportunities and as such we organized this post as a Q&A.

What do I need to prepare in advance before choosing a Host?
First things first, where are you going?  Are you going on a trip overseas or hoping to experience something new but a little closer to home?  Deciding where you would like to do your volunteering is an important factor when deciding to which organization you would like to subscribe.  Give yourself a timeline: how long do you want to be away, are you going to try and volunteer with multiple hosts, will you be volunteering in more than one country?

Once you have the foundations of your trip planned out, decide on what kind of work you would like to do.  For example, would you like to spend your time learning about sustainable farming/gardening, learning how to remodel different parts of houses (in Europe this often means buildings that are centuries old), working with horses or other animals or perhaps learning about wine making.  The possibilities go on, look on this experience not just as a sustainable or culturally stimulating way to travel but also as a means to gain valuable firsthand experience in the field of your choosing.

mixing cement for helpx work by Danalynn C
Chris, mixing mortar for a day of working on a wall in a centuries-old house

How do you find a good host?
Once you have decided on an organization and a location it is time to start your search for a host.  More often than not, the organization you have decided upon will provide a list of potential hosts for the region you intend to travel.  While looking at the profiles of perspective hosts there are several key features to take note of:

Each host is allowed to write a description of themselves, their home and the work that they would like help with.  A lot can be learned by these descriptions.  First of all, someone who puts a lot of time and detail into their description is serious about what they are offering and willing to put in energy to making their place a good experience for volunteers.  Specific mentions of a host’s interest in cultural exchanges are always a good sign, as it shows that they are not just searching for free labour but also hoping to share their culture and interact with you.

Reviews left by former volunteers can also be an invaluable resource and are fairly self explanatory.  Also take note that it is sometimes possible to contact former volunteers directly via links attached to their comments.  While it is often nice and reassuring, especially for your first experience, to apply only to opportunities with many positive reviews, I have found that some of our best experiences have been had with new hosts and no reviews but great detailed profiles.  These hosts, being new to the game, often go out of their way to make sure that your experience is something special and that you are getting what you hoped from your time as a volunteer.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  A lot can be gained from pictures, much like how the host chooses to organize and detail their profile.  Did the hosts take the time to put up nice pictures of themselves or possibly the work you might be doing?  If poorly taken photos are displayed, often it means the hosts do not care enough to put in the effort of attracting good volunteers.  And also, it goes without saying, if there are pictures of volunteers working with the glazed-over look of indentured servitude and misery in their eyes, save that profile to be recommended to your friends or siblings who need more discipline in their lives.

Picking Grapes France Helpx by Danalynn C
Picking grapes to make grape jam at a Helpx in France

Do you have to have certain skills to volunteer?
Nope, most volunteers I have run into have had no specialties before traveling.  Most jobs are simple and straightforward, sometimes needing a bit of explanation from your host but easy to get the hang of.  If you do happen to have usable skills you can definitely offer them up.  For example, I have spent some jobs sheet-rocking, painting or cementing simply because I have experience, while Danalynn who has less experience in those fields has done more gardening, caring for animals and she has even been contracted from every host so far to paint them pictures.

How far in advance should you contact a potential host?
There is no required amount of time for these things.  Obviously if you apply to opportunities several weeks in advance you will have much better luck at finding a positive response, simply because it allows both you and you host to plan ahead (we almost always try to send out requests at least 3 weeks in advance when possible, but have also sent out requests as much as two months in advance).  On the other side of the spectrum, if you are in a pinch there is no harm in sending last minute requests; although, be warned, most of these are likely to end up with negative responses.  In Germany we managed to find a volunteer location with only two days notice, after applying to eight possible locations.

small german helpx town by Danalynn C
The small town in Germany where our Helpx was located

How many requests should I send out at one time?
This will depend somewhat on how much time you are giving yourself before you want to actually start volunteering.  If, for instance, you are sending out requests several weeks in advance then it is only necessary to send out one to three requests and wait for their responses.  It is fairly common for hosts to agree for you to come, so don’t send out too many requests!  If you have multiple positive responses, pick the one that most suits you, if all responses are negative then you still have plenty of time to send out more.  On the other side of the spectrum, if you are trying for a last minute request, it pays to send out as many as possible (8-10). 

What should I bring with me?
Unless you hear otherwise from your host, no out of the ordinary items are necessary.  I would definitely recommend a decent pair of work clothes that you don’t care about dirtying and a good pair of work boots never goes awry, but is by no means mandatory. 

What information should you include in your first email to a prospective host?
When you first email a host, it doesn’t have to be a long multi-drafted letter.  Just make sure you include a few key details.  Following a polite introduction of yourself let them know what you are searching for (i.e. an opportunity to work with horses, learn about green agriculture, refurbishing a 19 century home, etc…), how long you are hoping to stay for, and if you have any skills you think might be useful.

Upon receiving a positive response you can ask any other, more specific, questions you might have.  For example, if you need a place with WI-FI this would be a great time to find out or if the host has not included a description of the hours or work you will be doing you now have the opportunity to find out.

hiking in germany by Danalynn C
Hiking through the mountains on a day off from our Helpx in Germany
What is a good length for a volunteer opportunity?
Volunteer opportunities vary in length, often depending on the type of work you will be doing.  Usually a host will want someone that can work for at least two weeks.  Other hosts, especially those who need to put in time to train volunteers, may be looking for people that are willing to work for a couple months.  Whatever length of time you choose to stay, just make sure you inform your host before arriving.

Personally, we have found that three weeks is a good amount of time to get a good experience, really get to know your hosts and have enough time to see surrounding areas.

What is the normal amount of time spent working?
Hours will always vary.  Some hosts will have a set amount of hours they would like you to work, but leave you to decide if you want to do it all in a couple days or spread the hours out over the week.  Other hosts will have varying tasks day by day, some days you may work six hours and others only two.  On average, we plan for roughly 23-28 hours of work per week in addition to helping with preparing meals and cleaning.  However, this time allotment is just a rough guide and will always vary from host to host.  For example, if we have particularly awesome hosts who are obviously putting in extra energy and time to make sure we are getting a great experience I often have little qualms with putting in a few extra hours per week.  Remember that it is an exchange and the amount of work done should reflect the quality of the room and board being provided. 

Leave it up to your own judgment, but remember it is an agreement between both parties.  The host and the volunteer should be happy; it is not simply up to the host to decide everything.

french cornfields by Danalynn C
On a long walk through cornfields in France on an afternoon off from our Helpx work

What do if I do if the volunteer opportunity is not what I expected?
Most of the time these opportunities are everything you hoped for and more, but on rare occasions, much like any other job or activity, you might find yourself at a location and it is not what you were hoping for, or even downright un-enjoyable.  First of all, I believe that you as a volunteer have made a commitment to help out for a certain period of time and it is necessary to give it your best effort.  As part of that effort, if you are feeling cheated, overworked, underfed or any other issue has arisen it is your responsibility to bring it up with your host and inform them that you are not happy with the current arrangements.  More often than not they will be willing to work with you and if they are unwilling to budge, it might be time to end your volunteer experience early.

This brings us to our next point; it is always a good idea to have some sort of backup plan.  If for any reason you decide to depart early you should have a place you can go and the means to get there, whether it be a hotel, friends’, a couchsurfer or even another volunteer opportunity. 

It is important that both you and your host are happy with the exchange agreement.  Even though you are choosing to volunteer, your host should understand that you are not simply free labour and that you do not owe them unlimited working hours.  You should only be required to work as much as is necessary to compensate your host for the room and board that they are providing, but you should also have ample personal time.  You are also (if agreed upon by the organization or prior emails) usually entitle to three full meals a day that should be sufficient enough to sustain you while you work.  Make it clear to your host that you are happy to work the agreed upon hours, but you also expect to have time to explore the local region, read, write or do whatever it is you like to do, you are traveling after all.  Similarly, make sure that you put forth your best effort while working!

Lastly, remember that you are in another country and customs will be different.  Not all cultures take their meals at the same times and it is important to try and adapt to these differences rather than take it to mean your host is trying to short change you.  For example, in France, breakfast is not an important meal and often many French eat very little in the morning.  If this is the case, make sure you are getting something to eat (especially if you are doing lots of physical labour) but don’t expect your host to change their habits to make/provide a big meal every morning.

How much money should I bring?
Obviously since room and board are almost always covered, your experience will be much cheaper than if you were traveling via hotel and kebab stands.  However, it is always good to have spare money.  Remember you will be expected to make your own way to your host (hosts will usually be happy to pick you up at a local train station or town).  It is also nice to have money for the time that you plan to spend exploring the region during your off time; to pay for busses, lunches away from your host, etc…  And finally it is important to have a store of money for your plan B, if you are inclined to leave your host earlier than expected you must have the means to do so.

french iron smith by Danalynn C
One of our French Helpx hosts took us to a museum day, where we even watched demonstrations of a smith making cutlery

Do you have any additional advice?
As always, common courtesies can go a long way to insure that both you and your host enjoy the exchange.  It is always nice to ask if help is needed in preparing meals and cleaning up afterward.  Remember you are a guest in their home and it is important that you act as such (however, while this assistance is often given in addition to your usual hours it should not be taken advantage of.  You should not be spending an overwhelming amount of additional time on chores during what should be your personal time).

Most important of all: time will fly, don’t let it slip away, plan in advance weekend trips by bike, bus or foot to see the surrounding towns.  Make plans before you even set off on your trip and do some research into the local area.  Find out what the region specializes in, what makes it unique.  Are there small towns worth visiting, local festivals or markets that might be going on?  We are particularly fond of just setting off on walks for an hour or two with our camera and a book.  Whatever you decide to do
make sure that you make your trip well worth it.  Remember, you can do manual labour without even leaving home, but you may only get to travel to your destination once.

In conclusion, we would definitely recommend these volunteer experiences to anyone looking to get a first hand glance into living in another culture from your own.  It is an easy way to glimpse into other lifestyles and jobs while simultaneously visiting new places.  Our hosts have often been the first to suggest we take breaks and have been highly energetic, taking us to local events and explaining traditions.  All of our experiences have been overwhelmingly positive; this is perhaps one of the best ways to travel, second only to couchsurfing.  

brown cow france by Danalynn C 
Many of our Helpx locations have been in farmlands

Please send us comments or emails if you have anything else to add or questions we didn't address!
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