3 Tips and Tricks for Volunteering in Latin America

by Jordan A. Parry

So you’re looking to volunteer abroad?  Awesome!  It’s such a great way to see the world while making a difference.  And there are tons of projects out there that really need your help.  You can absolutely find volunteer projects to suit your interests and the community’s needs, especially in Latin America.

But there are so many questions to ask before you book your flight.  Like, where do you even start?  How do you choose a country for your project?  What sorts of things are important to take into consideration when choosing a program?

Medical clinics and hospitals, orphanages, animal shelters, conservation projects, schools, construction sites, etc. are all looking for help all the time–You can definitely make a difference!  Here are a few things to keep in mind as you start sifting through the almost infinite information that’s out there.




1. You (generally) get what you pay for.

Yes, it’s possible to find very low-cost and even free volunteer abroad programs.  However, with these programs, you often sacrifice a lot.  Don’t you want a program that has a supportive staff that will help you if, say, your luggage gets lost or you break your wrist?

A free program often means little or no support on the logistical side of your trip.  If anything goes wrong, you’re on your own.  Have you ever tried finding a reliable dentist in an emergency when you don’t speak the local language?  Good luck with that!

Paying just a little more can make sure you have someone meeting you at the airport, giving you a practical tour of the area and a safety orientation, and checking in with you frequently as you progress through your volunteer experience.  These teams will have your back, helping you with all sorts of situations: lost luggage, recommendations for vegetarians, even calling your mom if you get sick!

Believe me, no matter how prepared you think you are, you can’t possibly foresee every situation that could come up during your trip.  But you can rest a little easier knowing that you have a team of volunteer coordinators looking out for you.


Image credit: Maximo Nivel


2. It’s often a good idea to choose a private organization, not a non-profit or NGO.

I know this seems counter-intuitive, but bear with me.  Non-profit organizations and NGOs have requirements to fulfill regarding their spending.  That might seem like a good idea, but what it really means is restriction.  These organizations aren’t free to decide what communities or projects really need the funds, or how much to allocate to each.  They also aren’t always free to accept unlimited donations for these projects.

Private organizations, therefore, usually have much larger budgets and can allocate even more resources directly into the community that needs it.  You can feel better knowing that a larger percentage of your program fees are going straight into the purchase of supplies and resources for the impoverished community where you’re working, and not into red tape and bureaucracy.

Here are a few programs that are awesome for volunteering in Latin America.  Check them out!


3. You can seriously increase your potential impact by learning some Spanish before you go.

Working alongside a volunteer organization in Latin America for a few years, I saw a LOT of volunteers come and go.  And the number one thing that made some volunteers more effective at their projects than others was their level of Spanish.

All of these programs will tell you that it isn’t necessary to speak Spanish to go and volunteer, and on the surface, they’re right.  Any pair of hands can be helpful.

But say you’re volunteering in a medical clinic.  Wouldn’t you like to be helping the patients as they come in, asking them questions about how they’re feeling, preparing them to see the doctor?  Or would you prefer to mop, wipe, and restock?  Your ability to communicate effectively in Spanish will directly influence the type of work you can be doing.

This is where ShareLingo comes in!  By practicing your Spanish with real native Spanish speakers, you will have a huge advantage over other volunteers who just took a year or two of Spanish in high school.  You will be prepared to understand common expressions and slang, and will be able to anticipate outrageous situations and unexpected misunderstandings before they come up.

You will not only have a greater impact during your volunteer project, but you will also build real, lasting connections with Spanish speakers before, during, and after your experience volunteering abroad.


English and Spanish speakers working together in a ShareLingo class


Image credits: Maximo Nivel and ShareLingo

About ShareLingo
The ShareLingo concept is really simple. Instead of learning from a white board or a computer, we help English learners meet Spanish learners for face-to-face practice together. A bilingual facilitator uses our method and materials to keep things moving so you are never bored. We have language learning solutions for individuals, businesses, non-profits, and schools. Learn more at www.sharelingo.org.

James Archer

James Archer is the founders of The ShareLingo Project - a Social Enterprise that connects English and Spanish speakers for face-to-face practice. This model breaks down both linguistic and cultural barriers for individuals, businesses, and non-profits.