Volunteer Work in Europe
An Overview of the Options
By Volker Poelzl
Senior Consulting Editor
Europe is the world’s wealthiest continent and the need for international volunteers is quite different from the world’s poorer regions such as Africa or Latin America. But despite well-developed welfare, education and health programs, there are communities all across Europe that are in need of volunteers, be it for teaching English, child care, summer camps, or preservation work. In addition, a volunteer vacation in Europe is not only a great way to help people and communities in need, but it is also a great opportunity to get to know Europeans and their cultures and experience Europe in a different way.
Eastern Europe has become a prime destination for international volunteers, since it is Europe’s poorest and least developed region. The fall of communism has left a legacy of neglected communities with few resources to fend for themselves in the new capitalist economies of their countries. Volunteer work in Eastern Europe focuses primarily on social development projects, child care, and education, primarily in Romania, the Baltic states, Russia, Poland, and Hungary. Volunteer work in Western Europe can be found everywhere, from the U.K. to Greece, and from Portugal to Germany. Opportunities range from restoration projects and environmental preservation to teaching, farming, and social services (mainly working with children, the disabled, and the elderly). There are both long and short-term volunteer opportunities all over Europe, ranging from two weeks up to a year. No matter much available time you have, you can rest assured that you will find a volunteer positions that suits your schedule.
There are work camps all over Europe, usually related to construction, maintenance and restoration work of historically or culturally important sites, or even archeological excavations. Work camps are usually short-term volunteer projects that are geared toward students and take place during the summer, usually between two and four weeks. Since participants work under local supervision, no previous experience is necessary, regardless of the type of work. In general, work camps do not pay their participants, but room and board is usually provided for the duration of the program. Participants usually work during the week and have the weekends off for leisure and cultural activities.
Work camp participants usually work with local groups and under local supervision, which makes them a great opportunity to learn about the local culture and way of life. Also, as the name camp suggests, accommodation and living arrangements are camp-like and very group oriented. Accommodation is usually dormitory style, and food may be served in large dining tents. The social aspect of work camps is perhaps its best-known quality, as locals often work with volunteers from dozens of different countries. Since work camp volunteers come from a variety of different countries, working knowledge of the local language is not necessary, although it is helpful. Several organizations in the U.S. refer work camps in Europe, among them SCI-International Voluntary Service, www.sci-ivs.org, and Volunteers for Peace (VFP), www.vfp.org .
Another volunteer activity similar to work camps is a volunteer vacation on an organic farm. There is a lot of emphasis on communal living, shared activities and responsibilities. Organic farms usually offer room and board in exchange for your work. You may also be paid a small stipend. The best way to find an organic farm for volunteer work is through WWOOF, a worldwide network that connects organic farmers and volunteers.
Although English is widely taught all across Europe, there are still rural communities and small towns, especially in poorer Eastern European countries, where volunteer English teachers are needed to teach children, adolescents, and adults. But there are even projects in Western Europe (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and others) where volunteers work with children and also offer English classes. During the communist era, English was not widely taught in Eastern Europe, and there is still a need for skilled English teachers, especially due to the eastward expansion of the EU and the increasing trade of Eastern countries with the rest of the world. The focus of many of these volunteer English-teaching opportunities is to give the locals the opportunity to learn and practice English with native speakers, something that is often difficult in rural and remote areas without a large English-speaking expatriate community. Classes are usually taught in classrooms at elementary and secondary schools and at community centers in small groups. Professional teaching experience is usually not required. Your native English-speaking skills are sufficient in most cases.
There are many opportunities in Europe for volunteers interested in working with children. A number of organizations work in impoverished countries in Eastern Europe, where volunteers can work in childcare with orphans, abandoned babies, and other needy children of all ages. Summer and day camps are another popular volunteer opportunity in Europe. In contrast to work camps, which focus on manual work, working as a camp counselor focuses on supervising the daily activities of the participating children. Most volunteering camp counselors are either high school students, recent high school graduates, or college students. Participants can expect to meet counselors from a large variety of different countries, making these volunteer positions a truly international experience. Depending upon the location, some knowledge of the local language may be required.
Many volunteer placement organizations in the U.S. have partnered with local projects across Europe to support social development and provide aid to disadvantaged communities and populations. No matter which European country interests you most, you will most likely find a suitable aid project where you can volunteer and help. Among the many areas where volunteers are needed and welcome are working with the disabled and people with mental problems, as well as working with the elderly, either at group homes, schools, community or day centers. Much of the work is centered on teaching daily living skills and offering a variety of educational and leisure activities.
Stricter environmental regulations by the EU have been a boon to the protection of threatened ecosystems and wildlife in Europe. Where once many species were extirpated or nearly extinct, there has been a comeback of native ecosystems and wildlife in many areas across Europe thanks to the work of wildlife and conservation organizations as well as government agencies. Although opportunities in preservation are not as abundant as other types of volunteer work, there are still numerous projects where volunteers are welcome to lend a hand or share their expertise. Volunteer work for the environment is among the most expensive volunteer options.
Amongst the many opportunities to work with wildlife and environmental preservation are wildlife sanctuaries for wolves in Portugal and bearded vultures in Spain, as well as dolphin, whale and turtle research projects in Spain and Greece. If you are interested in volunteering in the U.K., you could volunteer with the National Trust (which administrates the U.K.’s natural, cultural, and historical heritage) and work in conservation and restoration projects. As the National Trust’s homepage states: “Whether you fancy carrying out a survey of moorland plants or herding goats to drystone walling or organic gardening we will have something to suit you and all in stunning countryside or coastal locations.”
Prices vary widely between organizations, countries, and programs. In general, volunteer placements in Eastern Europe are cheaper than in Western Europe, and your daily expenditures will also be less due to the lower cost of living. Wildlife preservation projects are amongst the most expensive, but program cost depends largely on the placement organization and their overseas program partners. Keep in mind that many volunteer organizations handle a variety of logistics, and may provide food, accommodations, transportation, health insurance, etc. which may be difficult for individuals to arrange in Europe by themselves. Here are a few examples: the 2010 Turtle Conservation Volunteer Program in Greece by GVI costs US $1,620 for two weeks and US$5,495 for 12 weeks. Their 2010 Volunteering at an Orphanage in Latvia program costs US$2,160 for four weeks and US$3360 for 10 weeks. Global Volunteers charges $2,595.00 for one week and $2,795.00 for two weeks for its English Teaching Program in Portugal. United Planet, which offers social and education volunteer opportunities in several European countries, charges $5,965 for its 6-month program, and $8,965 for its 12-month program. The short-term programs cost from US $1,715 for four weeks up to US $3,315 for twelve weeks.
There are also many low-cost and no-frills volunteer opportunities. Volunteers for Peace (VFP), for example, works directly with NGOs all over the world, offering very reasonable rates. VFP’s projects in Europe (many of them work camps) only require a $500 registration fee to participate in one of many volunteer projects. Shared housing is usually included, but food is not. In general, work camps offer the cheapest volunteer opportunities, although there are some draw-backs. Accommodation may be in tents or dormitories, and you are responsible for making your own arrangements for flights and visas, travel insurance, and leisure activities. In addition there probably won’t be any pre-departure training or in-country orientation and support. Still, if you don’t mind a more independent approach to your volunteer vacation, volunteering at a work camp might be the right thing for you.
Before making serious plans for a volunteer vacation in Europe, check with the consulate of the country of your interest and make sure that you will be able to get the appropriate visa, if required. In the past, volunteers used to come to Europe and perform volunteer work as tourists, but new visa requirements in some countries now require volunteers to obtain special volunteer visas. If a visa is required, you need to make sure that your volunteer project or organization in Europe is willing to sponsor you so that you can apply for a visa.
For other articles about volunteering in Europe and for more extensive program listings, please visit our Volunteer in Europe section.
Volker Poelzl is a senior consulting editor and frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad. He has volunteered in several European countries and found it to be a worthwhile and enriching experience.