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A friend recently asked us how did we find the organizations in which we will be volunteering in Costa Rica, which triggered us to write this blog. Here are some of the strategies that we tried and how they worked for us:
- Use a company specialized in organizing volunteer programs
- Internet search and email
- Personal networks
- Scouting trip
Use a company to organize the volunteer program for you:
When I started the search back in August 2018 (one year and a half before the actual sabbatical), I initially used internet search engines and very generic keywords, like “ volunteer” and “Costa Rica”. The results pointed out to different organizations, mostly headquartered in the UK or USA which work professionally as mediators between the host organization in Costa Rica and the potential volunteers. I contacted some of them to enquire if they could find a volunteer opportunity that would allow us to live in our own place (with our animals). It turned out that it was not possible at all. [One of them actually suggested that we could leave our pets in a refuge during the weeks or months in which we were volunteering. I answered as politely as I could that we were not dragging our pets across the ocean to leave them in a refuge. Punto.]
The business model of these intermediate organizations is to offer volunteer packages that include the accommodation in local families, the meals and the volunteering for a couple of thousand dollars or pounds per week. The potential volunteer gets to choose the general theme of the volunteering (education, health, nature conservation) and possibly the country. But that’s about it. One does not get to choose where to volunteer, where to live or how.
Pros: could be a good alternative for those that do not have the time for organizing the volunteering on their own; or would like to volunteer for a short period of time (one day to one week) or that are traveling on their own.
Cons: It is very costly, particularly compared to how much it will cost to organize it yourself and that many costs are excluded from the package (from flights to insurances). It is also very inflexible – they have a certain portfolio of organizations around the world and it might be that they do not offer the particular combination that you are after. For example, they might be able to offer nature conservation volunteering in Ecuador but not in Costa Rica.
2. Internet search and email
Pretty soon it became obvious for us that working with intermediaries would not suit our needs. So, I started a second round of internet searches. This time, with more specific search terms related to the type of organization and activity in which we wanted to volunteer: nature conservation, community-based conservation; animal rescue, plus volunteer and Costa Rica. This strategy returned some more interesting results, like the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo but still not many. Notably, the organizations that do not have a well-established volunteer program will not appear in the search results.
What worked much better was to change the search in two directions. First, be even more precise in terms of location and instead of Costa Rica in general, use the specific locations that we had identified as possible places to live like Nosara, Uvita, Osa or Puerto Viejo.
Second, eliminate the keyword “volunteer” and search for organizations that are actively engaged in nature conservation / community-based conservation / wildlife rescue in that particular location. This way, I could identify several other initiatives and nature conservation organizations like Tortuguiones (Nosara), Caminos de Osa (Osa) or the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary (Uvita). A visit to the website provided more information about the organization, their volunteer program and the application process (if they had one) and most importantly their email. The next step was to send them an email asking if they accepted volunteers and if I could visit them in February. About 50% of the organizations that I contacted this way came back to me, mostly with a positive answer. One of the organizations in which we will be volunteering was identified this way.
Pros: This strategy allows you to tailor much more your search to organizations and places where you would like to work & live. And you get a more personal contact with the organization, at least more personal than using an intermediary organization.
Cons: It is more time-consuming. I cannot point out how many hours I have spent behind the computer during weekends refining the search, looking at the organizations website and following up the emails. The advantage for anyone else starting now, is that you can find a list of all the organizations that we identified here.
3. Personal networks
A third strategy that generated very interesting results were our personal networks. As soon as we started telling our friends, family, and colleagues about our plans to take a one-year sabbatical and head to Costa Rica to work as volunteers in nature conservation, we were surprised by how many of them came back with suggestions of people or organizations to contact. Another one of the organizations that we will be working with were the results of our social network
A similar thing happened once I was on the scouting trip in Costa Rica. I left most of my meetings with a list of other organizations and people to visit and talk to. A curious anecdote was that one of the organizations that did not respond using the strategy 1, responded immediately when they received an email indicating who was referring them to me.
Pros: Higher entry point. Instead of contacting an organization using their firstname.lastname@example.org email, one writes directly to particular individuals and with a referral person. The response rate was 100%.
Cons: It might require some time for the word to spread in your personal network and start getting some good tips. But it might go very fast too.
4. Scouting trip
The scouting trip provided the opportunity to visit and talk to with many organizations that do not have a strong presence on the internet through a website but that nonetheless are very actively engaged with the kind of activities that we were interested in (nature conservation, wildlife conservation, community-based projects, etc). And, as mentioned before, it also provided a new list of organizations and personal contacts. The last organization in which we might be volunteering is the result of the personal networks of someone I met during the scouting trip.
The scouting trip also provided the chance to get to know in which kind of projects the different organizations were currently engaged in. It also helped in understanding how two social scientists with no prior practical experience in conservation could fit in. The later was my biggest fear. Before going on the scouting trip I was convinced that we would not be able to volunteer in conservation due to our profile and age. I thought that most organizations would prime natural scientists, notably people with a biology, veterinary ecology or sustainability background. But an economist? I also imagined the typical volunteer as someone in their twenties. My, I was plainly wrong. That fear disappeared completely after the second visit to an organization and the realization that all hands are useful!!
Pros: There is no information on the internet that can substitute how much one learns from “being there”, visiting the places and talking with the local people. One can also identify key organizations that one missed through the internet search. Plus, a clear advantage of showing up is that you show an enormous interest compared to an email request from across the ocean. In one of the organizations, I managed to talk with the founder over a coffee, something that would have been impossible if I had not visited the center in person.
Cons: It is costly, time-consuming and environmentally unfriendly. Most people could not afford going on a scouting trip. But, as Frank rightly points out, if you go on a one-year self-financed sabbatical, the relative costs of a scouting trip are not that high. The environmental impact remains no matter what if the two trips are by plane.
In sum, one can get pretty far with strategies 2 and 3. The scouting trip helped to identify new organizations but it mostly helped in making the final decision. Visiting the organizations and research stations and talking with the employees (and even the founder) about the philosophy of their organization served to prioritize the different alternatives to fit the kind of volunteer work and life that we were after.
The sharp reader might have noticed that I have not mentioned the knowledge of the local language. Frank suggested that may be strategy 1 was better for someone that did not speak the local language (in this case Spanish) but I actually think that one can get very very far with all four strategies only in English. In fact, most of the people and organizations that I contacted and/or met are used to work in English (or are even native English-speaking), have information about the volunteer program in English and have mostly English speaking volunteers. But this is Costa Rica. In other countries, the situation might be different.