The Frugal Volunteer: Exploring the World on a Shoestring Budget

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of my favorite resources for volunteering abroad is Nola Lee Kelsey's The Voluntary Traveler. We've interviewed Nola, reviewed the book, and shared excerpts from this incredible book.


Now, Nola has penned a new book (her 10th!). The Frugal Volunteer: The Give Back Traveller's Guide to Exploring the World on a Shoestring Budget is an extensive resource for finding volunteer opportunities that work for you. This book includes chapters on:

  • Defining Budget Friendly Volunteering
  • Before: Selecting a Volunteer Project
  • During: On your Volunteer Assigment
  • After: The Ambassador Effect
  • Squeezing Every Penny from your Experience
  • The Guide's Guide: Using the Listings

and hundreds of pages of SPECIFIC volunteer resources, arranged geographically. It's an extraordinary resource, filled with the right mixture of advice and how to, and the detailed information on a plethora of volunteer opportunities (including contact information!). This is a resource that we should all utilize - and SHARE.


I caught up with Nola and asked her about her book, inspiration, the global impact of volunteering, tips, and more. Here's what she had to say...


WE: Please tell us about your book, The Frugal Volunteer...

NLK: The Frugal Volunteer (TFV), like all my recent books, is a concentrated dose of information about the diverse array of projects available to volunteer travelers. Of course, what makes this title unique is the 'frugal' part?  TFV highlights those elusive 'fee-free' international volunteering options along with hundreds of programs averaging $300 per week or less.

Now, I know some people may be thinking, $300 is not budget-friendly travel. For some it is, for others it may not be. However, in TFV any project with these fees also needs to supply something more for the volunteer. Most often this is in the form of accommodations, meals, tours, or some form of unique training.

In the end, many "inclusive" volunteer opportunities out there offer travelers some real bargains, when compared to paying for room and board on their own. True, not every project listed is geared toward the hardcore, shoestring traveler, but if I can also teach a middle-class family or senior citizen on a fixed income how they can afford to be a travel volunteer, everyone wins.
In addition, to the 400 plus page guide/project description section, the book also contains advice chapters. I tried to cover each phase of the volunteer project from two angles, financial and being a successful volunteer. This includes before, during and after the experience.


Tagum City Food Bank Philippines by Emele Caboratan

Tagum City Food Bank Philippines by Emele Caboratan



WE: What inspired you to write this book?

NLK: That's easy. My readers, travel volunteers, inspired this book.  I am always being asked about the most affordable volunteer options. Or, why pay at all? These are also topics I frequently see in travel forums. There seems to be a real thirst for specific information geared toward affordable, one-time opportunities and/or using volunteer work as a way to curtail the cost of traveling around the world.

Pulling together information-heavy travel guides can be a grueling undertaking, but I saw a real need and I somehow got it done. To be able to help people discover the joys of purpose-filled travel, and to help organizations in need connect with volunteers makes it worthwhile. I know I'm not the best book cover designer or marketer out there. I'm, just a gal who can lock down her life, ferret out information and organize like a son of … Well, you know. 

In the end, my books are a lot like me. They are a bit frumpy and lacking in glitz, but they are also overflowing volunteer travel information. Travelers want facts and inspiration first and foremost. Despite the shortage of snazzy photos and colorful charts, I don’t think anyone is ever going to say my titles don’t present them with enough options. Information is power. And for frugal volunteers, this information can be the power to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others around the world.



WE: What sort of impact do you feel that volunteering globally can have on the world as a whole?

NLK: The results of are cumulative. The benefits of this type of travel come from a world full of people, each growing as a result of multiple aspects of the voluntourism experience:

  • Exchanging knowledge
  • Learning about issues firsthand (and educating others back home)
  • Developing mutual respect and expanding their global concepts via working side by side with people from other cultures towards a common goal
  • Helping finance program work and hire local staff
  • Growing the communities by spending locally whenever possible
  • Generally showing positive support for the host's efforts by bring there

Volunteer travel is rarely about solving large problems immediately, it's about planting seed to grow a better future.



WE: You've lived and volunteered all over the world - what were your personal highlights and the challenges?

NLK: Animals! They are my joy and they are my challenge. I love volunteering for animal rescues and with wildlife field studies. It is what I live for. My personal highlights range from the wag of a street dog's tail to a night observing dolphins as they bow ride through a sea of bioluminescence. 
My toughest challenges are always with domestic rescue work, mostly dogs. There is always such an overwhelming need for helping hands and to give the dogs some individual attention at these projects.  The joy dogs communicate when you toss a ball, walk them, brush their hair or give them any amount of individual attention is both overwhelming to experience and heartbreaking to walk away from. I find it difficult to leave these programs behind me. I always want to do more and shelters always need more. It can be easy to overcommit.


Sloth Sanctuary of Cost Rica by Pat DeWald

Sloth Sanctuary of Cost Rica by Pat DeWald



WE: What are your top tips for finding the appropriate volunteer options for each person?

NLK: Of course, the long answer(s) to that question is in TFV.  But if I had to choose just one key to setting one's self up to be a successful volunteer, I would say find a project that speaks to your heart and interests. Don’t go into a project with the mindset that you are a martyr, sacrificing your own joy to clean up other people's problems.  You'll have a bad attitude from the start and it will rub off on others. Find a program that addresses an important issue, but that also inspires your personal passion. The work needs to excite the mind and challenge you to excel.



WE: What is the difference between long-term and short-term volunteering?

NLK: Time is relative to traveler's circumstances.  In the case of budget friendly travel, I will say that there are many programs out there where the average weekly cost costs come down significantly for 'longer-term' commitments. Often this is at about 6 weeks, some more, a few less. There are even projects providing room and board with no housing costs after a set time.



WE: Why budget volunteering? What do readers need to know about costs?

NLK: By presenting a diverse selection of budget-friendly options to travelers I hope to open up a new world for people who may not have considered a volunteer vacation until now.  Regarding costs, if I show even one family that they can afford to work together in South America, instead of visit cousin Betsy yet again, it may have a profound influence on how their teenaged kids view travel and the world in general. If a newbie gap year traveler discovers a great wildlife research program and signs up long-term to save money, but then falls in love with the work, it can benefit animals and possible influence a college-bound students future career choices.



WE: Are there cultural issues around volunteering, that travelers should know about?

NLK: Always. People everywhere are different. It is the responsibility of any traveler to research local customs and cultural nuances in advance and once on the ground they need to illustrate respect. Travelers are guest in other countries. But unlike many forms of tourism, when volunteering you get much more up close and personal with the local population so double your respect and your common scene.

Another side of this that may catch people off guard is the cultural differences in their own country. For example, if you go from your condo overlooking San Diego Bay to volunteer with people on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota or to clear trails in the Appalachian Mountains you will still hit a solid wall culture shock -no passport needed.



WE: This is four books in less than three years for you. What's next?

NLK: I plan to try and step back a bit and not start anymore independent book projects for at least six months.  I am starting a new website/blog dedicated to helping travelers help animals. That is the area of purpose-filled travel that excites me most.  The site, ZoQuest, will cover travel news, travel articles and volunteer projects that guide people toward participating in forms of tourism that aids animals (wildlife & domestics) in tangible ways. On the flip side, I am compelled to educating travel consumers to speak with their dollars, by saying "no" (or "Hell NO!") to travel activities that actually harm animals.

This type of travel is not only what I love to do, but what I love to write about most. Fortunately, in April I will be traveling to Portugal and then on to the Azores Archipelago with Biosphere Expeditions on their conservation study of whales, dolphins and turtles, so I should have plenty of fresh inspiration for the launch of the ZoQuest site.



WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

NLK: Mostly, I'd like to thank Wandering Educators for giving me a chance to tell potential volunteers about The Frugal Volunteer and hopefully to introduce them to a world of opportunities. The chance to connect to the readers of WE is greatly appreciated.



WE: Thank you, Nola! We highly recommend The Frugal Volunteer: The Give Back Traveller's Guide to Exploring the World on a Shoestring Budget to our readers.

For more information, please see:


And it is available in both kindle and softcover editions:





All photos courtesy of Nola Lee Kelsey. Copyright as noted.