Free (or Cheap) Volunteer Work in the USA
There’s so much for volunteers going on in the States that we’ve barely scratched the surface. Expect lots more listings here soon.
Grassroots Volunteering in the USA
The organisations listed below have either got in touch with us to add their details to this or another of our websites, or we otherwise have reason to believe they are actively looking for international volunteers and charge reasonable or no fees to join in, live and work with them:
Passport in Time
A volunteer archaeology and historic preservation program of the the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Volunteers work with professional FS archaeologists and historians on national forests throughout the US. Activities include archaeological surveys and excavation, rock art restoration, archival research, historic structure restoration and oral history gathering.Over the years Volunteers have helped stabilise ancient cliff dwellings in New Mexico and excavated a 10,000 year old village site in Minnesota. Projects run most months of the year except December and January. Special skills, such as construction or digital photography skills can be helpful on some projects but are not a requirement. Many projects are open to under 18s if accompanied by an adult.
Where: All across the USA.
Accommodation & Costs: Accommodation varies from back country camping to motel or B & B lodging. Where applicable accommodation costs are the responsibility of the volunteer. There is no fee to participate. Depending on the project, volunteers either pay for their own food or contribute a small fee to the camp cook.
+++\ + /+++
American Bear Association
Do bears shit in the woods? Volunteers at this Minnesota black bear sanctuary will find out as part of the duties include bear poop scooping. Most tasks involve manual labour so volunteers should be physically fit and over 18 years old. Volunteers are required between May and September.
Where: The Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, near the town of Orr.
Accommodation & Costs: No fee. Every effort is made to accommodate long term volunteers on site but shorter term volunteers will most likely have to stay off site.
Colorado Trail Foundation
Stretching 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango, the Colorado Trail is maintained by trail crew volunteers each summer who enjoy the outdoors and the social atmosphere around camp. You must be at least 16 years of age and in good physical condition; younger people will be accepted if accompanied by an adult.
Accommodation & Costs: It’s around $40 to $75 to join a trail crew for about a week where, at camp, the CTF provides food. Participants share the tasks of setting camp, daily chores, meal preparation and cleanup. Bring a tent.
+++\ + /+++
Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado
Volunteers combat invasive weeds, build urban trails, repair park facilities and plant trees. From March through October they offer a range of hands on opportunities to volunteer outdoors and help care for Colorado’s natural places. Volunteer crew leaders and crew chefs, among other positions, also need filling.
Accommodation & Costs: No fees. On multiday projects, volunteers usually camp overnight. VOC will provide a place to camp, and food. You just need to bring your own tent and camping supplies.
+++\ + /+++
Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad
Another Colorado trail, this one runs on rails and steam and is billed as a place for those born too late. Various programmes are available including keeping the rolling stock in good order and working on the trains.
Accommodation & Costs: Volunteers pay their own expenses. One or two small fees, such as for insurance, are required here and there.
Koke’e Resource Conservation Program
Participate in weed control projects in native Hawaiian forests. Volunteers work four days each week and have three days off and in exchange are given seven nights of bunk house accommodation and transport to and from the airport. There is also a summer internship programme in vegetation management where interns are given a $250 stipend at the end of each week, but housing is not provided.
Accommodation & Costs: Volunteers must have insurance to take advantage of the provided rustic accommodation. The camp is isolated but they can help volunteers get to the grocery store.
+++\ + /+++
Farm Sanctuary Internships
Volunteers here spend their days working on projects with one goal in mind: to create a more compassionate world for farm animals. Internships are available year round in the New York and two California sanctuaries. Interns must commit for one month (but two or three months is preferred) and are required to be vegan while on the sanctuary premises. Volunteering is also possible.
Where: New York and California.
Accommodation & Costs: Accommodation is provided but interns are responsible for buying and preparing their own food and are required to pay a refundable $150 deposit.
+++\ + /+++
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
Trail crews spend a week or more in the backwoods helping to maintain the 2,000 plus miles of the Appalachian Trail stretching from Georgia to Maine. This is physically hard work involving backpacking and hiking long distances on challenging terrain.
Where: Eastern United States.
Accommodation & Costs: Accommodations at the project sites vary, ranging from primitive backcountry tent camps to tenting in developed campgrounds to cabins accessible by vehicle. Food is also provided.
Festival Volunteering in the USA
Typically the rewards of volunteering at a festival are a free ticket and a better camping pitch.
Seattle International Beerfest
Earn beer money. The festival is made possible by beer loving volunteers. One shift gets you ten free beer tickets, a t-shirt and a glass, three shifts equates to 43 beers. Cheers. The festival, along with another held in Portland, is in July.
Hostel Work Exchanges
Many hostels use help exchange networks (see below) to find volunteer staff but the following either advertise on their websites or are particularly noted for taking on volunteers:
Green Tortoise Seattle Hostel
Kathleen Schmidt, who has also worked in a hostel in South Africa, landed free accommodation in Seattle when she bumped into the owner of the Green Tortoise and was asked to help out with cleaning. These days those interested in a work exchange can take the formal route and email their CV. Along with accommodation, perks breakfast and dinner, and weekly events and activities.
The Hostel in the Forest
This Brunswick, Georgia hostel has been built and maintained by countless volunteer hours provided by its Staff, and Guest Members. Normally, volunteer staff members are chosen by the management team, in person on an as needed basis, with six staff running the day to day operations. You must be 21 years of age or older. Hostel staff typically stay for 90 days or less and subsequently they’re constantly looking for new volunteers. Areas of expertise sought include general maintenance, kitchen, garden, facilities and laundry.
The New Paltz Hostel
Ninety minutes away from NYC, positive, hard working, friendly people are sought by the New Paltz Hostel to work two eight hour shifts per week on their work exchange programme. The job is 95% cleaning.
More Hostel Work Exchanges
Paid jobs might be available to those that are eligible (ie those with a J-1 visa) but first get your foot in the door at LA’s Venice Beach Hostel by working for meals and a place to sleep. Superstar personalities with hotel experience are encouraged to apply for front desk and management internships with Miami Bikini Hostel. Accommodation exchange is available for the right candidates. A film location in Las Vegas for The Hangover, we have in the past seen Hostel Cat post a (very) brief ad for free stay staff.
Sitka International Hostel, in Alaska, opened in 2010 in a historic building previously used as an infirmary, a college and a bachelor officers’ quarters for the US Coast Guard. We have seen them taking applications for ‘houseparent’ volunteers to welcome their guests and do some light housekeeping. On site accommodation and a monthly stipend towards shopping at the local supermarket is provided in return. At the time of writing they have converted their hostel rooms to apartments to ride out Covid, ceased taking reservations and are presently closed to the public. Hopefully they will be back. Elsewhere in Alaska, Spenard Hostel and the Fairbanks International Hostel were once certs for work exchanges but we can’t say they are anything other than maybes now.
The Grand Canyon International Hostel, in Flagstaff, is closed for the time being but their sister facility Motel Du Beau Travelers Inn is still open. Previously, they have both issued invites to travellers to stop a while in the mountains and live rent free for two to three hours of housekeeping duties per day, five days a week. Other perks include free breakfast and tours. Gunnison, Colorado’s Wanderlust Hostel also appeals to the outdoorsy type and those trading their time and skills will be able to go skiing or hiking in the mountains in their free time.
San Diego’s International Travelers House encourages travellers from all over the world to apply for their volunteer programme. A standard day for live-in volunteer staff could range from checking in new travellers, keeping the house clean and tidy for the guests, or helping out with social activities. In return volunteers get free accommodation, meals, parties and trips. These days they hire via Worldpackers. City Hostel Seattle also takes on hostel lovers looking for a work trade.
Other Opportunities to Volunteer in the USA
Broadcasting to isolated Eskimo villages, volunteers have been critical to the success of KNOM, a Catholic radio station in western Alaska. Only 15 per cent of applicants (who must be US citizens or authorised to work in the US on an unrestricted basis) are accepted but those successful will receive room and board, round trip air transportation, health insurance and a monthly cash stipend for the duration of their one year stint. Volunteers work in a variety of positions including DJ, producing feature interviews and documentary programmes, news reporters and producers. Also in Alaska, the Alutiiq Museum preserves the historic cultural traditions of the Alutiiq people. Among other things, volunteers greet visitors and give tours, monitor archaeology sites, work on a dig or as a laboratory technician.
At the time of writing the world famous Bronx Zoo, the largest metropolitan zoo in the world at 265 acres, isn’t accepting volunteers, but hopefully after Covid they will do so again. I’m winging it a little with what I write next, but the previous details we had from the old normal stated they had two volunteer programmes where animal lovers might be thrilled to get involved. One involves leading groups around the exhibits and assisting with their environmental education programmes, the other is in Guest Relations. Both programmes will require volunteers to be resident in New York. Volunteer work is also available with the Central Park, Prospect Park and Queens Zoos and at the New York Aquarium, all managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Links to each can be found via the Bronx Zoo link above. The separately run Staten Island Zoo also welcomes volunteers and interns.
HI USA does not offer work/trade or free accomodations in return for volunteering but they do seek locally based volunteers to share their experience with travellers from around the world. When I last stayed with Hostelling International, some time ago in New York, I ran about the place wrapped up in a blue blanket, like a skinny drunk Batman. If you would like to deal with people like me by all means apply via www.hiusavolunteers.org.
Help Exchange Networks in the USA
Other Ways to Travel or Stay for Free in the USA
Stay for free in return for caring for local residents’ homes or pets. Join Trusted Housesitters to live rent free as a house sitter (Americans may prefer this link). You can also get a free Airbnb credit from us here.
How to Volunteer at a National Park (And Live For Free!) – Veronica and David appreciate how lucky they are to be able to explore the great American outdoors for free through the National Parks Service.
My Experience Volunteering in Philadelphia, USA – In 2011, Pilar, a Mexican expat, volunteered to help renovate a church and community education centre.
Best Friends Animal Society – If you want to visit Piggy Paradise, Dogtown and Bunny House, Utah’s Best Friends Animal Society offers you the opportunity to work in their various rescue centres. Here, Sadie reports on each.
Farm Life in Northern California – With an interest in one day living sustainably on her own farm, Kirsty Henderson learnt about growing food and farm life in Boonville, Mendocino County.
Volunteering Gone Waaayyy Wrong and 10 Tips to Avoid a Bad Volunteer Experience – Lash has a bad WWOOF experience in Florida.
* not all these volunteer experiences are with grassroots NGOs or low cost organisations