For all India's beauty, rich culture and history, poverty and hardship are unavoidable facts of life. Many travellers feel motivated to help, and charities and aid organisations across the country welcome committed volunteers. Here's a guide to help you start making a difference.
Consider how your skills will benefit the people you are trying to help, and choose an organisation that can specifically benefit from your abilities.
Think realistically about how much time you can devote to a project. You’re more likely to be of help if you commit for at least a month, ideally more.
Giving your time for free is only part of the story; most organisations expect volunteers to cover their accommodation, food and transport.
Make sure you understand what you are signing up for; many organisations expect volunteers to work full time, five days a week.
Ensure that the organisation you choose is reputable and transparent about how it spends its money. Where possible, get feedback from former volunteers.
India faces considerable challenges and there are numerous opportunities for volunteers. It may be possible to find a placement after you arrive, but charities and nongovernment organisations (NGOs) generally prefer volunteers who have applied in advance and been approved for the kind of work involved. Reputable organisations may insist on a criminal background check for working with children. Ethical Volunteering (www.ethicalvolunteering.org) provides useful guidelines for choosing an ethical sending agency.
As well as international organisations, local charities and NGOs often have opportunities, though it can be harder to assess the work that these organisations are doing. For listings of local agencies, check www.ngosindia.com or contact the Delhi-based Concern India Foundation.
The following programs are just some of many that may have opportunities for volunteers; contact them in advance to arrange a placement. Note that Lonely Planet does not endorse any organisations that we do not work with directly, so it is essential that you do your own thorough research before agreeing to volunteer with any organisation.
If you have medical experience, there are numerous opportunities to provide health care and support for the most vulnerable in Indian society.
Kolkata-based Missionaries of Charity also offers volunteer opportunities in Delhi.
Sambhavna Trust (Bhopal) accepts volunteers to help long-term victims of the 1984 disaster.
Sadhana Village (Pune), a residence for disabled adults, has a minimum commitment of two months for volunteers.
Many community volunteer projects work to provide health care and education to villages.
Root Institute for Wisdom Culture (Bodhgaya) Occasional placements to train local health workers.
Hope Project A broad-based community project, welcoming short- or long-term volunteers who can offer childcare, medical, ELT, IT or other skills.
Kishkinda Trust (Hampi) Volunteers needed to assist with sustainable community development.
Friends of Orchha (Orchha) Offers volunteer placements to help improve the livelihoods of rural villagers.
Slum Aid Working in Mumbai slums to improve lives; placements from two weeks to six months.
Those with architectural and building skills should look at the following.
At Saathi (Kondagaon) volunteers with design experience help train tribal people in handicraft production.
Tibet Heritage Fund (Leh) Openings for volunteers with experience in art restoration or architecture to help preserve traditional buildings.
Csomas Room (Zanskar) Volunteers restore and preserve traditional architecture in Zanskar.
ArcHeS (Karaikkudi) Aims to preserve the architectural and cultural heritage of Chettinadu; openings for historians, geographers and architects.
Haveli Nadine Le Prince (Shekhawati) Has opportunities to assist the running of this historic haveli.
The following charities focus on environmental education and sustainable development:
Ecosphere (Kaza) This multifaceted sustainable-development NGO has openings for short- and long-term volunteers including in cafe work, translating, agriculture and palliative care.
International Society for Ecology & Culture One-month placements on rural farms to promote sustainable agriculture; relaunched in 2015.
Rainforest Retreat (Coorg) Organic farming, sustainable agriculture and waste management are catchphrases at this lush hideway amid spice plantations; check the website for volunteering options.
Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (Phaltan) offers internships in sustainable agriculture lasting two to six months for agriculture, engineering and science graduates.
Keystone Foundation (Kotagiri) Offers occasional opportunities to help improve environmental conditions, working with indigenous communities.
Many Buddhist schools need teachers of English for long-term placements; enquire locally in Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Ladakh. Teaching experience is preferred.
Himalayan Buddhist Cultural School Placements of six months or more for experienced teachers at this boarding school for children from remote villages.
Jamyang Foundation Arranges placements teaching Buddhist women and girls in the Spiti Valley.
Learning & Ideas for Tibet (McLeod Ganj) Current needs are for teachers of English, French, German and computer skills, to work with Tibetan refugees.
Tibet Hope Center (McLeod Ganj) English teaching and conversation with the Tibetan community.
Hayden Hall (Darjeeling) Offers minimum two-month opportunities for volunteers with medical, teaching and business experience.
Druk White Lotus School (Shey) Buddhist monastery school in Ladakh with long-term placements (May to September only) for English teachers.
We For Kargil (Kargil) Place volunteers in rural villages around the region.
Phuktal Monastery (Zanskar) Accepts short-term EFL teaching volunteers.
Csoma's Room This Hungarian outfit takes teachers (as well as restorers) in Zangla.
From stray dogs to rescued reptiles, opportunities for animal lovers are plentiful.
Blue Cross of Hyderabad A shelter with over 1300 animals; volunteers help care for animals or work in the office.
Animal Rescue Centre (Chapolim) Animal welfare group that also has volunteer opportunities.
Welfare of Stray Dogs (Mumbai) Volunteers can work with the animals, manage stores or educate kids in school programs.
Animal Aid Unlimited (Udaipur) Accepts volunteers to help injured, abandoned or stray animals.
Madras Crocodile Bank (Vadanemmeli) A reptile conservation centre with openings for volunteers (minimum two weeks).
The following charities provide support for disadvantaged children.
RIDE (Rural Institute for Development Education; Kanchipuram) Volunteer teachers and support staff help rural communities and children rescued from forced labour.
Learn for Life Society (Varanasi) Volunteer opportunities at a small school for disadvantaged children.
The following charities work to empower and educate women.
Sambhali Trust (Jodhpur) Volunteers needed to teach and help organise workshops for disadvantaged women.
There are so many international volunteering agencies, it can be bewildering trying to assess which ones are reputable. Agencies offering the chance to do whatever you want, wherever you want, are almost always tailoring projects to the volunteer rather than finding the right volunteer for the work that needs to be done. Look for projects that will derive real benefits from your skills. To find sending agencies in your area, read Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide, or try one of the following:
Himalayan Education Lifeline Programme (HELP; www.help-education.org) British-based charity organising placements for volunteer teachers at schools in Sikkim.
Indicorps (www.indicorps.org) Matches volunteers to projects across India, particularly in social development.
Jamyang Foundation (www.jamyang.org) Arranges volunteer placements for experienced teachers in Zanskar and Himachal Pradesh.
Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO; www.vso.org.uk) British organisation offering long-term professional placements in India and worldwide.
Workaway (www.workaway.info) Connects people with hotels, guesthouses, organic farms, restaurants and more, where they will get free accommodation and food in return for working five days a week.
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