Interview with International Volunteering Expert Kirsty Henderson

by Jason -- August 5, 2010

I’ve been a fan of Kirsty’s Nerdy Nomad blog since back in my cubicle days. I was drawn in by her perpetual travel and completely transparent reports of how she earns her living online. As I followed her story, I learned that she not only travels but also volunteers, helping those in a time of need. She most recently volunteered with Hands On Disaster Response (HODR) in Haiti after the massive earthquake. She has become an expert on international volunteering and is now sharing her knowledge in a new ebook. She is even donating half of all money made from the ebook to HODR. I was excited to have the opportunity to interview her and in the following post, she answers a few of my questions about how she makes a living, about her experience volunteering in Haiti and her new ebook.

Could you give a brief introduction of yourself?

I’m from a city called St. Catharines which is about 15 minutes from Niagara Falls, Canada. I studied business at university but, to be honest, I mostly scraped by while spending most of my time at the pub. Pre-travel I lived at home, studied (sometimes) and worked mostly in retail to pay for the university courses I wasn’t really going to as often as I should.

When did you start traveling full-time and why?

As soon as I graduated university in 2001 everyone I knew was lining up interviews, going to job fairs and fretting about finding a ‘real’ job. I, on the other hand, was on a one-way flight to Australia and I haven’t lived in Canada since. I was eager to travel after having spent the summer of 2000 living and working in Galway, Ireland with a bit of travel around Europe at the end of the summer. I was pretty much hooked after that.

What is your primary source of income?

I build travel websites and make money through advertising, selling products (including my volunteering ebook), and through pay-per-click advertising such as Google Adsense. You can get an idea of the sites I run by reading this post ( on my blog.

Once you’ve built a site with interesting and quality content, how much additional work is typically required?

Building the site, for me, is the fun part. The hard work begins once the site is finished. A wonderful site with great content but no visitors won’t make a cent. With my model and the type of sites I make, in order to make money I need them to rank well with Google and get a lot of search engine traffic. To do this I need to build links and get the word out there. The building links part is what takes the most work in the form of emailing people to swap links, and writing guest posts and articles to get back links.

What advice would you give someone interested in getting started in niche marketing and having a passive income like yourself?

This is a tough one because I’ve been out of the niche marketing loop for a long time (because I’ve been travelling and not reading many websites or doing much work) and I’m not really sure what’s going on in the industry. In short, I kind of know what I’m doing but I mostly just stumble and bumble my way through. This guy is considered an expert so might be a good place to start: I haven’t read the site in ages but it gave me a lot of ideas and good advice back when I was starting out.

I would also say to research, research, research. There’s a load of free information out there. Don’t get caught up in ‘get rich quick’ schemes because there’s nothing quick about this process. It took me years to earn my first cent. But I do think that we’re still in the early days of making money from the internet so get busy, grab hold of a niche and stick with it. Hard work now will pay off later as long as you work smart, do your research and stick with it.

Okay, enough with your “day job”, let’s move on to volunteering. What was your first experience volunteering abroad?

My first experience was volunteering in Madrid teaching - no, speaking - English to a bunch of Spanish business people. I paid to get myself to Madrid and they bussed English speakers and 25 Spaniards to a resort where we spoke for five days, non-stop to people eager to improve their language skills. We got good food, accommodation and even red wine in exchange for our efforts. The Spaniards were paying big bucks for the privilege so it didn’t feel like a true volunteering opportunity but what I loved (and what got me hooked) was the opportunity to get to know people who I otherwise would have never spoken to and to learn about their lives in Spain. I never would have met so many interesting locals had I been staying at a backpacker’s hostel in Madrid. Volunteering there really gave me an insight into life in Madrid.

What were your most recent volunteer experiences?

I was in Haiti from March to May 2010 volunteering with Hands On Disaster Response (HODR) ( after the January earthquake. I spent most of my time early on working in teams to clear the rubble from people’s foundations so they could pitch a tarp on their own property, rather than in one of the camps. This involved a lot of shoveling, wheelbarrowing, sledge hammering rubble in the hot sun. Towards the end of my time there I worked on a school. It was just coming to completion by the time I was leaving and it was great to be a part of rebuilding rather than removing fallen structures.

If there was such thing as an “average day”, what was an average day like in Haiti?

It’s pretty surprising how routine life gets, even in a place like Haiti. We started work at 7:30 each day (except Sunday) but I was often up a lot earlier due to the heat and rooster combination. Breakfast of oatmeal, cereal and bread and peanut butter was provided and I sat with over 100 bleary-eyed volunteers gearing up for the tough day ahead.

At 7:30am we were outside loading up tools onto a tap-tap (basically a pickup truck) before heading off in teams of around 10 or 15 people to our job site. We’d have a bunch of different job sites running at once with most teams working on rubble sites. We would spend the day hauling rubble from the foundation out into the street where the UN would eventually collect and remove it. We often ended up making mountains of rubble that we’d have to ascend with the wheelbarrow. It was was hard but really rewarding, especially considering the people you were working with. Then we’d head home for lunch at about 11:30am with a 2 hour break during the hottest hours before heading back out in the afternoon to do more of the same.

After work some people would play basketball or floor hockey, some would head to the bar on the corner for a beer, and others would shower straight away and chill out. At 6pm we would all assemble for the dreaded meeting that would sometimes take as long as an hour. It was necessary though to say hello to new volunteers, goodbye to leaving ones and to update on the day’s work. After the meeting people would do their own things. Some nights I would head to the bar next door, others I would go to bed early completely shattered, others I would have a Creole lesson and sometimes I would just sit around chatting with friends.

Then sleep and repeat, six days a week!

What do you typically receive in exchange for volunteering?

Most of my volunteering has been with HODR who give food and accommodation and even a t-shirt in exchange for your work. You get yourself there and they look after the rest. I feel like I get so much more out of the experience than I’m able to give back. Besides the free food and accommodation, the friendships you build and the experiences you have in the community are, for me, what makes volunteering with HODR an amazing thing.

Do you have to pay to join the volunteer programs? The little bit of research we’ve done into volunteering always resulted in us having to pay.

I would never pay to volunteer. I would happily pay to cover my food and accommodation costs within reason (I don’t want to be a burden on the organization I’m there to help) but paying thousands to a middleman type organization is not for me. The problem is that these middleman type companies have Google sewn up. Try to do a search for ‘international volunteering’ or ‘volunteering in x country’ and you will be bombarded with supposed opportunities, all of which charge a fortune to participate. It’s easy to see why some people don’t even realize it’s possible to volunteer for free. But rest assured that there are a lot of free and cheap volunteering opportunities out there… you just have to work a bit harder to find them.

What advice would you give to someone interested in getting started volunteering abroad?

Buy my ebook! Ok it’s kind of lame to launch into a sales pitch, but it really will help you out. There are a lot of tips and resources in there for finding free volunteering opportunities. It’s my passion and I have a bunch of first-hand advice to offer. Plus 50% of each sale ($7) goes to HODR in my effort to raise $10,000 for them and support the great work they do.

Finally, what’s next for the Nerdy Nomad?

I’m in Rwanda at the moment and the plan is to stay put for a few months and catch up with about a year’s worth of work I haven’t done. That means some website and ebook promotion, link building, design tweaking and writing. I’m also hoping to launch another blog. Travel-wise I can see myself staying in Africa and hunting out interesting (and affordable) volunteering opportunities but I always have Haiti at the back of my mind and I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up back there at some point in the next year.


Thanks again to Kirsty for the interview. Her new, awesome ebook is called The Underground Guide to International Volunteering and is only $14 — half of that goes to Hands On Disaster Response. Sharon and I can attest to the fact that finding a solid international volunteer opportunity is not easy. There are a lot of folks trying to take advantage of good intentioned people.

To read more about Kirsty, check out her blog, Nerdy Nomad or on Twitter @Travoholic.

If you have any questions for her about international volunteering or anything else, shoot me an email or leave it as a comment and I’ll make sure to get the questions to her.

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2 Responses to “Interview with International Volunteering Expert Kirsty Henderson”

  1. It’s so heartwarming to know that there are wonderful people like you in the world. :)

  2. Hi Andi,

    Totally agree! Kirsty’s done some pretty awesome things!


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