Why do I have to pay to volunteer?

8 October 2018

Paying to “volunteer” seems like a strange concept, and its one question we do regularly get asked. When you begin research into volunteer experiences, you’ll see that the vast majority of companies who offer organised volunteer programmes, expect you to pay some level of fee. Even when you apply directly to projects, there are very few which do not expect some sort of financial contribution. 

Questions we get asked:

- "Why should I pay when I am already donating my time and energy to assist an organisation?"

- "Why can't I work in exchange for bed and board?"

Volunteering or Voluntourism?

When you volunteer overseas, particularly in third world countries, the case for paying to volunteer becomes stronger.

Volunteer | noun - “a person who works for an organisation without being paid.” 

Volunteering abroad has become a two-way concept. Volunteers contribute their time and energy to a worthwhile cause, e.g. protecting rhinos, monitoring elephants, working with children or working at a wildlife sanctuary, and in return they want to have a unique travel experience, a life-changing adventure. That experience might be getting close to iconic African animals, living on a beautiful beach doing marine research or rehabilitating primates at a sanctuary. 

This notion of giving and receiving, is what has turned volunteering into Voluntourism. Voluntourists do not need special language or job skills, they get to sample local culture, and exchange a wonderful overseas travel experience for donating their time, energy and yes, money, to an organisation that is carrying out work which the volunteer believes in, and wants to be involved with.

Why you should pay to volunteer and why you can’t always just work 'in exchange for bed and board”

Chances are the overseas organisation you will be working for has precious few resources (otherwise it would probably not need assistance from unskilled volunteers), and is not in a position to cover the costs of feeding, housing and transporting volunteers.

If funds were available, the chances are they would be used to employ more local people, who would stay with the project long term, or invest more in the organisation and the projects it supports.

While it may be cheaper to go at it alone on your own volunteer trip, there are many benefits of volunteering through an organisation like Conservation Travel Africa.

  • It is difficult and time consuming to find projects to support in a foreign country that are safe, worthwhile, and reputable.
  • With CTA, you will receive travel and visa support, and be assured you will receive a full project orientation, a safe place to live, a supportive work environment and a safety net through our local partner staff
  • You will have clear expectations of the work you will do from day one.

Let's look at what most programme fees include.

Accommodation, housekeeping and food 

Your home while you are volunteering should be a secure place, where local staff are on hand to deal with any emergencies, and to ensure that your belongings (and you) are safe, while you are in the house, and also while you are out working.

There are varying standards of accommodation provided by volunteer organisations, which can range from basic camping or homestays in local communities, to relatively luxurious volunteer house or lodge accommodation. Usually meals or food will be provided - volunteers may have to cook for themselves, but increasingly volunteer projects are providing cooked meals for their volunteers.

Supermarkets are often hard to come by in rural areas, so volunteers would struggle without transport to buy their own food and cater for themselves.

If your accommodation is in a volunteer house, the project will usually employ staff to cook and clean, and undertake repairs and maintenance. There is usually also a project member of staff on duty 24 hours a day to ensure that any emergencies can be attended to immediately.

The costs of feeding and housing a volunteer are high even before the volunteer has started working. Without a fee to cover the costs of staff, food and accommodation, the project would make a financial loss which would eventually mean they could no longer continue to operate - negatively impacting the wildlife, environment and communities it was set up to help.

What else goes into your project fee?

- Transport. When you’re volunteering 300km from the nearest city, finding your own transport, or using public transport, is often impossible without good local contacts. Part of your project fee will go to covering your transport costs in a safe, reliable and fully insured vehicle.

- Staff, safety and security. Most projects will require a degree of training and orientation, especially when volunteers do not bring any specific skills or experience. The project will have put support structures in place so that volunteers can do their best work and contribute most effectively, with the minimum of confusion, almost as soon as they arrive at their destination.

Wildlife and childcare projects will require supervision from trained professionals and the employment of staff who speak the local language. Safety is often the biggest difference between paying to volunteer and striking out on your own - how far is the nearest hospital and how would you get there in an emergency? What happens if you get sick? Is there a safe place to lock your valuables?

- Long term project support. This is perhaps the greatest benefit of paying to volunteer. Part of your programme fee will go back to the organisation which you are supporting, to ensure that it can continue to operate after you have left. For a project to be meaningful and long-term, it must be able to run in the absence of volunteers and without volunteer funding. Many free projects are short term and low impact. The funding which volunteers provide means projects can stop scratching the surface and start planning for the future.

- Finding the perfect responsible project. Reputable volunteer travel companies will have spent a considerable amount of time researching, visiting and working with NGOs, wildlife organisations and community programmes, to ensure that the work they do is sustainable, the work which volunteers will do is meaningful to both parties, and that no animals or people are being exploited in the provision of the volunteer experience.

To find a truly responsible project independently when you live thousands of miles away and only have a two week holiday, can be very tricky and extremely time-consuming. Obviously if you are travelling for an extended period of time in a country or region, it can be easier to find local programmes where you can help, but for people who have limited time in which they can travel, an organised programme will usually be much more convenient.

Low cost volunteering

Paid volunteering is not for everyone. You may have the contacts needed to get worthwhile volunteer work overseas, or have enough time on your hands to make them as you go. If you have skills which are in demand in developing countries - medical, veterinarian, humanitarian or community development, then you may be able to find a project that will take you on for little financial contribution.

Bear in mind that there may be limited support, no transfers and less organisation than you are comfortable with. You may feel that you are not really helping and are spending more time travelling, buying and cooking meals and navigating the culture rather than supporting the local staff doing the work that you wanted to do. 

Prices and packages vary enormously, so decide what you want to get out of the experience and how much independent organising you want to do. For a few hundred dollars you might get a contact and someone to call if you get stuck. For a few thousand dollars you will usually get a fully supported placement in the country of your choice, where there is nothing to worry about apart from the work that you are doing and the amazing experience you are having. And we believe that’s worth paying for!

All Conservation Travel Africa volunteer programmes have been carefully assessed to ensure that volunteer contributions are meaningful to the organisation and will deliver what the volunteer is looking for.

Discover our life-changing volunteer projects.

Article originally posted August 2015, updated 8th October 2018

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