Why do I have to pay to volunteer?

21 August 2015

This is a question we get asked a lot, with varying degrees of incredulity. Paying to “volunteer” seems like a strange concept - why should I pay to help someone? Surely it should be enough that I am giving my time? When you begin your research for your upcoming volunteer experience, you’ll see that the vast majority of companies which 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. 

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

Volunteering or Voluntourism?

When you volunteer abroad, the case FOR paying to volunteer becomes stronger. Volunteering has become a two-way experience for adventurous travellers - they want to 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. That experience might be getting close to iconic African animals, living on a beautiful beach doing marine research or getting to rehabilitate monkeys at a sanctuary. This is what has turned volunteering into Voluntourism - voluntourists do not need special language or job skills, they get to sample local culture and they exchange a wonderful overseas travel experience, for giving their time, energy and yes, money, to an organisation which 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”

Chnaces 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.

Lets look at what most programme fees include.

Accommodation 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 and can range from 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 unless you have good local contacts. Part of your project fee will go to covering your transport costs in a safe, reliable and fully insured vehicle.

- 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 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 for convenient.

- 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. 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 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.

Low cost volunteering
Paid volunteering is not for everyone. You may have the contacts 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. 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!

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