We hear this a lot from people who are planning to volunteer abroad and are shocked when they find out the cost. You’re volunteering, so why do you have to pay? It’s a reasonable question! You’re giving up YOUR time, working for NO money, so why are you paying for the privilege?
Most places where we send volunteers are either poor countries or impoverished communities. (Most, but not all). There is often no welfare state in such places – that’s one reason they need volunteers.
If you’re reading this, you probably live a relatively comfortable life in the Western world, where there’s money for community development projects, conservation work, schools and basic healthcare. But in other countries, no such funding exists – or certainly not enough to start or run a project of the kind you’ll be volunteering on. The project can’t exist without the financial contributions of the volunteers who come and work there – that’s one reason you’re asked to pay a fee (there’s more on this below).
The fact that you’re volunteering with an organisation which has to be accountable both locally and in your home country also means you are a bit more in control of how that money is spent and where it goes. Unlike when you drop some coins in a charity bucket, or raise money through a sponsored activity, when you volunteer abroad, you can see with your own eyes exactly how that money is being spent. As most of our partner organisations are small (some are charities, non-profits or social enterprises too), they are generally more careful about not wasting money. We vet everyone we work with too, and have rejected organisations that we think or know are not fiscally responsible.
Think about the things you do that cost money every day. The food you eat, the place that you live, how you get to work, and so on. All of those things cost money – some of which you’ll pay for directly, such as your bus fare or petrol, and some of which you’ll pay for indirectly, such as the road you are walking down, or the fact that your bin got emptied yesterday.
You take all those costs with you when you go away. Your volunteering fee will normally cover such things as your food, accommodation, and transport because surely you don’t expect a poor community to pay that for you?! Your food will normally be prepared for you on a volunteering project, and the person who buys and cooks it needs to be paid. Your accommodation will need to be cleaned and maintained to ensure a level of comfort and safety for you.
There’ll normally be someone to pick you up at the airport and take you to the project. Also, depending on the project needs, you might be staying some way from it so will need to get taken to and from your volunteer work each day and of course, the minibus and driver need to be paid for. You may even need transport on the actual project itself – for example, if you’re working on a game reserve you will need to travel some distance in a jeep – which needs petrol and maintenance.
Your presence abroad should have a positive impact (financially and otherwise) on the place you are staying, and that means covering the costs of hosting you.
When you arrive at your volunteering project, there are costs all around you. For example: the building you’re standing in, the pen you’re handed to fill out a form, the jeep we talked about earlier, and the person who opened the door to let you in. All those things cost money and there is normally very little local money to cover them.
Money must continue to come in with each volunteer so that everything the project needs to continue can all be paid for. The equipment that volunteers and staff use must be bought and maintained – whether that’s books for a school or electronic tag for wildlife. The buildings where the project is based also need to be maintained – they must remain standing, leaks will need fixing, wiring needs to be done so places can be lit and people can get around safely, and so on.
The people who work on the project – almost always local staff – need to be paid too. They might include your supervisor, a volunteer co-ordinator, other teachers, and permanent staff such as admin staff, managers, cooks, cleaners and drivers. They’ll also have to pay for outside suppliers, such as the electrician to do the above-mentioned wiring. And of course, like you and me, they will always have bills to pay! All these costs need to be covered by volunteers so the project can keep going
When you apply for a volunteering project, you’ll normally speak to someone before departing to the project location who can answer all your questions, make sure you’re prepared, and ensure you have everything you need – from the right visa to the right clothes. That person needs to be paid.
The office they are in also needs to be paid for and all the costs that come with running a small business in different locations (almost all our partners are small businesses and many are charities or non-profits). They have phones, computers and desks to pay for, plus costs like the internet, so you can see their website! They also need to pay for marketing to get volunteers onto the projects, such as paying to advertise on this site.
Depending on the project, you might be given fundraising advice, a packing list, attend a pre-departure meeting, and you’ll always have someone you can phone or email with any questions or concerns. Most of our partner projects include orientation as well, to ensure you’re starting off on the right foot and have some help getting used to your surroundings and the local culture.
Some projects even include language and culture lessons. You might also receive training (either here or abroad) – for example, if you’re doing marine conservation you will need to learn to dive, and if you’re carrying out scientific research, you’ll need to learn how to collect and record data properly. Some teaching placements include training, and this can be a TEFL certificate which you can then use to get paid work abroad.
When you get to the project, you’re not just handed a shovel and left to get on with it! You will be supervised, and, as in any job, you will learn a tremendous amount from your supervisor and other local staff. It’s not simply the skill of how to feed a lion cub, or how to help educate children. There are all sorts of things you’ll need to pick up, from how the organisation is run, to local cultural practices, to useful words to know in the language – even tips on places to go during your time off!
Your supervisor or volunteer co-ordinator is not just there to make sure you’re happy and carrying out your tasks to the best of your ability. There is someone there to support you round-the-clock, which hopefully you will never need but is essential should anything go wrong. If you became ill or had an accident, there’s someone on hand who speaks the local language, knows what medical care is available locally, and how it all works. Having that security can provide you with peace of mind, even if – as on most volunteer projects – everything is fine.
If you’ve ever worked for a charity (or university, or public sector organisation) in your home country, you’ll know how hard it is to get a regular source of income, even in the West. Imagine how much harder that is in a much poorer country, which might have additional issues, such as political instability or greater corruption.
When one of our partner organisations can ensure a consistent supply of volunteers to support the costs of the project, that project has stability which is hard to come by any other way. Other sources of income can fluctuate or be cut off suddenly, but some of the volunteer organisations we work with have been able to supply volunteers with their financial project donations on a regular basis for years, sometimes even decades.
That translates to a stable job for the people who work locally, and consistency for the people you’re helping (such as the children you might be teaching or the community you might be working to develop). If they’re able to rely on a stable source of income, that means they have more time and resources focusing on the core work of their project.
And by extension, the survival of the people or places you’re trying to help. Yes, your money that you bring as a paying volunteer could literally be helping people to survive! Pretty special, right?
Some projects focus on the short-term, but many necessarily have a long-term strategy. For example, with education, there needs to be an assurance that a child will be helped throughout their school years to have the best opportunities and be able to have a fulfilling and useful career. In conservation, it can take years for a project to even start to see some progress sometimes – forests and coral reefs don’t just grow overnight! With awareness projects, such as reducing HIV transmission rates, again, these can take a long time to see significant results, even when short-term progress is also possible.
Without a stable, reliable source of income, these projects can’t plan for the future, and in some cases (like planting trees), can’t even get off the ground. After all, what would be the point in planting a forest if its future can’t be guaranteed? This is why volunteers are so important for these projects – it’s not just the work you do today, or next week or next month – your presence has a positive impact year into the future.