Should you pay to volunteer?

A lot of volunteer organisations charge a fee. Should you pay to volunteer or should it be free. Click to read more about this issue. www.grassrootsnomad.com

THANKS ANNA FOR THIS GUEST POST! WHO IS ANNA?

Anna volunteered for 6 months with Humana People to People in rural Belize. While there, she pondered the pros and cons of foreign aid in developing countries. Her experience inspired an open-license book about the ways poverty affects the lives of people in developing countries (including a chapter about sustainable volunteering) – make sure you check it out!

Should you pay to volunteer?

When faced with the question which organisation to choose for my volunteering experience, I was overwhelmed with the number of options available. Most of the organisations required you to pay a fee. In the end, I chose a program in Richmond Vale Academy, which offered a 6-month “service period” in Ecuador or Belize with a 6-month study and preparation period and another 6-months of dissemination activities. The fee covered my living and educational expenses for 1 year in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, while the volunteering part in the middle was fully funded by the hosting organisation. In my case, this was Humana People to People Belize.

Many people are wary of organisations who charge fees for volunteering – after all, you are already working for free, why would they want you to pay them too?! Although I agree that some fees are ridiculously high, with many going up to few thousands of dollars per week, and others organisations questionable at best (more on that in my free e-book), some of it actually does make sense. There are two main reasons why organisations want you to pay to help them.

First of all, money is often already a big issue for small organisations working in developing countries. When I think back to the costs to the agency that my volunteering in Belize generated, I think that I wasn’t, in fact, volunteer, I was a full-time employee. After all, my teammate and I were living in a house that was paid for by the organisation with all our the living costs covered. Furthermore, we got money for the projects which we wanted to set up, reimbursement of communication costs and approximately 250 US dollars per person per month for food. This is much more than the local people could ask for at regular jobs.

The way I see it, volunteering in a foreign country only makes sense if you can provide something that can’t be found locally: skills, experiences, knowledge… Still, there comes a time when an organisation needs to choose between inviting one foreign volunteer or creating a few jobs for local community – and the rational thing to do would be the second option. That’s why it makes sense for the volunteers to finance at least a part of their stay.

Should you pay to volunteer www.grassrootsnomad.com

Furthermore, paying for anything makes it more valuable. It took me about two years to make enough money to pay for my 18-month program and I consider it money well spent. When I reached my destination, I met people who were very serious about wanting to help others, while at the same time improving their personal development. Also, since it’s more difficult for some people to afford the program fees (newsflash: not everyone earns their salary in US dollars), my organisation was open to negotiation regarding the prices. Once I had been there for awhile, I realised that they had their own income-generating projects, which helped to pay for the volunteering programs. It turns out that even after collecting a fee, the organisation still contributed to the cost of having us working there.

Things to consider

I don’t want to say that volunteering for free isn’t valuable, on the contrary, I am a big fan of simple exchanges between two interested parties. If you can arrange that, grab the opportunity and use it the best you can! I just wanted to explain why not all organisations which ask for money are running some kind of scam to generate income while using well-intentioned people.

If you can afford it, don’t hesitate to check out some more expensive programs, but take precautions to ensure that you don’t support exploitation! Ask the organisation for a budget proposal of your stay and try to compare the fees to the local prices. See where else the money is spent. Find out how much of the money goes towards the people in need. Most of all, do your research online! If the organisation has mostly bad reviews (there will always be some), look for another one.

Guest post by Anna Gudarowska, the author of the incredible (FREE) e-book ‘The Law of the Jungle‘ which examines the impact of poverty on people’s lives. She has also written about the importance of volunteering with the community, rather than for it!

 Should you pay to volunteer or only volunteer for free. Join the debate at www.grassrootsnomad.com

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32 Comments
thetravelpockets

I didn’t realize that some volunteer programs require payment. Such an interesting read since I have never read about the beginning stages of volunteering.

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Anna

Sadly, most of the programs require payment these days, sometimes it’s even a way for the organisation to make money (“voluntourism”). I just wanted to show that not all the programs which require fees are automatically scams.

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Chantell

This is so interesting to read. While backpacking in Brazil, I came across other travelers who said they have looked at volunteering at various organizations but that the fees we ridiculously high. I was so shocked – “why would you pay to work for free?!”. I am sure that this would benefit a lot of people considering volunteer programs..

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Anna

There are still tons of opportunities to volunteer for free, which are based less on a structured program (what I was in) and more a simple exchange. There are networks on the internet which help to connect volunteers with people who need their help in exchange for room and board. I hope I get to try it one day.

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aberkholtz

AHHH! As SOON as I saw the title I was like ‘I NEED TO KNOW THIS’ because husband and I have been getting frustrated a little that all the volunteer opportunities in Thailand are paid but it makes perfect sense, especially the part about making it ‘special’. I guess I can understand how a well-meaning person who wasn’t gung-ho enough to pay $1000+ would be more inclined to back out/leave the organization hanging. Nice post 🙂

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Anna

Thank you! Just please be careful choosing the organisation so you can be resonably sure it’s not aimed at making money from volunteers. Hope you have a great volunteering experience!

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Stella the Travelerette

Interesting to know about! The only voluntourism I have done is in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There was no charge because people really needed as many hands as they could get. I also volunteered through Episcopal Charities, which is well organized. However, I’m glad I read this because otherwise I would have just assumed that any organization that charged money was a scam.

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Anna

Thanks for your comment, this is exactly what I was trying to communicate, though I still think you should be careful.

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everyfootstepanadventure

I was looking into volunteering abroad a lot last year! Some programs cost thousands of dollars for only a few short weeks and I couldn’t afford that. Then I found IVHQ and they only charge a few hundred per minimum 2 weeks and a bit more for every additional week. But then I was reading more about how questionable how much help the volunteers actually were to the community and I became confused by it all. 🙁

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Anna

I agree that it can be all confusing; the more you learn about something the more anxious you are about choosing “just right”. Laura has some great advices about choosing your program on this webstie, I’m sure they will help a lot. There are also networks which connect volunteers directly with people in need of some help, who in exchange offer accommodation and food, all over the world, no money involved – I advise you to check them out. Good luck!

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Toronto Seoulcialite

I’ll be paying to go clean up elephant poop in Thailand. I definitely think it’s more important to pay and volunteer than just throw money at a charity and hope it improves. Good on you!

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Anna

Thank you! I hope you have a great experience. Please make sure the elephants are treated fairly at your facility and I hope your money will be well spent. Good luck!

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abcdeghizzy

I’ve done a few volunteer stints abroad and one thing I’ve always had to wrangle with are companies asking for payments. My biggest concern is the cost breakdown, like how my funds are being distributed and if there’s more impact to the community or to the provider. I dont know, its definitely a concern of mine. When I was in Nepal, I couldn’t believe how expensive the programs were when things just didn’t cost that much and again its important to note if the community actually benefits from the help.

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Anna

I couldn’t agree more, I’ve seen the cost breakdown for my program and, being there for 18 months, I could definitely believe that it was accurate. It’s important to think about those things and make sure that voluntourism is not the source of income for the organisation.

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Hung Thai [Up Up and a Bear]

Thanks. I’ve looked into many programs previously and have really wanted to volunteer, but I ultimately I found that paying to volunteer seems a little odd to me. I certainly understand WHY these programs exist though.

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Anna

I payed for a very structured program but there are plently of opportunities to volunteer for free, check out the networks connecting volunteers directly to people in need of some help, no money involved – I know I will try it out next!

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The Soul of Seoul

That’s great information. I remember looking at organizations when I was right out of school and was like.. I want to volunteer but… I don’t have thousands of dollars to pay to help you. It seems odd at best and they should really explain more on what the costs cover, but also, if they want younger folk, gotta figure out a way around asking for thousands of dollars when we just don’t have it.

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Anna

I agree, I too wanted to do it straigh out of hich school but you either had to pay or be a professional with 5 years of experience. Eventually I managed to fulfill my dreams, but there are also plenty of opportunities with no money involved and I hope you will find a right one for you.

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Cass

This is an interesting perspective – I had looked into a lot these programs awhile back and was a bit turned off by the need to pay for the experience, but didn’t take into account what it goes into. Will have to check out her book 🙂

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Anna

Thanks Cass, I hope you enjoy my book! Just be careful choosing your volunteering experience to make sure your fee isn’t a source of income for the organisation and you’re not exploited, along with the beneficiaries of your work. Check out Laura’s advices on this website, they’re very helpful. Thanks for your comment!

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ckaway

I have done some research on volunteer opportunities and yes, some have very high fees. Understandable. Thanks for the insight.

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Anna

Thanks for the comment! Thankfully you can still find lots of projects for free.

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SuzeMonster

I totally agree with Anna in the fact that both options are viable. It does make sense that small groups trying to help can’t afford the materials and costs to operate in a foreign country. I have happily paid for a few select organizations that I researched and found to be great companies. I also agree that the simple exchange of services is a positive way to make a change. I think both options are necessary for different types of organizations and goals. Great post everyone, thanks!

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Anna

Thanks, Suze! I think that as long as you do your research and really think about your options you should be fine. I’m glad you had godd experiences yourself.

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prair

Really important to think on this topic before volunteering at home or abroad. Nice article!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks for your comment! It is important that people find the right position for them and everyone is different. I was lucky enough to find my own experience which was free (I paid for my own accom/travel/food etc), but it was more about the organisation being a great fit for me.

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Anna

Thumi, I understand your position, really, I just happen to think that not all payed programs are a scam. My fee payed for the more structured program plus accommodation with all household expenses, food, visas, travel between the countries (it took part in 2 different countries), internal travel, internet and phone, plus project expenses… for 18 months (though I mostly write here about 6 months I spent in Belize). All in all, I spent less money per month there than I would have living in my own city, so I consider it a fair amount.
Having said that, I don’t think you are wrong in not paying, just that there are different ways to do it. All the best!

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travelling crone

Thuymi @ AdventureFaktory.com I respectfully disagree with you, paying to volunteer is not a crime. It can be but not always. Many of these small organizations are only funded by people paying to volunteer. Often the volunteers have little to no applicable skills other than manual labour so their value, really, is the fee. In return you get an awesome and unique experience. If however you do have expertise, like vets, nurses, mechanics etc they no, paying would be inappropriate. If you do your research on line, communicate with people who have been to a place you won’t be too far wrong. People are all too eager to give a bad review to a bad organization. I have paid to volunteer at a few org. that charged and all were awesome and could never survive without volunteers to finance their good work.

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Katie Featherstone

Thanks, you’ve made some really good points here. All the volunteering I’ve ever done has been free, but then I’ve also been doing simple work exchange stuff or sleeping in very, very basic conditions. In Calais, nobody would ever have paid to volunteer for the refugees there, but then the whole response was a grass roots initiative by normal people in a supposedly rich country. I totally accept your point that if you are volunteering somewhere with a struggling economy that you should expect to be paying for your own accommodation. Interesting article!

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Grassroots Nomad

Hey Katie. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment! Like you I haven’t paid to volunteer before, but Anna raised some good points that had me consider a different perspective. Amanda recently wrote about her time volunteering in ‘the Jungle’ as part of our monthly volunteering guest post series – perhaps you worked there at the same time?

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