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.
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!