Working in the volunteer travel industry in Africa over the past few years, I have come across a growing number of companies encouraging or attempting to promote free volunteering. However, I don’t know when volunteering can ever be truly free. In fact, I'd go as far to say you can't volunteer abroad for free.
One of the most common questions I get asked is “Why pay to volunteer?” Interestingly, it's not often from people who wish to volunteer that ask this question, it's normally people who are unfamiliar with or skeptical about volunteer travel. The way I would choose to address this question, perhaps annoyingly, is with another question: when is volunteering ever free?
Here are four reasons why volunteering should NEVER be free:
Hosting a volunteer costs money.
The project you choose to volunteer with will always have costs in facilitating, managing, and monitoring your involvement, which are all essential elements in making your volunteer work abroad meaningful and sustainable. Even if you are not volunteering abroad, and you are instead volunteering, for example, at a local animal shelter, there are still expenses. When you are volunteering abroad, you’ll need energy to do your duties, which requires food; you need to get there, which entails a car or bus ride, and you might need clothing to wear, all of which costs money. All volunteer projects that host volunteers must also pay insurance. Even if this is all provided for you, someone at some point spends money to allow you to volunteer in other ways. Whilst volunteers don’t receive money for their work, they, or the people they are volunteering for, have to pay for their kind of assistance on some level.
So, what does this mean? You’ll need to help the organization you are serving by paying to volunteer in some way.
Volunteering is a powerful experience.
Volunteering abroad should be taken seriously, which means anyone who works with volunteers needs to maximize the impact volunteers can make. At the same time, the volunteers themselves need to take on the responsibility of making the best use of their volunteering opportunities , the monetary costs, and the intangibles in the form of opportunity costs, or “opportunities lost”, have to be considered. However, when you do this, and get it right, the power of volunteering can be more than most ever expect and more than volunteers have ever dreamt of.
Your motivations matter.
When it comes to choosing a volunteer project, you need to be honest with yourself; how much are you doing this for the opportunity to learn and what are you hoping to get out of this? There is nothing wrong with having a selfish motivation for volunteering abroad. It’s a great way to explore a new place while making an impact, and it’s an opportunity for personal development whilst doing something positive.
When you recognize what you can get out of volunteering, the reason to pay to volunteer abroad becomes far more obvious. Not only obvious, but you can start to work out what you want to pay for. On some volunteer projects abroad, your fees are spent more on giving you a quality experience through things like food, accommodation, and staff support, while some volunteer organizations are more focused on giving money to the projects. I encourage you to ask these questions to find out where your money goes.
Reputable, sustainable volunteer organizations will balance the fees you pay to volunteer with them between several key areas. They will want to provide you with a great experience and give you a comfortable and safe place to stay, and therefore, invest money in volunteer support in order to reach their volunteer goals. This means they will work with volunteers on the projects to make sure the work they do is of real benefit, fits in the project’s long term objectives, and does no harm. For some volunteer organizations, this can be far more effective than giving a set monetary figure to a project for every volunteer.
From my 11 years working with volunteers, I have learnt something many people who work in volunteering abroad seem reluctant to say: volunteering is a terrible way to transfer wealth. If your objective is purely to give money, then stay at home and write a check to the best charity you know. As explained by the cost of hosting volunteers, only some of your fee makes it to the project. The bit not many people ask about or talk about is that money, in many cases, is not the only or even the preferred solution.
Not all impacts are financial.
There are organizations around the world that have built many schools, clinics, wells, and other buildings which eventually are put to great use, but for me, the biggest impacts volunteer organizations can make are non-financial. It’s things like improving English by 40 percent in community run schools (which when in a town where the biggest industry is tourism, is a major advantage toward getting a job). It’s taking over 1000 people through a well-organized HIV education class and giving people the confidence and knowledge to get tested and speak openly about AIDS.
It is also about facilitating a cultural exchange that builds relationships, develops people's’ thinking about sustainable development, and leaves volunteers with a thorough understanding of the meaningful work they have done, as well as the ability to pass these learnings onto others to create long-term change.
In conclusion, whilst volunteering is never free (though it can be cheap), I feel the money aspect is scrutinized way too much. Ask about what happens to the money, but really ask about what has been achieved on the project in terms of outcomes. I have often seen charities or volunteer organizations saying “We have given $100,000 to XYZ” which does look good at face value, but what you really want to know is how that money made a difference. Most importantly, question how your volunteer experience will make a difference; think about what are you going to do, who is going to pay for it (and how), and make sure that your impact as a volunteer abroad will be as large as possible.
This article was contributed by African Impact, a volunteer organization dedicated to providing sustainable, meaningful volunteer and internship opportunities in Africa. Since 2004, African Impact has successfully placed over 12,000 volunteers in more than 10 countries throughout the region.