Voluntourism (a combination of volunteering and tourism) is an increasingly popular way to travel and contribute to a cause, while having the chance to explore a new country and culture as a local. Even though millions of people ‘voluntour’ internationally each year, some shriek at the idea of pay-to-volunteer programs.
You’ve jumped on a plane to the other side of the globe and you’re ready to dedicate your time to a cause you care deeply about. You’re willing, committed and ready to change the world. So, why should you have to pay out of pocket when you’re already donating precious time?! This is a fair and valid question. Let us fill you in on why you should always pay to volunteer abroad...
Q. Shouldn’t they be covering my costs?
A. Money is often already a big issue for small organisations in developing countries. Your stay at the organisation uses up resources to host you - supplies, supervision and training. Then, there’s the added cost of housing, feeding and transporting you around. Money also needs to go back into the facilities you use - schools, clinics and animal shelters. Given that most organisations run entirely on donations, if they have two pennies left to rub together, they should be going back to the cause. You need to view it as a cultural exchange - helping others involves personal sacrifice and commitment. This isn’t supposed to be a relaxing vacation, but in return, you'll get memorable experiences and make connections that will last a lifetime!
Q. So, where do the program costs go?
A. Fitting the logistics together of your travel puzzle is probably the most difficult part of planning a new adventure. Finding a place to live and making sure your volunteer placement is legit are just two ticks on the checklist. There’s also food, transport, cultural activities & excursions and local support to think about. The hairy details are much easier to assess when there’s an expert there to guide you, especially one who knows the locals on the ground and has the best tips to navigating the local area.
Most on-the-ground volunteer teams don’t have the means, resources or time to find volunteers. Most are understaffed and underfunded, which is why they need volunteers in the first place. That's why they use travel agencies (us! 👋) to help recruit, approve, place, manage and support volunteer applicants.
These agencies aren’t pulled out of thin air, they need to operate with around-the-clock staff, international offices, marketing teams, emergency support lines, IT departments, advertising budgets, visa consultants, sales reps, travel consultants, websites and phones... And that’s not even the half of it! They put time and effort into planning your stay, making sure you pick a project that fits your skills and interests, plus tons of other behind-the-scenes support that might not be so obvious, like verifying these volunteer organisations, providing training to them so that they can manage their finances or government submissions, etc. They’re also simply there to make sure you get the most out of your time abroad and to provide help if you ever find yourself in a tight situation.
Q. What will my volunteer program provider, supply?
Let's paint a picture. You’ve just arrived in Africa and you’ve successfully navigated your way through arrivals, immigration and customs. Now it’s time to find a taxi in the scorching heat outside that won’t rip you off and figure out where the hell you’re going. Arriving in a new country you’ve never been to before can be beyond daunting, especially if it’s your first time. When you go through an established program, not only will there be a driver there to pick you up, they’ll be waiting with a sign and smile to transport you safely to your volunteer project. It’s a lot less stressful knowing someone will be waiting to greet you at the airport, as well as willing to take you back there when it’s time to head home.
Equipment and Resources
You’re going to need tools to make a difference - whatever it is you’re doing. Whether it be with communities, wildlife or nature, we don’t think the average 20kg bag allowance is going to cover your scuba gear for Marine Conservation or your pickaxe for fence building in Namibia. These things all cost money and your charge goes towards making sure you have access to these materials and any training you may need.
Accommodation, meals & daily transport
Don’t get us wrong, you can budget for these things yourself, but it tends to work out a lot cheaper and less stressful to have it already included in your structured experience. Depending on where your project is located, there may be no hotels or supermarkets for miles. Paying for your program usually means all these logistics are covered. You could be doing homestay with the Karen Tribes in Thailand where your family will cook you delicious Thai meals or living amongst the sloths of Costa Rica in the sanctuary where all volunteers take turns cooking. Living with other volunteers also gives you a chance to get to know people from around the world who are all going through the same experience as you. Cue the friendships!
A (well planned) itinerary & excursions
Due to the location of many volunteering opportunities, you’re likely going to get hit with a case of culture shock. And you will have to learn to adapt to local customs, culture and etiquette. Not only that, it will take time to understand your volunteer role and how your chosen organisation works. Orientation, language lessons and cultural excursions & activities are a crucial part of adapting to your new environment and are important steps in learning the ropes. Whether it’s visiting local ruins to understand their importance, the best hikes or day trips to get a better understanding of the environment or taking part in community activities to meet the locals, they're all super helpful.
S*!t happens. It’s all fun and games until you need to find a doctor that speaks your language or even if you’re just feeling like the volunteer placement isn’t all you hoped it would be and you want to have a chat. Your volunteer cost helps employ local and international staff to run everything smoothly behind-the scenes. Having staff on the ground to solve any issues at any time of the day and give your loved ones back home peace of mind that you’re being looked after with 24/7 emergency support if needed.
So there you have it. When you’re researching different experiences, don’t immediately freak when they tell you it’s not free. Depending on what it covers, it may be the best way to budget for your trip. Plus, there are tons of ways to fundraise if you’re short on cash but keen on adventure. For many, a cultural exchange experience such as a volunteer trip is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and there’s the saying “you get what you pay for”. You don’t want to have to come home early, get stuck overseas (or worse), and risk not having the experience you’ve dreamed about.