I will never pay to volunteer again–and neither should you. And when I say “you,” I’m talking about those that have traveled before extensively and have visited at least one country that has been ruthlessly exploited, or more commonly known as “developing.”
My intentions with this post are to share my personal experiences with volunteering abroad so that others may learn from them, and I realize that not everyone feels the same way about volunteer programs that charge fees. So, without further ado, here are 4 things to consider before paying to volunteer.
1 // You’re already paying with your time.
You may have many reasons for volunteering abroad. Maybe you want to improve your language skills, learn about another culture, or meet new people. But there’s a pretty good chance that the whole point of doing this experience is to lessen the load of a local nonprofit organization.
You are already paying this organization with your time, skills, and willingness to help in any way you can. If you’re not approaching your time there with this mindset, then I encourage you to meditate and think critically on why you’ve chosen to work with them.
There are so many volunteer experiences from my past where I gave up a job that would pay me in order to volunteer. Would I take it back? Absolutely not! But I would think twice about choosing a program that asks for monetary payment and a volunteer commitment, because time is money.
2 // You will have extra out-of-pocket costs aside from your program fees.
This is a big one. I come from a lower-middle class background, so my family didn’t have the disposable income to fly me all over the place as I chased my heart to volunteer. Those extra costs aside from volunteer program fees add up, and they’re often not included.
Check with the organization you want to partner with and see what they’re offering for your program fees, and then create a budget that will show your realistic costs aside from the program itself. Chances are, you’re looking at plane tickets, food, and any incidental expenses out-of-pocket. And those can quickly become thousands of dollars.
3 // Sometimes, you have no idea how your money was spent.
Spoiler alert: there’s corruption in the lovey-dovey nonprofit world, too. This may come across as cynical, but it’s true. My most recent pay-to-volunteer experience was largely negative. I had heard so many incredible things about this organization. But, by the time I was in-country, they pretty drastically changed my housing arrangement without notifying me first.
When I toured the organization and met with the CEO about abridging our contract, I was essentially blamed for the situation. There were some other red flags, but I won’t go into detail about them here. Bottom line, I found it difficult to justify how much this organization was charging considering the level of support they were offering. It made me wonder just where my money had gone.
I don’t want others to find themselves in that position, because it sure doesn’t feel good!
4 // You will save by planning your own travel and offering a donation.
If you’re already a seasoned traveler, you will save more money if you’re budget-conscious about booking accommodations and transport. In the future, I would love to volunteer with organizations in the U.S. and abroad by footing the bill for my own accommodations, transport, food, and everything else, and then offering a donation once my time with them is up. I realize that many nonprofits do not offer an option like this, but enough do to fill my time with the work I’m passionate about.
When I went to Costa Rica, I did an unpaid internship with a service-learning component that was a paid program. Did I travel Costa Rica, my first country outside the U.S., the way I trot around the globe now? No! I had never been anywhere before that experience. I needed the support that program offered.
But would I pay $1500 for a month of volunteering again? Also no.
Only you know your level of comfort with travel, new experiences abroad, and navigating a culture that’s new to you. Tune into that, and make it part of your decision-making process. If you’re interested in free or low-cost volunteer programs, check out Volunteer Forever or WorkAway. I’ve heard that the Mother Theresa Foundation in Kolkata is another free option, and this article has some great resources as well. The info you need to have an affordable or free volunteer experience is out there!
Regardless of how you may feel about paying fees to volunteer, I love that you give your time to support NGO staff members that are often overworked and underpaid.
If you’ve gone back and forth about signing a check for thousands of dollars in program fees, I hope my experiences and perspective helped you come to the right decision for you personally. There’s an organization out there that’s working towards a cause you’re passionate about. Let’s put ourselves out there, meet new people, and let volunteer work mold us into the people we were always meant to be.