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The Big Question: Should You Pay to Volunteer?

This ‘money’ question is a real issue when it comes to finding meaningful volunteering.

For me personally, I’ve never paid to volunteer.

That said, I generally work for organisations where I am expected to cover my own living expenses: I pay for my housing and food, and, if I’m lucky, my transport costs are reimbursed.

should you pay to volunteer

Given that I’ve volunteered in countries where the cost of living is exceptionally low (read more about my experiences volunteering in Bolivia and Peru), I’ve found that this method means I can work with grass-roots organisations, but not pay the earth to do so.

But given we’re donating our time, shouldn’t organisations be covering our costs and at least giving some sort of living stipend? 

Well, no actually. I think that unless you have significant skills in the field in which you’re looking to volunteer (e.g. a vet working in an animal sanctury) then what exactly are you bringing to that organisation?

Yes you’re an extra pair of hands, but if you’re a pair of hands requiring direction and someone to train you up so that you can have an impact (and therefore give you skills that you can take away with you) then why shouldn’t you be covering some of those costs?

And what impact would covering volunteers’ living costs have upon the minimal funds on which most charities run?

I was asked numerous times when I was working as the Volunteer and Communications Director for the charity BiblioWorks in Sucre, Bolivia, why we couldn’t cover the living costs of volunteers.

Given that the charity relied entirely upon donations from volunteers or other members of the general public to pay the costs of building new libraries, covering volunteers’ living expenses could literally mean the difference between a new library being opened, and no new library.

If you see volunteering as a way of learning new skills, then you shouldn’t resent paying some of the costs.

Volunteering is a wonderful way to acquire new skills that will be undoubtedly relevant to your career prospects in the future – and it’s an incredible way of getting a raw and real insight into a country.

However, there are a wealth of ‘voluntourism’ agencies who expect volunteers to cough up large quantities of money to go and volunteer – and few are particularly honest about where exactly that cash goes, and into whose pockets.

If you can’t find out this information from an agency (check out this excellent example of a breakdown of where the money goes from Global Vision International) then be suspicious and, if they’re not forthcoming with the information, look elsewhere.

There is an unfortunate number of outfits who are using the increased interest in volunteering as a way of garnering a huge profit for themselves, so by being conscious of these types of agencies, and making sure that you are not supporting them, will have real benefits for the sector as a whole.

But enough about my thoughts.

I asked a number of other bloggers, travellers and volunteers to give me their opinions on whether you should pay to volunteer.

Do you agree with their views? What experiences have you had of volunteering and paying to do so? Let me know in the comments below.

Odoardo Girardi of Queidue 

There is no straight answer to this tough question. I would separate two types of volunteering, namely skilled and generic. Skilled volunteers are those who spend their time rendering a service connected to their career skills.

I am firmly convinced that those shouldn’t pay and, in some cases, deserve at least a small living allowance or free accommodation. As an example, I have been volunteering full time for some international organizations with migrants in the Mediterranean area using my law skills. This is the kind of volunteering that should be free, if not paid by the organization.

On the contrary, by generic volunteers I mean those going to a school, camp or village to spend only a few weeks. They are really valuable, but they might work part-time and their duties are usually related to amusement for children.

Sometimes I agree that they should also pay a fee as they are a small burden for the organization, as the organisation has to take care of the volunteers as well as the beneficiaries.

Natalie of Gad About The Globe

I’ve never actually paid to volunteer, although I’ve volunteered overseas with Peace Corps and Partners of the Americas (both covered travel and living costs) and I’ve also volunteered in the U.S. through AmeriCorps.

I’ve looked at other long-term international options and found that some are legit and others are not. For me personally, I can’t afford to provide long term service if living costs aren’t covered, however, I would consider short term depending on the non-profit.

I’ve learned through my other volunteer experiences that there are a couple of things I need to know to be comfortable working with an organization:  

1. Who is running the program? Is it the host country or have they at least given permission for the organization to be there?

2. Could there be any negative or harmful side effects of your service?

3. Is the program sustainable?  

My advice to people is always to do their research before volunteering, especially when overseas, to make sure it’s worth it both financially and ethically.

Amy Trumpeter of Globetrotter Guru

Unfortunately, the legitimacy of many charities on the ground in developing countries is sometimes questionable. Corruption in charitable organisations can be rife in many African, Asian and South American countries.

I often hear stories of clothing and monetary donations going straight to the charity Directors, rather than to where it is needed. When I volunteered in Rwanda, I was disappointed to find that the actual charity did not receive a high percentage of what I paid to do the programme.

Unskilled and un-trained volunteers can sadly do more harm than good. In orphanages, it is not ideal to have volunteers frequently changed, because children get attached, and then have to say goodbye. Untrained volunteers may have favourites that results in bullying and resentment from the others.

In addition, an organisation that is dependent on cash from abroad is not locally sustainable. Being totally dependent on international volunteers in not what is best for a project’s longevity. It also makes a project better for the local community if it employs locals.

I think that it is important to know where the money is going when you pay to volunteer. I am tempted to suggest that you cut out the ‘middle-man’ or ‘agencies’ and pay straight to the charity on the ground, as well as checking yourself to see that the charity project is sustainable (employs locals and doesn’t rely completely on volunteers).

If you find a good sustainable project, I think that it is acceptable to pay for the cost of your food and board if necessary. But always do your research and remember that long term sustainability is the key.

Ashley B Wright, volunteer and long-term traveller

Eyes wide open to paid volunteering

‘They must be in it for the money.’

‘Walking Pumas has got gringo tourist trap written all over it.’

‘Anyway, volunteering should be free.’

A few of the thoughts buzzing around my skeptical head as I waited in a hammock for my fellow volunteers to turn up in the Bolivian jungle. Against my ‘volunteering should be free’ instinct, I was about to sign up for a month in the jungle looking after two pumas named Simba and Sonko.

I had many questions ranging from how the animals were initially acquired to how the resources are spent and resolved to walk out of there if they weren’t answered.

The head coordinator assuaged my misgivings and what followed were some of the most wonderful memories of my time away. Gaining an animals trust, feeding them, walking through their jungle trails and giving them the best life possible were my and the other 3 volunteers mission whilst there.

Yes I paid for it, I’m glad I did as I could see exactly where my money went; into the upkeep and well being of those beautiful cats whom due to mankind influence cannot return to the wild and without that refuge would almost certainly have been killed long ago.

Have you’re eyes wide open if you choose to pay for volunteering. Be sceptical, ask questions, but don’t dismiss it altogether as you might be missing out on the experience of your lifetime.

Molly Green of Molly on the Road 

There are different degrees of volunteer organizations/companies, but if it weren’t for the “middle-man,” or agencies that organize volunteer programs, a lot of people wouldn’t have access to volunteer sites in rural or underdeveloped locations, much less have the know-how to arrange a volunteer position themselves.

Reputable agencies will carefully screen and interview candidates during the placement process to make sure that every candidate is going abroad for the right reasons, and then with the help of in-country-coordinators, will place them in volunteer positions where their skills match up with the needs of the host organization or project.

At the agency I work for, the program fee covers housing, meals, and sometimes even language classes–but most importantly it includes 24/7 support and pre-departure assistance. With all of these amenities, volunteers are not necessarily “paying to volunteer,” but paying for a comprehensive program with valuable support.

This can especially help volunteers who may be going abroad for the first time and need some extra hand-holding.

Don’t discount a volunteer agency just because they are going to charge you—the value is in the fact that you will receive incredible support and tools to help you succeed as a volunteer, and in that the host site will receive an experienced, well-prepared addition to their team who can really make a difference.

Margriet of Globe Trotting Grandparents

In some cases I have no problem with having to pay to volunteer. Working with The Book Bus in Zambia was an amazing experience, getting me into villages and even grass-hut homes, was something I would not have experienced without it. Reading and doing crafts with children in the heart of Africa, was a priceless experience.

The cost covered all accommodations, meals, and actually pays for the running of the Book Mobile. Without paying volunteers, this program would not reach so many kids who now love books.

But I have passed up a volunteer opportunity in Australia where shovelling koala poop and chopping apples would have cost more than staying in a hotel. Koalas were just not needy and cute enough to warrant paying more than 100 dollars a day.

Besides participating in a program, it’s easy to make a difference. I helped with establishing libraries in remote villages by bringing books.

I successfully turned personal hikes into fundraising events for an elephant orphanage by setting up a page on JustGiving.com and inviting FB friends to help make a difference. Even taking clothes, shoes and jackets to leave behind makes a difference in sharing our wealth.

Daniel, traveller and volunteer

This is an interesting subject and one that catches a lot of travellers by surprise; that sometimes you have to pay to volunteer. Me being insufferably cynical, I’m always dubious about paying for the privilege of volunteering.

I spent seven days volunteering at an animal sanctuary in Costa Rica, which I feel had fallen into the Catch-22 of paid volunteering: if there are animals people will pay to volunteer, however the whole point of the sanctuary is to rehabilitate mistreated animals and reintroduce them back into the wild, which if they do successfully there will be no animals left at the sanctuary, and therefore no volunteers and money to help rehabilitate animals.

An interesting aspect of the sanctuary was how the volunteers were literally split into two brackets; those who had come directly through the sanctuary and those who had used a third party company to organise all of the logistics and communications for them. The difference was about $30 per day.

For me this seemed excessive for such a small service provided, however, since most of the volunteers were in their late teens to early twenties and from an affluent demographic, they were happy to pay the extra dollars.

Another aspect of this sanctuary was how the third-party company used the profit gained from this project to finance their own independent projects which they deemed more rewarding.

As the vast majority of volunteers were only there to take selfies with monkeys, which will probably never make it back into the wild, I’m inclined to agree with them.

However, ethically speaking, this only raises more questions.


Featured Image: English: Volunteer in Bolivia teaching children by FrontierEnviro licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Michael Stewart

Saturday 8th of May 2021

Like hell am I going to pay to work for free. Why should i pay someone to teach English to Children in Asia when I can easily find a school that will pay me a decent salary and provide me a comfortable place to stay. Most NGOs are scams anyway. They use problem such as starving children as a ploy to con people into donating money to them. Then 2 cents of every dollar goes to feeding the children and the rest lines the pockets of the CEO and his cronies. If you justify fees by saying you need to house and feed me. I can easily stay in a hostel and buy my own food with what I am being asked to pay.

Nicolas Luginbuhl

Tuesday 15th of September 2020

I disagree with the sense that paid volunteering is sometimes warranted for unskilled work. Sure, doing the dishes, shoveling dirt, working a small bnar or reception in a hostel isn't skilled work but it's still work. I would not expect to be paid for this type of labor, don't get me wrong, but I sure would expect a free bed and maybe a cheap meal once a day.

If even this is too much cost for them to bear, then they shouldn't be using volunteer.

As it's been said above, the ONLY instance where a fee could be asked to work would be a very specific work environment which would asked for specific training. Working with endangered animals for example, but then again, it's most likely a trap and they shouldn't employ unskilled tourists for this. They only do so for the money, not the help.

So no. Paying to volunteer is wrong in my view. Every labor should be rewarded in some way, even if it's only a bed at night.

That's my 2 cents.

Steph Dyson

Saturday 21st of November 2020

Hi Nicolas, unfortunately, for many organisations seeking volunteers, particularly in parts of the world where vast sections of the local population lives in poverty, being able to provide a bed and some food is actually incredibly difficult and is going to take resources away from the organisation and its beneficiaries. I think if people want to volunteer, they should be ready to cover the costs of their stay which, for most of us coming from rich countries around the world, isn't really much to ask for. Steph

Michael Stewart

Wednesday 1st of November 2017

I would never pay to volunteer. I am providing my skills to the organization free of charge so why should I pay you to work for you. If I want to help children in China or Cambodia I can buy a ticket and work at a school there where they pay me. My time is worth money so I am not going to pay someone to work for them.

Steph Dyson

Thursday 30th of November 2017

But what about all the children who go to schools where the community doesn't have the money to afford to bring in external teachers (as this costs significantly more than hiring local labour) and who also need a chance to learn English to better their life chances?

Steven Pickup

Thursday 19th of May 2016

Very interesting points you bring up in this post.

We have been travelling for a year and volunteered a few places. We like to do our research and also check the place out (if possible) before approaching them.

Also going direct means the money should stay in the business.

We don't like to pay for volunteering but when we know it stays in the project or community we don't mind.

But what about the services like workaway and helpx? They connect volunteers with people, businesses and organisations across the globe. Granted some of the work only benefits the host but there are some great opportunities.

Lastly, we always follow the principal, "you get out what you put in".

Neena

Friday 19th of February 2016

Hi Steph,

You bring up some great points in favor of paying to volunteer. There are marketable skills that you gain through the experience.

However, as Amy Trumpeter said, always do your research.

I think it is important to make sure that the organization that you are working with is reputable and being managed well (even some big name charities don't use donations properly).

In volunteerism, you want to know that your time and money is going towards helping people in need.

Steph Dyson

Sunday 21st of February 2016

I completely agree - research is the key word but can be such a daunting prospect when you start looking! There are so many organisations out there it can be very difficult to be 100% certain about what you're getting unfortunately.