Voluntourism is a productive way to volunteer abroad while experiencing the cultural and adventurous benefits of travel. However, we need distribute the finances associated with volunteering and travelling properly.

What I’m trying to say is you shouldn’t pay to volunteer abroad, only to travel. Before you pull the trigger, allow me to elaborate.

In our context, volunteering is providing a service for the benefit of a community, environment, or wildlife without compensation in return. In other words, you’re working for free to make the world a better place. You are a resource, you cost money in the labour market, and you provide value. For this reason, I’m against paying to volunteer just by its definition.

But there’s more to this whole concept of voluntourism.

Think about it and say it out aloud, “I’m paying to work free.” It doesn’t make sense, right? And it doesn’t matter if you’re volunteering locally in your hometown or halfway across the globe: volunteers should not incur over-the-top volunteer fees.

There are two main types of organizations that require volunteers to pay:

  • local non-profit organization or NGO
  • third-party organization associated with a local non-profit or NGO

I actually volunteered in the Galapagos at the Jatun Sacha Biological Reserve through Ubelong. I wouldn’t do it again just because I don’t know where my money is actually spent, though I did try to find out.

The flow of money from volunteer fees and its distribution is a mystery for the most part, like trying to untangle a spider’s web. Likewise, the same can be said for a donation to the Red Cross. But even they have mishandled donations.

The point I’m trying to make is you are volunteering and providing a monetary donation at the same time. I do understand it’s not always practical to release how volunteer fees are distributed but it’s concerning.

volunteer abroad

The Fundraising Issue

The main issue with the volunteer abroad fee is fundraising is being removed or limited within a project and being passed on to the volunteer.

Think about non-profit organizations in your area and their fundraising efforts.

Fundraising is an important component that doesn’t receive enough focus in many organizations.

Volunteer abroad programs need dedicated volunteers to market and fundraise instead of resorting to charging volunteers or getting a third party involved.

Imagine volunteer abroad programs without volunteers from western society and their demanded fees: These programs would have to resort to fundraising and donations for expenses.

Large third-party volunteer placement organizations are spending a considerable amount of money advertising on Google. You’ve probably seen these ads already. Though these organizations provide value to communities, I get the sense these organizations are for-profit through the expense of volunteers. They’re similar to a travel agency in terms of marketing. They’re also preying on uninformed volunteers trying to do good.

I actually walked into a school in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno about volunteering and they referred me to Projects Abroad. It didn’t seem practical to me. Take a look at the fees; you need to have high-roller status.

In addition to volunteer fees, the cost of flights and travel insurance leaves volunteers hanging.

The Why Pay to Volunteer Argument

Nearly all volunteer abroad programs will provide reasons to justify volunteer fees, also known as placement or program fees.

Since you’re reading this, you’re mostly likely thinking of volunteering abroad in a developing or third world country, or maybe even in a developed country with a low cost of living. These are the type of places that attracts voluntourism.

Do a little research about the actual prices of the places you may want to volunteer.

conservation volunteering

Here are some common reasons for volunteer fees:

  • Volunteer Project Screening – Okay, this one is important. Completing a thorough volunteer program background check is important to volunteer safety and the credibility of the local organization.But I don’t think project screening has a continual cost. Screenings are done only once with re-screenings completed every year or more. Volunteers should not be passed on these costs.
  • Airport Transfer – This fee is sometimes justified depending on if the project location is remote and you’re paying a reduced rate. If the location can be accessed via public transportation, then the airport transfer should only be an add-on option.Uber has a large market in developing countries and their respective international airports to save you costs on transfers (you’ll need a sim card or Wi-Fi from the airport).
  • Orientation – A volunteer project orientation, also known as how to do your volunteer work, provides you in-person information about completing volunteers tasks, information about your placement location, what to do in your spare time, health and safety instructions, etc. Would you actually pay for this, too?
  • Accommodation – This fee is justified as long as the cost is not marked-up. Volunteers will most likely sleep in shared rooms similar to a hostel so the fees for this should be low.
  • Facility and Maintenance – There’s no way around the costs associated with a volunteer program’s facility. This goes back to having these costs covered through fundraising, government grants, or the above accommodation fee.
  • Meals – You’re not going to be eating gourmet meals. Most meals are prepared in bulk for volunteer groups and local staff. This reduces the costs associated with food. A full day’s worth of meals will cost less than $10 per volunteer in most volunteer abroad programs.A trustworthy volunteer project will give volunteers the opportunities to find their own accommodation and meals unless the location is remote.
  • Staff Training and Support – I believe local staff in developing countries should receive decent pay for a decent day’s work.The job market isn’t strong enough for local staff to work for free at a non-profit organization and at another paid job. The fee for this should be covered by fundraising or a small volunteer donation. However, training for them should be provided by – you guessed it – you, the volunteer.

When Are Volunteer Fees Justified

I believe you should pay to volunteer when you are paying the true prices of any expenses associated with transportation, accommodation, and meals or when fundraising efforts are not producing.

I’m even okay with a small donation as mentioned above. But a $500 per week price volunteer program is steep, not to mention an additional registration fee that’s roughly $250.

One of my Swiss friends volunteered at a school in Peru where she paid $5 per day to cover the costs of materials. This is a significantly lower price than the volunteer abroad fees you see online.

My German friend volunteered in a Bocas del Toro school where he had to donate (fee) about $800 (if memory serves me correctly). The donation was put into a local debit card, which he used to cover school expenses for the students. You judge for yourself on this method.

The Jaguar Research Centre in Costa Rica seemed like a good organization where they only have a one-time volunteer donation requirement of $350. I never volunteered here though and I only did a tour of the facility. The volunteers do have a chance to receive tips to cover the costs of volunteering.

How to Volunteer Abroad for Free

The best method to volunteer abroad without paying a fee is to go your desired destination and ask around. You can also find reputable placements by asking around in Facebook backpacking groups or even Reddit.

If you’re looking to volunteer just for a means of budget-friendly travel, then take a look at Workaway or Helpstay.

By the way, one of my Spanish friends walked directly into a Galapagos National Park office and received a volunteer job at no cost. They also provided him free accommodation for about 6 months and helped him obtain a visa to stay longer in Ecuador.

I also volunteered without fees at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, which had its own issues.

Above all, words will be twisted and organizations may say something like, “you’re not paying to volunteer, you’re paying for support, lodging, meals, etc.” In the end, it’s all the same: you’re paying to work for free.

What do you think about this article? Be objective.

Can you recommend legitimate volunteer programs or any to avoid?