The Cost of Volunteering Overseas
The reality of volunteering is that while you might be "working for free," there are some costs that are associated with being a volunteer. For example - airfare, housing and insurance - but there is one cost that many prospective volunteers don't consider initially: the volunteer placement fee.
The financial commitment required to volunteer long-term is extremely important to consider. For placement agencies/fee-based organizations, you are making a fairly substantial financial commitment, but will still need to have spending and travel money available to you. You should spend a substantial amount of your time thinking about a reasonable budget for your stay.
Having to break your commitment for financial reasons can be very detrimental to your host organization, leaving them without expected manpower and causing delays in the completion of projects.
While you aren't being paid, you should treat your volunteer work as you would any other job and only make a commitment that works for you.
Most people will initially ask - why should I pay to volunteer? I'm working for free! Hopefully the information on this page will help you understand a little bit more about why certain volunteer organizations charge fees, and what they are used for.
What are volunteer placement fees?
Volunteer placement fees are upfront costs volunteers pay to organizations to cover program costs. Typically, a volunteer application with include a deposit, and fees will be due once you are accepted into the program. Some organizations offer payment plans, scholarships and other resources to help offset the cost of fees.
Did You Know? Sherry Ruth Anderson, author of Cultural Creatives, said: Volunteers don't get paid, not because they're worthless, but because they're priceless.
Volunteer placement fees typically cover the basic costs of running an organization focused on volunteer placement, like staffing, supplies, office expenses - lots of general, boring costs, but certainly not enough to justify setting down $5,000 for a four-week trip. But volunteer placement fees also over lots of other things:
- Travel health insurance
- Airport pickup/ground transportation
- Training/Ongoing professional development
- Social and service-learning activities throughout your trip
- Housing (in some cases)
- Language classes
Those are significant costs, and paying an organization to take care of them for you can help your focus more specifically on your day-to-day work, and even travel opportunities during your time off.
Why should I pay volunteer placement fees?
There are many benefits to paying a volunteer placement fee, not the least of which is the piece of mind that there is someone taking care of all of the logistics and details of your volunteer abroad job. Another big reason that many organizations have decided to charge fees is because paying a substantial amount of money implies commitment to the job - it would be much easier to make a last minute decision not to volunteer if you knew you weren't going to lose any money! But commitment isn't the only reason. Having a person who is dedicated full-time to finding the right experience for volunteers, coordinating lengths of stay and liaising with community organizations and volunteers alike can be costly. Volunteer organizations and placement agencies are simply charging for the service that they provide.
Quick Fact: ProWorld contributes more than $100,000 directly to community projects where it place volunteers.
If you're still concerned about paying a volunteer fee, it's completely okay to ask the volunteer organization exactly what the fee is for! Many organizations actually anticipate these questions and list the fee usage in the FAQ section of the website. If you can't find the information online, drop them an email or give them a call - volunteer fees should be reasonable, and transparent.
Which organizations charge fees?
There are four major, reputable volunteer organizations that send volunteers to virtually every developing country around the world. These are primarily nonprofit organizations (not to be confused with government-run organizations like the Peace Corps) that charge fees to offset the costs of running organizations. All four of these organizations are incredibly transparent about how they use funding, offer scholarships, and include tips about how you can fundraise so that the entire cost of the volunteer trip doesn't have to come out of your own pocket.
- Cross Cultural Solutions sends interns and volunteers to 12 countries for short-term work. Fees include meals, housing, insurance and in-country support.
- United Planet sends volunteers to 40 countries through tailored trips that last anywhere from a week to a year. Check out the "Why pay to volunteer?" section for more about fees.
- Global Vision International places volunteers in 40 countries for short and long-term humanitarian aid volunteering. GVI offers discounts for longer stays, group trips and students.
- ProWorld has placed more than 4,400 volunteers around the world for volunteer work in education, health, community and economic development. Fees even cover foreign language classes.
Volunteer Fees - Red Flags
Unfortunately, not all of the volunteer placement organizations out there that charge placement fees are created equal - some of the well-built, well-maintained websites out there aren't volunteer organizations at all, but people taking advantage of altruistic, adventurous young people. To avoid giving your credit card information to a less-than-reputable website, look for these indicators that more research into an organization's credentials might be needed:
- They don't answer the phone: If you can't manage to get someone on the office to actually speak to about any questions or concerns you might have, this is cause for concern. While it doesn't necessarily mean that anything is wrong - you have to allow for time zones after all - any organization that purports to be a major volunteer placement organization should have someone available to talk to in person.
- No one's heard of them: The Internet is the best place to get the scoop on any volunteer organization. People who travel tend to want to share their experiences, and big organizations typically garner tons of feedback on Facebook, Twitter and volunteer message boards and forums. If there is absolutely nothing to be found about an organization, start to dig deeper. It's possible that it is just a brand new volunteering venture, and they haven't built up a reputation yet - however, you should try to get some sort of confirmation that the agency is legitimate before you move forward with the fee.
- They overpromise: The adage is true - if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A $1,000 fee probably won't cover roundtrip airfare, housing, health insurance and a stipend for a year. If you feel like the organization is making promises that might be difficult to keep - ask questions and keep looking.
Read on for more information about housing and insurance, two of the most important expenses for an international volunteer.
- Paying to volunteer is a reasonable option for those who want support and security during their volunteer job overseas.
- Some of your volunteer abroad expenses will be covered by fees paid upfront, like health insurance, housing and meals.
- Scholarships are available for most programs that charge fees.
- Volunteer organization websites should outline exactly how your volunteer fee is spent.