Why Do I Have to Pay to Volunteer?

“Why would I pay to volunteer?” We certainly appreciate why this is by far the most common question BrilliantTrips receives regarding the volunteer opportunities we offer. Our friend Randy from GeoVisions helps us answer just that. Please read on to understand why we ask our invaluable volunteers to cover some of the costs involved in making positive sustainable projects come to fruition.

The topic we are asked about at GeoVisions most is “Why do I have to pay to volunteer?” We have a page on the GeoVisions’ website addressing paying to volunteer. You can click here to read that page if you would like.

Gregory Hubbs, Transitions Abroad editor, answers the question on why volunteers have to pay this way: “Primarily because most volunteers are more of a liability until they are trained to help the local community. Often the money spent volunteering is best spent on the local volunteers/people, particularly if the outside volunteer does not have medical, teaching, technical or other useful skills which would allow them to ‘hit the ground running.’ In addition, it is usually very important for there to be continuity in a volunteer project for it to truly succeed in helping those who need it.”

I think the best way to understand another person or point of view is to try to put yourself in his or her shoes a bit. As you read this article which presents a scenario in which I set up a project that involves hiring volunteers, see if any of my comments strike a chord. You can always respond with a comment, and I’ll try to address any issues you might have.

We have a few Red Fox where I live in the area of Guilford, Connecticut. Let’s say that I’ve done a lot of research on the Red Fox and now I want to make sure our local Red Fox families can survive here in Guilford and can coexist safely with humans and our pets, so I establish my Protecting The Red Fox Association which includes several local volunteers. I quickly find I need to enlist the help of someone from the Long Island Sound Study for advice as they did a study on the Red Fox and received a $40,000 grant. These people are now my “experts.”

A few months go by and now and we have raised a lot of local interest in the Red Fox. Our new project including The Association now seems pretty cool. I log on to The Association email account and, low and behold, I have people contacting me from other countries who would like to come to the U.S., live for awhile in the Northeast, and have some kind of interest in the Red Fox. They want to volunteer with our Association.

I really do need more volunteers! However, these potential volunteers need a place to stay and they need to be fed. I also have to pick them up at JFK airport when they arrive in New York and bring them here to Connecticut. I have to make sure they don’t bring with them some kind of negative police record. I don’t speak German, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Thai nor Korean and they tell me they do not speak (or write) English all that well, so they all want to study some English while they are here. They all want to arrive here at different times as well as return home at different times. Ninety-five percent of them have never seen a Red Fox, so they need an orientation and that means bringing my friend from Long Island out here again to do a proper orientation; many times. Now I am beginning to see a lot of dollar signs in my mind. $$$

Unfortunately, I really have no funds (except a few local donations) and I can’t afford all this. What am I going to do? I need more volunteers. It would bring a new dimension to our Association to have some global links…that’s always a good thing.

All of these wonderful volunteers are going to have to get their own visa, their plane tickets, their background checks and then either I have to find host families for them or they have to do that when they arrive because no one in my volunteer Association has time to look for host families. What if our global volunteers are not successful in finding a family? What will they have to pay for room and board? Local transportation? Getting to the Shoreline of Connecticut from New York City? And back? And will they help pay the costs of my friend from The Long Island Study to come out for orientation? And how will they get to and from the English lessons? WHERE will they take English lessons? How will we communicate with them?

This is but the tip of the iceberg.

GeoVisions’ job in all of this is to find sustainable projects around the globe who are open to foreign volunteers. Then, we need to find volunteers to help them. And to help the agency abroad we do as much of the coordination as possible to make our volunteers’ arrival and stay at the project rewarding to all, safe, and as unobtrusive as possible. That means providing insurance so volunteers are not a burden to the community. Finding host families or housing. Making sure the volunteers received safe accommodation and healthy meals. Taking care of the transportation.

These services cost money. And no one can expect the hosting agency or project to pay for foreign volunteers. Otherwise, projects can simply find local volunteers for no cost to them. Allowing foreign volunteers on the project is an honor and a privilege. If there are expenses, no one expects the project to cover them. And this is why you have to pay to volunteer.

What do you think? Do you have other ideas on how to cover the expenses that the overseas project incurs on your behalf? We would like to hear your ideas.

5 thoughts on “Why Do I Have to Pay to Volunteer?

  • i like the article and the points you mention but it raises also a few concerns about organizations that take volunteers.

    first of all i agree that sustaining a person is expensive and that person should cover his/her own living expenses. but the point is when this person in volunteering, this a job that will not give you anything else, but the satisfaction of you helping out in something, it may be a community, a species like the example, or the environment in general, that is the reward of the volunteer experience, normally, a person would expect some help back from the organization.

    i understand if the costs are not covered by the organizations, but at least they should offer some kind of advantage, as you said it yourself, having a foreign volunteer is a privilege, one that the organization should know how to take advantage of; if an organization offers only housing, the decision of going abroad to help in whatever cause is easier to make, if the program is good and the organization is acquiring international status, this will attract more people into the program, not only volunteers but also donors.

    know the idea may sound too optimistic, but i think that in a world where global communication is at your hand all the time, it may be possible, just think of a comparative advantage and explode it, like in any business, the organization and the cause will thank you.

  • It’s good to see a an explanation of why volunteers have to pay from an organization that charges. The reasons provided above all seem legitimate and challenging.

    I meet a lot of volunteers on the road in Latin America and most don’t have funds to afford to pay in order to volunteer. These types of volunteers are specifically looking for organizations that provide lodging and food for their services, similar to working in a hostel.

    There are also volunteers that also consider taking volunteer vacations where they expect to pay, but I don’t meet those people while traveling in Latin America. Most of the “backpackers” who are surviving on a minimal budget, expect their service to act as their funds. If I were searching for a volunteer organization I would look for the same, as I know they do exist.

    Thanks for an excellent article that should spur much debate.

  • My wife was a volunteer coordinator for a number of years, so this subject is particularly close to us.

    If you’re just covering costs, then charging money is fine in my book. If you’re making some margin off of that, then I would totally discourage it.

    Part of the problem, too, is that there are a number of middle-men organizations that take some money off the top when you pay to volunteer. This is totally unacceptable. We’ll refuse to pay it then.

    However, if we’re just paying for the costs to house and feed us, I can understand as long as the only option isn’t some luxury room with buffet meals. Usually, we can find my own transportation, lodging, and food if that’s what the costs are for; I’m pretty self-sufficient. We just want the opportunity to help out the organization. We don’t volunteer to have a nice vacation; we want to volunteer to make a difference and get some work done.

    Unfortunately, when we’ve contacted some places who charge to volunteer about doing some work, when they find out we’d rather have our own food and housing, the conversation stops. That’s when we feel like we’re being sold a tour package with some volunteering on the side rather than straight-up volunteering.

    Lastly, from a business point of view, if you need volunteers, wouldn’t it be better to find one or two dedicated volunteers with specific skills rather than a rotating set of volunteers who need to be trained? I’ve been fortunate enough to use my professional skills to build some websites for some non-profits and I’ve found those times more rewarding than any of the “non-skilled” volunteering gigs.

  • I agree with what Kyle states. I have traveled multiple times to Quito, Ecuador for work so I am pretty familiar with the area, where to stay, how to get around, etc and would like to take a trip down there to volunteer. I don’t mind giving a little money to help out or even ensure you are covered by insurance but I would like to take care of my own flight, hotel and transportation. In my case my flight and hotel stay would be free by using miles/points. I also have local friends/co-workers who live in the area that I could stay with to keep costs down.

    With all of this said I haven’t had any luck finding any volunteer programs that allow you to volunteer while taking care of your own travel accommodations. I’d love to hear about some if anyone has any experience with some like this.

  • im at a dead end when it comes to looking for volunteer work, im a site agent with 10 years experience of running building sites of all shapes and sizes from housing to hospitals to waste water treatment plants. i want to go and volunteer my skills and knowledge to help out in places like haiti or somewhere that really needs knowledgable and experienced people in the construction field but everywhere i look seems to be wanting about £1000 (im in the UK)or more to go and work for them. its got to the stage now where i am thinking of just giving up looking. i know some more people who are craftsmen, several brick layers and some electricans who are in the same position. it seems incredible that our skills cant be used.

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