Volunteering overseas is becoming popular as a gap year placement, a different travel experience, or as a meaningful retirement activity. But you, the volunteer, will still foot the bill, so if you are planning this type of trip you will need to make sure your money and time is well spent.
Volunteer programs abroad are advertised as an opportunity to make a real difference. It may sound such as a win-win situation that benefits the community and the volunteer. The catch is, volunteer abroad aren’t always mutually beneficial. Poorly thought-out projects may not benefit communities, which means well-meaning volunteers can discover themselves in places where they’re not needed.
Organisations that send volunteers overseas have likewise become increasingly commercialised as a result of an influx of for-profit companies and travel agencies jumping on the volunteer tourism bandwagon. Some organisations spend the vast majority of a volunteer’s fee on administration, marketing and organisational costs rather than on in-country living costs and the local project.
Volunteering abroad will be the new backpacking, says Stephen Wearing, an associate professor in the University of Technology, Sydney, and specialist in volunteer tourism. But he adds that volunteers will have a tendency to pay a substantial amount over a backpacker. “Once [it’s] commodified like it has become, you merely get projects which are put there for keen tourists to accomplish.”
Useful volunteering – Volunteer programs have the possibility to accomplish lots of good. But too often well-meaning volunteers have came to projects only to find their good intentions be wasted. A report by UK think tank Demos this year found that a substantial number of volunteer tourists felt the job could have been performed by locals and were unsure as to if their voluntary work actually benefited the communities.
One basis for this is that advertising may give volunteers an over-inflated sensation of their usefulness. Short trips are increasingly being designed to suit the benefit and motivations in the volunteer rather than the destination community.
But community involvement in planning the project is key to the success. Projects that aren’t well thought out and simply outsourced to local partners without close supervision or consideration of local needs and values will often be unhelpful. “A great company will spend a few years deciding how that project is going to work,” says Wearing.
To find the right overseas volunteer opportunity, it’s vital that you understand the complexities in the development landscape. Trips that offer cultural training programs and inductions just before really are a positive start.
Paying to volunteer overseas – Many overseas volunteer trips have hefty prices and may vary a great deal. For two weeks’ volunteering in India, excluding flights, we found prices that ranged from about $300 as much as more than $2000.
What exactly do you receive to your volunteer fee? Few organisations are truly transparent about how volunteer fees are spent. We asked 18 volunteer abroad providers for the average breakdown of where volunteers’ funds are spent but only a few provided this.
From your organisations that did give to us fee breakdowns, about half the volunteer fee went towards direct in-country living costs and projects. One other half was used on general administration, organising placements, implementation and monitoring of projects, volunteer recruitment and presumably some profit for the companies.
And each company breaks down their costs differently making it hard to understand specifically how your cash is spent. Given that many volunteer abroad companies operate in a global environment, and that Australian companies with the annual turnover of less than $25m generally aren’t required to submit financials to the corporate regulator, details on company profits tend to be not really available.