Why Pay to Volunteer?

Why Pay to Volunteer?

While many have celebrated the merging of service to others an development with tourism, some critics have emerged, and correctly so.

Things can get complicated when for profit businesses get involved in eco or community basedprojects.

Some  operators sell a smoke and mirrors volunteer placement, talking vaguely  about money into communities, obscuring the details, and making the volunteer feel uncomfortable about asking pointed questions – Too often volunteers are told  money goes into the community, only to  find out 75% of the money stayed with the operator!

So, like any travel transaction, there needs to be an education of the consumer.

They need to be encouraged to ask questions.

There should be clarity.

Sadly, I feel that there is a trend in journalism at the moment that is not helping create clarity – journalists are absolutely right to question the ethics and the transparency of the voluntourism industry – my complaint is that there is little questioning and much condemnation. The simple argument, when it comes to money, appears to be – some sending organizations are exploiting volunteers and taking a lot of money from them and not giving a fair share  to the local communities who host the volunteers – therefore  all sending organizations are exploitative  – paying to volunteer is wrong and people should not pay to volunteer.

Perhaps this stance  is born of a  genuine lack of understanding of the real costs involved in “managing” a  responsible volunteer programme  –most of which cannot be done by the under resourced project or community with which the volunteer seeks to work and indeed, if such funds were available, they  would often be better used to create employment for local people.

Providing volunteers with what they need costs money –

a safe environment, 24-hour emergency contacts and the support system needed when there is an emergency, a place to stay, food to eat, the planning, tools or equipment to complete their roles – all this has to be paid for.

The very act of recruiting volunteers costs money. Responsible volunteer recruitment should involve the screening and matching of those volunteers – again a substantial cost is incurred.

There are a few  charities that cover these costs for volunteers– they are becoming fewer and fewer  – supporting volunteers is not cheap and in these hard times these charities are finding it hard to fund their core work.

I am not campaigning for volunteers to exclusively use sending organizations – I am campaigning for an understanding that supporting volunteers has real costs and if a volunteer volunteers directly to a project then please pay them –the bottom line is that someone somewhere has to pay and it should not in my opinion be the community the volunteer seeks to serve.

These are the very communities whose tradition will demand that the volunteers are treated as honoured guests – giving them the best hospitality and care they possibly can – at considerable and often unsustainable expense to themselves.

I do not for a moment suggest that volunteers should stump up their  cash without question – recruitment organizations particularly must be pressed into transparency –

The vast majority of sending organisations use eloquent language to explain the need to charge for volunteer placements……

The big question that is rarely addressed so clearly is where is that money spent.

When  we started people and places ,this was one of the key issues we wanted to address. It was easy for us to decide that we wanted as much of the volunteers’ hard earned cash to be spent in the host country – indeed in the host community – but how?

The obvious idea was that we would need to incur as few costs as possible here in the UK – so as much as possible would need to be done in the host country – but how?

Harold Goodwin’s ( our co founder and non exec chair)work as an acknowledged expert in responsible and pro–poor tourism brings him into contact with extraordinary individuals and businesses around the world. Those we work with have entered his ‘little black book’ because of their commitment to their communities and the objectives of responsible tourism.

These are the people who we’re proud to be in partnership with – local people who support projects and volunteers, understand and are part of their local cultural context, and who have a wealth of experience in business, travel and tourism.

Local teams know their communities far better than we ever could. They are also in the very best position to provide ongoing and professional liaison – thus maintaining responsible and sustainable volunteer experiences. We do not employ anyone locally in the host countries – we work in partnership with local people

So – we had a set of criteria for selecting our local partners and a model for ensuring as many funds as possible would reach the host country. The next question was how could we demonstrate our commitment to transparency? All too many operators sell a smoke and mirrors funding explanation – talking vaguely about money into communities, obscuring the details, and making the volunteer feel uncomfortable about asking pointed questions. Volunteers are frequently told money that goes into the community, only to find out that 75% of the money stayed with the outbound operator!

Over 80% of every people and places volunteer payment for 4 weeks or more is paid directly to the relevant local partner in the host community – it doesn’t even cross our desks. The actual percentage varies for each project, but how and where a volunteer’s money is spent is always clearly spelled out, with details of how much is spent on accommodation, transportation and other direct volunteer costs, how much on project liaison and development, and exactly how much is spent in the UK.

Our local partners have also committed to this financial transparency and accountability.

people and places was recognised by the Virgin Responsible Travel Awards

.“people and places has exercised leadership in a sector bedeviled by poor practice and established a replicable business model. Committed to reporting transparently on the money that volunteers pay, they ensure that the volunteers meet their full costs and are not a burden on the community…They have taken the ground breaking step of having their work externally audited and publishing it online. These principles set not only a practicable standard for operators to aspire to, but offer valuable guidelines for tourists seeking legitimate and socially beneficial volunteering experiences.”

It’s certainly true that more companies are adopting some degree of explanation as to HOW volunteers’ funds are used, but my bug bear is that many are still misleading through marketing hyperbole as to WHERE it is spent. Its so easy to say that 60% of the money is allocated to project development and then allocate all the MDs salary and travel expenses to project development!

Our advice to volunteers?

Start the search for a volunteer placement by doing your research – take a look at the following independent sites;





and take a look at the questions we suggest you ask and to which you should expect honest answers;

This research will help you develop your own critical list. We suggest that you then ask exactly the same questions of each organisation that you contact.

But, as you asses their responses, if the following questions come to mind …

“Why can’t they tell me how much of what I’m spending reaches my hosts? How do I know that my hosts are being fairly recompensed for their hospitality?”

….. maybe you want to think again about choosing to travel with them.

So, as with any travel transaction, there needs to be greater education of the consumer to raise awareness. Volunteers, as with any other travellers, need to be encouraged to ask questions. There must be clarity.

Good journalism could contribute hugely to this clarity.

sallie wrote this article for and it first appeared at www.govoluntouring.com

watch a video interview with sallie about paying to volunteer and the need for transparency here

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