Volunteer abroad

Should I pay to volunteer overseas?

Source: VISIONS Service Adventures - https://flic.kr/p/91Fnoj

One of the most life changing and exhilarating things you can ever do is to discover and explore. The more we travel, the more we grow and become. The more we challenge our own boundaries , we find we become citizens of the world, not limited to our own bubble. Those of us who have a passion to learn have a yearning to rethink and to unlearn what we thought we knew. It’s therefore no surprise that so many people are looking to volunteer their time and services abroad.

Volunteer abroad

Over the last 25 years there has been an exponential growth in the areas of internships, volunteering and overseas electives. There are fantastic and exciting options available for anyone of any age and background to get involved in, with the number of opportunities rising every month. Some people want to develop or share language skills, others to raise money for a charity via a challenge e.g. a trek or just want to take part in a humanitarian, development or environmental project e.g. build a school. Many volunteers are just looking to learn new skills whilst others are passionate about a specific cause like planting trees or clearing polluted areas.

A day with Dr Steve. iCross volunteer abroad

There is also a growing number of people who need overseas practical experience to complete graduate or post-graduate studies as a requirement for completion of studies. This has created a shift from traditional volunteering where people would donate their time, to non-governmental organisations often asking people for money in order to intern/volunteer.  This is to cover ever increasing administrative costs and overheads of simply managing the volume of people wanting to come to low income countries to “help”.

The reality has changed dramatically since 1990 when there were few local specialists and experts. In 2015, there are millions of graduates with local language and cultural skills so the need for expatriate volunteers is very different than 2 – 3 decades ago. It is important to be aware of these changes when researching opportunities abroad. It is vital to be aware of the professionalism, experience and background of any programme you apply for but also check with former interns and volunteers. You need to distinguish internationally between programmes experienced in:

  • University accredited elective programmes
  • Group Volunteer initiatives
  • Individual volunteer placements
  • Professional internships
  • Gap year opportunities
  • Work placements
  • Sabbatical programmes

Should I pay to volunteer abroad?

One of the big questions is about paying to be a volunteer. One of the most typical enquiries is why volunteer programmes charge fees. It’s true to say that up until mid-1980, you would donate your time and labour so why would an organisation want to you pay them money. Depending on the quality of the organisation there will be an infrastructure and a capacity within the organisation to supervise and guide you. Professional organizations will be transparent and explicit with what they do with your money. Always look for this transparency.

Supervising and safe guarding volunteers require staff resources and expertise. Always look for organizations that have this structures in place. As well as checking out the financial reports of the of the programme you are looking to volunteer with, it is important to communicate with others who have previously volunteered. Any professional organisation will encourage you to contact other volunteers in order to gather independent feedback.

There is a very good reason you need to pay to volunteer in Africa. Most organizations have no resources to manage expatriates. Most governments require volunteers to pay statutory cost and fees. Most of our funding at ICROSS is provided by volunteer’s contributions.

“Volunteers are asked to pay for their own travel expenses, and even non-profit agencies need to be reimbursed for recruiting costs, volunteer training, and on-site coordination. Volunteer vacation program fees range from €950 to €3,000+, depending on the agency’s degree of involvement and the accommodation provided. Volunteer vacation program fees are relatively small when accommodation is “basic”, such as a tent in a national park, and when volunteers prepare their own meals. At the other extreme, program fees charged by organizations such as Global Volunteers can be as high as a few thousand dollars. But, in return for higher fees comes the comfort and safety you pay for: extensive pre-trip reading materials, someone to escort you from the airport, security when using public transportation in high risk areas, on-site training, hotel accommodation, prepared meals, a volunteer coordinator on-site at all times, assistance dealing with local officials, etc. As well, Global Volunteers will use part of your program fee to pay for supplies donated to the hospital, school, or community being served”.

This financial independence provides us to train local Africans through awareness communication and training. The vast majority of volunteer organizations are not profit making corporations but seek to serve the poor. It’s important to note you project price covers both direct and indirect costs.

It is essential you get the right advice, carry out background checks and know what you are paying for and where your money is going. There are a lot of resources available with free guidance and expert advice. While many programmes are low cost, most will incur some fees. Check out the range of choices and the requirements and regulations and support systems within each project. Above all do your homework.

If you would like any specific advice you can always contact us by emailing director@icrossinternational.org and we will point you to the specialists in your area of interest.

Below are some links which you may find useful:

Responsible Travel
Volunteer Alliance
Universal Giving

iCross volunteer abroad 2

About the author

​Dr Michael Elmore-Meegan has worked across Asia and Africa for over 30 years and has lived  in the Rift Valley since 1983. He has developed and evaluated volunteer and internship programmes for many NGOs and community development programmes.  He has written widely in the fields of global health and development. For more information please click here.

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