Volunteering overseas has become popular as a gap year placement, an alternative travel experience, or as a meaningful retirement activity. But you, the volunteer, will still foot the bill, in case you are planning this kind of trip you’ll need to make sure your time and money is spent well.
Volunteer programs abroad are advertised as an opportunity to produce a real difference. It may sound just like a win-win situation that benefits the city and the volunteer. The catch is, volunteer abroad aren’t always mutually beneficial. Poorly thought-out projects may not benefit communities, meaning well-meaning volunteers will find themselves in places where they’re not needed.
Organisations that send volunteers overseas have also become increasingly commercialised due to 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 is definitely the new backpacking, says Stephen Wearing, an associate professor on the University of Technology, Sydney, and specialist in volunteer tourism. But he adds that volunteers will often pay a substantial amount more than a backpacker. “Once [it’s] commodified want it has become, you merely get projects that are put there for keen tourists to do.”
Useful volunteering – Volunteer programs have the possibility to do plenty of good. But many times well-meaning volunteers have came to projects only to discover their good intentions be wasted. A report by UK think tank Demos in the year 2011 learned that a substantial variety of volunteer tourists felt the work could have been carried out by locals and were unsure as to whether their voluntary work actually benefited the communities.
One basis for this can be that advertising can provide volunteers an over-inflated feeling of their usefulness. Short trips are increasingly being created to suit the convenience and motivations in the volunteer as opposed to the destination community.
But community involvement in planning the project is vital to the success. Projects that aren’t well designed and just outsourced to local partners without close supervision or consideration of local needs and values will often be unhelpful. “A good company will spend a couple of years deciding how that project is going to work,” says Wearing.
To find the right overseas volunteer opportunity, it’s essential to be aware of the complexities in the development landscape. Trips that provide cultural training programs and inductions before certainly are a positive start.
Paying to volunteer overseas – Many overseas volunteer trips have hefty costs and will vary a great deal. For two weeks’ volunteering in India, excluding flights, we found prices that ranged from about $300 as much as greater than $2000.
What 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 not many provided this.
Through the organisations that did provide us with fee breakdowns, about half the volunteer fee went towards direct in-country living costs and projects. Another half was invested in general administration, organising placements, implementation and monitoring of projects, volunteer recruitment and presumably some profit for your companies.
And every company breaks down their costs differently which makes it tough to know precisely how your funds are spent. Considering that many volunteer abroad companies function in a global environment, which Australian companies with an annual turnover of lower than $25m generally aren’t required to submit financials to the corporate regulator, information on company profits are often not available.