Volunteering overseas has become known as a gap year placement, a different travel experience, or as a meaningful retirement activity. However, you, the volunteer, will still foot the bill, in case you’re planning this type of trip you will want to make sure your time and money is well spent.
Volunteer programs abroad are advertised as the opportunity to produce a real difference. It may sound such as a win-win situation that benefits the community as well as the volunteer. The catch is, volunteer abroad aren’t always mutually beneficial. Poorly thought-out projects may well not benefit communities, which suggests well-meaning volunteers can discover 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 nearly all a volunteer’s fee on administration, marketing and organisational costs rather than on in-country living costs as well as the local project.
Volunteering abroad is 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 often pay a substantial amount more than a backpacker. “Once [it’s] commodified like it is currently, you simply get projects which are put there for keen tourists to perform.”
Useful volunteering – Volunteer programs have the potential to perform plenty of good. But too often well-meaning volunteers have arrived at projects only to find their good intentions be wasted. A written report by UK think tank Demos in the year 2011 learned that a substantial quantity of volunteer tourists felt the task might have been carried out by locals and were unsure whether their voluntary work actually benefited the communities.
One reason for this can be that advertising can provide volunteers an over-inflated sensation of their usefulness. Short trips are increasingly being created to suit the benefit and motivations in the volunteer instead of the destination community.
But community involvement in planning the project is essential to its success. Projects that aren’t well considered and merely 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 will 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 certainly are a positive start.
Paying to volunteer overseas – Many overseas volunteer trips have hefty costs and will vary a lot. For 2 weeks’ volunteering in India, excluding flights, we found prices that ranged from about $300 up to greater than $2000.
What exactly do you get for the volunteer fee? Few organisations are truly transparent about how volunteer fees are spent. We asked 18 volunteer abroad providers to have an average breakdown of where volunteers’ funds are spent but not many provided this.
Through the organisations that did give to us fee breakdowns, about 50 % the volunteer fee went towards direct in-country living costs and projects. One other half was invested in general administration, organising placements, implementation and monitoring of projects, volunteer recruitment and presumably some profit for your companies.
And each and every company stops working their costs differently which makes it difficult to understand specifically how your cash is spent. Given that many volunteer abroad companies function in a global environment, and that Australian companies with the annual turnover of under $25m generally aren’t necessary to submit financials for the corporate regulator, information on company profits are often simply not available.