Volunteering overseas has become popular as a gap year placement, an alternative travel experience, or as a meaningful retirement activity. However you, the volunteer, will still foot the bill, so if you are planning this kind of trip you’ll want to make sure your money and time is well spent.
Volunteer programs abroad are advertised as an opportunity to produce a real difference. It sounds like a win-win situation that benefits the community and also the volunteer. The catch is, volunteering 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 as a result of an influx of for-profit companies and travel agencies jumping on the volunteer tourism bandwagon. Some organisations spend the majority of a volunteer’s fee on administration, marketing and organisational costs as opposed to on in-country living costs and also the local project.
Volunteering abroad is the new backpacking, says Stephen Wearing, an associate professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and specialist in volunteer tourism. But he adds that volunteers will often pay an important amount greater than a backpacker. “Once [it’s] commodified like it has become, you simply get projects that 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 reached projects only to discover their good intentions be wasted. A report by UK think tank Demos in the year 2011 discovered that an important number of volunteer tourists felt the task could have been done by locals and were unsure as to 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 designed to suit the convenience and motivations in the volunteer as opposed to the destination community.
But community involvement in planning the project is essential 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 are frequently unhelpful. “An excellent company will spend a couple of years deciding how that project will almost certainly work,” says Wearing.
To find the right overseas volunteer opportunity, it’s essential to 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 include hefty costs and will vary a whole lot. For two weeks’ volunteering in India, excluding flights, we found prices that ranged from about $300 up to greater than $2000.
What exactly do you receive to your volunteer fee? Few organisations are truly transparent about how exactly 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.
From your organisations that did give us fee breakdowns, about 50 % the volunteer fee went towards direct in-country living costs and projects. Another half was used on 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 making it tough to understand specifically how your funds are spent. Considering that many volunteer abroad companies function in a global environment, which Australian companies with the annual turnover of under $25m generally aren’t necessary to submit financials to the corporate regulator, details on company profits are often not available.