Volunteering overseas has become known 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 type of trip you’ll need to make sure your money and time is wisely spent.
Volunteer programs abroad are advertised as a chance to make a real difference. It may sound just like a win-win situation that benefits the city as well as the volunteer. The catch is, overseas adventure travel aren’t always mutually beneficial. Poorly thought-out projects might not benefit communities, meaning well-meaning volunteers can discover themselves in places where they’re not needed.
Organisations that send volunteers overseas also have become increasingly commercialised because of 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 as opposed to on in-country living costs as well as the local project.
Volunteering abroad will be 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 significant amount over a backpacker. “Once [it’s] commodified like it has become, you just get projects which can be put there for keen tourists to perform.”
Useful volunteering – Volunteer programs have the potential to perform lots of good. But too frequently well-meaning volunteers have came to projects only to find their good intentions go to waste. A report by UK think tank Demos this year discovered that a significant quantity of volunteer tourists felt the work might have been carried out by locals and were unsure whether their voluntary work actually benefited the communities.
One basis for this can be that advertising may give volunteers an over-inflated feeling of their usefulness. Short trips are increasingly being made to suit the convenience and motivations in the volunteer rather than the destination community.
But community involvement in planning the project is key to its success. Projects that aren’t well thought out and simply outsourced to local partners without close supervision or consideration of local needs and values will often be unhelpful. “An excellent company will spend a few years deciding how that project will work,” says Wearing.
To obtain the right overseas volunteer opportunity, it’s vital that you understand 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 come with hefty prices and can vary a great deal. For 2 weeks’ volunteering in India, excluding flights, we found prices that ranged from about $300 as much as more than $2000.
Exactly what do you obtain for the volunteer fee? Few organisations are truly transparent about how exactly volunteer fees are spent. We asked 18 volunteer abroad providers for 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 half the volunteer fee went towards direct in-country living costs and projects. The other half was spent on general administration, organising placements, implementation and monitoring of projects, volunteer recruitment and presumably some profit for your companies.
And every company stops working their costs differently rendering it tough to know precisely the way your cash is spent. Given that many volunteer abroad companies function in an international environment, which Australian companies having an annual turnover of less than $25m generally aren’t necessary to submit financials to the corporate regulator, information on company profits are frequently simply not available.