Volunteering Abroad: To pay or not to pay?

Yesterday’s post, “Should You Pay to Volunteer Abroad?”, on almostfearless.com has sparked a lot of interesting discussion and really got me thinking.

The major difference between volunteering abroad and volunteering at home is that you have to pay to do it. Even if you are only paying for your travel and living expenses, you are still shelling out a lot of money to go and work for free. If you are working with a pay-to-volunteer organization, you’ll be shelling out even more money. On paper, the idea seems fiscally irresponsible, if not a little reckless.

But is it?

Of course, intentions are important. Many voluntourists don’t mind paying to volunteer abroad because volunteering is not their singular intention–they also intend to sight-see, relax, and take in the culture. If they can do all that AND do some good for a community, the price is worth it.

My most recent volunteer abroad experience was not with a pay-to-volunteer organization. I raised funds to pay for my travel and living experiences, and then used my connections to get myself plugged into various nonprofits around Cape Town. This was both positive and negative. Positive: I got to participate in a wide-range of activities and get a great taste for the type of nonprofit work going on in Cape Town. Negative: Some of the nonprofits I volunteered for were disorganized and did not know how to handle volunteers. This left me alone all day with a class of non-English speaking third-graders while the teacher took the day off. When you do it yourself, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.

But unless you do your research with pay-to-volunteer organizations, you don’t know what you’re going to get either.

Here are a few tips for getting started and finding the best fit for you.

1. Consider your main intention. Do you want to spend most of your time volunteering or sightseeing? Both options are okay, but they will significantly affect whether you choose a pay-to-volunteer organization or attempt to facilitate a volunteer opportunity for yourself.

2. Do your research. I know we stress this all the time, but it really is crucial. If you are looking into pay-to-volunteer organizations, websites are a good starting place, but only as a starting place. If you can, talk to someone who has volunteered with that particular organization to get first-hand knowledge of their experience.

3. Assess yourself and your skills. Have you spent a lot of time traveling abroad? Are you comfortable making your own connections in a new place? Are you able to organize your own transportation and schedule? If you are an experienced travel, you will have a lot easier time setting up a volunteer opportunity for yourself. If you are a first-timer, consider leaving the details to a professional.

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Thanks to Shannon and almostfearless.com for sparking this great discussion! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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