Volunteering – To pay or not to pay?

Over the years I’ve done a number of voluntary placements in different countries around the world. Some have been organised in advance, such as working in orphanages in Costa Rica and China; while others have been spontaneous, including helping with the clear-up in Thailand after the Tsunami and working at a school for deaf children in China.


The brilliant kids I worked with at Ya Ge school for the deaf in Kaifeng, China.

Over recent years there has been a huge growth in the voluntourism market, along with much discussion about whether it truly benefits local communities.

Personally I’m not a big fan of paying huge amounts to volunteer. This comes from my first experience of volunteering abroad when I paid a large sum of money to a well-known UK company to work at an orphanage in Costa Rica. It was the first time I had travelled to Central America alone and I was reassured by the idea that the cost included a one-week introductory programme with other volunteers and 24-hour support in case anything went wrong during our time in the country.

Although I loved the work and had a great couple of months at the orphanage, I was really disappointed with the company. Once we were in Costa Rica I felt like their support was nowhere near the level we’d been promised, particularly when most of the group lost their passports and valuables during a robbery at their hostel. Despite late night phone calls to the company, it was eventually someone’s mum who had to sort out the problem.

I ended up wondering where all of the money I had paid had gone, especially after discovering that only 10% of it went towards the orphanage. I left feeling that I could have just as easily have organised the placement myself for a fraction of the cost.

As a result, I now usually try to find voluntary work once I arrive in a country. Often it’s not difficult once you start asking around and sometimes small charities even advertise in hostels for volunteers.

Despite my views on paying to volunteer, I think it’s reasonable for local charities to ask for a small amount of money to cover their running costs. In Peru I volunteered at a school teaching English for a few weeks. The organisation, which is based in the UK but has a local office run by Peruvian staff, asked for a flat $100 to help cover office costs, regardless of the amount of time you volunteered there. At the orphanage I worked at in China, volunteers were asked to bring $50 worth of supplies. At both placements volunteers also paid a small cost for accommodation.

One of my pupils (and his pet monkey) at the school in Peru.

One of my pupils (and his pet monkey) at the school in Peru.

Enjoying party time

Enjoying party time at Starfish Foster Home in Xi’an, China.

Having said all of that, some more specialised placements such as working with animals or conservation, can’t be done without going through a company. If that is the case my advice would be to make sure you research it well.

Find out where your money is going

Make sure you know exactly how much you have to pay and whether there will be any extra costs along the way. Consider trying to find a non-profit organisation to go through. Check whether any of your cash will go to the local project you’ll be working at and, if so, how much.

Get feedback from previous volunteers

And I don’t just mean reading the fluffy quotes in the glossy brochures. Ask around on forums and Twitter whether people have any experience of going through the company. Read blogs for recommendations of good organisations to work with.

Make sure you are working with a reputable company

If you’re working with a local organisation, make sure it is reputable. There have been some worrying stories in recent years of “fake” orphanages being set up in countries like Cambodia, where poor parents leave their children for the day to be entertained by well-meaning travellers who pay for the experience. In China I heard about government-run orphanages which now charge people to volunteer there, after staff caught wind of private charities doing the same.

Ensure that the work you are doing is really necessary

The whole point in volunteering is to help and you don’t want to waste your time and money or – what would be worse – cause more damage than good to the local environment. I’ve heard about projects where the same sea turtles were repeatedly counted, just to give volunteers something to do. Again, do your research or speak to locals in the area about their views of the programme.

Volunteering abroad, when done right, can be an amazing experience and the various placements I have done have often ended up being some of the highlights of my trips. But it’s worth making sure you find the right placement – something which you don’t have to pay unreasonably high costs for and, most importantly, which genuinely makes a difference to the locals you are trying to help.

Making new friends at Starfish.

Making new friends at Starfish.

I’d love to hear your views on volunteering. Have you paid to take part in a placement before? What was your experience?