You don’t. You can book your own flight and spend hours researching visas, vaccines, and packing lists. You can clear customs solo, in a developing country, and sift through the sea of taxi drivers grabbing at your backpack to triple charge you. You can learn the language and cultural norms through trial and error, only offending a handful of locals each day. You can bounce around to a few different local organizations to see which one is the real deal and further, who genuinely needs your help. And finally, you can search for budget housing and food near your project site and cross your fingers that all goes well.
Am I being dramatic? A little. Are these line items that volunteers should consider when they are budgeting to volunteer abroad? Absolutely.
I recently returned from five months of volunteering in Nepal, India, Thailand, and Cambodia. Before I left, I decided that I would plan my entire volunteer journey myself. After all, I had worked for a decade in the travel industry visiting 27 countries on five continents. How hard could it be?!
HARD. I’ve never been so exhausted in my life. And over-budget. I realized that people aren’t paying to volunteer abroad. They are paying for their sanity while volunteering abroad.
Now, I have read numerous blogs, articles and comments blasting organizations which charge to volunteer abroad. I agree that there is a tipping point. Volunteers should never have to pay $5,000 (before flights) to spend two weeks in an orphanage in Cambodia. That’s plain and simple taking advantage. But there are also other organizations that are trying to support communities in need at the lowest price possible. So where does the money go?
These organizations research projects around the world that are sustainable and respond to local needs. Then, they visit them. They ensure that they do what they say they do. I have met many volunteers who paid thousands of dollars just to be disappointed when they arrive at the project site and their expectations are grossly different from the reality. And, it’s too late to change their trip.
Next, they want both the local organization and the volunteer to benefit from the service experience. The local organizations that volunteers will be helping have limited resources and cannot afford the staff and administrative costs of coordinating volunteers, let alone the costs of food, transport, and accommodation; all of which are prearranged. Just like companies spend large amounts of energy and money on training new employees, local organizations need to spend time and money on volunteers. Program fees offset these costs and frankly, make it possible to have volunteer programs.
Finally, they want to create a quality experience for each volunteer. They want to tailor projects to the individual or group, ensure a safe and productive work environment, and set appropriate expectations from beginning to end. They want to make it rewarding and fun.
This is just my opinion. I’d love to hear yours.