Why You Shouldn’t Pay To Volunteer

By Kirsty Petrides

Here at indiGO, we don’t charge volunteer placement fees. We connect hundreds of people with projects, causes and charities all over the world every single day – and we don’t charge a penny for it. Why? Because we’re committed to our projects. We’re committed to making a real lasting impact in the world, and not becoming hung up on the money we could be earning.

We’re here to make a difference, not to make bank. So why do some agencies charge you a fee to volunteer, and is it bad that they do so?

They’re questions we get asked a lot. So to set the story straight on why you shouldn’t be paying to volunteer, we sat down with very own indiGO CEO Holly Penalver.

Hey Holly! In a nutshell, is it ever ok to pay to volunteer?

“In a very complex nutshell – no. I am yet to come across a fee-paying volunteer agency that I find 100 per cent ethical. I am sure there are some out there, I just haven’t come across any yet.”

OK, so what’s wrong with fees?

“Well, when you get fees involved, what can often happen is the volunteer agency stops caring about the needs of the community and instead only cares about the money they stand to make. It also means the agency stops focusing on providing support to a project, and instead starts focusing on delivering a service to a fee-paying customer – the volunteer. The result is that you have loads of organisations set up for the volunteers rather than the community they are claiming to help. Sadly in my experience, all of the agencies I’ve come across are set up for the volunteer and not for the community at all. That’s the difference between indiGO and other organisations.

“Also, when fees are involved, agencies could ultimately start asking for volunteers not because they need help, but because they want the fee, and that’s the attitude indiGO is trying to get rid of.”

What about when agencies tell you where your money is going, like ‘project running costs’ or ‘volunteer related costs’? Surely when they’re being transparent, then it’s ok to pay?

“If an agency says your fee is going towards “project running costs” I would email them to ask what they mean by that. Project running costs would mean the agency is paying to run the school, orphanage or whatever the project they’re sending people to is – and that is not what volunteer agencies typically do. Agencies have overheads like staff, offices and advertising, and they need to recoup those costs somewhere. I would bet my bottom dollar that is where the majority of volunteer fees go.”

Ok, what about logistics then? Isn’t paying to volunteer a great way to take the stress out of all the admin involved to get me on the ground faster?

“Not really, because when projects truly need help, they do all that administration themselves – free of charge. This is what happens with all the projects we work with.

“For instance, if a school in Mexico really needs help, they will happily send a few emails back and forth, support volunteers with information on visas and generally provide assistance, because they’re desperate for a teacher. Agencies claiming to take the hassle out of it for you are simply trying to make out they’re saving you administration problems and stress, when actually projects just do all of that anyway.”

Well, what about when the agency says the volunteering fee includes accommodation and food – is it ok to pay then?

“It is absolutely ok to pay for your own food and accomodation! But make sure the amount you’re being charged adds up. If an agency is asking for $3,000 for food and accomodation over a two-week volunteering trip, and you know the price of a bed and meals in that country is nowhere near that cost, then ask where the rest of your money is going.

“We work with an organisation in India that charges its volunteers for food and accomodation, and whatever is left over from that amount goes directly back in to the project. We don’t see any problem with that. You really have to go with your gut, and make your own judgement call as to what you think is a reasonable amount to pay for food and accomodation.”

So what is your overall advice for people looking to volunteer somewhere?

“Look at a few different organisations, check out your options, ask the questions and just go with what feels right for you at the end of the day. Ultimately it comes down you and whether you feel it is an ethical placement. Do you feel that you’re actually going to help, that you’re actually going to have an overall positive impact there. If you do, then go for it.”

Want to become an indiGO volunteer? Apply now at indigovolunteers.org

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