Many overseas volunteer trips come with hefty price tags and can vary a lot. For two weeks' volunteering in India, excluding flights, we found prices that ranged from about $300 up to more than $2000 when booked with a different organisation.
What do you get for your volunteer fee?
Few organisations are truly transparent about how volunteer fees are spent. We asked 18 volunteer abroad providers for an average breakdown of where volunteers’ funds are spent but very few provided one.
From the organisations CHOICE obtained fee breakdowns from, about half the volunteer fee went towards direct in-country living costs and projects. The other half is spent on general administration, organising placements, implementation and monitoring of projects, volunteer recruitment and presumably some profit for companies.
And each company breaks down their costs differently making it hard to know exactly how your money is spent. Given that many volunteer abroad companies operate in an international environment, and that Australian companies with an annual turnover of less than $25m generally aren’t required to submit financials to the corporate regulator, details on company profits are often simply not available.
CHOICE believes that volunteer travel providers should be transparent about how fees are spent so that consumers can make meaningful comparisons.
Commercial organisations enter the volunteer sphere
The objectives and motivations for commercial businesses in the overseas volunteer sector are very different to non-commercial organisations, which is a problem, says Wearing. While good for-profit organisations do exist, he recommends going with an NGO as they tend to have projects that are better organised and of more benefit to the community.
The project’s location is helpful in deciphering how commercial it is likely to be. Stay away from tourist destinations. “If it’s already a popular destination, really it’s just mass tourism,” says Wearing.
Various companies also show signs of their commercial bent by offering expensive optional extras such as language classes. Projects Abroad, for example, charges $2495 for two weeks of Spanish classes at its school in Argentina and Mexico, while there are endless numbers of local alternatives providing a much cheaper rate. You can also get less expensive Spanish classes in Australia at a university or community college before you go.
Other companies offer projects with dubious benefit, which are closer to tourism than volunteering. UK-based travel company, Gapforce, offers a volunteer opportunity to “rehabilitate and care for domesticated elephants” in a Thai elephant camp. Volunteers are able to ride the elephants, a practice that animal welfare groups and tour operators such as Intrepid Travel have raised concerns over.
Volunteering overseas for free
While volunteering abroad agencies can give you some peace of mind about security and take the stress out of organising a placement, they don’t do it for free. This can account for more than half of the price you pay.
One option to avoid the high price tag is to plan the trip yourself by cutting out the middleman and going directly to the local organisation. But you take a higher risk. You’ll need to do a lot of legwork to make sure the organisation is legitimate and that the project is beneficial.
“It’s not an easy landscape to navigate. It’s easy to get shonky dealers,” says Wearing.
There are various online sites which can be a good starting point, but the options they provide aren't vetted.