Yes and no. First you need to evaluate your attitude.
When travelling to Kenya for the first time, I did pay for volunteering. I used two organisations to get there. One German and one Kenyan one. The German organisation prepared me with two seminars and connected me to the Kenyan organisation. The Kenyan organisation connected me to an orphanage and two other projects where I could stay and volunteer.
The opening ceremony for one of the projects was a fundraising campaign. Local officials gave speeches and some women donned them with glittering chains that I just know as Christmas tree decoration. The volunteers, a bunch of slightly overwhelmed graduates from Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and Finland had to introduce themselves, and everybody said how happy and grateful they were to be here and motivated to work together.
The campaign followed the common structure: Somebody announced that they were collecting money to support the project we were all going to work in. Then people went in front and gave out money which they collected in a pot or on a plate. Often, politicians use such fundraisings to become known as supporters of certain causes, as they are also the guests of honour of such occasions and draw attention to the project.
When the officials and the project hosts had contributed, something awkward happened:
Everybody was waiting for the volunteers to contribute, but we hadn’t brought cash, because we hadn’t known that there would be a fundraising campaign and that people expected us to contribute. Also, we thought, we paid for our flights and our organisations, so why add expenditures on top?
I didn’t understand the cultural value of a fundraising ceremony by then. And many Kenyans thought that if I had the money to come all the way to Kenya, I would certainly have money to contribute to their cause.
I expected that with the fee I had paid to the German and the Kenyan organisation, they had taken care of everything.
I didn’t understand that NGOs or community organisations that are sending international volunteers to local projects are, at least in Kenya, mostly commercial undertakings. And there is nothing bad about that. Just as my German organisation gets funding from the government and the German participating volunteers to pay their staff, the Kenyan organisations need to cover their costs and generate income as well. They work in offices, they have transport costs and internet fees, and that’s where the volunteers’ money goes.
One of the biggest complaints I heard from many volunteers…
… was that they were disappointed and angry, because they felt that the money they had paid the organisation didn’t reach the project where they were staying. This is very common. But neither are we police nor do we have the authority as volunteers to ask for a total breakdown of the organisation’s cost. None of the volunteers I ever met demanded that from their sending organisation. The tension usually arose on the ground, when expectations were not being met and communication was not clear. Money is only a scape goat for these issues.
Intermediary organizations may be for-profit or non-profit, but they’re all part of the $173 billion global travel and tourism sector. Within that sector, industry leaders have identified international volunteering as a high growth market. There is also typically a community-based organization (CBO), or a local school or other social-serving initiative, where the volunteering actually occurs.
Depending on the financial model, the CBO may receive a donation with each volunteer, may receive room-and-board revenues, or may experience no clear financial benefit. The CBO, like the intermediary, is part of the financial puzzle that is the rapidly growing $2.8 billion global voluntourism sector.
It’s business – which doesn’t mean it is bad. But knowing that fact can avoid that you have wrong expectations.
But let’s get back to the burning question: Should you pay for volunteering?
You are offering your time and labour for free for people to improve their living conditions. Then why should you add them money on top?
- for the service of connecting you to the project and enabling you to enter the country
- for preparing you for the local cultural particularities
- for having a contact person who can help you
- for their information and guidance
- to support a local business or NGO
- for taking you to remote areas and advertising charities that may not appear on Google
- for the provision of food and housing
When should you not you pay for volunteering?
- when you are actually scared or not sure about what you are doing and you want an agency to handle everything – In that case, rethink again whether volunteering is for you.
- when you want to make claims, get back the exact value for your money or implement your idea on the ground – Volunteering cannot be broken down into monetary value only. Exchange, connection and experiences count much more.
- when you want to donate for charity – You can do that differently. If you see a situation on the ground that needs support, you can start thinking about how you can assist. (We once got support by the great people of The Wandering Samaritan to do so.)
- when you want the certificate for your CV – Volunteering is so much more than that. That’s why you will have to pay for much more than only a certificate.
- when you already know a local project and have contacts so you can organise it yourself – Then it depends on whether you can stay there as a visitor or whether you will contribute to your stay financially. The beauty of this situation is that you can discuss it with the people directly without having to pay an agency for connecting you.
- when you will be in the country for a while – Get to know people first. They will be able to direct you to projects where you can become involved.