Why Pay to Volunteer?

Paying to volunteer can seem like a contradiction in terms. After all, you are already offering your time for free and covering your expenses. Some people assume that to pay to volunteer is just blatant commercialization, and free volunteering is better, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

An important thing to note is just because an organization is legally registered as a non-profit doesn’t mean that they can’t charge money for their services and make a profit. Many of them do, they just can’t give that profit to shareholders. And just because an organization is registered as a for-profit company does not mean that it cannot prioritize the impact and needs of the communities in which they work, while investing most of their profits back into their business or into their project partners: some of them do.

The reality is that it can take a lot of time and capacity to create and support a great volunteer experience. Learning service emphasizes that volunteers themselves are often the main beneficiary. Organizations that work with volunteers have costs to offset, such as:

  • Marketing and promotion to attract certain types of volunteers to sign up
  • Staff to recruit, interview and select volunteers that apply
  • A system to create job descriptions for volunteers and to utilize them effectively
  • The process of preparing, training and supporting volunteers during their placement
  • Line management and supervision for the volunteer’s role
  • Mentorship and learning opportunities for the volunteer
  • Providing re-entry support, alumni events and ongoing opportunities for involvement

These costs need to be covered by someone. If a volunteer has highly sought-after skills then the organization may take on the cost burden themselves. Most of the time, however, it is not worth it to them without a contribution towards their running costs. If they did have the financial resources to subsidize your trip, it would almost certainly be more beneficial and cost-effective to hire a local person to instead. Some organizations take on volunteers in the hope of getting future financial support for their programs in the form of fundraising, which can be a risky long-term strategy.

Of course there are also plenty of volunteer organizations that are run more like tourism companies. They do minimal work and incur minimal costs – they match you with a partner organization whom they may have never visited, and take a large percentage of the fee you pay in profit. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this, you may want to do some research to find out what due diligence is done on partner organizations and what support is received by them.

The bottom line is that you can pay for an organization to do the logistical legwork to ensure that you have a positive experience and impact overseas, which you may not have the time or energy to do. You can also offer money to ensure that you are not a burden on an organization – especially if you will stay for just a short time. On the other hand, it is not true that the more you pay the better a volunteer experience will be. Your money may be eaten up in admin fees and profit for a travel company. Transparent organizations will give you a breakdown of how your volunteer fee is spent, so you can judge for yourself if it is worth it.

Doing it Right: Ever-Changing Perspectives on Voluntourism and Best Practice

This is a guest post by Liz Tuck, reflecting on her own long career in the volunteer travel sector.


Eleven years ago today I was readying myself to fly to Tanzania to spend a month teaching English in an island secondary school. Looking back, the thought process behind that decision settles somewhere between barbaric and ridiculous. I was an Educational Studies Undergrad at the time, studying not to be a teacher, but education and learning conceptually. I knew nothing about Tanzanian culture, the education system or curriculum, and not a single word of Swahili, but I really wanted to ‘help’.

My desire to do good through travel didn’t end there, a year later I spent a month in a Ghanaian orphanage, somewhat disappointed to discover that the children would be at school all day and not available to spend time with me until after 3pm. I continued onto a role in the volunteer tourism industry managing projects, setting them up in just a month, ready for new arrivals, ensuring that the visitors had plenty to do and felt worthwhile, above all else. I continued to a different organisation, one that had stronger support mechanisms and long-term aims and felt I had truly reached the top of the volunteer travel tree.

For eleven years I have been one of the biggest advocates for volunteering abroad – as long as it is done right, it’s great – has been my primary motto, as I shake off the criticism I see flying through the media. What’s shifted in that time however, is the meaning I hold to the concept of doing it right.

Two and a half years ago I moved into a role with World Challenge, one of the world’s leading school travel and expedition companies. I’d become disheartened by projects that depended on unreliable volunteer people-power, and priorities centred around customer service rather than the very communities they were intended to support. Throughout all of my years working with volunteers and communities overseas I had grown to understand that the real benefit lay in the change to the participants. Personal growth aside, I saw young people (and not so young adults) engaging with global issues and developing a greater understanding of their place in the world. Working with an organisation whose aim was to do just that, was an ideal fit.

This year I’ve moved into a new role at World Challenge, focussing on promoting best practice and responsible travel across all of their overseas projects. Once again I find myself challenging the concept of doing it right on a daily basis. I know now, that it is an ever-evolving notion, and am proud to be part of an organisation that not only acknowledges that, but invests resources specifically into seeking out the issues and implementing solutions. Though I can’t say exactly what the best way to engage with projects and global issues overseas is, I can say that the only way we will find out is by questioning our beliefs and challenging our preconceptions on a regular basis.

I’m certain that there is much more to come in this space, but it’s great once in a while to look back at my naivety all those years ago, when I thought that my presence in those Tanzanian classrooms was really going to help the students pass their exams, without even understanding what was required for them to do so.


Liz Tuck is the Community Partnerships Manager at World Challenge, a global provider for overseas school travel. Currently, Liz is working with colleagues, partners and consultants to develop a model for best-practice community engagement and embed responsible travel practices across the company’s portfolio. Previously, she worked for five years in the voluntourism sector in Ghana, South Africa, Mexico and Cambodia. The main image is a scene from Liz’s first trip to Tanzania.

Volunteering Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Throughout your volunteer experience, you have the chance to determine to what degree you will integrate yourself into the local culture and to what degree the local culture will become a part of you. Though many volunteers live in luxury relative to local people, some live in luxury even compared to their lives at home. You may have choices regarding not only where you live, but also whether you live with local people or with other foreigners, with domestic help or not, with or without air conditioning. You may have choices about what kind of food you eat – imported food from supermarkets or local staples purchased from street sellers? Your transport choices might range from private cars to public buses. You can spend your leisure time by the pool in a fancy hotel or learning to cook local dishes with a local friend. Always taking the easier or more familiar choice in all these options is what we call “hiding in your comfort zone.”

Rather than taking the stance that living a comfortable lifestyle and hanging out in tourist havens is “bad” and living in a rural community without running water is “good”, we recommend you become aware of your own goals and make sure you consciously seek out places and experiences that help you grow. By definition, sticking to things in your comfort zone means you are not stretching yourself very far. Just outside of your comfort zone, and before you reach your “panic zone” (which is too far and where nobody wants to hang out) is what we can call the “learning zone,” “growth zone” or “stretch zone”. The idea is that if you don’t challenge yourself and put yourself in areas where you feel uncomfortable, you won’t learn and grow.

Cultural integration often depends on you minimizing the amount of time spent in those “comfort zone” areas and instead getting out and meeting local people, learning a new language, trying new foods, and experiencing new things. You’ll be surprised that things which felt way out of your comfort zone at first, like bargaining for vegetables, using a squat toilet, or figuring out how to ride a matatu, will soon become second nature as you challenge yourself to try these things again and again.

Frequenting tourist enclaves and familiar chain stores can also reinforce stereotypes of foreigners. Do you really want to send a message of glorified consumerism to your hosts? What can you learn by cutting your western safety net for a bit and instead becoming more involved in other social realities? Ask yourself what things you can do to become more integrated into local culture. Is there a local craft or tradition you can learn more about? Have you tried cooking for your colleagues or offering to help with the daily chores of your host family?

Your warmest memories of your experience may be the wedding you were invited to, a grandmother you met at the market, or celebrating a local festival. Making efforts to participate in local cultural activities can go a long way towards helping you become integrated into the community but it can also help you become more effective in your volunteer role. If you understand the local culture and context, you can make more informed decisions about how you approach your tasks, and additionally help you grow respect and understanding for a new place and culture.

Volunteering: How to Avoid Creating a Void

At Learning Service we talk a lot about how volunteering can sometimes create more problems than it solves. If volunteers are only providing band aid solutions then the underlying problem will persist and can even be perpetuated. For example, if volunteers build libraries in rural areas, even if they are stocked with awesome books, that alone will not grow a reading culture or improve literacy. Those processes are more tricky, and take hard work, local knowledge and input for the long term – definitely not tasks suitable to be squeezed into a short term vacation.

Volunteers involved in band aid tasks can contribute to creating a void rather than filling one. In our example, if that area now has a community library, there is now a bunch of books to be taken care of, opening times to be managed, a system of borrowing to be worked out, and, ideally, people trained in literacy teaching to make best use of the reading materials. That burden falls on to the so-called beneficiaries, who in the vast majority of cases just do not have the resources to manage it properly. Hence, the library ends up as a gaping void.

Volunteers can also create voids when they do a job that ideally should be done by someone with appropriate skills who can remain in post for a long time. Let’s take an example of a volunteer who comes into an organization as a human resource manager and plans to work in that post for a few months. It might work well while the volunteer is there, but once they have left the organization is still in the same situation as they were previously – maybe even a worse one, as our volunteer may have put some HR systems in place that need to be continually maintained.

As a general rule, we recommend you examine the role you will play as a volunteer and ask yourself, “Am I helping to make a system that runs better once I leave? Or am I creating a void that, once I leave, will either need to be filled by another volunteer, or an unpaid local person, or end up completely unfilled?” Creating a void means that once you move on, the organization will need to search for someone else to take on that role who might have to start from the beginning again. Rather than making the system run more efficiently without you, the organization is becoming more dependent on outside support.

Let’s look at an example of a volunteer teacher in a classroom. To know if you are building capacity or creating a void, you can ask these questions:

  • What am I doing to ensure the children have access to better education once I leave?
  • Will this class run when I am not here to teach it? Who will run it and where are they now?
  • Could my skills be better used supporting teachers than students?
  • Does someone else in the organization (such as a co-teacher or supervisor) know what I do on a day-to-day basis? Will they be able to replicate it?
  • Am I only just learning the skills of teaching myself, and is it clear from my role that I am a learner, not a teacher or trainer? Have I shared the resources and methods from which I myself am learning?
  • How does an incoming teacher know what has already been taught to students? Are there systems in place to collect information, share materials, and avoid repeating work for the future? If not, can I set them up?
  • Which other roles in the organization can I support so they feel better equipped to continue this work in the future?

Look for projects that tackle the root causes of problems rather than applying a band aid, and roles that support and improve an existing system rather than replacing it for the short-term. Hopefully then you can be surer of contributing to sustainable change and avoid creating a void!

“I have changed the way I look at volunteering abroad”

This is a guest post by International Development student Isabella Da Ruos, who shares her experience of volunteering abroad.


Millions of people travel overseas each year, some seeking a break from their busy lives, some for work and perhaps others as a means for an adventure. Many however, travel with the desire to ‘give back’ and choose to volunteer as a means to do so. These volunteer trips are what we now refer to as voluntourism, which has become increasingly popular over the past couple decades. Evidently, voluntourism has since become big business, generating millions of dollars each year as it feeds off the kindhearted intentions of many do-gooders. The promise it provides is that travellers will make a difference in the lives of some of the poorest individuals and communities across the globe, allowing many volunteers a sense of self gratification. As I have come to learn, however, the truth is far from this.

My first experience in what I now understand as voluntourism, was on a family holiday to Fiji (and later a school trip). I recall going on a day trip to the main island to visit a village. Here we were welcomed by many children (who weren’t in school), men, women and the village chief. The tour included a guided walk through their village, visiting their school and some homes, as well as a cooked lunch/feast by the local women who lived there. I remember at the time feeling quite excited that we were to join the chief for lunch, however I also recall the feeling of uncertainty, that perhaps despite us paying good dollars to see them, that we should not be there. This feeling deepened when we walked through the village; and this was because I soon realised that the village had been greatly impacted by a cyclone recently, so many homes and their school were quite damaged. I felt sad for them, especially the children who seemed happy to see us – did they think we were there to help?

Yes: ‘help’. Now that I reflect on this experience I can completely understand what it is that made me feel so uneasy about this tour. We were simply imposing on them at a time that was most inappropriate; we played with children, who weren’t in school because there were visitors (part of the school still operated at this point), we entered people’s homes and disturbed their privacy (many homes were partially destroyed due to the cyclone), and the local people used many of what I assume were their precious resources to feed us. It seemed as if we were more of a burden then a help. I understand that at this time, they would have accepted tours because despite the situation unfolding in front of them, they had no choice since it was obviously a means of income for the village which they so desperately needed. However, reflecting on this now, I can think of so many other ways this village could have been financially supported without having to be burdened and interrupted by western tourists with flashing cameras.


My second experience, upon high school graduation, was during a school trip, which included another day tour/trip to Fiji’s main island to donate sporting and school equipment. Here, we met about 80 children, who took the day off school, to accept these gifts and in return we once again were gifted with a big feast. Whilst I felt a sense of accomplishment handing out the equipment and supplies, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. Guilt because all these children, most who seemed uninterested (and locals who seemed bothered and burdened) were out of school and out of pocket – once again. Reflecting on this now it would have been much wiser to have one member directly donate the goods, as of course this would mean the local community, kids and businesses would not have had to have a valuable business and learning day wasted in order to accommodate for us westerners. After all, if our intentions were selfless and kindhearted, why did they have to come with such burdens to the local community? Many years later I actually learned that the school was dumping many supplies and equipment because they had no need for much of it, I also learnt that our trip put local supply businesses in jeopardy for months after we had left.

This reflection has not come easy for me. In fact, it took me many years to truly reflect and understand why it was I felt so uneasy in these experiences. It was my decision to enrol in a Bachelor of International Development, to fulfil my desire to live a life of helping people, that ultimately allowed me to be exposed to the cold, hard truth of volunteering abroad. My journey through my International Development degree absolutely changed me, my attitudes, my values and definitely my actions. Prior to my degree I had spent many years dreaming about future volunteer trips I would partake in, many of which I’d hoped would be in orphanages – of course this was long before I came to know the surprising truth that lay behind orphanage tourism. Learning about this all was really tough since I’d spent so long wanting to do just that. I never gave any thought to who the organisation would be and why and where their money went; all I knew was I wanted an adventure and to do something ‘worthwhile’. So naturally I felt a lot of guilt when I later found out it was this reckless, entitled thinking that was actually causing more harm than good.

Over the course of my degree my existing thoughts, perceptions and beliefs were constantly challenged when it came to the world; be that in politics, the environment, human rights, or volunteering. I challenged myself to the point that I wound up being a completely different person. I was once a woman who despised anything to do with the environment – and now one who blogs about it. I was once a woman who recklessly dreamed – and now reflects cautiously. I was once a woman who never considered animal nor human rights – and am now an advocate for them. I am so grateful for the way this course has shaped not just my learning but also the person I am today.

Perhaps one of the most critical parts of my degree that shaped my future learning and actions was my time spent abroad in Cambodia with PEPY Tours, guided by some experts in the field of international volunteering. The value of this trip on my learning and life can simply not be put into words. But what can is the many ways one of my trip leaders – Claire Bennett, an author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel, has helped me in understanding true responsible volunteering.

So, I thought I would share my top 5 favourite lessons that I have learnt, not just in my degree, but also in the Learning Service book – which I consider to be the ultimate Bible for anyone wanting to volunteer abroad.

Here they are:

Volunteer travel is not the same as responsible travel 

I used to believe that volunteer travel was the most responsible form of travel, but as my experiences and Learning Service points out, volunteer travel can be seen as part of a wider system of international development. The best practices in development are community driven and based, so evidently anything which focuses on a white saviour, or the ‘I can get off a plane and solve all your problems’ attitude, is not the best form, nor the most responsible intervention.

Something is not better than nothing

A common assumption in the volunteering field, which I hear too often, is ‘something is better than nothing’. The people who assume this may argue that an untrained foreign volunteer teacher is better than no teacher at all- whilst having no evidence that there would be no teacher if the volunteer were not there. They also may not be thinking about the sustainability of this education system, which relies on streams of short term volunteers, as opposed to local qualified teachers. Many times, this argument is not based on facts. Take a trip that has a group of foreign volunteers, with no building experience or qualifications, which comes to a village to build a school. This can take away potential income from local people who are qualified, experienced and skilled in building. Furthermore, there is no guarantee of students or teachers to fill these classrooms and keep them running, hence the abandoned school buildings in some communities that serve as a reminder each day of the waste of money, resources and time that went into it. The hard truth is that something is not always better than nothing, sometimes kind intentions don’t always have good consequences. Once we recognise that our culture and experiences shape our knowledge and assumptions, we can truly begin to reflect on the true consequences of our actions.

Taking responsibility for oneself

Taking responsibility for oneself and your development goes hand in hand when taking responsibility for improving the lives of others. Often this attitude is criticised as selfish, however, it is actually the contrary. Those who can recognise the personal benefits of their experiences abroad are those who are most likely to think the most clearly about their decisions and actions, which as we have learnt can be detrimental without prior reflection. Many returning volunteers often say they wish they had done more personal development and acquired a learning mindset before departure as it would have made them a more effective volunteer. Take my trips to Fiji for example – if I was more honest with myself and had taken the time before departure to reflect on why I wanted to do those trips, I would have most likely understood that my assumptions weren’t all true and that my intentions at that point of time were mostly about self-gratification. If I had taken the time to reflect on this prior to departure and thought about the implications and burdens of these actions, I would have never visited those islands and instead thought of another way to help that was both responsible and sustainable. Nevertheless, cultivating a learning mindset first requires unlearning, recognising that certain things you thought were true were  assumptions, cultural viewpoints or views learnt through your own western lens – which deeply impact how we see and interact with the rest of the world. Unlearning is a very uncomfortable process, but it is one that truly allows good intentions to result in good consequences, allowing the experience of responsible volunteering to be one that benefits both communities and foreign volunteers.

Ask yourself questions – and answer them truthfully

If you take a walk down your local university corridor, you’ll pass some noticeboards that will most likely be advertising opportunities to volunteer and travel abroad, urging young people to stop what they’re doing and jet off as a means to make a ‘real difference’ in the world. Similarly, a quick Google search on voluntourism or a scroll on your Facebook will also hand you a bunch of opportunities to volunteer abroad, often from third party providers. The problem of such an abundance of trips available at the touch of a finger, is that it makes it harder to filter out the better trips – the ones that focus on sustainable, positive actions and impacts that benefit volunteers and communities – from those that tend to take a business focus. In addition, the overwhelm of so many opportunities can give the wrong idea about volunteering abroad, leading to unrealistic expectations which can ultimately lead to disappointment and the withdrawal from a trip, which can potentially harm the community you are trying to help. International volunteers often have high expectations about making a ‘big difference’, when really a lot of big change comes from small efforts. So, digging deep into your own motivations for volunteer travel and asking yourself challenging questions may allow you to navigate yourself towards the right decisions of how you can best achieve this ‘big change’ for the world (as well as improve yourself along the way!). As noted in ‘Learning Service’, some important questions to ask yourself before you plan your next volunteer trip may include; what kind of personal growth opportunities do I seek? What are my core skills? What are my learning goals? What do I value? What impact do I most want to have on the world? Often the most successful volunteers are not those who are extremely experienced, but those who take the time to acknowledge what they can receive from volunteering but also how they can truthfully offer the same in return.

Action without learning is ignorance

The balance between wisdom and skilful action is vital when it comes to volunteering in a manner that is safe and responsible for all involved. Too much in one direction will upset the balance of the other. This alone is the perfect summary of ‘Learning Service’ as it represents balancing thoughtful and reflective learning which mirrors its learning service model. The actions we should aim to take, particularly in volunteer travel, need to aim to tackle root causes and be done with openness and humility. In the field, this mindset allows a traveller’s role to flip from ‘helping’ right away to ‘learning’, which completely re-frames someone’s whole experience. It also creates different power dynamics and different ways to measure success. Instead of assuming we have the answers, we have the mindset of offering effective help by learning from the people who deeply understand their own situations and what help is  required to achieve sustainable, positive change within their community.


If you’re looking for more tips on how to volunteer responsibly abroad check out Learning Service on Facebook and grab a copy of their book – remember, when we know better we can do better!


Isabella Da Ruos studied International Development at Australian Catholic University and is passionate about responsible, ethical travel and is an advocate against orphanage care. Isabella enjoys long walks with her camera and blogging about international, ethical issues and concerns on her site, The Ethical Wanderer in her spare time.