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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.