Volunteering abroad… without paying for it

The notion of volunteering is a noble one, and cost isn’t something I’d associate with it, so when I started looking for somewhere to work over the summer, I was a bit horrified. Almost all volunteer positions cost money, and pretty extortionate amounts at that.

As a qualified scuba diver, I was particularly interested in marine conservation work, but the prices for these were staggering. Six weeks working in Fiji? £2500. Four weeks in South Africa? £1849. That’s how much you have to pay them to work there, with no flights included. At this price, you might as well go and blow it all on a 5* all-inclusive resort and not have to work forty hours a week.

After a great deal of searching, I managed to find a volunteer scheme in the USA that was free. The Great Basin Institute runs a program each year where around twenty international volunteers work alongside their American counterparts on environmental conservation projects. In return for working four days a week, you get a place to stay and a $5 food stipend per day.

However, it turned out that not all of the international volunteers had got there by simply going on the Great Basin Institute website and signing up. One person had paid about £500 for the privilege. As you can imagine, those of us who were there for free were somewhat bemused.

It wasn’t the Institute that had charged him; it was a separate company, Real Gap. So how and why are they selling volunteer work that you can otherwise get for free?
If you look on their website, you’ll find the exact same scheme I did, labelled as ‘USA Conservation in Nevada.’ Except, of course, that it’s listed as £499-£599. You do get a £50 phone card and travel insurance (worth about £100), but that’s really the only added value they offer. The Real Gap website doesn’t name the Great Basin Institute, presumably to stop people from just signing up for free. When I e-mailed Real Gap asking about the cost breakdown, they said:

“The programme fee includes funding that goes to the organisation in Nevada to cover volunteers’ accommodation, food, training and airport transfers.”

So Real Gap, and presumably other companies, are selling the Great Basin Institute’s program and then sending them some of the money for things that they would otherwise provide for free. When you think about this, it doesn’t seem all that bad at first. The organisation has to pay for your food, accommodation and someone to look after you, so the money has to come from somewhere.

Part of the reason why organisations like international volunteers is that they’re cheap labour. Even with overhead costs, not having to pay people is a huge financial bonus and if you can charge them too, then even better. Selling these places could also discourage people from volunteering altogether.

Whether this practice of charging volunteers is ethical or not is debatable and I’m not entirely convinced that it’s bad in every case. After all, there are certainly organisations out there that can’t operate without the additional exposure and income from willing participants. However, if you are looking to volunteer abroad, make sure you’re aware that you don’t always have to shell out. A little bit of research can go a long way.

Philip Morton


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