You are planning your gap year and want to give something back while you travel the world, you want to volunteer. You want to help someone and do something good! That is a good thing, right? But they are asking you to pay? What the hell is that about? Should backpackers pay to volunteer on their gap year or is it all a con?
This is an issue that often raises a lot of passionate responses on both sides, with some people asking ‘why they should pay to work’ and others saying the charity or organisation needs the money so why should they pay to host you?
One of the most common things I hear from many gap year travellers is ‘I don’t believe in paying to volunteer my time’, and more often than not the lack of understanding behind statements like that can be shocking.
The general consensus seems to be slowly changing to recognise the generally negative affect of the voluntourism industry, and as such more questions are starting to be asked around where the money is going and what benefit it is having. But there isn’t quite a simple black and white answer to this question though. As is often the case there are actually a number of things to consider.
When you should pay to volunteer.
There are so many genuine non profit organisations out there that do a lot of good in a variety of different areas, and they genuinely do need help and they also need a lot of money to stay afloat. These are often smaller grassroots charities, but there are a smattering of larger, international organisations too.
These are the organisations that do need help, that you should want to help (and not use as a way to travel for free), and for those that do run paid volunteer programmes, these are the orgs that you should pay to work with.
To put it very bluntly why should a genuine organisation that are often in dire need of funds pay for your food, accommodation and expenses just so you can make yourself feel better and post selfies of you ‘volunteering with little kids’ to show off to everyone back home? Should they pay your way just so you can assuage some strange sense of western guilt?
Are you someone with in demand and hard to get skills and qualifications that the organisation is in dire need of? Are you a medic? A nurse? Someone who could provide genuine skills in an international relief effort? Maybe you’re a vet then who could genuinely help out at a wildlife rescue centre? Or how about an engineer who could draw up and design real plans free of charge for that wall all the voluntourists keep building and painting over and over? No?
Then frankly what use are you?
Does this sound harsh? Good, it is meant to. I want to shock you into really thinking about what the genuine organisations need, not what you can get out of the experience. Real volunteering is about the organisation, not you.
Payment is the one thing that allows many genuine organisations to put up with the constant stream of unskilled, unqualified and generally unhelpful ‘volunteers’.
Now don’t get me wrong there is room for manual unskilled labour in many organisations that can make use of you in many ways, but to do so they generally have to put you up in accommodation, provide food and other logistical support, often including local staff to ‘look after you’, because let’s face it here most of the time these volunteers only want to spend a week or so and why should they have to pay for that out of vital funds they probably need to keep running?
In fact many genuine organisations use volunteer programmes such as this to at least partly provide the funds they need to pay the bills, and that is when short term volunteering can be a good thing.
For the rest of the time you have to remember that there are certain things a genuine organisation needs. Skills and qualifications, a heavy investment of time, or money. And if you can’t provide the first two, the least you can do is provide the third.
Now on the other side of that coin there are also plenty of genuine organisations such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (as well as their local variants) or Médecins Sans Frontières, which do genuine humanitarian work around the world. They obviously favour skilled volunteers but everyone is welcome. What they do demand is time, and lots of it, but they cover out of pocket expenses and even provide training. This is real and genuine volunteering that has a genuine impact.
When you shouldn’t pay to volunteer.
There are however organisations out there that you should never give money to, period.
The negative impact of volunteering in orphanages is beginning to become increasingly common knowledge now, but there are a wide range of experience packages that are now being sold as ‘volunteering packages’ to naive backpackers by the gap year industry, complete of course with all mod cons and a few excursions thrown in.
There is an entire industry built around a greenwashed idea of what volunteering is, an experience that is about as close to real volunteering as taking a package holiday for a week is to backpacking around the world. Large parts of the gap year industry has taken the concept of volunteering, packaged it and turned it into a multi billion dollar industry.
These packages often cost a lot of money, and more often than not are about as far from a true, responsible volunteering experience as you can get, yet are sold to the trusting – and often well intentioned – public as a responsible way to ‘give back’.
But these so called volunteering experiences have zero social or envioronmental impact, no cause to fight for. They aren’t helping or empowering a local community or assisting a genuine aid or relief effort. They have no benefit to anyone apart from those collecting the money.
This is voluntourism. Volunteering in name only. And it often costs a lot of money.
This is when you should never pay to volunteer, firstly because you won’t really be volunteering but also because you will be supporting an unethical and irresponsible industry that should not exist in the first place.
And when it isn’t even volunteering at all!
Let’s straighten one thing out, working in a hostel, dive shop or other part of the backpacker industry in exchange for accommodation, activities or other services is in no way volunteering, and I get very frustrated when travellers get these things confused.
It is bartering a service for a service, and whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all, it is not volunteering.
It can be a good way of extending your travels or saving a bit of cash here and there which if you are travelling on a budget can be a great thing. I used to teach martial arts classes or give self defence classes for a bit of pocket money on my own travels, but what it is not is volunteering.
You aren’t selflessly giving your time or skill to help anyone else, you are just getting a service in exchange for work. So stop pretending otherwise and stop saying you are ‘volunteering’ your way through whatever part of the world you are in because you are doing some skivvy work in a hostel in exchange for a nights stay.
It really should go without saying that you should never pay to do any type of work like this, and if you come across an organisation that is trying to sell this to you, it is a con and you should walk away.
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