By Sarah Carroll
In the past month, 165,000 people have typed the words “volunteer abroad” into Google’s search engine. Invariably, what they would have been presented with was a collection of volunteer agencies from across the world offering unique volunteering vacations and the chance to have a “life changing experience and gain life skills”. And who could put a price on such an amazing opportunity? Apparently, volunteer agencies can. But is there really any need for such agencies?
Firstly, what are these companies and what do they do? They are middle-men that take the ‘hassle’ and ‘worry’ out of volunteering by organising your in-country transport, accommodation and food during your stay and introduce you to a few local projects. To the nervous traveller this can seem like a welcome option, but how much is this service going to set you back?
Let’s take Francis, a 22 year old History graduate with little or no background in childcare, who is interested in spending one month in Tanzania working with children. Carrying out a search for the words “volunteer abroad” and plugging this information into five of the top ten sites that pop up on the first page of our search,we can quickly glean the following:
Company/Org - Results
Volunteer HQ: These guys come in the cheapest, with one month of accommodation, food and project placement costing just 512 Euro.
Uvolunteer: A little more expensive, a month of volunteering through these guys is going to set you back 747 Euro.
i-to-i: i-to-i are next, though you may feel you’ve just skipped a few steps, as the cost goes up two-fold, to 1645 Euro for one month of volunteering through this company.
Projects Abroad: Managing the seemingly impossible, Projects Abroad sail in a good 194 Euro more expensive than i-to-i, at 1845 Euro for one month’s volunteering. Surely it can’t get much more expensive than that, right? After all, this is only covering your in-country expenses, how much can it cost to live in a developing country for one month?
Cross Cultural Solutions: King of them all, CCS smash all doubts that it could get more expensive by proudly offering you four weeks of volunteering for the tidy sum of 2795 Euro. “Making a difference can be as simple as sharing love and affection with orphans” according to their website. So, for as little as 2795 Euro a month, you can hug as many orphans as you like. And it’s okay folks, because CCS are, in fact, a not-for-profit organisation, and so clearly have no responsibility to be efficient with your money when covering their expenses. The site states that 25% of your fee goes into ‘Project Development and Management’ and ‘Outreach’. Fair enough. But that still leaves 2096 Euro to cover the costs of what i-to-i, the closest business in price, can do for 400 Euro less and still make a ridiculous profit*. So, they are not-for-profit, but that only leaves us to wonder what, exactly, do they actually do with the money???
And so, you continue to search, and you continue to come up against an insurmountable wall of high fees and clichés. To put it simply, in today’s thriving Voluntourism market, it is a tough task to wade through the myriad of agencies and their large advertising budgets, which are clogging up the pages of Google and Yahoo, to finally reach any opportunity that doesn’t require you to re-mortgage your house in order to cover the costs. But rest assured, those opportunities are there.
Before exploring the other possibilities, is there any benefit to using an agency?
Firstly, let’s state the obvious advantage, which is: if you are on the nervous side and anxious of traveling for the first time to a developing country, an agency removes any of the hassle of trying to find your own accommodation, transport and project, and gives a certain peace of mind that, should something go wrong, there is someone to turn to. Besides this, however, what are the advantages of using an agency over going it alone? Here are some common arguments given by agencies for why it is better to volunteer through them:
By paying an agency you are covering all your expenses and so are not a burden on the local community.
Yes, this is true, you are in no way costing a project or community any money when you book through an agency. However, you are equally not a burden on the local community if you pay to stay at a local hostel, hotel or host family. The only difference is that you pay directly for food and accommodation and in doing so save yourself literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Euros. And you are supporting local businesses, so its win, win.
It’s safer and more secure to go with an agency?
Is it? I guess that all depends on how safe a traveler you are. One of the first things agencies list is that the volunteer will be collected from the airport and brought directly to their guest house, presumably meaning there is less of a chance of the volunteer being robbed, kidnapped or blown up while hanging around, bewildered, at the seedy, shady third world airport. To this end, they are right, it probably would be advisable to figure out transport before arriving, but if you have booked to stay at a hostel or hotel throughout your volunteering, they too could most likely organize an airport pick up. Otherwise, there is probably a taxi rank and public transport available, a quick look at the countries’ official tourist website will sort out that query
Agencies also say that they have staff on 24 hours to help in an emergency. I assume that means you have the mobile number of the in-country coordinator and that he or she will help you if you are in need. Again, most hotels/hostels have someone on reception or on call to do the same thing.
Personally, I find agencies play up the fear factor, creating an illusion that without their support you would be lost, alone and surrounded by danger. In reality, you are just traveling somewhere where the environment is probably different to what you are used to and due caution, such as not walking alone at night or going back to some random man’s house,and not keeping all your money in one place, should be exercised. I don’t think the added safety of having the phone number of the in-country coordinator justifies the expense.
Agencies only work with ‘verified’ projects, so the volunteer can be sure they working with a worthwhile project.
Hmmmmmm…verified by whom? Agencies often state that every one of their projects have been vetted by their in-country coordinator. I may be wrong but as far as I can tell, the agency is not an objective judge on that one. The agency’s primary aim is to get more volunteers to book and therefore, to make a bigger profit*. For every volunteer there must be a placement and the more volunteers they place, the more money they make. Therefore, they cannot be the ones to judge the value of the placements, as every placement translates directly to volunteer fees. It is not the long term development of the project that is their primary objective but profit. I am not offering an opinion as to the value of the projects they support to the local community, what I am saying is that their assessment is not a valid, objective one, as they have a vested interested in placing volunteers, not in holding projects and project coordinators to account for the work they carry out and the services they provide to the local community.
Agencies ensure you will make best use of your time and that of the projects you support.
If the agency’s primary aim is to get more volunteers, they need more placements. This is the job of the local in-country representative, to source projects where the volunteer can work. This is generally not someone trained in community development;rather, it is somebody who is familiar with the community. An agency can have up to thirty, or even forty, volunteers at once in one place, which means there has to be a similar number of placements, though the number of volunteers will fluctuate with the season. How do they make sure that everyone is placed according to their ability and skill set? In order to do this, the agency would need to contact the representative of the country that the volunteer is interested in going to, relay their skills, have them liaise with the project coordinators regarding current need verses the volunteers ability, decide where the volunteer is best placed and organize this before they arrive.In short, 99% of the agencies do not do this. Instead, upon inquiring/booking, they send out a general email which tells the volunteer what they can expect while working in their area of interest (usually categorized under headings such as ‘Conservation’, ‘Community Development’, ‘Childcare’, ‘Empowering Women’ etc). It is then assumed that once the volunteer arrives at their destination country they will be brought to a suitable placement. But what if there are thirty other volunteers there, all looking to do similar work? Agencies simply cannot guarantee that volunteers will be placed in projects where their skill sets will be best utilized. The best they can do is offer the volunteer a few different options and leave the volunteer to choose which best suits.
If an agency is to be worthwhile, if they actually are interested in the development of the projects they support, they should be matching the skill sets of their volunteers with the needs of the projects before they arrive. They should also have a limit to the amount of volunteers that can book into each area at a given time. And beware of the agency that has no lower limit to how long a commitment the volunteer needs to give. According to some companies, you can make a difference “in as little as a week”. No,you can’t. But they can make a profit in as little as a week.
*It is difficult to judge how much profit agencies make, but let’s look at one example. On their website, i-to-i state that 8% of their revenue ends up as profit, and part of this profit is used as donations. I couldn’t find a figure for their revenue. However, here is their background. In 1996 a woman called Deirdre Bounds, returning from some travels, decided to open an ‘alternative travel’ agency, i-to-i. This was a small company which eventually specialized in organizing paid teaching placements abroad and volunteer holidays. Ten years later this company was sold to First Choice travel for over 20 million GBP and today a significant portion (more than likely the majority), of its revenue comes from selling volunteer vacations. I’m not sure what 8% (less donations) comes to, but if it’s enough to cover the expense of buying the company for 20 million GBP, then I’d call that a handsome profit.
Besides the advantages of having someone organize your accommodation and food and providing easy access to projects once in-country, there seems to be little real, tangible advantage in volunteering through an agency rather than independently.
Are there advantages to NOT going through an agency?
I think the main advantage is the freedom to contact projects directly and asses for yourself if you are suitable to the roles on offer. There is also the advantage that you haven’t paid thousands of Euro to go through an agency and, therefore, are more free to move on or look at other projects, should things not work out. And if you have extra funds left over from not going through an agency, you can use these funds as you see fit once at your project.
Going the Independent Route.
If you don’t want to pay any fees, where does that leave you? There are quite a few sites out there that list overseas projects that are looking for assistance, including Volunteer South America, The Volunteers Tent and Idea List, to name just a few. Using these sites you will find hundreds of projects worldwide that are looking for volunteers and do not charge. Once you have found a potentially suitable placement, you can ask for a list of nearby hostels/hotels or look them up online. The drawbacks are that you may end up somewhere where you are isolated from other volunteers/travelers or with a placement that turns out to be not exactly what you had in mind.
Is there an in between, an alternative option?
This was something that was annoying me since the very first time I volunteered abroad, over five years ago. I signed up for a seven week placement in Tanzania with i-to-i. After a few weeks, it became clear that the expenses I incurred in-country were grossly disproportional to the fees I had paid. There must be a way, I thought, of cutting out the middle man, of opening some sort of center for volunteers, based locally rather than back in Europe,where they could be given information about local projects and only pay for their accommodation. And there was. In 2006 I opened Hostel Hoff, a hostel in Moshi, Northern Tanzania, that houses backpackers and volunteers, while actively helping to place guests with local volunteer projects. As I lived in the town, I was well informed as to the projects in the area and was in a position to evaluate, to the best of my ability, the benefit of the various projects to the local community and to advise guests and potential guests as to what work was being carried out and what the needs were. Five years later, the hostel is still going strong, and it is now in the capable hands of the new owners. I left Tanzania, but already I had a new project brewing. The hostel was a great success as an alternative to volunteer agencies, but I hadn’t heard of many others. I knew that it could work well; the template was there, it was just a matter of spreading the idea. If this model, or some version of it, could be replicated worldwide, this could provide a great way for volunteers to side-step volunteer agencies and access small grass roots projects, I reasoned. And so the idea for Volunteering For Free was born; a website that would be dedicated to helping volunteers avoid paying fees to volunteer agencies by promoting the idea of using hostels as volunteer and travel agents. After painstakingly contacting hundreds of hostels worldwide, a list of those that actively link their guests with local projects for no extra cost was compiled. The website now lists hundreds of such hostels, along with projects and area information, allowing volunteers to contact hostel owners and, in turn, receive information on projects or directly contact project coordinators in advance. By using the information posted on the site, travelers can simply turn up at the doorstep of the hostels or book in advance and arrange accommodation, airport pickups, food, project placements etc. Which means that the few advantages that volunteer agencies had over independent volunteering are now made redundant and this leads us back to our original question, are there any need for these over-priced, over-rated volunteer agencies? No, not anymore there’s not!
To find out more about Volunteering For Free check out Volunteering for Free | Avoid Volunteer Abroad Agencies