Should I Pay to Volunteer?

January 19, 2016

Amy Trumpeter

Many long term travellers like to give back to the community through volunteer and community projects. It’s a great way to travel with purpose. However, the question that many people ask is ‘Should I pay to volunteer?’

Why Volunteer? The Advantages of Volunteering

International Volunteering has many advantages…

  • Cultural Immersion.
  • To offer skills e.g. teaching, medical to help those less fortunate.
  • To donate to a local charity.
  • Personal development.
  • Enhance your CV.
Volunteering in Rwanda!
Volunteering in Rwanda!

Advantages of Paying to Volunteer

Paying to volunteer can help people to get to more remote areas and advertise for charities that may not appear on Google. This means that paying to volunteer can make remote or unpopular areas more accessible. For example, I volunteered in Kigali, Rwanda in 2010. I doubt that I would have been able to organise this by myself.

However, when I landed and started to work on the ground, the original agency that I had booked with did very little. It seemed like a ‘middle man’ and the actual charity got very little of the payment. The charity that I worked with in Rwanda was purposeful (despite some low level corruption heard of by other volunteers) and supported women’s draft projects as well as provided education to children who could not afford school fees. I actually returned two years later to continue some work, without booking through the agency.

Now, indeed, volunteer organisations do need to pay for advertising and administration, and it can be argued that this is what we pay for, when we pay a ‘middle man’ to get on a volunteer programme. Yet, many volunteer ‘resellers’ take an extremely large percentage of your payment, with little actually getting to where it is needed.


The Problems with Paid Volunteer Programmes

Sadly, the volunteering industry is turning into a profitable industry, which sometimes fails to hold the interests of communities at heart. Many agencies fail to check the legitimacy of charitable projects. Many volunteers fall into the trap of selfish volunteer tourism, to check another box on a job application or CV.

The legitimacy of many charities on the ground in developing countries is sometimes questionable. Corruption in charitable organisations can be rife in many African, Asian and South American countries. Unfortunately, I often hear stories of clothing and monetary donations going straight to the charity Directors, rather than to where it is needed.

Unskilled and un-trained volunteers can sadly do more harm than good. In orphanages, it is not ideal to have volunteers frequently changed, because children get attached, and then have to say goodbye. Untrained volunteers may have favourites that results in bullying and resentment from the others.

In addition, an organisation that is dependent on cash from abroad is not locally sustainable. Being totally dependent on international volunteers in not what is best for a project’s longevity. It also makes a project better for the local community if it employs locals.

Un-cornered Market have written an excellent blog outlining the pitfalls of volunteer tourism and what to look out for. They highlight problems associated with non-medically trained medical volunteers and profit generating scam orphanages.

Should I pay to Volunteer?

Personally, I would not pay to volunteer again, because I would prefer to go direct to volunteer at the charity on the ground, rather than through an agency. I believe that you don’t always need to book through an agency. More often than not, if you turn up in a city where you want to volunteer, locals will direct you to valuable projects.

I would be ok with paying towards food or accommodation while I was volunteering, depending, of course, on the sustainability of the project. However, there are many sustainable projects that will offer meals and accommodation in exchange for your time and expertise.

I think that if you would like to volunteer abroad, it is important to consider the following before you book…

  • Can the project be done without a ‘middle man’?
  • If you need to pay and agency or ‘middle man’, what percentage of what you pay goes to the charity itself?
  • Is the project sustainable and employing locals?
  • Is the project unhealthily dependent on volunteer income?
  • Are volunteers long term and trained? The best projects accept volunteers for a minimum time period (sometimes as long as a two month commitment), but these are often the best.
  • Does what you pay cover your food and accommodation?
  • If you are paying more than just food and accommodation, what are you getting in return for this?
  • Are there other ways that you can contribute or help the community?

Pick a project that is sustainable and mutually beneficial, and there is no need to pay over the odds.

What do you think about paying to volunteer? I would love to hear your comments. I’m also looking for other travellers to help me to compile a list of legitimate organisations that people can volunteer with, without worries of where their money is going, or how people will benefit. If you would like to contribute ideas and information, just comment below or email me on

You may also be interested in Tips for Travelling Alone and Learning New Languages to Travel – Why it’s Important.