Many companies that run volunteer travel programs or vacations charge fees, sometimes high fees, for the experience to volunteer. Some travelers are puzzled by why they have to pay to provide free services. The short answer – generally because the local organizations and projects that you volunteer abroad with have limited resources. They are seldom able to subsidize your trip or cover the costs of hosting you. These costs include housing, feeding and transporting.
Besides, often when someone questions this cost, it reveals their underlying bias toward volunteer travel abroad — they see the trip primarily for the volunteer component and not as a travel opportunity with the experience to volunteer. The difference may seem subtle, but there’s a difference.
We think when you see volunteer travel for what it is – travel – then you understand there are inherent costs to traveling abroad. The primary costs are airfare and land costs, sometimes referred to as program fees in volunteer travel (note: some program fees do not include lodging and meals).
Program fees can range from $100 for no frills, bare bone services to $3,000+ for the more costly full service trips. We compare them to going with budget hotels versus the Four Seasons. Those organizations that charge higher fees of a couple of thousand dollars often come with the comfort and safety you pay for: extensive pre-trip reading materials, pick up from the airport, security in high risk areas, on-site training, hotel accommodation, prepared meals, a volunteer coordinator on-site, assistance dealing with local officials, etc. Also, some of these organizations will use part of your program fee to pay for supplies donated to the community being served.
The less expensive option is often referred to as a “workcamp.” These exist in locations around the world and allow people to live and volunteer together for a few weeks on grassroots projects often organized by local sponsors. These volunteer projects are often most beneficial for the community, since income remains local and the cost of training volunteers is very low. If meal and lodging are provided, they’re very basic.
There are other unseen project related expenses that volunteer travel companies incur and they include:
• Costs to identify appropriate host organizations or local NGOs (non-government organizations) overseas. Working with them is time-consuming, takes resources, and requires an experienced and professional staff.
• Costs to prepare, train, transport, house, feed, and supervise volunteers are not cheap. Additional services such as health care, re-entry assistance, travel medical insurance, and more, all add to the expenses of a program.
• Costs of overhead and operating expenses.
As a general rule of thumb, if a program charges a high fee, you want to know where the money is going. Ideally, only 10-15% would go toward general and administrative costs, while 85-90% would go toward field expenses, program development and management, and volunteer coordination and outreach. It’s better if local people, suppliers, and operators are being employed.
A short-term trip with a U.S. based program operator generally costs around $1,000-$1,500 and covers accommodation, meals, excursion expenses, in-country transportation costs, project materials, direct financial contribution to the community, and coordinator expenses and other travel related costs. If the program is run by a registered non-profit organization you can check if the fee is tax deductible.
Volunteer travel abroad is like any other leisure/adventure travel but with a charitable service experience. So paying for volunteer travel abroad is expected. They are often less expensive than traditional leisure trips and you gain the intangible satisfaction of making a small impact in some community.