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Participating in a humanitarian trip to places like Cambodia and Vietnam is inevitably life-changing, as noted by Annapolis resident Suzanne Cary in a recent Capital Hometown Annapolis article.

Cary, mother of three and a yoga “devotee,” raised funds to travel with the Cambodian Children’s Fund, which provides food, shelter, medical care, education, and vocational training to 400 children living in squalor.

“I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to personally travel to Cambodia and see first-hand where this money is going,” Suzanne wrote in a letter to supporters. “We were fortunate to meet with a few of the genocide survivors who shared their stories with us, asking us to never forget. In that moment, it was hard for me to breathe.”

But what did this trip cost her? A cool $20,000, funds she raised mostly from her community.

Without a doubt, if even half of this money of this money reaches Cambodian children, it will make a huge difference.

Yet what does this price tag imply about who can and cannot participate in these types of missions? Although considerably cheaper, opportunities through Global Exchange and Global Service Corps still run around $3,000 before airfare.

Can the average person pay or raise enough funds in order to volunteer their help?

What do you think about the increasing costs involved with humanitarian trips? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Feature photo: Flashpacking Life

Volunteer + Work


About The Author

Christine Garvin

Christine Garvin is a certified Nutrition Educator and holds a MA in Holistic Health Education. She is the founder/editor of Living Holistically...with a sense of humor and co-founder of Confronting Love. When she is not out traveling the world, she is busy writing, doing yoga, and performing hip-hop and bhangra. She also likes to pretend living in her hippie town of Fairfax, CA is like being on vacation.

  • Hannah

    This is certainly a topic I had and still have to deal with. I'm about to graduate from school and planned to volunteer abroad for a year. On the one hand I was shocked about the costs this causes. On the other hand it is understandable. The organisations that make you pay a lot to volunteer are usually profit ones, so of course they want to get something out of it. In Germany, where I live, there are also some government supported programmes and organizations, to get into one of those you have to write an application and have better chances to get in when you have a lot of experience in the field of your volunteering work. It does make sence too, cause of course countries only want to send out those people who they can be sure represent them well and are going to do a good job. I still got one open application, so hopefully this works out!! :)

  • Gregory Hubbs

    There are plenty of inexpensive local organizations and NGOs (which I have made it a point of listing on our site), but very often you must be realistic in that the best volunteer work is often performed by natives who stay long-term in their communities due to continuity and a better understanding of the needs. Nonetheless, the urge to volunteer is noble and the experience often transformative, while there are also plenty of inexpensive organizations to choose from–not to mention workcamps such as Volunteers for Peace. Study Abroad ain't cheap either these days unless you go to the local universities directly, so it really is a matter of choice and research, and there is plenty of information on the Internet.

  • Luke Nye

    nice article. it is an interesting topic. Paying for the trip allows the money that the organization raises to go to the people that they are helping, which is a good thing. Though sometimes it can be hard to find people or ways to raise the funds, so that you can volunteer aboard.

  • Sarah_Menkedick

    I agree, the price you pay to organizations like Global Service Corps includes the research and grunt work you could do on your own. It seems crazy to me to be paying exorbitant amounts of money to volunteer, and it seems to me somewhat beside the point–a lot of that money doesn't reach communities in need, and goes to things like organizing placements. Also, the emphasis of many programs seems to be on providing an experience for the volunteer (live in the Andes for a week! play with Cambodian children!) as opposed to really aiding a local community. It seems to me like the best way to volunteer would be to show up in a place and see what a local organization needs, and to stick around for awhile.

  • Travellohr

    No doubt many people who really want to volunteer are prohibited from doing so because of the fees. If organizations really want volunteers, they might have to decrease their costs. Then they could make the same amount of money or even more money through more volunteers, and more people could volunteer because they could afford it. This is such a simple theory. There must be something wrong with it.

  • Hal

    $20,000! And I'm assuming that was only for a few weeks. If an organization is "charging" you that much to volunteer, rest assured the money is NOT going where it's needed. I mean, if you opt to pay that much as a donation, more power to you. But if that's the org's standard fee…put that money towards a grad degree and start your own nonprofit.

  • KLS

    $20K sounds exorbitant, but she was doing more than paying her way here. There are completely legitimate organizations out there that charge a fee, but you have to ask where the funds are being allocated, how they operate, who they are. You can assume it takes expertise to work with the local organizations and coordinate volunteer placements, and a high degree of trust and confidence in you, the volunteer to be there to observe, let alone, partake in their work. Much like it takes a manager to provide guidance to an intern and orient them to working in a new company, there's work involved in managing unskilled, short-term volunteers. There's also the required sensitivity to the local culture and language. It's definitely an experience for all parties involved, so you want to know the organization very well before you commit.

  • Christine Garvin

    In my research, I did find one organization that was a lot cheaper than most, although I cannot vouch for the quality of the trips: Of course, there are organizations such as the Peace Corps in the US, where volunteers receive monthly stipends. But on the whole, for short-term volunteering, cheap is not usually the way things go.

  • joeypd

    Volunteering abroad is a transformative event and most people who do so are usually impacted more by the trip than the people they serve. $20, 000 is over the top for a v-trip – i hope some of the money actually went to the kids!

  • Dean

    I agree, it’s ridiculous. If you want to work for free to help people you shouldn’t have to pay through the roof. Most people wanting to volunteer are students who want to make a difference in this money hungry world.
    I was a volunteer in New orleans and decided to start my own organization after every group there wanted to charge 20 bucks a night plus food. It would of cost me the same to stay at a hostel, make my own food and go help.
    When starting up the organization, asking for simple advise or help from local organizations was like getting blood out of a stone. so much competition and greed you would think they were running a corporation.
    unfortunately many orgs today although they are non profit, simply make it unaffordable for the average person wanting to help.
    Im only talking about a small percentage of volunteer programs, the rest are good hearted people not looking to profit from natural disasters.

  • Jason Kucherawy

    My organization, Voluntraveler, charges fees for volunteering with its partner charity Para el Mundo in Mancora Peru. These fees offset the admin costs of running the charity, so money that is donated to the charity goes right to the programs. Orgs like ours have some overhead costs (staff salaries, website hosting, etc) sure, but you benefit from working with an established organization making integration into the community easier, and your stay in-country safer. Your time spent volunteering is more directed and focused since you participate in ongoing projects passed on as volunteers come and go. You also have the support and of fellow volunteers living in the volunteer house and the local staff. For more reasons to pay to volunteer, check:

  • Valerie Box

    I agree with Jason- there are costs involved in establishing and running reputable organisations that are valued by the host country and volunteers shouldn’t expect a free or cheap ride if they are really going to contribute to the work needed. Young volunteers can be more interested in the social scene than the day job! Our organisation, Utila Centre for Marine Ecology, is a research based Honduran NGO, aiming to improve the welfare and economic growth of Utila and Honduras by supporting the management and sustainable use of marine biodiversity. Our volunteers have a dive based programme, (boats and diving are not cheap) to contribute to particular research projects and to build our database. Any profits we make get ploughed back either directly into the community or to offer bursaries to students from Latin America to increase awareness and capabilities within the region. We don’t run a large back office in Europe or the US: only 1 part timer working from home! We also employ as many local staff as we can but this is not always possible if the specific expertise is lacking.

  • Valerie Box

    PS Just showing up willing to ‘do something’ is not enough: if you haven’t the expertise to help in your local community you probably haven’t the expertise to volunteer to help in other places either without the necessary training. UCME ( spends the first week of the volunteer programme providing its participants with the research skills and cultural awareness they need to be useful but even so, it takes usually a further 2 before they can make much contribution.

  • Jason Kucherawy

    Valerie makes a great point that just a willingness to work is often not enough. One of the issues charities often face is an abundance of willing volunteers, but not much they can do with them, being untrained. What can a soup kitchen do with a class of 30 teenagers that want to help for an afternoon? What can a small community centre or medical clinic do with a student with no medical training. There is only so much sweeping to do… paying fees to volunteer with an organization that will give you the right training or skills is a huge plus – for the volunteer, but more importantly the community you are helping. The community in need always come first.

  • Jayne Cravens

    Someone has to pay for the foreign volunteer’s transportation (including in-country), food, housing, security, administrative costs (work permits, residence permits, etc.), training and supervision — do you really expect an NGO or even a large INGO to pay these costs for an unskilled person to come for a few weeks for their own “feel good” experience? Instead, NGOs use funds to *hire* local people, who are desperate for income and skills to help them sustain themselves and their families. The local people’s livelihoods are the priority, not you.

    Unless you are a person with immediately transferable skills needed in the developing world (so you can train others in, say, building sustainable fisheries) or skills that cannot be found among the local population, you will, indeed, have to pay for your feel-good abroad experience, because it’s just not economically feasible to do it any other way. It’s about the local people in need, not you!

    If you want to volunteer or work abroad and not pay for the experience, then get an area of expertise that is desperately needed abroad, learn another language well enough to work in it, gain volunteering or work experience where you are right now relating to what you want to do abroad (HIV education, urban farming cooperatives, medical care, veterinary medicine, rural engineering, teacher training, whatever) and be ready to devote at least six months (two years preferred). There are organizations that place such volunteers, and the volunteers often receive a small stipend to help with living expenses. Lots, lots more tips at the web site noted with my name.

  • http://matadorwebsite DI

    i agree that the communites need us, but volunteers needed is just that volunteers Volunteers are giving something to these communites free not getting paid to do the job and want to help disadvantaged places in the world.
    I understand what your saying about paying for the experience but people do not volunteer for the experience they are volunteering because they care and want to give something back and the volunteer knows they go back home to the developed country but the people stay.
    AND as for the money volunteers pay for the running costs etc why do the people of these organisations be the one to find the money to fund these projects so many more volunteers can do what they want to do help disadvantage communites.also these organisations pay for teaching volunteers who have no qualifications but a burning ambition to help.
    It does not help with the media going on about become a volunteer and when people want to offer there time in a foreign place it costs so much money they can not afford to become a volunteer. Remember people who want to offer there services are like the people in these disadvantaged countries who need our help but we are fortunate that we have a welfare state that helps us to live a better life. but they have some understanding of being poor (i say that meaning living on welfare benefits in developed countries) we are lucky and just want to help those countries who are not so lucky.

  • ben keene

    important debate.

    I’m involved with a campaign for more transparent volunteer practices, would be good to know what you think >

    one of the reasons I set-up Tribewanted was because I was frustrated with lack of transparency of funding in a lot of volunteer industry. Tribewanted is not volunteering, it’s community tourism where participatns $ generate sust.development and you learn and play a part in the projects. It’s an intro to international development through tourism rather as volunteering is often pitched ‘we need you or this community will perish’.

    frequently communities don’t need volunteers – they need finance / other resources

    frequently vol orgs set-up projects only once they have secured volunteers funds

    running well-structured volunteer projects is expensive. so what we need is transparency. I think Fair Trade Volunteering can set at least one standard.

  • Dean SA

    Ok this is interesting a lot of volunteering abroad is not effective the big companies are terrified of getting shut down so they have the volunteers doing mundane tasks. Surely any money a person spends on volunteering is wasted if they are not effectively helping.
    What could be better than leaving behind a finished project that one can be proud of? A bus shelter outside an orphanage, a library at a rural school stocked with second hand books there is loads to do. On the subject of price what could be fairer than volunteers just paying for their keep at just lower than backpacking rates?

  • Abby

    So for the forseeable future, overseas volunteering costs a lot. Accommodation, visas, airfares, the money just disappears. So why not skip all of that? If you have a limited amount of money, then dont try to spend it on a plane ticket, when a bus ticket to your local soup kitchen will take you well out of your comfort zone and teach you more than you could imagine.

    Plus, this way you are the local making a change in your community. You dont have to go overseas to come across a completely different culture or to feel out of your depth. There are plenty of projects in our own country where you can make a huge difference, and still get the warm feeling and incredible insight. And you can do it more often and actually create significant relationships.

    Want to care for the environment – help protect the Great Barrier Reef. Want to help someone less fortunate than yourself – there’s a million ways and places, just open your eyes and be creative. It might be as simple as not walking past the homeless man in the train station, or you can rebuild a family’s home that was destroyed in a natural disaster last year.

    Of course in the meantime you can save up for that volunteer trip in India, send supplies to Africa, or learn a trade that can be used in Central America. Just don’t be so blind to the opportunities in your own country.

  • Lisa

    I recently volunteered in Mombasa, Kenya. While researching on organisations I found ones that were charging astronomical fee even for a week of volunteering. What I did instead was use the Lonely Planet forums  and found out where fellow travelers were volunteering and contacted the community directly. In this way I was sure that all the money I spend was going to the people that really needed it , plus I made amazing local friends and learnt a bit of the language too.

    So in my opinion you do not necessarily need to go through an organisation, if you have the time you can  find out projects by yourself. 

  • Anonymous

    I don’t have a problem with volunteering costing a lot, because sadly, sometimes the most good we can really do is with our money. Well-intentioned foreigners can often do more harm than good when they try to “fix” things abroad, and it takes a lot of time and energy to support us. Yes – I hope half of the $20,000 Cary raised ended up going to the local Cambodian community, but what if all of it had? What if that money had instead been used to provide jobs to local, skilled Cambodians who could have done that work and also provided a stable, ongoing presence for the children? I wrote more about some of the problems with “voluntouring” abroad here:

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