Photo: Manu Padilla/Shutterstock

8 Reasons You Should Pay to Volunteer Abroad

Student Work
by Lynn Spreadbury Jul 23, 2015

1. It costs the charity/nonprofit/NGO money.

It doesn’t matter what you call them, it costs them money to host you. Whether you’re helping for an afternoon, a weekend away, or an extended stay — YOU cost money. Maybe it’s the cost of your breakfast; maybe it’s the cost of the person to clean your fork and spoon. Maybe they have to transfer you from hotel to job site. Maybe you’re using huge quantities of soap to scrub the paint from your elbows. Providing all of that costs money. Alright, it does sound kinda petty — it’s just a $5 meal, a 5-minute ride and a 5pm shower, but think of that times 500 volunteers. It all adds up.

Fact: Expenses associated with hosting volunteers can include: accommodations, meals, supplies, transportation, supervision, training, cultural activities, health and liability insurance. These are just the direct costs, which average around $500 per person for a one week volunteer trip in Latin America with a reputable organization like Habitat for Humanity, but let’s not forget indirect costs. Most organizations will add on an additional amount to cover the time staff members put into planning for your stay, plus other support that might not be so obvious, like equipment, facilities, clinics or schools.

2. Donations should be spent on programs and services, not your shampoo.

You remember the conversation last spring, it was fascinating: Uncle Bert and Aunt Bessie had pics of the art therapy program they help support for traumatized kids in Nepal. They’d really done their homework and found an organization that directs almost all their funds to program work. They were so happy about that. They work hard for their money; and want every penny to go to the kids, just like most donors.

You get it, charities are 100% dependent on donations. You know they run on tight budgets. Whether it’s Aunt & Uncle B, the government, a corporation or foundation, all donors want their money spent wisely. Organizations must prioritize; spending money on a volunteer’s accommodation or shampoo just doesn’t make the cut.

Fact: The top-ranked organizations on Charity Navigator earn four-star ratings for spending their donations well AND making a tangible, measurable difference. In other words, nonprofits are accountable to their donors. Funds must be spent on the mission, not your bottled water.

3. The organization’s focus is its beneficiaries, not you.

You’re heading out there to help; you don’t want to be a distraction. What if you were asking the program director where to put the invasive vines you just wrestled out and, while she was showing you, she missed a call saying a poacher had just entered the preserve? You know it wasn’t your fault; the organization can’t afford a volunteer manager and somebody has to help you. But you feel extra bad knowing they already put in lots of time planning for your arrival: answering e-mails, organizing a schedule, orientation and training…. Ugh.

You start doing the math, all that plus the time spent on you while you’re there. You know everyone still comes out ahead, but what if they missed other calls or important work? A volunteer manager would definitely help, but who pays for her? You know Auntie & Uncle B won’t support it, so you don’t mind if your volunteer vacation fees do.

Fact: For more than ten years Save the Children has ranked as a top 4-star charity. Here’s part of the reason why — 89% of their funds directly support their beneficiaries.

Helping others involves personal sacrifice and commitment. It is NOT a vacation.

In fiscal year 2014, 89 percent of all expenditures went to program services. That percentage is an average for all of Save the Children

4. Helping others involves personal sacrifice and commitment. It is NOT a vacation.

You’ve been on-site a few days and have seen how tired the staff is when they catch the bus home. You know they live modestly and get paid less than their peers in the for-profit world. You can see their passion and how building a family a home allows their daughter to go to school, she can get an education and not be married off at age 12. The program director tells you it’s worth all the sacrifice. She’ll take less pay so more money can go to the save the children/animals/waterways/stick insects. You’re proud to do the same; you don’t need a handout from a charity!

Fact: A 2010 study by the NonProfit Quarterly revealed that the average annual salary of an American in ‘management occupations’ at a large, for-profit US organization was $94,628. And her nonprofit counterpart? $72,509.

5. It’s more than volunteering.

You think you’re going just to volunteer, but you’re not. You might not know it when you first arrive, but your contribution will go way beyond scrubbing watermelons to feed a handicapped elephant. You’re about to become an ambassador for the mission and a lifelong supporter. You’ll be sharing photos on Instagram and voicing your indignation on Twitter. (Can you believe that yellow furred horses have fewer rights than spotted? Please help save the children from mermaids and Prince Charming!!)

The awareness you bring after is just as valuable as the activities you accomplish there. And maybe you’re not earning the big bucks yet, but when you make your first donation, who’s it gonna go to? Yup, you got it.

Fact: 84% of volunteers go on to contribute in bigger ways.

6. You meet people who inspire you, help you, and become great friends.

Maybe your people back home don’t understand, they just listen to your stories politely before their eyes gla…oooh shiny!

But don’t worry, you’ve got your fellow volunteers to connect with. Like the girl from Chicago who you conspired with to get table scraps to the stray dog outside. Or the French-Canadian guy who offered you a hard hat for protection against falling mangoes. You know that the German grad student shares your outrage over abused elephants and the Indian woman you just met already feels like a sister. So pick hardening concrete from your shoelaces and drink beer from a trash can-turned-cooler. Someone’s about to rewrite the lyrics of ‘Piano Man’ to describe your group. These people are kin.

Fact: According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, slightly more females (53%) volunteer than men (47%), but the age groups are pretty well split 33% are 20-40 year olds and 34% are 41-60. 12% are under 20.

7. You access the culture in a way most don’t.

You’re not a tourist. You’re not on resort row. You’re not being touted to buy made-in-China souvenirs that can be relabeled to shout Bali! or Cancun! or Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! You’re in a place that most non-locals bypass and it’s fantastic. It’s a place where oxen are still used to plough fields and water is pumped from a well. There’s probably a tribal language and a national language and no English language. Maybe you play football with neighborhood teens after work. Maybe you’re taught to make pupusas for dinner. Maybe some Buddhists invite you to release fish and make merit. Or maybe a shaman blesses your arrival. After all that, you relax on a local beach run by fishermen and seaweed farmers — not a lounge chair in sight.

8. There’s no price tag on feeling the love.

You’ll first feel it on arrival. There’s a burst of something that hasn’t been there since childhood. Resuscitating laughter. Unobstructed joy. You’re finally here, you’re doing it. Your emotions crank up. Locals want to receive your smile and ask: ‘why would a stranger come all this way to help us?’ A little girl gives you a balloon with a smiley face and all the villagers turn up to wave goodbye. It’s a connection you’ve never felt before and a Cuba Libre just doesn’t compare.

Fact: Volunteering is a mood enhancer. People who do it have increased happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control over life, physical health and decreased depression. Oh yeah, and it’s addictive.

Discover Matador