When I first looked into volunteering 5 years ago, I didn’t understand the concept of paying to volunteer. It seemed contradictory. I was already giving up my time and salary to work for free, why should I pay for it as well?
With that in mind, I found a charity in Peru where it was very cheap to volunteer, called Otra Cosa. I absolutely loved the three months that I spent in Huanchaco, and would still highly recommend it to anyone.
The problem I found with volunteering for free however, was that they only had one paid member of staff. Otra Cosa had 10-15 projects on the go, which is impossible for one person to manage. They did have volunteers that looked after some of the admin, but as volunteers only stay from 1 to 6 months, continuity suffered. Some of the projects were happening on and off, depending on what volunteers they had with which skills at the time.
All the volunteers I met were great, and were there to help, but many had come to work on the same few projects. This led to everyone not having enough to do, whilst other projects were dropped because the volunteers didn’t have the right skills to help on those instead. Generally, we didn’t have a lot of contact with the community, so I wasn’t sure if they knew what we were trying to do. A charity needs someone to liaise the volunteers with the locals but Otra Cosa didn’t have the staff to be able to do this.
To feel like your time is underused can be slightly frustrating when you are coming full of hope to help out on a worthy cause. I still loved my time with Otra Cosa, and would go back in a heartbeat. They were doing the best they could with the money they had and I did see progress and felt useful on some projects. Charities were you can volunteer for free are really important, as it means there are opportunities out there for people who don’t want to, or can’t pay.
For my second volunteering expedition, I decided I would find the right charity, and then decide if I wanted to pay the money that they asked for. A 6 week expedition with Blue Ventures set me back almost £3000 in early 2018. This did however include my food, accommodation, use of the dive gear (two dives a day), transport from the nearest city to the expedition site and dive training to advanced open water PADI qualification. As it is paid before arrival, for 6 weeks, I practically didn’t have to think about money at all.
With Blue Ventures, everything was well organised. All volunteers arrive on the same day for each expedition, meaning no time is wasted training people separately. Our work was cut out for us straight away and we were busy all the time. In the beginning it was overwhelming as there was a lot to learn and adapt to. But I felt useful working with BV, and crucially I knew why I was there, what I was helping to achieve. I knew the community was aware of it too, which I realised was as important to me as the work itself.
It is hard to know when volunteering, what the locals think of you being there, especially when you don’t speak their language. But as BV work with the community, most of their staff are locals, and they got us to introduce ourselves to the village elders, we felt welcomed.
In the 6 weeks I spent in Andavadoaka, Madagascar with Blue Ventures, I definitely didn’t change the world, but I knew what I was contributing to, and I felt like there was a good reason for me being there. I also know that I was useful during my 3 months in Huanchaco, but I felt that my time could have been better organised to be more efficient.
The most important thing I would say when deciding if you should pay to volunteer, is to do extensive research on the organisations. Read reviews from past volunteers, has the organisation been recognised for their work in anyway? If you are not paying, how are the projects being funded? If you are paying, where does your money go? I’m confident in both my experiences that my money was well used. In the future if I have the money, I plan on paying again to volunteer. But if I don’t have the cash I will look to volunteer for free. Even if the charity isn’t very well organised, I know any help they can get will be appreciated.