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Overhead Costs And Volunteering Abroad: Where Your Program Fee Goes

November 27, 2010

While researching volunteer travel, you’ll find articles—yep, there are some on Volunteer Global right now—telling you to ask your placement/host group where your placement fee goes. It’s important to know, particularly if your priority is for your money AND your time to be devoted to the volunteer project.

About OverheadVolunteering abroad - Volunteer Global

But here’s the thing: It won’t go solely to the project. It never does. Volunteer groups (placement and host) always will take at least some of your payment for overhead, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m not sure why it’s such a huge deal that payments go in some part to staff salaries, when really, everything anyone purchases, ever, goes to staff salaries as well.

Let’s say you go to a farmer’s market. When you buy food, it doesn’t go to a nebulous idea of a “project.” It benefits the people who keep that project running. When you donate to a charity, it goes to the people who keep that charity running. It goes to the supplies they need to make it successful. It goes to the initiatives—let’s say education, business development, or construction—ongoing in that community. It goes to the individuals spearheading those initiatives and the materials they need to ensure the success of the project and well-being of those it benefits.

But I’m Giving My Time!

And that’s awesome! I encourage you to do that—it’s why you’re reading Volunteer Global right now! But if you really, really, really don’t want to pay, here are your options:

Long-term programs: Think Peace Corps, Relief International, or Samaritan’s Purse, all of which place volunteers on long-term projects. The application process may take up to a year in some cases, and you might need to drop more money than you thought initially (medical clearance, etc.). If you absolutely, positively are uninterested in that, then consider the following:

Short-Term Programs For Experienced Professionals

This would be something like ACDI/VOCA or pretty much any organization that places doctors, dentists, or other healthcare professionals overseas. Basically if you’re a mid-career professional, you can volunteer for free. Sometimes.

Medium-Term Programs With Small Host Organizations

But you still won’t get there for free; you’ll pay for your housing, your flight, and your food. Even if it's a minimal amount when you get there, it's still money you need to spend while on your project. If your main concern is for your money to benefit locals only, this might be your best option.

Donating Money, Not Time

If you’re adamant about not paying to volunteer, then don’t. If you like what an organization does, and you want to support them, but you don’t want to do it monetarily AND financially, just send a check or inquire as to whether they accept supplies, and what type they prefer. No, seriously! Just write to ‘em and ask whether they accept art supplies for their kids, or even bed sheets for their volunteers. Just be sure to ask before assuming what they need.

Just remember though, that if you donate money, some of it is still going to overhead costs.

A Final Thought

Before you lose hope or write a frustrated article about how insanely expensive volunteer organizations are, do me a favor and look beyond the first page of a Google search for “voluntourism.” This is why people like me set up sites like this, so we can educate you on all types—yes, even short-term, free organizations. They do exist.

Photo credit: Glen.