I was reading an article this week from the Guardian UK called Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do which details the negative effects of paid voluntourism, namely it creates a demand for a sort of “misery porn” and to fill that demand, unscrupulous people will trot out orphans, pocket the cash and perhaps even make the situation worse than if you had done nothing at all.

I have this guest post from Shannon Whitehead, which goes into her experience with the entire “pay to volunteer” market.  It’s an interesting topic, because while I think the Guardian did a great job talking about it, from reading the comments, it seems like there is a lot of vitriol against the backpacker who wants to give back.  I’m not convinced that it’s entirely that black and white, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

volunteering, pay, ethics, guest post,

This guest post is by Shannon Whitehead from All of Us Revolution.

When I set off to travel for the better part of two years I knew I wanted to take some time to volunteer. The Peace Corps was appealing but because of the extreme time commitment, I decided to look elsewhere. While living in Australia, I spent a lot of time researching the next phase of my trip and the time I wanted to allot to living in Southeast Asia.

It seemed as though every volunteer program I came across required a substantial (sometimes unbelievable) payment. I couldn’t begin to calculate how it would cost 3,000 dollars to live in Cambodia for two months (even if breakfast was included). I exhausted myself trying to find a volunteer opportunity I could afford and eventually came to the conclusion that I would just fly over there and figure it out when I landed.

A few weeks before I was due to fly to Viet Nam, a man in Siem Reap, Cambodia replied to my email inquiry about teaching English at his orphanage. I would need to find my own housing and pay for my meals and transport, but he invited me to volunteer for “free,” pending I gave a small donation that would go directly to the children. Two hundred dollars for two weeks of volunteering seemed like a bargain at that point, and so I agreed. It ended up being an incredible experience, and I never missed the money, but it didn’t convert me into an advocate of paid volunteering or “voluntourism.”

When I went to live in South Africa for eight months I decided to do things differently. I opted to go back to my original plan by finding a volunteer opportunity once I arrived. Again, I went to exhaustive measures, seeming to send out an email of interest to every nonprofit in Cape Town with a website. It came to a point where I considered knocking door-to-door. Then one day, out of over 15 emails I sent out, I finally received one reply.

It was the only one I needed.

If you work hard enough at something and have faith that it will eventually work out, then something will always fall into your lap. I ended up signing onto a writing and photography project in the townships that couldn’t have been more perfect for me. Had that not worked out, I have no doubts that something else would have come along.

The point is: you really don’t need to pay to volunteer. Even if I had to knock on doors, I’m sure there would have been at least one organization that would welcome my help. It’s one thing if the airfare, housing and meals are included in the total cost (and it works out to be around the same amount you would spend living there on your own), but in most cases, I advise to hold out for the nonprofit that is really a nonprofit.

Most of us decide to volunteer our time because we can’t afford to volunteer our money.

Here are a few organizations that understand the same sentiment.

About the Author

Shannon Whitehead is the co-founder of All of Us Revolution.  About the site, “We created All of Us to share our journey as we take off on a global adventure to start a socially-sustainable business. But it’s not just about the two of us, it’s about ALL of us. We know there are others out there who want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves or the corporation we work for.”

Pic: Terminalnomadphotography

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do