When choosing an international volunteer trip, many people cite cost as the most important factor. Some of the concerns voiced are, “Why should I pay if I’m giving my time?” and “If one group is less expensive than the other, does that mean it’s not as good?”
To answer the first question, most service organizations are nonprofits, and only receive funding through donors, grants, and memberships. Your payment helps to cover:
- Business expenses: This includes facilities rent and maintenance, employee salaries, and marketing and promotion.
- Host families and support: You’ll contribute to those who are housing and feeding you, and making sure that you have the support you need.
- Volunteer expenses: This covers orientation and training, airport pickup and drop-off, handbooks and manuals, and project supplies and tools.
But why do some organizations charge only $15 per week, while others cost upwards of $7,000 per week?
1. Placement group
These are the ones you might be familiar with—they’re the organizations who are mentioned over and over in articles about where to volunteer worldwide. Think of them like travel agencies, but with a focus on volunteerism. Placement organizations partner with local groups that don’t have the resources for global marketing and recruitment. They’ll find volunteers, guide them through the pre-departure process, provide orientation and training, perform regular site visits, or have in-country staff to support the participants. Many of these organizations include further benefits like cultural immersion, shows and presentations, adventure tours, and language classes. As a result, they’re often more expensive than host groups.
2. Host group
These are the smaller, local organizations that most volunteers are placed with when they participate in an international service project. If you sign up to volunteer directly with a host group, you’ll still receive full staff support while you’re in the country—but you won’t receive some of the added benefits that placement groups give, such as guided excursions or presentations. You’ll also likely be placed with a host family or in a shared volunteer house, rather than the option of staying in a hotel—something many placement groups offer as part of their package. In other words, you’ll live like a local.
Which one should you go with?
It depends on the experience you want and your comfort level in arranging the volunteer trip.
You might want to work with a placement group if:
- You need a little extra help planning an international trip.
- You have the budget for it—most placements with these organizations cost about as much as a regular vacation. There are exceptions to the rule! Some of them (check out the list at the end) offer a great experience at a minimal cost.
- You’d like extra benefits, like cultural outings and adventure tours.
And you might find a host group more suitable if:
- You have international travel experience, or you know where to find information on passports and visas, immunizations, and other pre-departure needs.
- You have a very small budget, or you’re trying to save as much as you can.
- You’re comfortable with a more unstructured environment, or arranging your own entertainment on your down time.
10 questions you should ask the agency
So now you’ve decided you want to work on an international volunteer project! Below are ten questions you should ask any volunteer organization before signing up—regardless of whether it’s a host group or a placement group.
- Where does your funding come from, and where does my payment go?
- How involved are the locals?
- Do you have volunteer alumni I can speak with? Or, do you know how I might get in touch with former volunteers?
- Are there any special requirements for this project?
- How should I set up my travel itinerary?
- What should and shouldn’t I bring with me?
- What type of work will be expected of me?
- How much of my time will be spent working each day?
- How can I communicate with others at home?
- What kind of in-country support will I have if something goes wrong, or the project isn’t what I thought it would be?
Some recommended placement groups
Some recommended host groups
Sarah Van Auken is the creator of Volunteer Global, which teaches you about international service projects and general travel—where you can go, what you can do, and more. If you’d like to contribute or send a story or pictures to VG, send an email along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah can alos be found on Twitter @VolunteerGlobal