Understanding how the International Volunteer industry really works

It has been around for years - travelling with a purpose to contribute and utilise your skills and financial means to make a difference: building schools in Ghana, helping at an orphanage in Ecuador or Indonesia, assisting with disaster management after a natural disaster, and many more good things that can be done while travelling and exploring new places.

But how does it actually work? How does a travel agency or volunteer organisation in your country of origin know what a good project is in South Africa, Guatemala or China? How is it possible that they can organise this for you and so many others? And how come you have to pay for your volunteering?

Well, let me tell you more and give you some personal and possibly valuable insights in how this industry of experience travel works. We will need to start from the ground up, however, so let’s first look at any possible project on location in some far-off country.

Let’s imagine it is based in Africa or Asia. Maybe they have some skills and knowledge about online presence and marketing, but most probably not. Most likely they don't have enough knowledge or resources to have an online presence themselves and attract help from overseas.  If they have websites, they usually are outdated or very difficult to find online.

They will have specific needs to operate their services, in whatever field these might be, to their best capacity. These needs generally cost money to fulfill; salaries, electricity, vehicles, office rent and all the other costs involved in running a professional organisation. You will be amazed to know how much it can cost to run a non-profit organisation, before you even have gotten to provide the services they focus on.

I have been fortunate enough to be involved in founding a non-profit organisation in South Africa, and was also the chairman for another NPO for several years; assisting many with advice, expertise and financial support over the last 11 years. This, combined with my experiences as a qualified Social Worker, gives me a rough idea of how challenging the financial side can be of keeping the doors open in this sector, especially if you do not have a big name and big sponsors behind you.

Most non-profit organisations anywhere on the world struggle with the ongoing challenges of making ends meet -  paying the bills, paying their staff reasonable salaries, and developing and training them continuously.

So at a small to medium organisation, much of their professional focus and time is focused on surviving, on staying open and running services within challenging circumstances.

These are the organisations we look for -  those that need real help. But how do you go from your couch in Europe or North America, to finding such worthy organisations and knowing they are the real deal? That is where the next level comes in. We are talking in general terms now, it’s certainly not the rule for all volunteering opportunities and there are many exceptions, but in general this applies to many of the opportunities you find out there on the internet.

The organisation that needs volunteers to help them grow further (which is a whole other topic for another article) does not normally have the skills, infrastructure or know-how to reach people all over the world, and ask them to come and volunteer with them. So they most probably will need some assistance in this area, by working with a partner (let’s call it the "ground handler" in this situation) -  a company or organisation in the host country that represents several projects, sometimes up to 30 different projects. This is the company that usually provides services to the volunteer and the selected local organisations. We are talking extensive communication beforehand, airport pickups, accommodation, meals, transport, assistance in emergencies, support for homesick volunteers, managing expectations and culture shock, and so much more. Such a company is Khaya Volunteer Projects, for example.

These are all services very few non-profit organisations can provide themselves, as they do not have the manpower or finances. They need help to find the help they are looking for, if that makes sense. To be exact, we need to acknowledge the fact that they need more than just your help, they actually need financial support even more. This financial support can be provided by including them in the volunteer fees - a practice we feel strongly about at Khaya Volunteer Projects. We have a policy of creating immediate financial support, and therefore include a donation of 10-15% in  volunteeer fees which goes directly to the projects we work with.

This company or organisation that helps the non-profit to source, welcome and host you as a volunteer does not run on peanuts -  it requires time, effort, expertise and planning to do this the right way, and such things come at a price. This company needs to handle marketing, develop and run websites, attend international conferences, run consistent social media campaigns and develop marketing material. They also visit all the projects, and make sure information remains accurate in an ever-changing environment. This is only a fraction of the cost for participating in organised volunteer placements - there are many other things volunteers need, such as accommodation, meals, transport, support and activity supervision, etc.

OK, so how does this ground handler reach potential volunteers? They can do this directly by having a good online presence, a well-ranked website, and by attending fairs and universities all over the world to spread the word and get these projects noticed. And (I'm sure you know where I'm heading with this!) - this involves even more costs.

Direct marketing, and creating a direct link between the ground handler and potential volunteers is no easy task -  so what most ground handlers do is find partners all over the world to create awareness of their projects to their potential customer base, in their own languages, in their own countries. To state the obvious, these partners have operational expenses as well, so there are even more costs involved. These are the travel agencies, gap year experience providers, universities, language schools, volunteering organisations and other related bodies in this particular (mostly youth-related) travel industry. Their costs are mostly covered by charging a commission on the fees involved. Are you still with me?

You might wonder why these companies and providers of volunteering opportunities do not work with the projects directly. This is another subject for a whole new article, but it's mostly a question of logistics: dealing with 20 or 50 projects all over the world - where the internet is a challenge at times, people aren't always able to phone, and email is not widely used -  is very tough to manage. It is much more productive to work with a middle man - the ground handler who represents a variety of projects, which creates 1 contact for them to deal with, instead of 20.

See where I am going with this? It is a rather complex process where different entities take care of different aspects of the necessary processes. But here's the good news -  you as a potential volunteer can easily go around this, find a good organisation yourself and cut out the middle man.

You might think I'm crazy to say this, as I run a company providing volunteering experiences, but this is why you should book through a reputable placement company like Khaya Volunteer Projects. Imagine you organise your trip yourself, in all aspects. It isn't as easy as you think - for example, you won't havve support when things run differently to your expectations. It's certainly possible to reduce costs involved by doing it this way - after all, let’s get real; nobody is keeping you from booking the next flight, knocking on some doors and to provide your expertise and skills to help to an organisation in need.

If, however, you want the security of knowing where you are headed, where you'll sleep, and who will supervise your stay and volunteer activities; then you hopefully understand now why you have to pay to make this possible, and how the different parties involved create certain fees. I like to see it as buying off the insecurity you have when organising a volunteer trip yourself, and creating a situation which covers all angles and "what if’s", by working through reputable and experienced providers. Knowing you will be picked up, that your accommodation is sorted out, your fees are being used for the right reasons and that you have support while staying in sometimes challenging conditions, is surely worth something to most people.

I hope I've been able to give you some insights and food for thought, to assist you in making your decision on what your preferred method would be. Go online and do the research, ask what you are paying for, and choose wisely.

See you in Africa hopefully.



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