Today we have a guest post from Sarah who started a great website called The Ethical Volunteer, a site dedicated to accessing information on how to volunteer overseas without having to go through an expensive agency, and which addresses both the cost concerns and the ethics of volunteering abroad.
The first time I travelled overseas to volunteer, I booked for seven weeks. I stayed for five years. During that time, I opened and ran a hostel for volunteers, worked alongside local projects and learned a lot about life in developing countries and the impact that volunteering can have on a community struggling to just get by. I also learned how to not get myself killed on Tanzanian roads and some driving skills which I hope I will never need again.
Initially I travelled to Tanzania in 2006 when I was twenty four years old with an international ‘Volunteer Abroad’ agency that organised my accommodation, food and introduced me to a few local projects. My time with this agency was very safe and enjoyable and I had a wonderful volunteering experience. It became apparent to me very early on, however, that the price I had paid to volunteer was grossly disproportionate to the expenses I incurred during my stay. In a developing country, where the average wage was less than two euro per day and lunch could be purchased for fifty cent, I was quickly learning that the agency was making a pretty penny from my volunteering experience . But at the end of the day I couldn’t fully fault the agency for this; they had not lied or pretended the money they charged was donated to projects, I simply had not shopped around for a better deal. In fact, I hadn’t realised that there were ‘better deals’ out there.
Although I had backpacked through Central America, and so had some experience of developing countries, volunteering in the Dark Continent was still a daunting prospect and my primary concern was that I would be in safe hands. The agency I booked through, with their professional website and efficient service team, allowed for the comfort of knowing that I was travelling with a legitimate company. As with most prearranged travel experiences, however, after a few weeks in Tanzania I realised that I had not needed the added ‘safety’ offered by having an agency organise my accommodation and food. Moshi, like towns the world over, had enough hotels and restaurants to accommodate the needs of most travellers. I was well capable of looking after myself and the added security of travelling with an agency was mostly an illusion.
Also, I had begun to feel a little uneasy that I had spent so much money to volunteer in a country where most of the population lived below the poverty line; it didn’t seem right to pay such exorbitant fees to an international agency for the opportunity to volunteer for a community that had so little, especially while the profits remained overseas. The agency had filled a niche, it provided a service for those that wanted to volunteer but were nervous of going it alone, and this service did not come cheap. Living in Tanzania, it was quite clear, however, that there was no need for the high costs; the service that agencies provide could be carried out for a fraction of the price.
With this in mind, I stayed on in Tanzania after my seven weeks were up and within six months I had opened Hostel Hoff, a hostel in Moshi town that would provide accommodation and food, while linking guests for no extra cost to projects in town. It began small (it had to, I had no money…), with four beds and a dinner menu that was repeated every three nights, but soon the word spread and the hostel capacity expanded to twenty beds within eighteen months. Thankfully, together with the cook, we also learned how to prepare a few more meals. In the years that followed, myself and the volunteers that came through Hostel Hoff became intimately involved in the daily activities and long term development of the many projects that we supported, including local schools, children’s centres and women’s groups.
Through the organisation we founded, Path to Africa, we fundraised over 55,00 Euro, which our volunteers used to purchase building materials and equipment for the various different projects that were being carried out. We achieved much, not only because it was easier to match the skill sets of our volunteers with the specific roles at projects when we were acquainted with the current requirements of the project, but also because many volunteers were in a position to donate money as they had not given it to an agency.
The four years spent managing Hostel Hoff, in a town where our guests worked alongside those from various international agencies, taught me a huge amount about the volunteer industry. First and foremost, agencies are making huge profits. At Hostel Hoff, the average price for bed, breakfast, dinner and laundry is 12 Euro per night, which works out at 360 Euro per month. It is difficult to find any placement with an agency for less than 1000 Euro for the first month, and those that charge more have a higher budget for marketing, meaning that when you search online for a volunteer opportunity you’ll inevitably have to wade through pages and pages of fee paying agencies before possibly reaching anything that doesn’t come with a hefty price tag.
High fees, however, are not the only issue. The larger the agency, the less they tend to know about individual projects. By living in Moshi town and working alongside projects, I knew intimately how these organisations were run and so was in a position to recommend those that were an asset to the community and discredit those that were more interested in donor money than in the development of their projects or the welfare of those they were supposed to be supporting.
After four years of running the hostel, and three months shy of my thirtieth birthday, I decided it was time to move on and left the hostel in the hand of the new owners, Amanda and Simbo Natai. The hostel is going stronger than ever, but so are volunteer agencies. There are hundreds, probably thousands, more now than when I first opened the hostel, and, therefore, even more clogging up the pages of search engines like Google. Leaving Tanzania, I was happy with how the hostel was running, but I felt that, in the face of the billion dollar ‘volunteer industry’ today, it wasn’t enough. It would be better, I thought, if I could use the model of Hostel Hoff to open volunteer hostels worldwide, but unfortunately I’m far too lazy for that. So I did the next best thing: I painstakingly contacted hostels all over the world to find out if there are any out there that are already linked with local projects or actively assisting their guests with finding placements for no extra cost.
There are, eighty three to be exact, at least that’s what I could find. The hostels are now all listed on a new site, The Ethical Volunteer, along with information about the projects they support and the towns where they are located. Volunteers can contact hostel owners and project co-ordinators in advance, or for those who are backpacking, they can simply turn up at the door and be directed towards local projects supported by the hostel for no extra cost. And these are only the hostels that I could find that are already actively connecting their guests with volunteer work. In the long run, the more exposure the concept gets, the more hostels should come on board, meaning more local businesses benefit from receiving more clients, more local projects will benefit from receiving volunteers who have chosen to work at that specific project and so are more likely to have a relevant skill set for the work, and volunteers benefit by saving huge amounts of money. The only ones who don’t benefit are the volunteer agencies whose services are no longer required, and I, for one, am happy with that!
For more information on volunteering through hostels visit:
Volunteering for Free | Avoid Volunteer Abroad Agencies