The price of volunteering in Thailand
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” It's perhaps with that thought in mind that thousands of travelers arrive in Thailand every year to volunteer.
But it can be difficult to choose which program to opt for, especially when some come with fees of up to 97,850 baht for a two-week stint.
Given Thailand's reputation as an inexpensive destination, where does that money go, and what are the differences between paid and unpaid programs? Volunteers and organizers weigh in.
To pay or not to pay
“Why would you pay to volunteer?” asks James Padolsey, a web developer from London who in 2010-11 took part in a paid program in northeast Thailand and then went on to volunteer with a free one. “You give your time. The idea of charging for it seems wrong to me.”
During his paying gig, Padolsey experienced the inner workings of a pay-to-volunteer organization -- and he wasn't pleased with what he saw after handing over 13,400 baht and being sent to a school in Khon Kaen.
The school told him how much compensation they got: 700 baht per volunteer, per week.
“The key is that the school doesn't need compensation," he says. "Many of them are prepared to pay a teacher. Schools really want the help and they don't need any compensation to have the burden of having a volunteer.”
Padolsey is, of course, not the first person to have reservations about “voluntourism” organizations, who talk a good case for why volunteering comes with a fee.
Charlotte Williams from Travel to Teach, which charges 450 euro (20,000 baht) for a two-week teaching stint, says that the fees are necessary to keep money flowing in, which can then be channeled into marketing.
“The projects benefit because through the funding we receive we can maintain our Internet presence and recruit enough volunteers to provide [the schools] with constant support and much-needed continuity,” she says. “Many small programs who recruit volunteers independently often struggle to get a continuous volunteer presence which ends up having a negative impact on their programs.”
The value of experience
A portion of the fee is often used to pay the locals who assist volunteers and interns, says Dalyn Simmons from Mundo Exchange Thailand, which charges 400 euro (17,840 baht) for the first month, and 100 euro for each subsequent one.
“They are unable to pay for the foreign volunteers' housing and food but need the assistance that volunteers and interns give to their own communities," she says. "The donation or fee is also used to make it possible to take the volunteers to cultural sites and homes of elders and families in the nearby communities.”
Anthony Kingsley from Starfish, which charges 19,500 baht for two weeks' teaching English in Thailand, says it often comes down to the type of experience the traveller is after.
“Most people recognize that volunteer work is not free -- it requires funding," he says. "From my experience I believe the traveller would choose to do paid volunteering because it’s a much more meaningful holiday experience."
The major difference between paid and non-paid volunteering is the length of time volunteers spend on projects, he adds. Paid programs typically get a higher volume of volunteers, who tend to stay for less time than volunteers on free programs.
Critics say this devalues the overall benefit communities receive, and that the paid volunteer experience often puts as much emphasis on the volunteers having fun as it does on them helping the beneficiaries.
But by charging a fee, an organization has an obligation to look after the needs of the volunteer as well as the community and to ensure that the volunteer has a “rewarding and enjoyable experience," says Erin Courtenay, program development manager of Global Volunteer Network, which charges 1,115 euro (47,600 baht) for two weeks at a wildlife rescue or elephant refuge centre.
A volunteer-oriented focus adds an extra layer of comfort to the whole experience that can be lacking with more stripped-down approaches. That peace of mind appeals to people who want a rewarding experience with a few more bells and whistles thrown into the mix.
Some paid programs offer extras like meals, cultural activities, insurance, transport and a higher standard of accommodation.
There for the right reasons?
Dave Peel, a qualified teacher with 15 years' experience under his belt who has worked with both free and pay-to-play programs in Thailand, says organizations that charge aren't always best positioned to help communities.
“People are fooled by websites when the reality is these teaching organizations know nothing about teaching," he says. "Volunteers who pay quickly turn their volunteering into one long drinking party.”
Casey, not her real name, started out volunteering with a teaching organization in 2005, paying 750 euro for three months -- “The cheapest I had come across” -- in the northeastern Thai border town of Nong Khai, but has also lent a helping hand to some unpaid programs over the years.
“As a volunteer I loved my first experience ... but the longer I stayed, the more I realized how much wrong there was with the organization," she says. "Volunteers were allowed to stay and teach for as little as two weeks, resulting in absolutely no qualitative teaching. The children were taught the same things week after week and were just devastated every time a new teacher left them.”
Doing good should not be a “photo opportunity for a fee”, says Texan Kirk Gillock, who in 2005 established the Isara Foundation, an organization that takes on volunteers without a fee and has only one paid staffer, Nok, whose salary comes from a sponsor. Most of Isara's funding comes from sponsors and donations.
“Pay-to-volunteer programs blur the line between for-profits and non-profits and make it more difficult for people to trust charities because they begin to believe that if something is free then it's a scam or that the volunteer services provided are not as good as paid-programs, which just isn't the case," he says.
"If someone wants to help others then that person should be welcomed with open arms, not a bill.”
Free programs are in high demand and are more likely to turn down unsuitable applicants than paid programs, but the overall experience is said to be more “authentic." Although the flip side is that the work can be more challenging.
Educational program specialist Daniel Lockwood from the Dragonfly Community Foundation, which started off as a not-for-profit business but then made the move to become a charitable foundation, has seen the pros and cons of both sides of the spectrum.
“Some organizations are for-profit and it shows," he says. "We used to run a full-service organization that charged about one-half to one-third of the prices other groups were charging, literally for the same services or in some cases we provided more.”
Another issue concerning prospective volunteers is visas. Many organizations fail to inform volunteers that they need to apply for a special visa through a Thai embassy or consulate to volunteer legally, as a tourist visa is not acceptable. Other programs, meanwhile, are aware of Thai laws and will assist with the visa process.
So should volunteers pay, or go with a free program? Basically, it all comes down to the experience the individual is seeking. It's up to the volunteers to do the research and choose to give their time to the organizations that can most effectively bridge the gap between the volunteer and the beneficiary.