Two questions we are frequently asked by potential volunteers are: ‘why do I have to pay to volunteer?’ and ‘why should I use a volunteer agent rather than booking directly with the project?’
We have addressed some of the reasons behind why payments are necessary for volunteers joining projects overseas in our blog post (updated in October 2018) and have a section explaining where your project fees go on our website.
We would like to now share some of the reasons why we believe agents have an important role to play in the voluntourism industry.
1. Peace of mind: ensuring your project is what it declares itself to be
Responsible volunteer agents spend a lot of time assessing projects and being sure of their ethics, mission and objectives, holding them up against stringent industry standards. Agents also make sure that what your programme says its going to deliver, is in fact what you will actually experience. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteer projects, all declaring their legitimacy – using an agent ensures you can be certain that the project you are going to is consistently meeting standards and being held accountable by an independent third party.
2. Understanding what’s best for you
Agents offer a range of projects in a number of different countries. A good agent has insider knowledge about the activities, vibes and personalities of their projects, and will be able to identify the best project for you – a group dynamic that suits you, a work schedule that meets your capabilities, and activities and experiences which will enable you to achieve your personal objectives. Participating on the right project will enable you to give your maximum contribution while having an amazing time, in the right atmosphere.
3. One stop shop
Agents can give advice or help with different aspects of your trip. From advice on visas, flights and travel insurance, to booking add-on tours and multiple project combinations in different countries – enabling you to achieve your dream itinerary.
4. Communication and availability
When your project manager is busy out in the field, it may be a day or two before they get to their emails. An agent usually has a dedicated member of staff on hand at least during office hours, and has an emergency contact number available 24 hours a day, so you can be sure that any last minute questions and flight delays will be handled promptly.
An agent will also advocate for you if something goes wrong with your programme. Their long-term relationships with projects means that they can assist on your behalf if you need a refund, or if you need to change your dates at the last minute.
The majority of volunteer projects understand the immense value that using agents give them, and will give a commission on booking fees as an acknowledgement of this value. In most cases, agents do not charge their volunteers more for projects, so you will pay the same price as a volunteer who has booked directly, but with the added bonus of all the benefits an agents provides.
But shouldn’t I book directly to ensure the project gets the full fee?
Our goal is to send as many volunteers as possible to our projects, so that they can continue to operate and achieve their vision. Many conservation projects are not in a financial position to spend money on marketing and spreading the word about their work to the best target audience. Agent expenditure on marketing (particularly online marketing and social media), directly benefits the project, as it exposes the programme to a wider audience.
Project Managers know that it makes sense to forgo a small agent booking fee, rather than spending much more of their limited financial resources and time, on administering bookings and marketing their projects. Agents can achieve a great deal more with less money due to their expertise and volumes of scale, and their more favourable relationships with advertising organisations.
A project point of view
We spoke to one of our wildlife conservation project managers in Zimbabwe and got her take on volunteer agents.
“Running a conservancy is a full time, 24-7, 365 days a year, all-consuming task. The contributions of our volunteers over the years has enabled us to increase the scope of our conservation work, and we simply do not have the time or capacity to effectively manage the administrative, accounting and marketing operations that running a successful, busy volunteer programme entails. As a small programme, we also do not have the funding to employ a permanent, full time member of staff to manage all the different areas of the business.
“For us, using an agent means that the fixed costs of marketing and administration are vastly reduced. Agents take a commission on confirmed bookings, as opposed to us spending money on a full time salary every month, that may well result in no bookings at all.
“Using an agent means we can focus on our core business – taking care of our animals and conservation area, working on community relations, and ensuring volunteers continue to contribute to achieving our goals.”
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