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Should I pay to get volunteer experience?

January 24, 2016

Q. Hi Nick,
There are so so-called “volunteer” programs that I can apply to but have to pay for them. Is “voluntourism” experience considered as field experience that can be beneficial for me to get a job as an aid worker?
Kind regards,

A. Thanks for the question, Anh,

You’re referring to a number of programs that range from tourism that has some sort of service element built into it, to organizations that take volunteers but require them to fundraise for the costs involved in hosting them. I want to unpack what’s going on here a little, but for the TL;DR crowd, the short answer is ‘no’, these programs will not normally be considered ‘field experience’ from the perspective of a humanitarian agency recruiter.

There is a market for a type of tourism that takes people to places in the developing world, lets them experience the culture and environment, and lets them interact with, and (hopefully benefit) local communities in some way. The quality of these programs vary greatly. Some of them have long-standing arrangements with local communities and profit-share in some meaningful way, while preserving the dignity of the people are being visited. In a lot of ways this no worse than any kind of cultural tourism. Local people host visitors, share something of their culture, sell them trinkets, and get paid for it. At the other extreme is a much more exploitative arrangement where a tour company will bring outsiders into a community with little money flowing into that group. The key difference with a lot of these programs is the inclusion of some kind of social service element. Sometimes this is helping to build a school, sometimes it is working in an orphanage, you get the idea.

In general though, when you think about it, bringing a tourist thousands of miles at great expense probably isn’t the most cost effective way to get labor to build a school, or to work with children in an orphanage. What you’re paying for is the sense of personal connection and contribution. There is a supply and demand relationship here that I’m a little uneasy with, but I’m not sure I think it’s the worst thing as long as everyone is getting something worthwhile out of the deal.

At the other end of the spectrum of these programs are organizations (often although not always religious) who take volunteers and ask them to pay their way. These are often longer term, and may have a more serious expectation that participants contribute something valuable aside from money.

But back to your resume – no – recruiters won’t look kindly on this in the main. Unless you can demonstrate that your fundraising was entirely incidental to the other valuable contribution you made, there will be a pall over that entry on your CV. It will look like tourism, which is not the kind of ‘living and working in the developing world’ that recruiters want to see.


I don’t want to sound too down on these experiences, they can be very rewarding for all concerned if done well, but I wouldn’t count on them from a resume building perspective.

Good luck,


PS I have limited experience of these programs, so if there is anyone who has a different perspective on this and wants to write a guest post I’d love to air another point of view.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauren permalink
    January 24, 2016 2:36 pm

    Hi Anh and Nick,

    After reading the post and response I thought I would share my experience.

    I was studying Development Studies at university in Australia and wanted to get some kind of experience as I dreamed of working overseas in the Development/Aid sector. I participated in a program like those outlined by Nick. It was a frustrating experience as I couldn’t speak Spanish and I was working with Colombian refguees in Ecuador. Nativity and maybe stupidity on my part that when the agency said Spanish wasn’t a necessity, I believed them.

    However during that experience I decided to do some traveling alone and it was by talking with the owner of the hotel I was staying at that he introduced me to a friend of his who happened to be staying there at the same time and had started her own NGO. From meeting her, she offered me to visit her foundation and volunteer there which I did. I was able to prove myself useful during that time. After returning to Australia and continuing with my studies, worrying daily how on Earth I would find a job in Development let alone work overseas in South America which was a dream since I was 10 years old, I one day received a message from the woman offering me the job as Coordinator of her NGO in Quito, Ecuador.

    I spent the last two years in that job and have now just taken up a new position with another NGO here in Ecuador.

    So whilst I realize this was a case of being in the right place at the right time to have met the woman who changed my life and gave me the opportunity to live my dream, it would obviously would not have happened if I hadn’t put myself out there in the first place.

    My point is that, I agree with Nick that NGOs are not going to view such a trip as ‘field experience’ however if you adopt an open mind and try to network and make connections you just never know what it might lead to!

    Best of luck.

    • January 24, 2016 2:37 pm

      Thanks for that Lauren, it’s always great to get more perspective!

  2. Rosie permalink
    January 25, 2016 10:26 pm

    Hi Nick,
    I understand why you say recruiters would not see these volunteer programs as relevant experience, can you please give me examples of what they would see as experience? What organisations/programs? I’m at Uni you see and it’s hard to find programs as I have no ‘skills’ needed like nursing e.t.c,

  3. Caryl permalink
    February 17, 2016 9:54 am

    Hi Nick,
    First off, your blog is fantastic; just found it and have been reading for hours!
    Second, I’m currently looking into volunteering for AmeriCorps. Would you consider that a beneficial stepping stone to humanitarian field work?
    Thanks for writing!

    • February 24, 2016 5:14 pm

      Thanks Caryl – the quick answer on this is that Americorps might give you useful skills, but it won’t help you with the all important field experience. Consider the Peace Corps instead!

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