The Economics of Volunteering

Earlier this year I was asked, by the parent of a daughter on the basketball team I coached, why I was going all the way to South America to volunteer when there were plenty of volunteer opportunities at home in Marin County, California. My answer was short and simple: “I can’t afford to do it in Marin.” What I should have asked, but didn't, was, "Who needs help more - a team of 6th grade basketball players or a couple hundred Andean peasants?"

Marin County is one of the most expensive places in the world to live and often requires two six-figure incomes in order to pay the mortgage. In families where only one spouse works and the other stays at home, the working spouse usually spends significant time traveling and working evenings and weekends. Adding on 20 hours a week of volunteering would upset the work-family balance even further.

With this “economic yoke” around our heads, putting in substantial volunteer hours near our home was not in the cards. By renting out our house for a year and covering out costs, we removed the yoke and were able to volunteer anytime and anywhere we pleased.

I did a lot of research on volunteering and NGOs in the months leading up to our sabbatical. I talked to a Canadian family who spent a couple months volunteering in Urubamba, Peru with ProPeru, I spoke with a woman in Washington D.C. who was the U.S. director of Coprodeli, I chatted with a representative from Cross-Cultural Solutions, as well as organizations like Global Crossroads, BUNAC, Personal Overseas Development, I to I, Peru Positive Action, Gap Year, and Global Vision International. With the exception of Coprodeli, these organizations request fees anywhere from $500-1,000 per week for volunteering. In addition to paying to be a volunteer, you must pay for your round trip airfare, as well. In return for these fees, the organization will typically pick you up at the airport, provide your room and board and set you up with a volunteer opportunity. Having travelled quite a bit in developing countries, I know that the actual cost of what they are providing is significantly less than what they are charging. I’m sure that these aid organizations are doing good things in developing countries; I just didn’t feel that spending almost $1,000 per week was necessary.

At this point in my research, I was learning of a new industry called “Volun-Tourism.” This niche travel industry caters to a growing number of people who want to volunteer and help somewhere in the third world, but don’t have the time, language ability or inclination to arrange a volunteer opportunity on their own. The perfect client has only a week or two of vacation, doesn’t speak the local language and needs someone to arrange it for them. Some of the organizations do a lot of good but some are nothing more than the volunteer equivalent of a photo op. (“Here’s a photo of me building a house in Peru”)

After spending a lot of time researching the different aid organizations, I did find several that facilitated meaningful volunteer matches (, Fairplay, etc.) in Latin America and, understandably, they did require a longer commitment and at least an intermediate level of Spanish. From these organizations I was able to narrow down my list of potential employers and make my choice.


  1. Hello Jason,

    Your website was recommended by Vibeke from Photito's blog. We are a Dutch family (kids 10 and 8) who are looking for volunteer work in Asia. We had exactly (!) the same experience as you did, with those Volun-Tourism organisations. We want to go backpacking for 6 weeks and spend 1 or 2 weeks volunteering. Arranging this through such a Volun-Tourism org would cost us our complete budget!
    Can I ask you to share with me the list of the other aid organizations that you found? I want to check if they 'allow' families with younger children and whether they have programs in Asia.

  2. Hi Emiel,
    Most of the organizations I researched were in South America, and not so much in Asia. is a very good resource. I had luck contacting language schools that also provided a volunteer experience...once I found out what the organization was, I approached them directly without the middleman. If you are interested in my South America spreadsheet, give me your email address and I will forward it to you.
    Good luck!