We have here our first ever guest post, written by Alice Baines. Hoorays and confetti! An extraction of wisdom from her many years of experience travelling as a volunteer, she has kindly imparted some advice on identifying scams when seeking volunteering opportunities, and how to avoid them.
Scams, swindles, skullduggey. Call it what you like, but over the years I’ve watched the number of organisations and 'charities' offering volunteer work overseas shoot through the roof. Advertised beautifully via the web with awe inspiring photographs and testimonials, special discounted prices and claims of ‘no hidden costs’…we’ve all come across them and may even have fallen into the cost saving trap.
Sadly, with overseas volunteering as with almost every other area of organised travel you get what you pay for and for every ethically run, well researched and value for money gap year organisation out there (like The Leap, the people I did my volunteering with!) there are 10 more flash-in-the-pan travel companies just waiting to prise the hard earned dollar from your fingers. So, I thought I could help by shedding some light on the most obvious of all the Gap Year Scams.
Be Realistic About Price
Travel companies often advertise their volunteering ‘products’ in price order, giving prominence to the lowest price, most no-frills, stay-in-a-mud-hut-and-wave-bye-bye-to-veganism-as-you-skin-your-own-goat-for-dinner (etc.) and tucking away the hidden costs and higher priced trips which you’ll end up paying for anyway. This means that honestly priced placements, where companies are upfront about the true costs and don’t try to fool their volunteers don’t get a look in.
My advice? When researching for your trip start from the most expensive placements and work your way down. Why? Well its all in the small print, and before you know it by the time you’ve added food, accommodation and even insurance you’ll be up there cost wise with the companies who wrap it all up and relieve you of all the logistics. So, pecking around at the bottom of the price pile trying to avoid expensive gap year scams you may find yourself falling for an entirely different one!
Know Your Gap Year Companies
There are literally 100’s of companies offering to organise volunteer projects overseas now. Voluntourism is seen as being big business and it seems like everyone wants a piece of the action. So how do you know if the gap year project you’ve found is any good, or if the company even exists?! First of all, check out the Year Out Group. They are independent and provide a total reference for all you need to plan your gap year.
There are over 35 member gap year organisations with programs in over 90 countries, all of which have agreed to adhere to a strict Code of Practice, abide by a Member's Charter and operating guidelines, Keep their risk assessments, crisis plans and staff training up to date and provide annual accounts and proof of adequate public liability insurance. The Year Out Group will give you the re-assurance and support that is essential when planning to volunteer overseas and will provide help and assistance if required. The Leap are members of the Year Out Group.
Many overseas projects are now advertising online to attract volunteers directly, by-passing the ‘middle man’ (UK- based gap year company) and offering a seemingly better value, more authentic, ethical project. It seems obvious to assume that by going direct to the foreign NGO or organisation more of your money will go to the people that need it. Don’t be fooled! Outside of the UK gap year organisations are completely unregulated and there is no way of guaranteeing where your money goes. I’ve heard of friends taking these sorts of placements and arriving in-country to be met by no one, to go to the supposed project site to be met with blank faces…it’s not even unheard of for entirely fabricated volunteering projects and companies to advertise for volunteers online.
Find out how much of the fees you pay to a gap year company actually go into the community/conservation project itself. Is the project effective and even needed by people on the ground? Some of the bigger gap year organisations have huge overheads in the UK/USA with swanky advertising campaigns, swish offices and glossy brochures yet spend next to no money on the projects and communities they are supposed to be supporting. With The Leap, on average 65% of your money is spent in the country of your placement, which is great value for all concerned!
Back up /Safety
This is one of those Gap Year scams you really have to watch out for…cheap placements often come in hand in hand with cost savings and generally the first thing to go is paying for quality staff on the ground to ensure you are supported and provided with a safe environment in which to work. At the time of your research ask the gap year company who’s going to be on hand to help in an emergency? In very remote and foreign places you need a well connected, organised and experienced mover and shaker to get you sorted.
So my advice to you: read the small print and make decisions with your head not your wallet.