The ethics of organisations offering discounted volunteering trips

I received an email this week from i-to-i Volunteering and Inspired Breaks, promoting a discount on i-to-i projects. I have somehow got onto their mailing list (and I’m not entirely sure how or if this is something I can asked for!).  The headline of the email is “Make a difference for less. Get a massive 13% off”, which is offered on all of their volunteering holidays.

There is something distinctly distasteful about this and it made me question a few things. How much mark-up must there be on an i-to-i volunteering trip if they can knock-off 13% in the first place?  Are they still making money on their discounted projects? Does this discount affect how much money goes to the local project? Does this kind of offer really seem attractive to prospective volunteers when they are looking at the various options?

Pricing of volunteer tourism projects varies hugely. It is hard to see why this is when comparing like-for-like projects with different organisations. It is confusing and the cost often looks unreasonably high. A colleague asked me this week to recommend a sea turtle conservation project to volunteer with. I looked at various projects in Costa Rica and the costs varied significantly. 2 weeks with i-to-i costs £679, with the Sea Turtle Conservancy $1899, with GVI £1050, with OSA conservation $680 and with Earthwatch 9 days is £1750  (non of these include flights but do include accommodation and meals, and not all of these prices include transfers to the project from San Jose).

So should volunteers be attracted by the cheapest option or should they choose the organisation that offers the strongest project (and assessing this could be subjective – does this mean having the highest impact on conservation of sea turtles, most valuable contribution to scientific reseach or involving local communities and providing them with economic benefits?). You can see the dilemma faced by prospective volunteers!

Information on where money is spent is rarely transparent and often very general. i-to-i use this interesting pie chart to show how the placement fee is spent. 48% stays in the UK and a big chunk of this goes towards marketing to recruit volunteers. 8% is profit, some of which goes towards their Big Giving initiative, where they donate resources and equipment to their project partners.

I also find the language used by companies like i-to-i and Inspired Breaks in their emails and on their websites concerning. “Make a difference” is not necessarily the outcome of volunteering on a short-term placement. Further down in the email I received it says “sleep easy and know you can help and book for just £50”. Will a volunteer really be helping? In some senses yes, they will be doing tasks which support a project and could be perceived as helping people or wildlife. But do they need / want this kind of help?  And does this kind of help really make a difference? I hope that I am not the only asking these kind of questions and that volunteers are also critically aware of the marketing jargon used by volunteering organisations.

As you can probably tell, this email has bothered me greatly and really made me consider my position on the profit-making side of volunteer tourism.  Should an industry be built on profiting from people’s desire to do something altruistic with their holiday time?  The commercial strategies of direct marketing campaigns and discounting products that this email encapsulates seem completely at odds with the philosophy of volunteering.



About natashastein

I'm interested in travel, learning about other countries and cultures, responsible tourism, environmental issues and wildlife. I like being outdoors and beautiful scenery can really move me and reinvigorate me. I enjoy walking and am planning to get a rescue dog to keep me company on my strolls. I also love to write stuff. I've set up my own website (, written blogs on topics I'm interested in and written various articles about volunteering overseas. I've always enjoyed writing in my previous jobs. I'm a bit of a creative all rounder - I can draw and make things. It's something I'd like to do more of! I love art and photography and go to exhibitions when I can. I am currently teaching English as a second language in Worcestershire, where I live. I have an eclectic career story. My professional background is in travel and tourism and the charity sector. I have worked for a major holiday company, specialist tour operator and coordinated a University alumni travel programme. Most recently I've worked for a Destination Management Organisation and local government tourism department focusing on promoting the Cotswolds primarily via social media. I also worked for VSO, the international development volunteering charity for 6 years as a Volunteer and Placement Adviser and have done bits and bobs of volunteering with different charities.
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4 Responses to The ethics of organisations offering discounted volunteering trips

  1. gavin bate says:

    Your email is spot on and highlights the commercial nature of an industry that does not always put development at the heart of its business model, and is not governed by financial criteria that clearly define who gets what and what the long term aim of any development project should be. Which is why we set up to help companies understand their responsibility and accountability in this respect.

    Also suggest reading the articles on this site

    I know it’s upsetting to come across such realities, but be assured that some of us have known about this for a very long time and not everybody is the same. There has been a massive change in attitude over the past few years, but it can only be highlighted by people like you.
    Have a look at: for example.

    • natashastein says:

      Hi Gavin,
      Thanks for your comments. I’ll definitely take a look at the articles on your website. I’ve been following Fair Trade Volunteering and I’m really interested in how much take-up you’ve had from volunteering organisations as I think it is a great initiative, and one of the simplest standards for smaller organisations to achieve.

  2. Hello Natasha,

    Thank you for your post! I also find aggressive discount marketing as i-to-i now practices it for several years very annoying. A few years back it was even worse. One month it was “Get 10% off if you book till the end of the month”, then the following month it was “get £100 off if you book till the end of the month” and so forth for several months. It doesn’t surprise that much though if you know that they are part of the TUI group, just like Inspired Breaks, Real Gap and World Experience as well. You wouldn’t expect anything else from companies whose main concern is shareholder value. TUI has bought that many companies because they saw the British and worldwide gap year market as an interesting market niche that they wanted a share of, and I guess the new management thought that what works in ordinary travel (discounts, aggressive marketing speech) will also work in the gap year market and by extension in volunteering.

    I don’t think that they have always been successful with this strategy because fortunately there are people that really care about what volunteers do and what volunteering achieves. This is true for a number of volunteering organisations (including companies), but most importantly also for a big number of volunteers or potential volunteers.

    The gapper who just throws a few weeks of volunteering into his/her gap-year-around-the-world-trip in order to get some money out of his/her parents (“I give you some money Dear, but you also need to do something useful, OK.”) might be attracted to this kind of offering, but I also think that people who want to make the famous difference will be put off by it and turn to other organisations who are more serious about the helping aspect. I think that the latter is particularly true in Continental Europe and that’s one of the main reasons why i-to-i and many other UK based companies have not been successful on the continent.

    It’s up to the players who care about the impact of volunteering to keep educating the market so that the customers become more and more demanding as far as the real output is concerned.

    There are also a lot of other questions or issues in your post. Unfortunately I don’t have the time right now to react to all of them in detail, but I would like to pick a few.

    Does this discount affect how much money goes to the local project? – I don’t think that i-to-i gives money directly to projects anyway, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If a local project gets money for every volunteer, there is also a real risk that it becomes financially depended on the volunteering organisation. There is a very reasonable point that it’s better to not give money to the project that receives the volunteer.

    Why do prices for seemingly similar projects differ that much? – Partly because it’s difficult for organisations who provide a first class service to prove in their marketing material that they really do what others only pretend to do. In-country support for example can be a huge cost if you employ real staff in the project, but it can also be very cheap if you just pay an agent that is located in the same country to provide only ad-hoc telephone support.

    Can volunteers make a difference? – Yes they can, and it depends at least as much on what they individually do in their project, as on the framework that the volunteering organisation provides. In my opinion, it’s anyway not that relevant what they do on site, but how their experience changes (or doesn’t change) their general outlook on the world. Their behaviour and way-of-life back home is what matters in the long run. If their volunteering experience doesn’t change their decision making at home, they should have donated their money anyway to an organisation who does real professional work.

    I discovered your blog through Fair Trade Volunteering’s Facebook page and I didn’t know it before. Have you considered combining your blog with a Twitter account to let readers know when there is something new.

    Best regards


    • natashastein says:

      Hello Frank
      Thank you for your comments and providing such a thorough response to my post. I agree that there is so much to say on these issues and I appreciate you taking the time to express your thoughts. I agree with your point about i-to-i being part of the TUI group and how this influences their behaviour – their commercial priorities are clear from their discounting and I think this is sad as it does undermine a lot of the good work done on the ground. I interviewed a product manager from i-to-i last year for an assignment I wrote about volunteer tourism and could see there were a lot of positives about how they worked with local partners and existing projects, didn’t pay organisations to host volunteers but provided economic benefits through employment and things like locally owned accommodation for volunteers and had systems in place for evaluating and assessing projects. I also got the sense that they are looking closely at best practice across the TUI group of organisations offering volunteer tourism. However the marketing and discounting side of things really does negate the good they are doing in other areas and as you say, will put a lot of people off.
      I have set up a twitter account and will endeavour to use it in conjunction with my blog – @natashastein

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