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.