Volunteer Scams: when good volunteer programs go bad

I am often asked about volunteer scams and whether a given volunteer program is “legit” or not
and I can understand the question because volunteers organising a placement are right to be concerned about where they are headed. However the word ‘scam’ which is sometimes used with reference to some volunteer programs is taking things a bit far, true volunteer scams are rare in South and Central America…

Let me expand on my definition of scam in this context; an example of a volunteer scam is when a volunteer program somehow extracts some money from you (e.g. a upfront fee to reserve a place) then, when you fly-in, you find well, nothing. The organisation doesn’t exist, you have lost your money and funnily enough they are no longer responding to your emails. A pretty clear-cut scam.

What I want to write about in this post are the far more frequently occurring “low-level scams” (can’t think of a better term) that are unfortunately much less easy to identify, it’s what happens when good volunteer programs go bad.

Grass-roots volunteer organisations are usually started with the very best of intentions, initially run on idealism & enthusiasm – and a wing and a prayer. Local program directors are initially somewhat surprised that gringos are even interested in working with them and this is how a lot of great volunteer organisations start, locally run with occasional volunteer involvement.
Fast forward a ~year or so and with the program better-known & growing and the workload increasing, pragmatism replaces idealism and the founders start to encounter the difficulties of running a volunteer-staffed organisation with minimal resources… Reality sinks in and this is where things can go wrong; With the organisation now established and fee-paying volunteers arriving in numbers (and this issue only occurs in organisations that charge fees) it’s very easy for an organisation to lose its way; program directors take their foot of the gas and sometimes (in a worse case situation) become lazy and corrupted: There have been instances of directors taking a cut of volunteer fees and allowing a program to stumble-on, when it’s just a shadow of its former self, simply as a means of bringing in volunteer revenue. This is the most frequently occurring type of low-level “scam” that prospective volunteers should be aware of.

Interestingly, organisations that are rotten in this way can still do good work, which is why it’s common for some ex-volunteers to speak highly of a given organisation when others see the bigger picture and condemn it, so the word ‘scam’ doesn’t really apply here.
It’s difficult for websites like this one to pick up on what’s happening for the same reason, the organisation may have been recommended by some of the first wave of volunteers; it may take months for me to find out that things have subsequently gone pear-shaped.

I want to stress that allowing a volunteer organisation to drift in this way isn’t a South American thing, it’s a human thing and it’s just as likely to happen in London as it is in Lima. But the thing is that if you’re reading this, you are more likely to be volunteering in Lima…  And establishing that your chosen volunteer organisation has gone off track isn’t an easy thing to do when you’re on the other side of the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible and speaking (listening) to former volunteers about their experience with the organisation (and checking the scams and warnings section of the FAQ) is the best advice I can give to establish if a volunteer organisation is both legit and a good fit for you.

15 thoughts on “Volunteer Scams: when good volunteer programs go bad

  1. A good example of a site ‘losing the plot’ was at Santa Martha Animal Rescue Centre in Ecuador a couple of years ago; once a well regarded and popular volunteer set-up, the flow of volunteer dollars gave [xxxxx x xxxx-xx] and the centre went south soon after.

  2. Really useful advice Steve – would you have any suggestions as to which voluntary organisation I could contact to work abroad with animals – I have recently retired and am reasonably fit and healthy.

    • Hi Michele, Thanks for your comment.
      Visit the main page to see all the sites I list: http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net,
      however to answer your question, I like the following Animal rehab/rescue centres:
      http://www.intiwarayassi.org (Bolivia) – Appeals to a younger crowd.
      http://www.merazonia.org (Ecuador) – Emphasis on Animal Rehabilitation
      http://www.esperanzaverdeperu.com (Peru) Relatively new start-up
      http://www.amazoonicorescuecenter.com (Ecuador) Flys under the radar but a good program.

      • Volunteers might like to read a book called “That Bear Ate My Pants”, by Tony James Slater. It’s a humorous tale of his experiences of working as a volunteer at the Santa Martha animal rescue sanctuary (mentioned above), and has a chapter on the Amazoonico release centre. It gives some idea of what to expect, as well as being a good read. The book is available on Amazon Kindle for around £2. – Regards to all, Rick.

        • Thanks for the shout out, Steve! Amazoonico looked like an amazing and well-run operation when I saw it last, though that was over 10 years ago. I can’t imagine it has changed much, as they were always very serious over there, and more discerning about volunteers, rather than recruiting buckets of them. For starters, you had to speak at least 2 languages and ideally a third, before they’d consider you, though this might not be true anymore. Hope you enjoyed the book! 😉

  3. Hi Steve,

    Would suggest you add another volunteer project to your list in Ecaudor – I just returned from there. Its absolutely beautiful, and you get to do all kinds of projects you can work on. The direct contact does not speak english well, but you can converse on broken spanish, thats what me and my girlfriend did.

    Their facebook page name is Voluntariado Shiwakucha. If anyone wants to read about the trip in my travel blog, visit http://www.wisdomtraveler.com/2013/04/volunteering-in-amazon-rainforest-of.html.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Yuriy,
      Your page 2 link for the trip is broken, i really wanted to know about the trip as i am going to the Andes area for mine, thanks.

  4. Dear Steve, I am planning to retire in a couple of years and would like to get involved in volunteer work. Agriculture is my passion and I would like to participate in volunteer projects where sustainable farming, organic farming and high tech farming projects can use my participation. I believe that i can give and receive valuable lessons. Environmental issues are equally close to my heart.

    I am a degree holder and English is my international language. My native language is Tamil and since I am from Malaysia, I am very competent in Bahasa Melayu.

    South America is my choice.

    Any advise would be appreciated.

    Thank you.

  5. Hey all,

    As an online partner of Volunteer South America, VOFAIR (http://vofair.org) wants to support this post all the way! The main focus of our work in the volunteering world is to promote and ensure (as much as possible) transparency, fairness, and quality when it comes to volunteer projects. We work as a third party certifier of volunteer projects, we have come across a few projects that are scams. For example, one project that works as an exotic animal rehabilitation and reintegration center receives volunteers for short periods of time. These volunteers live in extremely basic conditions with no formal training or mentorship, and end up feeding the animals and cleaning their cages. They are essentially free labor for the family-run project, which is closer to a private zoo than a rehabilitation center. The project itself does little to nothing to actually reintroduce the animals into their natural habitats, nor does it work with animal specialists and experts who truly understand the animals’ needs. In other situations, we have seen projects that charge volunteers upwards of 3,000 USD, but don’t provide them with much more support or experience than some grassroots programs that charge much less. These are the situations that VOFAIR wishes to eliminate from the world of volunteering. Thanks to websites like Volunteer South America, volunteers have the chance to read thoughtful articles and participate in discussions about these issues. Thanks Steve!

  6. Hi Steve (or anyone who can help me!),

    I have just started researching for my first volunteering trip, it is also my first time doing anything like this by myself so am trying to get as much information as I possibly can.
    I have found a few projects I am interested in and have my heart dead set on an Animal rehabilitation centre in or around the Amazon. I have found a few that look fantastic (including the Merizonia project you mentioned in a comment above).
    What I am wondering is that I have seen a lot of projects costing anything from £2,000-£3,500 for a 12 week period; though the ones I am most interested in (the ones that seem the most wholesome and just generally more up my street) are only asking for a donation of around £800/£900 for the same period of time.
    This has started to make me wonder what the extra £2000 would be going towards, or if in fact the cheapness of the others is something I should be concerned about.

    Obviously my main concern is absolutely NOT the cost.. but I feel like with such a massive variance between some of the projects, its something I should be thinking about.
    Again, this is my first time researching so please please tell me if I’m talking rubbish!

    Thank you for the read!!

    • Hi Felicity,
      You are correct in saying that you can pay a small fortune to volunteer in
      an Animal rescue centre – or just a few hundred quid; quite a difference:

      The catch (the difference) is ‘support’. The big ticket volunteer companies offer 24 Hr support, sometimes in-country support and hopefully some fairly robust public indemnity/fly-you-home insurance cover. organisations like Merazonia (and the others mentioned above) are for travellers who are well-prepared, confident, independent – who don’t need such support.

      The knock on the big companies is that a large part of your placement fee is eaten up by western company overheads such as staff/advertising/administration and profit; leaving just a tiny amount (if any) for the organisation you are actually volunteering with.

      So don’t be concerned about the cheapness of volunteer programs such as Merazonia, however you will need to be confident & independent to volunteer at a grass-roots program, e.g. you will not be met at the airport when you fly in; you’ll have to travel to the volunteer location yourself, that can be challenging for a rookie traveller and it is why I advise anyone preparing for their first volunteer stint in South America to Learn Spanish (or Portuguese for Brazil) and be able to converse in Espanol and to get some independent, solo, travel experience, e.g.in Spain, to get used to life on the road.

      Another ARRC I’d add to those above is Centro De Rescate Valle Alto (Ecuador)

      I hope that helps

  7. First of all, great article!
    There is however a different side (I founded and manage a non profit organization in Cusco, Peru since 2006) to this story. We have, among others, an after school project for poor to extremely poor children. We work with on average 8 to 10 volunteers and 1 of the things we learned is that if you don’t charge anything to volunteers, you attract the wrong people. There’s plenty of volunteers that are called CV builders. They want to put experiences on their cv to make it look good and to get access to the NGO world. Other volunteers see volunteering as part of a spiritual experience. They commit to a number of weeks but change their minds half way through and leave. We found out that charging a small fee creates commitment and filters most of the bad ones out. We also require people to have a basic level of Spanish so they can work with Spanish speaking kids which is another way to filter out the not committed ones.

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