The Role of Profit Not For Profit

During the journey of People of Change, I came across the unique concept of “pay to volunteer.” It caught me off guard since I was not familiar with its implications. My immediate thought, “who would want to pay to work as opposed to getting paid for the work provided?” Maybe completely bombarded with capitalist ideals, I immediately attacked the organizations practicing such concept. Yet, after documenting the work of one of these institutions, the not-so-simple concept steered further thoughts.

Several non-governmental organizations receive monetary aid through volunteer programs. Instead of traveling and spending money on hotels and restaurants, individuals choose to donate their efforts (and money) to non-profit organizations, which further provide accommodation and supplies in return. Volunteers are also expected to provide physical aid through labor, ranging from construction to mentoring.

There are websites and companies specialized in providing the best volunteer experience. In a way, voluntourism became an industry; and just like any other industry, there are people profiting from such practices. For same reasons, the digestion of “pay to volunteer” gets a bit sour. The monetary profit does take away the true idea of volunteerism, which is the complete donation of oneself towards the benefit of others. Whenever someone pays for a service, expectations just happen inevitably. In the eventual case such expectations are not experienced, a rather negative perception of “volunteerism” will most certainly remain.

One of my friends just recently questioned whether I agreed with the concept of voluntourism – the thought being “If you are already volunteering yourself, why should money be involved?” I tried to compile reasons to counterbalance her negative experience as a “pay to volunteer” in a Sri Lankan orphanage. Thought after thought, it always came down to profit.

No non-governmental organization can survive without revenue. Even though most of them hold a “not for profit” status, it’s a blurry line between profit and costs. Take staff members, for example – how are they to survive without salaries if not-for-profit work require full time dedication? Funding has also become increasingly more competitive to obtain due to recent global financial crisis. Hence, who is to pay for these costs? If no one, then all non-profit struggles would collapse under capitalist ideologies – one bitter loss.

It is quite admirable that individuals will choose volunteering over mindless fun. If you are going to use the money towards traveling, why not use it to the benefit of entire communities instead of selfish pleasure? Not all expectations might be corresponded, but the experience remains. It might take years to fully comprehend the implications, but if the organization is truly committed towards positive changes, then the money and labor will certainly be put to good use.

Both the organizations in Namibia and Ghana offered such volunteer programs. These were respectable organizations, which undeniably had a positive impact on local communities. After interviewing volunteers, the same answers repeated throughout the filming process. “Useful,” “valuable, “constructive” were some of the common words used to express their sentiments. Consciousness indeed plays a significant role in maintaining a positive equilibrium; no matter how dreadful the experience might be, each and every volunteer should applaud him/herself for believing in the good use of profit.

Allow me to correct myself. “Pay to volunteer” does not always come down to profit; it comes down to making good choices since profit does not always signify money in your pocket.

The video above also brings an interesting perspective of how the “industrialization” of volunteerism can be misleading. Bottom line is: would you pay to volunteer?