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To pay or not to pay: should conservation experience come at a cost?

Updated: May 15, 2023

By Cheryl Sanchez. Cheryl is a PhD student at the University of Pisa, studying the foraging ecology and abundance of marine megafauna at Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles.

Staff and volunteers heading out for full-day forest surveys

To pay or not to pay… There is a discussion, which has come up countless times in my everyday life in the past decade (with friends, family and co-workers) about getting involved with conservation organizations, particularly those abroad. When you think of volunteering, do you expect to pay? After all, you are volunteering your time, usually expected to work for free. However, it is now common to pay a high cost to simply volunteer. There are several ways of looking at it: from the perspective of someone who is trying to get their foot in the door for a career in conservation, or from someone in a different vocation looking to broaden their experiences and ‘eco-volunteer’. For a student, a recent graduate, or even someone who works in lower income positions, such as for NGOs, this cost can be a large hurdle to volunteering and therefore gaining the experience they need. So, how has this become so common?

Let me explain my background first, since it is very intertwined in this topic. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a traditional career path, nor a clear idea of what I wanted to ‘do’ or ‘be’ from the start. My life always involved soccer and animals. So naturally, I went to university on a soccer scholarship and studied biology during my undergraduate education at a liberal arts school. It was tough as a newly graduated student and employers in the conservation field only wanted people with experience, but you can’t get experience if no one hires you! And then, THEN, it can even be difficult to volunteer for free to gain the skills you need. It’s very daunting.

Living on a small island with a small community meant also getting invited for lunch and immersion into a different culture, and good food!

I needed an inspiring challenge, thinking maybe I could do something good along the way. I had signed up for the Peace Corps and started the training for it, but then saw advertisements to volunteer for a conservation project in East Africa. It was based on a small island, and involved community work, marine megafauna surveys, followed by Colobus monkey surveys on the mainland. With no job offers (I wasn’t even getting to the interview stage), and the Peace Corps taking too long to make decisions, signed up for a paid volunteer position. Who needs savings, right?

Being fresh out of university with some basic skills, I thrived in an environment with six young staff members who were extremely passionate about the place, conservation and community, and who were so relatable. They were creative, energetic, and embracing of every challenge, and really wanted to make a difference, that you couldn’t help just wanting to learn and join in at every moment - I could see myself following in their footsteps. I felt like I had found my niche, and I still think of them to this day (nearly 15 years ago). This experience launched me into a series of jobs and opportunities which snowballed from each other. It sparked my career path, which led to my mentors. To my dream job and PhD. To having a community of inspirational people and research. To what I now live for. Volunteering ended up being my foot in the door.

Should I have had to pay for that though? I was lucky enough to have come out of school without being in debt and to have the opportunity – and I was willing to take my chances. Would I pay to volunteer now, in my same field? I, possibly, would volunteer to make connections and network in a new area- but not for a long time. Also, I wouldn’t pay. One of the organizations I’ve worked for recruited skilled volunteers, for specific needs. These volunteers were given free accommodation and a small stipend, and the benefits and skills they brought to the organization were extraordinary. They had a tremendous impact on what needed to be done, and they had a fantastic experience in a place they could never have worked otherwise, making a genuine difference to conservation.

Working with the local tour groups for recording marine wildlife sightings to guidelines for viewing marine megafauna.

So, is it worth paying to volunteer? Well, I now think that it depends on the programme and your skills. Training volunteers takes a lot of time and effort, and generally volunteers are only there for a short time. The money is what keeps some of these organizations going. For those who are trying to make a career in the field, there can be better options for getting your foot in the door at least to gain some experience. There are and should be other skill-building experiences within universities (e.g. joining research groups, assisting students with higher degree research). Perhaps looking closer to home, getting involved with local organizations (see this blog for an example), or even volunteering time a few times a week or month would be start. It’s a competitive field, and we all need that extra push.

Would you pay or have you paid to volunteer, and was it worth it? How did you get your start in the conservation field?

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Nancy Bunbury
Nancy Bunbury
Nov 08, 2021

Thanks Cheryl. It's great to have your personal perspective on this. There's a workshop being planned next spring about sustainable volunteering in coral reef research - I'll link the info here when I have it.

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