Of the hundreds of successful conservation professionals we’ve interviewed, the overwhelming majority say that volunteering is one of the best ways to start a career in conservation. But when does volunteering – for a cause and for your career – become exploitation?

In this Ultimate Guide, we explore what exploitation in volunteering is, and what it isn’t. We also help you determine whether volunteering could be one of the best choices you’ve ever made, or a setback to your career.

What is volunteering?

The term Volunteering covers a range of quite different experiences, and this often is a root cause of confusion and frustration. For example, it can be used to describe:

  • Volunteering in the field helping a conservation NGO – e.g. tree felling for a Wildlife Trust in the UK or removing invasive species with Conservation Volunteers in Australia.
  • Volunteering (or interning) in-house for a conservation NGO – e.g. data entry for BirdLife International. This is sometimes called interning.
  • Attending a hands-on training course over a period of time, often over-seas – e.g. marine conservation with GVI.

Some may be paid, some free, and some fee-based – especially the latter.

Some fee-based volunteer providers might be better renaming their experiences as ‘training’. If so, much of the confusion and frustration might be resolved around WHY people might want to pay for their experiences.

How do we define exploitation in conservation volunteering?

“Exploitation exists when someone has an experience which gives them far less return on their investment, of time and/or money, than they should expect.”

Return on Volunteering = Outcome / Investment


If the Return on Volunteering is:

  • Positive | It was a worthwhile experience for the individual.
  • Negative | It was not a worthwhile experience, and may have been exploitative (especially if the investment was judged to be far greater than the outcome to the volunteer).

Crucially, the two key variables of Outcome and Investment vary greatly from person to person, as follows:

Outcome – People volunteer for many different reasons, and they are highly personal. Examples include:

  • To become more employable (e.g., to gain valuable skills / knowledge / experiences).
  • To test drive a role and see if it’s right for them.
  • To network and meet like-minded people.
  • To support a cause you feel passionate about.
  • To have fun, visiting interesting places and do interesting things.
  • Etc…

Investment – The two key resources invested when volunteering are time, and (sometimes) money. The value of these two resources also varies individually:

  • Time – Some people have more time than others. Busy working parents have very little time and value what they have greatly; un-employed job-seekers have lots and might be more flexible how they choose to spend it.
  • Money – As with time, the value of money varies from person to person depending upon how much you have. If you’re wealthy, spending thousands of pounds on an experience might not feel like much, but if you’re unemployed it’s a massive investment decision to make.

So, when we look to calculate the Return on Volunteering, the key is it’s highly personal, and two people doing exactly the same experience can have wildly different scores. For example:

Sarah | Sarah is a recent university graduate and is looking for work. She’s living back at home with her parents, is currently unemployed and has loans to pay off. She identified that for her chosen area of employment she needs more experience and knowledge of radio-tracking animals, and is seeking a volunteer placement to gain these skills. She decides to sign up for a paid volunteer experience costing £500 for 2 weeks to radio-track meercats in Namibia through an operator she saw online. After the experience she find prospective employers don’t value her training as much as she’d hoped. She had fun, but it wasn’t giving her the employment boost she’d hoped for.

Bob | Bob is an IT professional with a wife and two kids. He loves animals, and especially meercats, and also signs up to the same volunteer experience as Sarah. He wants to have some fun, travel, meet like-minded people, support a good cause and see meercats up-close. After two weeks away he’s had a great time, learnt lots, and takes home some fabulous memories. He even decides that he’s like to apply his IT skills to help conservation efforts, and starts to explore switching careers as a result.

Returns on Volunteering

Sarah = Negative. Though she had a good time, the outcome for Sarah wasn’t what she hoped for her career and employability, and the cost of the experience was very high for her personally, though she could afford the time as she was unemployed.

Bob = Positive. This was essentially a low-cost holiday for Bob and the biggest investment for him was two weeks away from his work and family. But it was worth it, because he had a great time and the experience lived up to his expectations.

Was the voluntary experience exploitative for Sarah? This depends largely on if she chose the wrong experience, or if was mis-described to her.

To choose the right experience Sarah should be very clear exactly what type(s) of experience target employers are looking for in ‘radio-tracking animals’.

For example, are meercats a good study species, or are there better animals which employers would value? Is the type of tracking she’ll be doing, exactly what employers are looking for? Are they using the right equipment and methods that employers will recognise? What exactly will her involvement be in the radio tracking? Will she be watching, doing or teaching? If so, how much of each? What will she be doing with the data? Etc…

Through being this clear from the start on what she wants to get out of an experience, she can then identify (or create) and secure the right experience to get her career going more quickly.

If she was clear and had checked everything before booking – doing all her due diligence – and the experience fell below the required standards, then this is a real cause for concern.

Is it ok to charge for a volunteer experience?

Absolutely, so long as the experience is accurately described, and participants are receiving positive returns on their volunteering investment individually.

Just as for volunteers, for conservation organisations:

Return on Volunteering = Outcome / Investment

If the Return on Volunteering is:

  • Positive | It was a worthwhile contribution to the organisation’s mission.
  • Negative | It was not a worthwhile contribution to the organisation’s mission. In a worst case scenario, it might even hinder the organisation’s conservation efforts, displace local employment and reduce conservation impact.

When we calculate the Return on Volunteering from the perspective of a conservation organisation, it can vary widely depending on several factors.

The two key variables of Outcome and Investment vary greatly, as follows:

Outcome is strongly influenced by:

  • The organisation’s mission, goals and needs.
  • The skill, experience and knowledge level of the volunteer(s).
  • The length of the volunteer placement. To put this in perspective, in a typical job, it can take 6 or even 12 months before a new employee is fully competent in their role. The longer volunteers participate, the greater their contribution is likely to be.
  • Location and local context. For example, local people might better support conservation efforts than foreign volunteers.
  • Etc…

Investment – The two key resources invested when an organisation works with volunteers are time, and money, both of which are notoriously scare in the conservation sector.

  • Time – It takes staff time to plan for, train, supervise, manage and support volunteers.
  • Money – This is influenced by the type, size and location of an organisation, and how they are funded.

All these variables influence whether an organisation may need to charge for a volunteer experience. Take these two organisations as an example:

Organisation A | A conservation NGO organising seasonal invasive species removal. This NGO needs man (and woman!) power to complete a project. The skills and experience needed are minor – they can easily be learnt during a briefing – and a single staff member can manage a large group of volunteers at once. All they need to invest is a little staff time, and some basic tools such as gloves, sacks and shovels.

Organisation B | A conservation organisation based in remote Costa Rica working to protect threatened sea turtles. They have just enough money to keep their projects running year-round and to pay their staff a small salary, just large enough to cover their expenses. Because of their remote location (a two-day trip from the nearest town), in order for their volunteer programme to function, they must provide volunteers with accommodation, three daily meals and transport (both road and boat). They also need to invest in health and safety training for volunteers who are a long way from a hospital. This organisation has to invest significant staff time into training volunteers – often 3 months or more – before their volunteers are fully competent with their survey methodologies and data entry protocols. Because of the inherent dangers of the area where they’re working, they need to maintain a ratio of at least one staff member to 3 volunteers at all times when in the field. They must also provide the equipment to enable the volunteers to participate in their work, including survey equipment, field kits, and – in the case of coral reef health surveys – snorkel and dive gear and professional dive training.

If organisation B did all the above without charging volunteers a fee, their return on volunteering would be negative. If they had external funding, chances are that it couldn’t be used to support foreign volunteers. And even if it could, the investment of valuable staff time might still mean that volunteering wasn’t the best way to achieve their conservation mission. Lastly, any investment made into foreign volunteers might need to be justified over-investing in jobs, salaries and benefits for locals – with all its implications for local long-term sustainability.

While some exploitative volunteer experiences, unfortunately, do exist, it’s important to understand all the variables that contribute to an organisation’s volunteer programme before criticising them. Otherwise, we might unintentionally call out honest organisations that are doing valuable conservation work.

Are paid volunteer experiences making conservation a sector for the rich, and limiting diversity?

This is a concern.

What paid volunteering does well is provide a simple route to getting experience. If you have the money, you can get the experience.

This is typically people from developed countries with more affluent backgrounds.

However, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to pay to volunteer. Anyone can find voluntary work and often the best experiences are not the paid ones – but the ones you create yourself using your own initiative and drive.

Training providers have budgets to promote their opportunities, and are therefore good at getting in front of your face. This can make it seem like it’s the only option, but consider the following.

The best volunteer experience you might have would be working with an organisation or individual doing high-quality work, which you can get involved with. Learn from the best. These people would often love a great volunteer to come in and help them BUT they are also too busy to create a role description, advertise it widely, do the shortlisting and interviews, etc. It’s just too much work and easier to keep going with your in-house resources as best they can.

However, if a perfect person made contact with them and outlined how they can help, they might just snap up the opportunity to get some much-needed extra support.

And this is where I feel some of the best-untapped opportunities lie for people looking for volunteer work.

Understand exactly what your goals are from volunteering – why you’re doing it? What do precisely do you want to get out of the experience?

From here identify some target organisations and people who would be ideal to provide you with the experience and might be in need of extra support.

Then reach out to them and make contact, on a personalised 1:1 level. Don’t send the same email to 100 people and hope that a few come back. Do your homework, understand their work and needs, and outline how you’d like to help.

Sure it’s a lot harder and more work, but the results can be high-quality volunteering at little to no cost.

If you want to find out more about this approach, I recommend you watch our Webinar | Conservation Internships & Volunteering that Won’t Break the Bank here.

How to avoid exploitation in conservation volunteering?

For participants

If you want to avoid exploitation in volunteering, and help create a better industry for other aspiring conservationists, here’s some suggestions for what you can do:

  • Understand exactly what your goals are from volunteering. Why are you doing it? What do precisely do you want to get out of the experience? For example, if you’re seeking employability, what specific type(s) of experience are your target employers and target jobs looking for?
  • Do your research and due diligence. Do your online research, ask questions of the organisation and/or talk to previous volunteers to make sure the volunteer experience you’re considering will meet your expectations.
  • Create your own volunteering opportunities. Don’t limit yourself to what you see advertised. Identify your goals from volunteering, identify some target organisations and people that could be a match, and reach out to them on a 1:1 level. Find out more here.
  • Report inaccurate advertising or mistreatment. If you’ve done your research and an experience doesn’t provide what was promised, this is exploitation. If an organisation is mistreating its volunteers, this is unacceptable and should be reported. We’re always open to hearing your feedback, and have stopped working with certain operators as a result of concerns raised to us. We always treat such emails as confidential – so you’re safe to get in touch.

For organisations

The industry has a role to play in helping to create better volunteer programmes in line with people’s ideal outcomes. Here are some initial suggestions from us:

  • Use clearer terminology to describe experiences such as volunteer, internships, training, etc. These terms are used widely – and often in different ways – causing much of confusion and frustration within the sector.
  • Increase access for unrepresented groups to improve diversity. This could be in the shape of scholarships, bursaries or other mechanisms to help people who don’t have access to many training experiences within conservation.
  • Accurately describe experiences. This helps minimise the chances of participants being disappointed by the outcomes of the training.
  • Be transparent. If it’s necessary to charge a fee for volunteering, clearly identify what this fee goes towards (e.g. training, equipment, lodging, meals, transportation, contribution to conservation projects, etc.)
  • Focus on experiences that lead to jobs. This is central for those seeking experience to improve their employability outcomes; experience providers need to focus more on what employers are really looking for when hiring staff. This could be a mix of ‘in the field’ and ‘virtual’ learning, to ensure that participants get the absolute most out of their experience when they are there. For example, if participants are to be radio-tracking and analysing their data, perhaps request that participants do a particular GIS course before they arrive so they can help to analyse the data they collect in person. These courses are often free online. During their stay, or when they arrive back home, provide them access to training in key employability skills such as writing applications, preparing for interviews along with project management, fundraising, communications. Conservation Careers can help with the latter. If you’d like to explore how we can help you, please get in touch.
  • Work to a code. An industry-wide code for experience providers could help improve standards, trust and impact within the sector.

Podcast | Exploitation in Volunteering

Want to hear more about this subject? Check out our podcast below where we explore the topic of exploitation in volunteering with Dr Fernando Mateos-González of Bioblogía and Dr Stephanie Schuttler from the world of Fancy Scientist.




You can listen and subscribe to the Conservation Careers Podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher using the following links, or search for ‘conservation careers’ and you’ll find us!

Extra Resources

Do you need an overview of how to get a conservation job? Are you unsure what your next career step should be? Start here:

  • Free video training | How to get a Conservation Job
    A free video training series for students, job-seekers or career-switchers, teaching you how to quickly, and easily start your career as a professional wildlife conservationist. You’ll learn the golden rule for getting started, the key mistakes to avoid, and get your biggest questions answered.
  • Free Ultimate Guides | Downloads to get your career on the right track
    Our Ultimate Guides give you in-depth answers to your top questions about working in conservation. From the 15 key conservation job types, to the top paid and free internships, to how to apply for jobs, you’ll find them all here.

Are you ready to start looking for internships or volunteering opportunities? Check out these resources: