What I re-learnt about “volunteering” in a hostel in Costa Rica [The Americas – #chronicles 2022]

I’m currently on a 6-month sabbatical and even though this is not a research sabbatical and I’m definitely not working, I think it’s fair to say that when you love what you do, you’re constantly reflecting on it.

That’s what happened in Costa Rica.

During my time in Costa Rica I stayed at a hostel in Manuel Antonio which “involved volunteers” or “was run by volunteers”. I honestly don’t know which term to use.

A lot of travellers who wish to make some money whilst travelling use a website called “Workway”. I do not know enough about workway to make a full informed observation on how it’s run, but the way they describe themselves is: “The leading community for cultural exchange, working holidays and volunteering in 170 countries.”

As a lot of leaders of volunteering will know, there are significant differences between “volunteering”, “voluntary work”, “volunteerism”, etc., not to mention the differences between what is considered a “good” volunteering opportunity or a “bad” volunteering opportunity.

But without wanting to go down that specific rabbit whole and knowing that there are probably amazing, reliable and well-thought through opportunities within Workway website, I have my own thoughts on this specific one.

*note: these are my thoughts based on my experience in the UK, and considering UK employment law, good practice policies that are applicable in the UK and (as far as I’m aware) in a variety of others countries across the world, and my own experience as a volunteering manager and a volunteer myself.

For one week I was able to observe the dynamics of a hostel that “integrates” volunteers in the way that it’s run, and it gave me a lot to reflect on.

To note:

  • This is just an opinion about a specific place and not a representation of everything that happens in others places
  • As far as I’m aware, this specific hostel is not a charity or a not-for-profit organisation
  • The hostel in itself actually works really closely with the local community, fostered puppies before they are adopted and supported local businesses, which was fantastic to see
  • The owner really values the integration of foreigners within the local community (she is not from Costa Rica) and always gave me loads of tips on things to do with local organisations that needed help

As soon as I arrived I loved the vibe and how the staff (who were actually “volunteers”) brought everyone together, how kind they were, and how they helped you navigate the local area etc. The longer I stayed the closer I got to all of them and the more aware I became of how things worked. I was able to observe the day-to-day running of the hostel, understand the tasks that different people were doing, how the communication happened between the hostel owner and the volunteers, and how the “benefits” of being a volunteer actually worked.

So, I did find some things a “little bit” weird:

  • “Volunteers” did “volunteer” an exact specific number of hours per week in exchange for accommodation and a couple of meals
    • This sounds like the right thing to do, but each night at the hostel has a “specific cost” associated to it which means that this a direct swap of “work” for “accommodation”, which can be seen as not genuine volunteering.
  • “Volunteers” had a rota with specific days and times they had to do every week. If they didn’t, they had to pay a certain amount to stay at the hostel, just like the guests.
    • Once again, this sounds just like the right thing to do, but we need to be careful with only being able to run an organisation (hostel) with volunteers. If this is the case, and if they HAVE to be there, then they should be paid as staff, and not volunteers.
    • Volunteers are not “unpaid staff”. If an activity needs to be delivered, then staff should be paid to do it. The definition of volunteering includes that there’s no contractual obligation on either side, which means that a volunteer can simply not turn up (and we have to accept that).
    • Volunteers (just like anyone else) make mistakes and “having words with them” in a negative way will not help the situation. The same way they’re supporting the organisation, it’s important to support them in understanding the impact they have within the organisation and why we love for them to support us in delivering an activity. We want them involved because they’re important, not because they’re desperately needed to keep “the organisation running”.
  • “Volunteers” did all the “housekeeping” tasks, from changing the beds, cleaning the rooms, to making breakfast to all the guests, running some tours and activities.
    • The amount of value that volunteers brought to the activities they delivered was huge!!! Their cultural differences, their enthusiasm and motivation was like nothing I’ve ever seen. But all the housekeeping tasks (in my opinion) should be the responsibility of paid staff. Volunteers can support with these tasks, but they should not be solely responsible for doing something that literally keeps the hostel running.
  • Miscommunication between everyone involved
    • I experienced first-hand when there was a couple of miscommunications and one of the volunteers was not able to deliver one of the activities (a waterfall tour they had not even trained to do!), and was “told off” and put under loads of stress for not being able to do the activity.
    • There is a big difference between involving volunteers or working with paid staff. You can not demand that volunteers attend an activity and you certainly can not “punish them” for not showing up.
  • There didn’t seem to be a lot of awareness of health and safety for volunteers (or guests!), including when they were leading tours and the risk that it sometimes involved.
    • We did a waterfall tour when a storm started and which was run by volunteers. We almost didn’t make it back because the river bank flooded and we had to cross a river with water to our waists that almost dragged me a few times down the river.
    • When the volunteers spoke with the owner about this and how they didn’t believe this was safe to be done in this way, their suggestions was not taken on board.

A few last thoughts:

  • You can be a great organisation that does awesome work and still need to re-think and adapt the way you involve volunteers in what you do.
  • Volunteers bring a lot of value to your organisation! In this case, it included cooking classes, yoga classes, puppy fostering care, innovative breakfast etc., but you need to care for them, you need to support their development and be kind!
  • Volunteers bring people together. They’re not just part of the community, they are the community. When we start to truly understand this, we will lead and guide our organisations differently.
  • Volunteers have a better understanding of your community than we sometimes do. Be open, listen to them and integrate their knowledge in what you’re doing. It will be a win-win situation. They will feel heard, valued and respected, and you will be better equipped to deliver your mission

Published by Mariana Vieira da Rocha

"I think it's perfectly acceptable and rather admirable to be moderately delusional"

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: