Hosting volunteers is awesome, and although it’s not for everybody, we think it’s a great experience for many people living on a farm, homestead or off grid property. I’m a big fan of working with volunteers; I’ve written about why hosting volunteers is such a good idea, about how to kickstart your project with the help of volunteers, I’ve shared some tips on how to make your volunteering experience a success, and I’m currently working on an e-book for (future) hosts.
However, working volunteers has a few downsides as well, and it's time to talk about those.
The selection process (pros & cons)
Pro: The selection process is probably the most exciting part of hosting volunteers.
I love scrolling through lists of volunteers from all over the globe (with or without pictures), read dozens of profiles, and once we get in touch with somebody I like, I can ask them countless questions to make sure they're a good match.
Websites like Workaway and HelpX have a good review system, where volunteers leave reviews for hosts and vice versa; we can read about what helpers did in other places, before agreeing for them to come to us.
Con: the process of selecting volunteers takes up a lot of time (if done thoroughly).
Not all volunteers are good communicators (or maybe you're the one who doesn't e-mail them back right away); that says nothing about their willingness to help out or their farming skills though. Sometimes it takes a bit of time (and writing back and forth) before we agree on dates for them to come and help us out... In some cases, that's just because they're currently volunteering at a project in the middle of nowhere with no access to internet.
Board & Lodgings
One of the main elements of hosting volunteers, is to provide them with board and lodgings; this means providing them with a safe and comfortable place to sleep and spend their time off. This can be a bedroom in your house, a loft in your barn or (in our case) an old restored donkey shed. We lived in our "Maset" for about five very happy months in total; it’s an amazing off-grid experience. Living in the Maset means living with nature; using a composting toilet, showering when the sun heats up the water, watching the stars from your bed at night.
Con: providing our helpers with a bedroom (or the Maset) means that during that period of time, nobody else can come and stay with us. We recently decided to rent out the Maset for the summer months; that means we have no space for volunteers to stay for now.
Pro: working with volunteers is a whole lot cheaper than paying people to do the work.
Instead of paying them a fixed amount per hour, we provide our helpers with a comfy bed, good food and an unforgettable experience (in exchange for just a few hours of help per day). No doubt that on the whole, it's a win-win for both parties.
Con: hosting volunteers is not free.
Board and lodgings might cost a bit, to an extend - picking them up and dropping them off should be counted too. The biggest cost of volunteers can be put under "accidents happen" though: machinery breaks, tools go missing, jobs get done differently than we intended to and we may have to buy the materials again.
Con: don't expect the same level of commitment from a volunteer as from a paid worker.
In many cases we've been lucky so far, hosting volunteers who really wanted to see a job well done. We've also seen (and mostly, heard of) volunteers quitting a job because it was too hard, too boring or just not what they expected. If you really need a job well done, consider paying somebody to do it... or do it yourself.
Hosting volunteers is time-saving and time-consuming
Pro: Volunteers can be an invaluable source of help once they've settled in. Once they know where to find what, how things work around the house, and where we've planted what in the garden, then most of them can work quite independently.
Con: Welcoming volunteers to the homestead can be very time-consuming. We'll prepare and clean a room for them, pick them up from a bus or train station, show them around the house, the property, the local town; we take time out of our day to get them started on a new job. Even with skilled helpers, we often show them exactly how we want things done.
Can be pro or con: Some volunteers are super tidy and clean, and they’re hardly any extra work while they’re here (or they'll do some of the work for me, cleaning the kitchen during their time off). Others leave their stuff everywhere, forget to put away their tools after work, or leave food out for the animals to find. Some offer to help out preparing meals, setting the table and doing the dishes afterwards; others will only come for dinner after the third time they're called, and make themselves scarce before the matter of washing up even comes up. Those are things that you can't pick up from reading a profile or having an e-mail conversation; reviews from former hosts might work, but mostly it's a matter of talking about rules and expectations before they arrive. If it's a hotel with room service they're looking for, then our place is not for them.
Can be pro or con: when we're working with a group of people, we sometimes spend more time supervising, planning and caring for them than actually doing real work. In some cases, that's not a bad thing (some people prefer the supervising to getting their hands dirty) - and it's often super efficient. However, at times I'll find myself running around (getting everybody started with work, shopping, cooking for the whole group, cleaning) and wishing I were in the garden with them.
Hosting means sharing your life with others
Pro: There is something very special about sharing your life with volunteers, even if it’s just for a little while. Most of our volunteers have a totally different background - whether they come from a different culture, a peculiar kind of upbringing, make delicious food, have contrasting views on the world, or just have some very weird habits.
Con: You're sharing your life with total strangers... and it's hard finding the right balance.
We have been in our house for almost a year now, and I realised today we've not been alone (without either volunteers or overnight guests) for longer than 6 days. Some people love having people around and would rather live in a community, but that's just not for us; although most of our friends know us as sociable and friendly, we really need some time alone at times. Some helpers will naturally make themselves at home, raiding our fridge and spending their time on our couch staring at their phones or having Skype chats with their girlfriend; we've learned that it's necessary to set boundaries so we can still feel at home in our own house. Still, some people don't seem to learn to knock. Others will barely acknowledge us outside working hours, spending their free time far away from us and sometimes even declining lunch (the main meal, and most sociable moment of the day) with us. That is not what we signed up for either...
We think sharing our lives with our helpers is great, but sometimes we find ourselves in need of some time off. A day where I can just go feed the chickens in my pyjamas while Axel takes his morning coffee outside in his underwear. Where we can decide to not cook a healthy meal for a day, but just get anything edible for the fridge at any time of the day or night. And leaving the washing up for the next day. A day where nobody will accidentally let dogs with muddy paws inside, or come to use the kitchen just when I'm in the middle of baking a complicated cake.
A holiday at home, so to say.
Volunteers can become friends for life... or not
Pro: Volunteers have a very special status; they’re not long time friends, not family members, not paid guests either. They are total strangers you agreed to let into your life - and in most situations, it’s an awesome experience. In many cases, we developed a special bond, as you do when you share a few weeks to several months of your life with somebody. We stayed in touch with quite a few (long live Facebook!) and even hope to visit them some day - or at least get their tips and recommendations for when it's our time to go travel.
Con: In certain cases, there's just no "click". We find ourselves lost in translation, sometimes literally; with two of the three couples we consider a bad experience, we discovered (too late) that they didn't understand half of what we said. A few of our best experiences didn't understand half of what we said either, but then it was just a case of speaking slower, trying another language or use sign language ;-)
Have you hosted volunteers on your farm or homestead? Did you experience the same pros and cons as we did, or did you have other issues? Please tell us all about it in the comments!