It is not only Mercy Ships who asks its volunteers to pay their own way, as this article from the Guardian Abroad points out. In fact the whole volunteering thing has become an industry in itself, where charitable minded individuals can pay an ethical travel company to organise their volunteering “experience” for them. Such companies “sell” life changing experiences, and make a profit doing so.
Mercy Ships has not yet got to the point of trying to make a profit out of its volunteers. And for all difficulties that some Mercy Ships volunteers have had over the years, I would have to say that Mercy Ships does a fairly good job of looking after its people, in many ways. In fact, one of the main justifications for using a ship as a platform for voluntary work in Africa is that it provides relatively high class accommodation for volunteers who often do not have the time or energy to spend lots of time acclimatising to the culture of the place where they are working. This is good for Mercy Ships because it means that it can get more productive work out of its volunteers. It is good for the volunteers because it means they generally spend less time worrying about the heat, the local food, the local diseases, and the many other hazards inherent in a trip to West Africa, not least of which is the security issue.
Mercy Ships does all this “at cost.” That is, they charge the volunteers what it costs to house and feed them. The cost of the infrastructure – the ship, that is – is covered by the organisation’s other fund raising activities. Of course, the volunteers do not need to pay for the services provided by the support staff on the ship, simply because the support staff are also volunteers, paying for themselves. This might seem unfair to the support staff, but the good news is that it means that you do not have to be a doctor or nurse to volunteer for Mercy Ships, which is ostensibly a medical charity. It means people from many walks of life can give their time and talent to helping the poor of Africa.
One wonders where Mercy Ships would come on a scale of “value for money” when it comes to volunteering. That would be a hard question to answer. There’s a study for some enterprising person interested in the emerging world of ethical travel.