A Penny For Your Thoughts

Supply and demand. That is how most vacation packages are sold. If there are a few openings and a lot of interest, price goes up. If there are many openings and not much interest, price goes down.

Earthwatch Expeditions are neither vacation packages, nor tourism trips. If you want to hug a koala for a photo op, Earthwatch may not be for you. But if you want to traverse the Great Otway National Park while conducting valuable research on koala habitats to understand the impact of climate change on their population, you might find Earthwatch to be a unique opportunity. As a result of this difference, the way Earthwatch arrives at cost for its more than 50 expeditions all over the world varies significantly from how the travel sector creates its prices. It’s a science of its own.

Earthwatchers Conserving Koala Country in Australia

Earthwatchers Conserving Koala Country in Australia

The Average Cost is Anything But Average
A standard length Earthwatch Expedition ranges from $825 to $4,675 – that’s £525 to £2,550 for those of you in the United Kingdom. This cost, called a “contribution” since Earthwatch is a non-profit, is in many cases tax-deductible (in the U.S. at least). Thus, the true cost to Earthwatchers can be 25% to 33% less, come tax time, depending on what tax bracket you fall in, and assuming you itemize your donations.

Breaking Down an Expedition
About 57% of the contribution goes as a Field Grant to the scientists managing your Expedition. This varies based on the duration of the expedition and the research being conducted.

Typical costs include supplies, equipment, research permits, rent, utilities, and the hiring of local cooks or drivers, as well as food, accommodation, and local transport costs. On Snorkeling to Protect Reefs in The Bahamas for instance, some of the costs include transect tapes to map and measure coral, laptops, satellite imagery, fish tags, ID books, and flow meters.

On one wildlife project, I was surprised to learn that a set of radio collars to track large animals costs $6500!

Tracking Jaguar With a Radio Collar in Brazil

Tracking Jaguar With a Radio Collar in Brazil

Earthwatch costs incorporate much more than a traveler would get from a tour operator. Still, there is an expectation from participants that their contributions should be similar.

We are constantly walking an incredibly fine line: Trying to keep the cost of participation accessible to the public, versus not undermining the research itself or the amenities for the public volunteers. Earthwatch is constantly fundraising to increase support for its projects, thereby keeping volunteers’ contribution to the overall research costs at a manageable level.

In some instances, a portion of Field Grant costs are underwritten by a corporate sponsor or generous donor who contributes money to help fund the expedition costs. For instance, if $10,000 is underwritten on a project, a portion of that can be used to offset the volunteers’ contribution, or to fund other elements of the researcher’s project, such as much needed equipment or additional staff.

20% is spent on safety and welfare measures.
It is critical to conduct political, meteorological, and physical risk assessments, as well as create and manage health and safety procedures, 24/7. Earthwatch must also assure research scientists are fully trained on these measures.

12% is spent for Earthwatch to promote and provide information on Expeditions.
The more volunteers who join a project, the more successful all aspects of that project will be – from the team dynamic, to the amount of data collected. Our website and Annual Research Guide are two of the key ways in which we reach the public.

8% is spent on preparing volunteers for their Expedition.
This includes helping volunteers choose and sign up for an expedition, collecting and carefully reviewing each volunteer’s forms, preparing and providing expedition Briefings before participants head into the field, answering all volunteer questions, ranging from travel itineraries to clothes to bring, and working to ensure Earthwatchers are thoroughly prepared for their Expedition experience.

3% is spent on medical and evacuation insurance, travel insurance, and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions of travel.
For instance, if participants leave a carbon footprint from jet fuel used to travel to an expedition, we offset that carbon by investing in wind farms, biomass energy, or other community projects.

New research projects have challenges of their own – and Earthwatch often introduces up to dozen new research projects per year. It typically costs between $45,000 and $80,000 to start up a new project. Since contribution costs typically do not cover all costs related to starting a new project, Earthwatch must actively raise money from other sources to cover set-up costs so they are not passed to our volunteers.

Discovering What Else Goes Into the Cost of an Expedition
To solve some of the mysteries that still remained for me personally tied to Expedition contributions, I spoke with Stacey Monty, a Business Planner at Earthwatch who oversees Expedition budgets. I asked Stacey what some of her biggest challenges were when finalizing the budgets with our scientists.

“We set our volunteer contributions based on the overall research costs, spread over how many people we expect to join. Many of our expedition costs are fixed, meaning they are the same no matter how many people join a team. For example: we cannot buy one-third of a boat, house, laptop, or flight to bring research staff to the site. So if fewer volunteers sign up, there is actually greater cost per person. Predicting how many volunteers will join next season’s teams is the most challenging piece of the puzzle. We look at historic volunteer bookings, changes to the research, travel trends, and geo-politics. For instance, if an area gets bad press and the public perceives instability, we will decrease our projections of volunteers.

As another example, if we decrease the number of days of an expedition due to volunteer feedback, we may assume there will be greater public interest, that we’ll get more people, and that we can possibly charge less overall.

Also, because of the nature of field work, it can be hard to predict costs. Sometimes researchers aren’t exactly sure what they want to do until they see results from the prior field season, or complete a given activity. This is especially true when costing a first-year project. Project budgets can change quite a lot in the second year.”

Earthwatchers Measuring Terrapins with a Large Caliper

Earthwatchers Measuring Terrapins with a Large Caliper

Since there are so many projections in developing final costs, it struck me that there might be risk. I was curious to what extent.

“There are many variables in play when it comes to determining costs and setting a contribution that will cover those costs – while still being affordable from the public’s perspective. If we don’t recruit as many people as we thought we were going to recruit Earthwatch suffers financially. Hopefully, this is offset by programs where we recruit more volunteers than we expected.”

At the end of the day, demand clearly still plays a role. Potential Earthwatchers can choose from other volunteering options during their time off. The hope is that they recognize that a contribution to Earthwatch has a real impact on environmental questions being asked by researchers all over the world , will provide an experience of a lifetime, and is worth every penny.

Those wishing to support Earthwatch with a contribution may do so at http://www.earthwatch.org/getinvolved.