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Volunteer Vacations to Fit

How to Select the Best-Suited Organization

The fact that there are hundreds of organizations that can help make your dream volunteer vacations reality is both a blessing and a curse. How do you choose from all the great options? Here are ten questions that everyone should ask before signing on with an organization.

1. What work will you be doing? What skills do I need to have beforehand? Are there opportunities to develop skills that I don’t have but want to gain? Will I be doing the same work every day, or will I take on a variety of tasks? If organizations can’t give you specifics, they should at least be able to give you examples of the kinds of projects you’ll be involved with.

2. Where will you go? Will the project take me to a place that I want to go? Don’t just think in terms of a country or region; find out specifically where a project is located and learn as much as you can about that place.

3. What are the goals of the work being done? Do I have the same values as the organization? Many volunteer vacation organizations have religious or political agendas. You don’t want to end up promoting a cause, directly or indirectly, that you don’t believe in, so make sure you read the organization’s mission statement and ask careful, pointed questions of the program’s organizers and administrators.

4. What do past volunteers say about their experiences with this organization? Beware of any organization that won’t put you in touch with past volunteers. Solid, reputable organizations should have a list handy of past volunteers who will tell you both the good and bad points of the organization. Beware of any past volunteers who won’t say anything negative or criticize the organization in any way—every organization has its flaws, and you’d rather know about these in advance.

5. What are the living conditions? Organizations house volunteers everywhere from tents to private homes and from 4-star hotels to youth hostels. Think about what you want and can afford for housing options, and make sure that you select an organization that meets your standards. Don’t assume that sites have electricity or even running water.

6. What about housekeeping? How much of the cooking, cleaning, filing, and so on will I be expected to do? Few people go on volunteer vacations to do mundane tasks that they have to do at home. But keep in mind that this work is needed for the smooth operation of the organization; most volunteer vacation organizations run on a shoestring budget and can’t hire someone to take care of these things. They often divide routine work among all of the employees and volunteers, from top to bottom. It’s important that you understand what is expected of you in this regard.

7. How much does it cost to participate? What is included in a program fee? Unless you’re willing to commit to at least a year of work, have a lot of experience in a given field, or are a highly-trained professional such as a doctor or dentist, odds are that you will have to pay for at least some of your volunteer vacation. Program fees can range from less than one $100 per week to thousands of dollars. Be sure to take into account any “hidden” costs, such as health insurance, visas, inoculations, gratuities, airport transfers, etc. Organizations should be up-front with you about how much it will cost to volunteer with them, and many will offer tips on how to fundraise if necessary.

8. When does the project take place, how long does it last, and does it fit with my schedule? Some volunteer vacation organizations offer programs year-round, with flexible start and end dates. Others only operate at certain times of year or on set schedules. Make sure your calendar fits with what the organization offers.

9. Will I work on my own or in a group? What is the profile of the average volunteer? What are the motivations of the other people in the group? Your fellow volunteers can either make or break your experience. Even if the volunteer experience isn’t exactly what you thought it would be, you may still come home with wonderful friends and memories; conversely, being mismatched with a group with which you have nothing in common and have a hard time bonding can spoil an otherwise excellent experience. Of course, you won’t know exactly who is going or how well you’ll mesh with them, but knowing something about the type of person who usually joins a specific organization can help ensure that you have a positive group dynamic. For example, you may want to look for groups that cater to people in your own age range.

10. What kind of training or orientation is offered? Some organizations offer in-depth training and orientation programs; others may offer just some predeparture materials or a hearty pat on the back before you dive into a volunteer position. The level of orientation and training needed is really up to the individual volunteer and the specific experience, but the more out of your element you will be—in terms of the work, the culture, the language, or other factors—the more you will need training and orientation, preferably in the country of service.

By considering these issues, asking the right questions, and being honest about your needs, desires, and expectations, you can increase the likelihood of having the best possible experience on your volunteer vacation.