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11 Tips for Choosing a Volunteer Organization

Volunteer teach children in Namibia
Volunteer teaching children in Namibia. Photo courtesy of Worldteach.

The number of international volunteer programs is growing, and it can be difficult to make your way through all the websites, reviews, and brochures describing the myriad of options. But it is worth taking the time to carefully consider the various programs available. Many past volunteers offer the following advice: “Don’t just select the first program that comes along, as I did. Investigate the different options.” The following tips will help you heed their advice and make an informed decision about which international volunteer program is right for you.

  1. Assess your interests. Before you start exploring different volunteer options, take the time to explore your own interests. Consider the major issues in choosing a program such as where you want to go and for how long, the type of work you want to do, your living situation, and whether you want a rural or urban placement.

  2. Think about your special needs and aspirations. Consider the various components of your identity — including age, ability, race, and sexual orientation — and identify the factors that are most important to you. Also think about your vision of volunteering. How much staff support do you need? What are you looking for in your daily work environment? Do you want to volunteer alone or in a group?

  3. Create a vision. List the characteristics you are looking for in an organization. Include logistics such as costs and length of volunteer stay as well as more philosophical issues such as the organization’s approach to development. Since you probably won’t find an organization that matches your vision perfectly, circle the qualities that are most important to you.

  4. Refer to the listing of organizations. For example, if your goal is to work in Africa for a year or more in the educational field, create your own list of groups that have all at your specified characteristics. See our section of volunteer program options.

  5. Begin your research. Conduct preliminary research by visiting the organizations’ websites. Also try a general web search to find “unofficial” information.

  6. Narrow your list. Figure out the top two to four organizations. If you don’t find any groups that meet your specifications, you may want to broaden your search by focusing on one or two primary factors to judge organizations.

  7. Create a list of questions. Based on any concerns you have from the websites, your personal values, and any special needs, create a list of questions for staff and or alumni. You may also want refer to the many review sites online for reference, though do so carefully to ensure that their is no bias.

  8. Contact the organization to ask your questions. These days, email may be the best way to communicate. Ask your questions and request contact information for program alumni as well as information regarding the application process. Verify that the organizations still operate in the country where you want to go, and note any changes in fees or programs.

  9. Contact alumni. Ask them hard questions about their experiences and try to get contact information for people who they volunteered with who might be more critical of the program than they are.

  10. Choose. Select the organization that matches your interests and aspirations most closely and begin the application process.

  11. Get it in writing. No matter how nice the people you talk to are, get a written document explaining fees, benefits, insurance issues, and refund policies.
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