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Getting down to the details: Questions to ask

Whether you've decided to go abroad with a volunteer-sending program or are going on your own, there are lots of questions to ask the organization where you'll be volunteering. Here are some to get you started (please keep in mind, however, that you may be able to answer many of these questions via your own research of the program or organization, including visiting their website, reading any materials provided by them, and gathering advice from former volunteers):

About your role as a volunteer

  • What is my volunteer position? What tasks will I be doing?
  • What level of physical activity should I prepared for (e.g. heavy lifting, lots of walking, etc.) It's important that you be honest with yourself here regarding the types of volunteer positions that are a good fit for you given your health and well-being.
  • What skills should I have in order to be an effective volunteer?
  • What kind of training and/or orientation will I receive?
  • Are there any particular tools or project supplies I should bring with me? (If going with a volunteer-sending organization or program), what kind of support will I receive while I'm abroad? How often will I be required to check in with them? Will I have visits from program staff?
  • Will I be interacting with locals as a volunteer or largely working behind the scenes?
  • Will other international volunteers be onsite? How many?
  • What will my hours be as a volunteer?
  • Will I have free time or days off to travel?
  • Are there planned excursions (especially for those going with a volunteer-sending organization or p program)? Will there be additional costs for these?
  • Where is the volunteer project located? What is the work environment like?
  • Who will I be working with? Will I be largely working independently or with a team?
  • What language resources will be available to me? Will onsite staff speak my language? Are there classes or a translator available?
  • What costs should I be prepared for? (If going with a volunteer-sending organization or program, ask what is included in your program fees, e.g. airfare, housing, in-country transportation, insurance, meals, etc. Also, consider asking for a budget or breakdown of where your fees will go and ask if all or part of your fees will be tax deductible)
  • Are there any security or health concerns I should know about?
  • Are there vaccinations required or recommended for the area I will be living in?
  • Do I need to take malaria prophylaxis? Should I bring any particular health-related supplies (mosquito nets, water purifiers, etc.)?
  • Are there any physical or cultural barriers you think I might experience based on my gender identity, physical mobility, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, etc.?
  • Can you accommodate special needs like dietary restrictions, allergies, physical mobility, etc.?
  • Is your organization family-friendly? Do you accept youth volunteers?
  • Can couples volunteer together? If they are married, unmarried, GLBTQ, etc.?
  • What is the timeline for the volunteer project or position?
  • How will my work as a volunteer be sustained after I leave?
  • What expectations does your organization have of me once I've returned home?
  • Does your organization offer tools and resources for returned volunteers? An alumni community?

About living abroad

  • Is housing provided? If yes:
    • What type of housing is it?
    • Will I have my own room?
    • How many people will I be living with?
    • If my housing is with a host family, how are they selected? Are they affiliated with the organization?
    • What should I expect (e.g. what are the shower/toilet facilities like, will I have access to electricity, is a computer or internet access available, etc.)?
    • What should I bring (e.g. bedding, toiletries, etc.)?
  • If housing is not provided:
    • What type of housing is available in the area?
    • What local and/or online resources are available for arranging housing?
    • Is there a place to stay temporarily upon arrival (e.g. hostel or homestay) so that I can set up housing once I get there?
    • How much should I expect to pay for housing?
    • What type(s) of housing should I expect?
    • What should I bring (e.g. is bedding generally included, etc.)?
  • Can or will I be living near my volunteer project? If not, will I have access to transportation?
  • Will there be day-to-day tasks that I'm responsible for (for example, cooking or cleaning if you're staying in a volunteer camp or homestay)?
  • Are meals provided? Can you accommodate dietary needs and restrictions?
  • Are there local meal options for vegetarians, vegans, etc.?
  • Does your organization offer any type of local survival guide or orientation that covers such things as how to use transit, find cheap food, avoid unsafe areas, etc.?
  • How can friends or family contact me while abroad?
  • What are your emergency plans or procedures?
  • Is there a local doctor, clinic, or hospital I can go to in case of emergency?

About the organization

  • How old is the program or organization? How long have you worked with international volunteers?
  • What is the organization's mission?
  • (If going with a volunteer-sending organization,) how long has your organization partnered with this local volunteer site? What impact have your volunteers had for their organization?
  • (If going solo,) do you regularly accept international volunteers?
  • How many international volunteers have you accepted (if going solo) or sent (if going with a volunteer-sending organization)?
  • What age, nationality, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. are your volunteers?
  • Why are international volunteers needed for this work? (Make sure they know the benefits both for you and the community.)
  • What do you think are the largest challenges for international volunteers at this organization? Is there anything I could do in advance to prepare for them?
  • Do you engage local volunteers? (This is an important question both for cultural exchange—working side by side offers rich opportunities to learn more about one another's cultures and lived experiences—and sustainability, as local volunteers provide continuity as international volunteers come and go. Finally, involving local volunteers also ensures that the human and social capital developed by volunteers stays at least in part in the community.)
  • How are local citizens involved in determining what projects to do? What role do local organizations play in this process?
  • Who will volunteer projects benefit? What are the goals of the project?
  • How do you match volunteers to projects, both in terms of skills and interest?
  • Do you need the skills and experience I can bring to the project?
  • Are staff members local or international? (If going with a volunteer-sending organization or program), are staff members part of your organization?
  • How is your organization funded?
  • Do you have partnerships or relationships with any government organizations? International NGOs? Faith communities? Universities?
  • Does your organization have any specific political or religious affiliation?
  • Do you have liability insurance for volunteers? Do you provide evacuation or medical insurance? Do I need to carry any specific type of volunteer or emergency insurance?

Last, but by no means least, be sure to consider some of the ethical questions of volunteering with their organization. Check out our section on The Ethics of International Volunteerism. Also, be sure to read the excellent Ethical Volunteering Guide by Dr Kate Simpson for additional questions to ask (e.g. what are their policies on eco and ethical tourism?)

Found answers to your questions, decided where to volunteer, and are now ready to start planning? Keep reading to learn more about what you should Know Before You Go as well as steps for Getting Ready to Go.

Our sincere thanks to our advisory board, especially Joss Ellams with Cross-Cultural Solutions, Samantha Wolthuis with American Jewish World Service, Katie Mulembe with Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, Nina Lawrence with WorldTeach, and Nicole Sheldon-Desjardins with Hostelling International for contributing questions to this list!