Asking yourself the questions listed in the previous section will help you get a clearer picture of the type of voluntary work that would best suit your skills and interests, as well as an idea of the conditions under which you would like to live and work while overseas.
These answers, and your answers to the questions below, can help you choose the most suitable organisation for you to volunteer with. The following is a list of possible questions to ask any organisation:
1: What are the organisation’s main aims and goals?
These will be set out in the organisation’s mission statement and will help to provide you with a quick overview of its ethos. The searchable database of volunteer opportunities contains a section on ‘stated missions’ that will assist you with getting some idea of what the organisation is aiming to achieve and the methods it is using to do so. Contact the organisation to ask any more specific questions that you have, and read their other promotional literature carefully (leaflets, brochures, websites, etc).
2: Is the organisation non-profit or for-profit?
Establishing this at the outset is important. Be aware of the very occasional for-profit organisation who ‘masquerades’ as a charity. If unsure, give the organisation a ring. Be sceptical of an organisation who doesn’t answer this question directly – as most will.
Whether you decide to volunteer with a non-profit or for-profit organisation is an individual choice, but ultimately you are still looking to assess an organisation based on the way they manage and organise the volunteer placement and what type of relationship they have with the host community. Bear in mind that just because an organisation is non-profit does not necessarily mean they are working in line with good practice. So whether the organisation is for-profit or non-profit, asking them the other questions in this list is vital.
3: If the organisation is Irish, is it a signatory to the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice?
Any Irish organisation, whether they send short-term or long-term volunteers, whether they are a charity, non-profit or for-profit, is eligible to become a signatory to the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice.
If an organisation is signed up to the Code, then as an enquirer you have a set of standards (principles of the Code) by which to gauge them. You can ask them whether they have completed an audit and what systems they have in place to review and improve their volunteer programme.
If an organisation isn’t signed up to the Code of Good Practice ask them why not and what strategies they put in place to ensure that the volunteer experience is positive for both the volunteer and the host community. It is still worthwhile assessing them based on the principles of good practice outlined in the Code. More information about the Code can be found here.
4: What selection criteria does the organisation have when choosing volunteers?
Does the organisation require that volunteers have specific educational or professional qualifications, and, if so, do you meet these requirements? Do they have other requirements, such as age limits, particular religious beliefs, previous work experience, and so on? Again, some of these questions will be answered in the directory, in the ‘educational/professional qualifications’ and ‘other requirements’ sections.
If the organisation does not require volunteers to have specific educational or professional experience that you think would be necessary for the job, ask them why this is. For example, will the training they provide equip you with the necessary skills?
5: What is the involvement of the host community in the project?
It is very important to establish the level of involvement of the host community in the project. Key questions to consider include:
- Why has the project been set up?
- Who requested that it be set up? For example, was the organisation approached by the local community and asked for their assistance, or did they identify the need themselves?
- Who asked that foreign volunteers be involved in the project?
- How involved are the communities or people that the project aims to help in making decisions about the aims and objectives of the programme?
Asking these questions will help you find out whether non-local volunteers are actually required for a project. Occasionally expatriate volunteers can be ‘free labour’. Volunteers therefore may displace local labour, as a small organisation or poorly resourced public service might not be able to say no to ‘free labour’, even if it is not ideally suited to their needs. As mentioned previously, there can also be a danger that organisations will view foreign volunteers as ‘funding bait’, to help secure money from overseas organisations.
“A lot of volunteering we observed seemed to be more about the Western charities looking good (and staying in existence) than really doing what was needed on the ground. There seemed to me to be an over emphasis on teaching English in Cambodia when there were clearly much greater needs that should have been addressed. But finding volunteer English teachers was easy and cheap whereas finding trained personnel to deal effectively with the real problems is harder.” Anne, volunteer in Laos and Thailand, 2004
6: Is there a job description available?
Ask if you can get a job description that sets out the work you will be undertaking, the hours that you will be working, who you will be working with and the expectations that the organisation has about what you should achieve in your role. This will help to give you a better idea of the exact aims of the work and of the amount of time each week that you will be expected to commit to the project. Former volunteers have highlighted the need for volunteers to treat their placements as they would any paid, professional job: going through the job description will help you to prepare for your role. The presence of a detailed job description may also help to ensure that your work has been properly planned by the organisation and that there is a need for your presence. This of course shouldn’t stop you being flexible while on the job, but is rather a means to ensure that the organisation is serious and to give you some idea of what you will be doing.
“I was left to my own devices in the country. Obviously I had some help but there were many days where I had no work at all and with a little more organisation by the in-country coordinators I could have spent many hours working with disadvantaged children. They did not have enough projects organised for all the volunteers.” Lynn, volunteer in Brazil, 2004
7: What are the conditions in which volunteers live and work?
Using the previous list of questions, raise any important issues with the organisation at this stage. Ask questions in relation to accommodation, the facilities in the area in which you will be based, the availability of transport, and any major health issues that you might need to consider. Find out whether the organisation provides insurance for volunteers, or whether this is something you need to organise yourself, and if it is the latter ask their advice on that.
8: Can the organisation put you in touch with previous volunteers?
Ask whether you can be put in contact with former volunteers who have worked on the project, or in the area, or even just with the organisation. As the use of our testimonials show, these people can provide useful advice on the work with which you may be involved, the ethos of the organisation, and what they found useful to bring with them when they went overseas.
9: Can the organisation give you precise contact details for your chosen programme?
Some organisations arrange placements and projects and then fill the vacancies, while others may wait for participants to sign up and then find relevant placements. The former system tends to produce much better projects than the latter. A good organisation with well-run programmes should know, and therefore be able to let you know several months before you travel, where you will be going and what exactly you will be doing. If they cannot or will not give you these details, remember that hastily arranged programmes can be disorganised, leaving both volunteers and local hosts with unclear expectations. Ask for specific contact details and then, if possible, contact the placement yourself and see what they expect of you, whether you bring anything particularly useful, whether there is anything specific you can do to prepare, and most of all, whether they know you are coming.
Some organisations may claim not to want to give you contact details until you have paid a placement fee, worried that you will just organise the placement independently. However, if they have proper relationships with the host organisations, then the host will not be prepared to cut them out. So be wary of organisations that make this excuse, as it may be because they do not set up their placements until after you have paid for the placement.
10: Does the organisation provide pre-programme training and post-programme support for volunteers?
Find out what type of training the organisation provides volunteers with before they begin their work overseas. Some organisations will offer pre-departure training, some hold in-country training, and some may even offer both. Ask about the topics that are covered: useful areas highlighted by former volunteers include language skills, an introduction to development issues, country and programme orientation, anti-racism training, guidelines on living and working in an intercultural environment, and conflict resolution. See if the organisation offers supports such as project evaluations, post-programme debriefings, and workshops for returned volunteers. Some information about the training offered is contained in the directory: you can contact the organisations directly to get more in-depth information.
“[My placement organisation] provided excellent backup and training in the months before departure in the areas of fundraising, the medical/immunisations issues involved, language training, conflict resolution, etc. Once in Tanzania, there was a further week of training to help the volunteers adjust to life on a camp in rural Tanzania, language training, how to relate to the local population, health issues and so on. The summer finished off with a feedback weekend in the UK, where the successes and failures of the summer were analysed and noted for further improvement of the programme.” Declan, volunteer in Tanzania, 1999
“Learn the local language, if at all possible before departure or at least learn the official language, if it is another European language. I think that it is particularly important when the placement is a short-term one only, as being able to meaningfully communicate with people means that you make the most of your time there.” Áine, volunteer in Rwanda, 2002-2004
11. Can the organisation provide you with their health and safety, critical incident, child protection, and other relevant policies?
All organisations which send volunteers to work overseas should have set policies which are relevant to the placement. These policies can provide a framework in which the volunteer operates as well as functioning as a set of guidelines which the volunteer can refer to when navigating through any situations they find difficult. Another important function of having set policies is to ensure the safety and well-being of the volunteer as well as the host community they are working with.
Often volunteer placements take place in areas where there may face a risk to their personal safety or the safety of the people they are working with eg. health risks, risk of violence etc. It is important that sending organisations make the volunteer aware of any such risks and instruct them on how to take adequate protection through developing a comprehensive health and safety policy relevant to the placement.The health and safety policy should also set out the procedure that the sending organisation and volunteer should follow when dealing with a health and safety incident should it arise.
The issue of giving gifts to the host community is a situation which many volunteers face on their overseas placements. As gift-giving can have a negative impact on the relationship between the volunteer and the host community most organisations will have a gift giving policy which outlines the organisation’s policy on this issue. If the organisation is sending volunteers to work with children they should have a set child protection in place and ensure that their volunteers are aware of it and adhere to its guidelines.
If you are thinking of volunteering overseas with a particular organisation ask them if they have set policies in place which are relevant to your placement and request to see a copy of them. Make sure you familiarise yourself with all of the organisation’s policies before going overseas.
12: Are there costs associated with the volunteer placement and, if so, can you get a breakdown of how they are spent?
As mentioned previously, many placements involve paying money, whether it is to cover transport costs to the destination country or paying a fee for the placement. If the organisation is not covering all your costs, be sure to get an accurate idea of what the total price will be. If you are paying a placement fee, ask the organisation for a breakdown of how it will be spent. For example, how much goes on overheads and administration costs? How much goes directly to the host project or community?
How much is spent on training for volunteers and in-country staff? It is useful to get a clear figure and not an estimated percentage. Make sure that you are happy with the answers before making a final decision. If you are fundraising to cover the costs of the placements, it will be important to have these answers to give to people who are making donations.
“Get to know the area you are visiting through the internet or books. In particular try to get to understand the people, their traits and cultural differences. Know what you are going to be doing and why you are doing it. Ask others who have been in that particular country what to expect. Know the organisation that is arranging your placement. Make sure they are a reputable organisation and that your safety and welfare are catered for while you are in the foreign country; ie, food, medical aid, insurance, etc.” Ryan, part-time volunteer in Belarus from 2001 to the present.