Making the decision to volunteer is a big one, and there are a myriad of factors to take into consideration. Choosing the right volunteer program is similar to buying a car. There are many options to consider, and you want your experience to be a positive one that will continue to help you in the future and provide you with lots of positive memories. There is no one size fits all experience, and each program has its pros and cons. The sheer number of options can even be overwhelming. Fear not, because once you start asking yourself the right questions and evaluating what’s out there, you will be on your way to a life-altering journey.
Program cost, airfare, vaccinations, visas, spending money and travel before or after can add up very quickly. Taking time to consider all of the costs involved in volunteering will go a long way for both your budget and piece of mind. The program cost can vary greatly from one organization to the next. Some programs can cost close to $1000 per week while others don’t cost anything at all. This is where research is critical to find out what is included in the fees like accommodation, food, airport pick up and in-country support. Also consider how much time you want to spend volunteering and if you are planning on traveling before or after your program. Flying from the US to East African countries can be upwards of $2000, but a flight to Central or South America is significantly cheaper. Some countries require costly visas while others allow you to reside in country for months at a time without one. This also goes for vaccinations. The more rural your volunteer placement, the more likely you will have to get more vaccines. The best strategy is to determine an overall budget and then begin to break it down by comparing different factors and how much you are willing or able to spend on each one.
Second to cost, location is one of the most important factors in choosing a program. In many cases, program locations become once in a lifetime destinations that combine weekend travel to bucket list destinations in addition to volunteering. It can be overwhelming to decide where to go when there are so many interesting locales. First narrow your list down to one continent, look at climate and the time of year you are planning to go. It may not be the best idea to go to South East Asia during monsoon season or Mongolia in the middle of winter. Perhaps you have always wanted to see the great wildebeest migration through the Serengeti. That may help you determine when to travel.
Once you have narrowed down some location options, deciding on a program can finish making that decision for you. What skills do you have to offer? What are you interested in? Are you looking to broaden your interests to new areas, or are do you want to create your own program with little guidance? Do you want to work with children, adults, animals? These are just some of the questions you should be asking yourself and prospective volunteer organizations about the programs they offer. Some programs require specialized training like medical volunteers, but if it is an area of interest, there may be some other way to get involved. Narrowing down your interests will bring you a large step closer to securing the best placement for you.
Another important factor to consider when choosing where to volunteer is safety. For reliable and up to date travel related advisories, check the US state department website. Most organizations won’t operate in areas of conflict, however, sometimes safety issues do come up unexpectedly. Learn as much as you can about the country and region where you want to volunteer so you are aware of any potential dangers before making a final decision. It is also important to look at the safety of your housing. This can range from gated compound to home-stay. Only you know what you will feel comfortable with.
While volunteering has a lot to do with helping others, it can also be a way for you to increase skills that you already have and build an arsenal of new ones that will be attractive to potential employers. Whether you are just out of university or in the midst of a career change, volunteering can provide a host of benefits both personally and professionally. Volunteering is a great way to network with a new crowd both among fellow volunteers and program leaders. It will also give you valuable international experience that employers covet in new hires. In addition to all of the career perks, making lifelong friendships and immersing yourself into a new culture are the ultimate personal benefits.
Talk to former volunteers, check out online reviews, follow Facebook conversations, but most importantly do your research before committing to a volunteer program. Find out as much information as possible about several organizations and choose the one that fits the best with your personal goals and needs. There isn’t one right program for everyone, just the right one for you. You get what you put into it no matter where you are or how the program is structured. If you are genuine in your reasons and honest with yourself, you will have an amazing time that could change your own life and the lives of others.