6 questions to ask before choosing a volunteer program

UNDP and UN volunteers discuss treatment and preventative measures on tuberculosis. Looking into breaking in the field of global development? The right volunteering opportunity can help you build skills and experiences. Photo by: UNDP Europe and CIS / CC-BY-NC-SA

Volunteering is often touted as one of the best ways to break into the global development field. From recent grads looking to gain some of that sought-after field experience to mid-career professionals hoping to break into development, volunteering can help professionals at all stages of their career get a foot in the door.

But volunteering is not just about adding a line to your resume. It’s also about gaining news skills and experiences, adding value to the projects and communities you serve and giving back in a responsible way.

In our new Doing More series, Devex — along with Austraining International, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO — is discussing the importance of volunteering and its impact on global development.

There are truly thousands of options to choose from for those looking for a volunteer opportunity. But how do you know which ones are right for you, and how do you know which ones are reputable? Here are six questions you should ask before choosing a volunteer program.

1. What kind of experience does the program require?

Some programs, like the Peace Corps or those managed by Austraining International, will accept younger volunteers with little to no experience. So if you’re a recent graduate looking for that first international development experience, these kinds of programs are where you should focus.

However, these organizations as well as many other volunteer programs, including VEGA and UNV, look for highly skilled professionals as well.  If you are a mid-career professional looking to transition to international development, focus on these professionalized programs where you can apply your expertise within a development context. You are likely to provide more value when you are leveraging your existing skills as well as gain applicable experience if your end goal is to eventually find paid work.

2. What kind of on-the-ground support does the program provide?

Before you get on a plane, you want to feel comfortable with the level of support the program will provide you while overseas. Do they have a local office or point person? Who should you contact in the case of a medical emergency? What kind of security do they provide, particularly if you will be placed in a less secure location? Will they provide accommodations or help you locate suitable housing? Reputable programs will have answers for all of these questions, as well as plans and protocols in place to handle any issues that could arise when working overseas.

3. Is the organization’s work sustainable?

When choosing a program,  look at how it’s funded and who it works with locally to organize volunteer efforts. If the program solely relies on fees from paying volunteers to run projects, it may not have the scale or resources to truly create impact.

Also, who does the program work with locally? Are volunteers running their projects independently or in coordination with a local NGO, government or church? The most sustainable — and impactful — volunteer programs partner with local entities to ensure their efforts do not impede or needlessly duplicate what others are doing.

4. What kind of training and skills building does the program provide its volunteers?

The primary motivator for most volunteers is to help others and make a positive difference in the world. But many volunteers are also looking to gain new skills through the experience.

Without the right training and guidance, though, novice volunteers can unintentionally cause more harm than good.

Ask about what kinds of training will be provided both in advance of your assignment and throughout. If you are looking for specific skills to round out your expertise, find out what learning opportunities will be provided to help you build on them.

5. What are the alumni doing now?

A good way to evaluate the quality of a volunteer program is to see what their alumni go on to accomplish. Take a look at those who came before you, particularly if you are volunteering as a way to break into global development. Were they able to successfully build a career after their volunteer assignment?

An active alumni is an additional benefit itself as it can give you access to a network that may be able to help you with your next move, either right out of a program or later in your career.

6. What is the program’s reputation?

When I asked our followers on Twitter what volunteers should look for in a program, many responded that making sure it is reputable and ethical should be a top concern. Especially if you are looking at some of the voluntourism or paid programs that target vacationers, you want to know the organization’s primary mission is to provide quality programming, not make a nice profit for its owners.

Asking some of the questions above should help you gauge whether the program is serious about its impact, but you can also ask to talk to former volunteers, do some online research on the organization or ask for recommendations on programs from people you trust. You could also consider finding an assignment through a program like MovingWorlds, which works much like a dating service to help pair you to a vetted volunteer program that matches your interests.  

What other questions do you think prospective volunteers should ask before selecting a program? If you have volunteered, what do you wish you had asked before you took your assignment? 

Please leave your comments below or join the conversation online using #DoingMore. Read all of our coverage about volunteering and global development here.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.