Guest Post Written By Claire Bennett from Learning Service
At Learning Service, we are often contacted by potential volunteers looking for advice. The vast majority of these ask a variation of this question: “Can you recommend a good volunteer program for me?” We have also had several people ask us to send them a list of “responsible” placements and a list of “bad/harmful” ones that should be avoided. We wish it were that simple.
Recommending specific volunteer organizations doesn’t really work, for several reasons. Firstly, there are just so many programs out there. Tens of thousands of organizations, all over the world, offering all varieties of voluntary work opportunities imaginable. There is no way that we (or anyone) would have the capacity to adequately assess them all. Secondly, even if we did manage that, and produce a comprehensive “master list”, it would be out of date before the first potential volunteer had the chance to look at it.
Volunteer programs change all the time. A fantastic – or corrupt – director leaves. A natural disaster causes a program to shut down, start up, or change direction. An NGO gets on the bandwagon to start a voluntoursim program as a new revenue stream, just as another one votes to close their program as it was proving to be inefficient.
Finally, the good/bad list would not be possible as each volunteer is so different. A volunteer option that would be just right for your 55 year-old aunt who is a practicing accountant might be a complete mismatch for your 17 year-old cousin who is still in high school. Plus the definition of good and bad is so dependent on your values system and what you specifically choose to prioritize and look for in an opportunity.
So, instead of attempting the impossible task of identifying programs that would work for anyone, here we attempt to offer a process to follow that can work for everyone.
Making a Shortlist
Although you can start by browsing the internet to give you some ideas, an advert on a website does not guarantee quality or legitimacy. Some sites are based on pay-for-listing systems, with little to no vetting of what is offered. Organizations with large budgets can pay for their ads to come up first in searches. Other review sites are connected to or owned by volunteer companies that have a vested interest in their own opportunities appearing first.
Talk to friends, family and trusted advisers and ask them to make recommendations of placements or programs for you to look into. Share with them the reasons that you have for volunteering so that they know what kind of opportunity you are looking for. Although recommendations from friends can provide a great starting point, they still cannot replace your own research.
Consider what relationship the friend has with the organization. Are they connected to the organization through personal relationships and might therefore have a biased view? Were they short- or long-term volunteers there, and how does that affect their ability to evaluate impact? Do they know of someone who went with them and had a great experience (in which case, could you be put directly in contact with that person)? Or have they just heard of the organization and think it has a good reputation?
Some organizations recruit volunteers in the same way that they would recruit for a job opening, even advertising on sites also used by people looking for jobs, such as Idealist. Or alternatively they work with a professional placement agency such as VSO or AVI that seek out candidates with specialized skills. In these cases, the organization identifies a need, creates a role description and selection criteria, and usually also conducts interviews for the position.
This approach puts the hosting organization in the driver’s seat and is more likely to be fulfilling for both sides as the need is more clearly defined and the match more closely vetted. These volunteer positions may require you to have a particular background or qualification, and this path can also limit your opportunities on place, cause, timeframe, and role.
When you have got a shortlist of opportunities that sound interesting, it is now time to put out some feelers and start investigating! As this is likely to be the most time-consuming stage of your research, try to ensure that your shortlist is not too long—we suggest writing down a maximum of five opportunities to look into further. You can always widen out your search again if your research reveals that they’re not what you’re looking for.
Assessing Volunteer Opportunities
If you have really analyzed your reasons for wanting to volunteer, you will probably have a good idea of your priorities for a volunteer placement. For example, if you are looking for language immersion, find out if that language is the main one used in the office. Alternatively, if you know you realistically do not intend to learn much of the local language, then ensure that there will be enough useful work to do that can be done in English. Even more importantly, you need to ensure that a volunteer placement is ethical and fits your values – that it is not perpetuating a problem, propagating unhealthy “white savior” stereotypes, or fueling corruption.
We can think about the assessments you need to make on three different levels:
Evaluating the organization – for example, ensuring that the organization has a proven impact on the issues it works in, that it has policies in place to protect vulnerable populations such as children, and that it is financially transparent.
Evaluate the opportunity – for example, is there a competitive selection process? Will you have access to an orientation to the culture and country? And does the opportunity provide training, support, and structured learning opportunities throughout the placement?
Evaluate the role – for example, knowing beforehand if you will be involved with direct delivery work with beneficiaries or if you will be in a supporting role, and understanding how you will be either assisting or building the capacity of local colleagues.
As it can be overwhelming to think of all the information you might want to gather about each opportunity, we at Learning Service produced an evaluation tool to help you consider what questions you might want to ask organizations. Bear in mind though, it is a long list! As tempting as it can seem, simply emailing the whole evaluation framework to a volunteer organization won’t work. It is exhausting for hosts to respond to potential volunteers asking the same questions over and over again, especially if the answers are easily accessible elsewhere, and few organizations have the capacity for that. You have to put in the legwork and find out most of the answers yourself.
Sources of Information
Although we warn against relying too much on an organization’s own marketing material, the first port of call should always be the organization’s online presence. A transparent organization will be anticipating your questions and put most of the information you need to know on their website. Be sure to read through all the tabs. Check if there is a “Frequently Asked Questions” page. There may be downloadable project evaluations or financial reports. You also may be able to click through to sites that the project is affiliated with, such as parent and sister organizations, and check that their philosophy also matches yours. Your research may highlight the responsible practices of an organization, or those you don’t agree with.
Another way to build up a realistic picture of what it is like to work at an organization is to talk to volunteers who have previously been there. This can be a great way to gain an insight into how an organization operates. You might be able to connect to past volunteers directly through social media or blogs, but the easiest way is to ask the volunteer organization if they can put you in touch directly. Remember, a positive volunteer experience is not the same as an effective one, and one negative volunteer experience does not mean the organization can be written off.
Bear in mind that the organization is likely to only want to offer the details of people who had positive experiences. You can start your conversations with these volunteers, and at the end of the discussion ask if they could put you in touch with a friend from the program who experienced more challenges, so you can get a rounded view. Alternatively you can ask the volunteer organization directly if you can talk to someone who struggled or who finished their placement early.
Partner organizations, donors or expatriates who work in the same vicinity or sector can also be great sources of alternative perspectives on an organization. You can track them down through an internet search, personal contacts or past volunteers. Bear in mind though that if you ask representatives of organizations that are too similar there may be an element of competition in their response. And as with all of these sources, also remember that one person’s perspective on an organization is just that, the perspective of one person, so do not take what they say as evidence of an organization’s effectiveness or ineptitude without verifying this information elsewhere too.
Contacting an Organization
After you have done your preliminary research, and maybe narrowed your shortlist to just one or two opportunities, you can get down to the nitty-gritty and ask critical questions directly to the placement organization. Hopefully, from the long list of questions that you started with, only a small number of them remain unanswered.
Remember that asking questions is different from making demands, and that it is reasonable to wait a few days or weeks for a response. You will probably not be anyone’s first priority—and if you are, that may not be a good sign! Watch out for organizations that seem willing to accept anyone to get more bums on plane seats and money in their pockets.
Obviously there are incentives for an organization to present itself in the best possible light, so be wary of taking overly positive answers at face value. If an organization avoids answering a question or is not able to provide an answer, this can also be important information, and tread carefully with organizations that don’t seem to have the time, willingness or English language capacity to provide the experience you are looking for. Good organizations should be used to answering critical, evaluative questions – and should in fact welcome them – as it will indicate that they are getting volunteers who are switched on, worth their time, and who care about being effective.
Making a Decision
In the spirit of learning service, we encourage you to identify organizations that express humility in success, honesty in failure, and a willingness to grow through challenge. Also remember that you will never be able to get a definitive picture of an organization, especially from afar, so that your assessment process should continue long after you begin your volunteer experience. Continue to learn and ask critical questions, and don’t be afraid to form a new opinion if you uncover fresh information at any point in your journey.
Want more of this advice on other aspects of volunteering? Get hold of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad for both a critical and practical look at volunteer travel, and follow Learning Service on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You can also read the MCAdventure review of this great resource here!
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