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Learning about the organization or program

So hopefully by this point you've identified five to ten volunteer-sending organizations or programs that might be a good fit. Now it's time to start to doing your research.

Here are three different ways to determine whether a volunteer-sending organization or program is right for you:

  • Use the web
    First stop should be the organization or program's website. Check out the volunteer opportunities and projects in detail but also look for information on how they manage their organization. For example, do they describe how they work with local organizations in-country? Do they share information on where your program fees go or how their organization is funded? Also, look to see if they are affiliated or partner with any international organizations you already know and trust or if they are a member of a national or international association for their field. For example, one such organization—the International Volunteer Programs Association—has crafted a set of recommended principles and practices for its member organizations.

Keep in mind that not all organizations will have websites, and even those that do may not have all the information you seek. This isn't necessarily a sign that they aren't well-managed or legitimate; it could just be that their website is incomplete or they don't have the capacity or resources to launch one. You can always ask them detailed questions yourself in later steps of the research process.

Next, go to your favorite search engine and plug in the name of the organization (be sure to use quotes around it to filter the results better). See what types of links come up—news articles, former volunteers' blogs, message boards, their organizational partners' websites—and just start reading. If you participate on a social networking site like Facebook or MySpace, search to see if alumni of the volunteer-sending organization or program have their own group or webpage. Finally, consider going to travel or service message boards (like these discussion forums on Idealist) and posting queries of your own.

  • Talk to them
    Few things beat a person-to-person conversation. Give them a call (consider using a free internet-based calling service like Skype), shoot them an email, or, if they have an office in your area, arrange for an in-person meeting. Ask them all of your questions and explore any concerns you might have. Also, ask to see references and, if they've got one handy, an annual report that outlines their impact and financial activity during the past year. Finally, be sure to ask them how to get in touch with alumni of their volunteer programs...
  • Talk to others
    ...which is easily going to be your most valuable source for balanced information. Talking to former volunteers means getting a complete picture of their experience—the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly. Ask what they loved, what they hated, what was challenging, what was rewarding. Would they do it again? Also, ask them to connect you to their fellow volunteer alumni, if only to be sure you're not talking to just the people who loved it (who are likely the ones an organization will refer you to if for no other reason than they are the ones who've likely stayed in touch). Conversely, by talking to a number of volunteers, you can better tell if one volunteer's negative experience is indicative of the overall health of the program, or just comes down to a specific challenge or circumstance that person encountered.

We really can't stress this enough: former volunteers will hands-down be your most valuable resource for learning more about a volunteer abroad program or experience.

Having said that, don't forget to also talk to others you already know. See if family and friends, or even friends of friends, have any experience with this organization. Talk to people at your job, school, place of worship. Again, the more opinions you can gather, the more well-rounded your data will be to determine if this volunteer-sending organization or program is right for you.

After doing all this research, you'll likely still have some questions, so here's our list of what to ask to get you started…

NOTE: Link to discussion forum isn't working as forums are not on prod yet. Also, margins need to be adjusted and sidebar migrated.