Volunteer vacations are popular with gap-year students, retired seniors, and millions of people in between. Perhaps you’re just starting to travel again, for the first time in a long time, considering the pandemic, and you’re thinking about a volunteer vacation.
These can be a great way to see the world and experience a destination in a more meaningful way than simply being a tourist.
However, with so many organizations and types of volunteer vacations available, it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Here are nine questions that you should always consider when evaluating a potential volunteering opportunity.
1. What is the destination like?
If you plan to volunteer in a country you’ve never visited, you’ll want to do some basic research before going there. Learning about the local culture will help you to understand how to behave.
Beyond learning in general about the country, try to familiarize yourself with the area in which you’ll be volunteering. Is it urban or rural? Hot or cold? Are there local attractions nearby that you’d like to visit? Is there reliable public transportation in the area? What is the political situation like in that region? These are just a few things you should investigate about any potential destination.
2. What will you be doing?
This question might seem like a no-brainer, but some of the work that you actually perform as a volunteer might be different from what you signed up to do. For example, you might volunteer to teach yoga at a meditation retreat in Costa Rica, only to find out that you’re also expected to cook and clean.
If you’re into cooking and cleaning, no problem!
However, if you want to perform only a specific type of volunteer work, then make sure to ask the program director or volunteer coordinator to specify exactly what your tasks will be. If possible, get this in writing in order to avoid stumbling into a situation where you’re expected to do tasks that are beyond your skill set or comfort level.
3. What will the hours be?
Some volunteer programs are more fluid than others, with volunteers not working a set number of hours per day and just helping “as needed.” Other programs have a rigid schedule that volunteers must follow.
The type of program you choose depends on your personal preferences. But, no matter what program you go with, the volunteer coordinator should be able to give you an estimate of how many hours you’ll be expected to work in a given period of time. For example, you might be asked to work four hours per day or 20 hours per week.
Being asked to work an extra hour or two on an occasional basis shouldn’t be a cause for concern, but if you’re regularly getting pressured to work more hours than you signed up for, that’s not a good sign.
Remember that you have every right to refuse to work beyond the hours you’ve agreed to. After all, you’re a volunteer.
4. What, if any, compensation is included?
Volunteer work is not typically paid. However, many organizations compensate their volunteers in other ways, such as providing free room and board, educational opportunities, and sightseeing tours in the local area.
Before signing up for a volunteer position, find out what perks and amenities would be provided for you.
For example, if you’re expected to cook your own meals with food that you’ve purchased yourself, you should know this ahead of time so you won’t show up hungry and empty-handed on your first day.
5. What are the accommodations like?
Many volunteer positions include free or discounted accommodations. Volunteer accommodations can range from rustic to luxurious, from tent camping to home-stays with local families to fully serviced hotel rooms.
When considering a volunteer program, you should find out exactly what type of accommodation it offers.
Will you be expected to share a room with other volunteers? Will you share a bathroom? Will your meals be catered for you, or is there a kitchen where you can cook for yourself? Are there laundry facilities? What type of area are the accommodations in?
For example, if you plan to volunteer in a rural location, are the accommodations near a bus stop that can take you to the nearest town? Or, if you’re volunteering in a busy city, are the accommodations in a neighborhood that’s OK to walk around in at night?
6. Is there a charge?
Many volunteer programs charge participants a fee.
This can range from a small “membership” or “service” charge to thousands of dollars to cover the entire cost of a volunteer’s accommodations, meals and transportation.
Ethical volunteer programs will always be clear about any fees they charge. They should also be able to give you an estimate of any other expenses you might incur, such as bus fare to the nearest city on your day off.
7. Are there reviews of the program from past volunteers?
Feedback about an organization from past volunteers is priceless, because people who have actually volunteered with an organization can give you the inside scoop about what the experience is really like.
Any organization that you’re considering volunteering with should be able to put you in touch with a former volunteer who can answer your questions about the program. If an organization can’t or won’t connect you with any past volunteers, this might raise some red flags.
Also, you can go online and read reviews of organizations that are posted by former volunteers. Googling the name of the organization along with “reviews” or “volunteer reviews” is a great way to get started. Check social media accounts for the organization, as well.
8. What kind of support is provided for volunteers?
If a problem arises during your stint of volunteering, you should be able to get assistance in a timely manner from the organization you’re working with. If the organization doesn’t offer 24/7 support, then it should provide you with an alternative phone number to call outside of office hours or in the event of an emergency.
9. Have you read the fine print in your volunteer contract?
Unless you’re in an extremely informal volunteering situation, you’ll likely have at least a basic type of contract spelling out what is expected of you, as a volunteer, and what will be provided in return.
Avoid unpleasant surprises by reading the fine print in your contract very carefully before signing it. If there’s anything unclear or confusing, ask the volunteer coordinator or contact person within the organization to clarify it for you. Don’t be pressured into signing a contract before you’ve had a chance to fully understand and consider it.
A volunteer vacation can be an immensely rewarding experience, but it pays to do your homework before signing up. By carefully considering each of these questions, plus any others you can think of, you’ll be more likely to find a volunteering opportunity that is right for you.