Type of Organization
You will want to ensure your values and objectives are in line with those of the sending/ host organization. Speak to returned volunteers and representatives to get a clear picture of their philosophy and consider if they are government, for-profit, non-profit, non-governmental or have religious affiliations.
Duration and Time of Year
Consider how long you want to be away for. Short-term opportunities may involve only a specific project such as building a medical clinic or repairing trails. In longer-term programs, volunteers live and work with local people, becoming part of the local community and daily life.
Work and Skills
If you have professional experience or wish to develop a skill you should choose a program that allows you to put them in practice.
Location and Facilities
Most volunteer experiences are hosted in developing countries. So before you go you should consider if you can live without modern plumbing, hot water and electricity. Will you be able to stomach the food and sleep on the floor? Check what kind of accommodation the program is offering and where you will be located. Urban locations can be busy and polluted while rural areas might be isolated with even more basic facilities.
There are usually opportunities to do some travel while you are on placement. Some organizations allow time off after a certain period and will even organize fun activities for you. There is always the chance for independent travel before or after your placement.
While volunteering abroad is not free it is one of the cheaper travel options. Most organizations will charge a fee that typically covers your board, orientation and the program itself. In this way the partner organizations, schools and institutions don’t have to pay for your services. To cover your expenses consider writing letter campaigns to family and friends, your teachers or university, contact church or student organizations or local community groups tied to the region you will be going to. You could also try fundraising through fun events, raffles and sales.
When you visit and stay with other cultures you will be confronted with differences. Try to remain open minded enough to accept and respect these differences. Developing countries may seem disorganized and are certainly not as timetable obsessed as the west. In African villages you might be expected to be at home by 7pm every night or be the only foreigner amongst a village of 1500 people.
Living in another culture can be lonely and isolating. You may not know anyone and working in small rural villages or wildlife reserves will mean a lack of social life. If you are traveling because you are dissatisfied with your life at home, it might not be the right time to volunteer as these problems can become more apparent with the other adjustments you are undergoing.
In your placement you will need to learn either a new language, culture or way of life. Remember you aren’t on a Caribbean cruise. Most NGO’s, international non-profits and volunteer organizations are understaffed so it may take them longer to respond to you or accomplish tasks. Don’t set out with the notion that you will be able to change the world. The best thing you can do is pack patience and flexibility and try to work within the new parameters.