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Learning more about the organization

So now that you've decided you're going solo and have identified a handful of international volunteer opportunities or organizations, it's time to find out if they are a good fit for you; again, you can either do this research before you leave home or just skip straight to steps 2 and 3 (omitting the need to email or call for the most part) once you arrive in the community.

Here are three different methods to determine whether an organization is right for you:

  • Use the web
    First stop should be the organization's website. Look for information on their specific volunteer opportunities as well as the organization as a whole. For example, are they affiliated or do they partner with an international organization you already know and trust? How about with local universities or faith communities?

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. Also, 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 (if available), or, if you're already there, sit down for a coffee or tea. Ask them all of your questions and explore any concerns you might have. Also, be sure to ask them if it would be possible to talk to some of their former volunteers (keeping in mind that some organizations may not stay in touch with them after they leave—again, this shouldn't automatically be perceived as a sign of a poorly run organization)...
  • Talk to others
    ...who are easily going to be your most valuable sources 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 organization, 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 volunteering with an organization.

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 organization is right for you.

When you're ready, click here to read a list of suggested questions to research online and ask the organization…

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