As important as knowing your own expectations is understanding how a volunteer opportunity is structured and what the organization is offering. The following are questions to ask an organization as you consider their volunteer opportunities.
What is the impact of this project?
Who determined the need for it: Was it a community request, or was it decided by the organization? If the latter, on what basis did they come to this decision? If it is a construction project such as a school or hospital, are there others in the area? If the project provides medical care, what other options do community members have? Does the local community support this project? (If so, how? If not, why not?)
What does the program fee cover?
A fee is not a bad thing in and of itself, and a small fee may simply cover the administrative cost of the placement. If any portion of the fee is deemed a contribution to the project, ask how much. For larger fees, ask for a breakdown of where the money goes – the organization you volunteer with should be transparent and should be able to provide this information. While placement agencies and international organizations have administrative costs (covering staff time, advertising, and having an office), comparing this between organizations will help give you an idea of what is a reasonable expense and what might be extravagant.
What level of language skills do I need to really enjoy this project?
If your Spanish (or Portuguese) skills are little to none, read between the lines in their response. Will there be any translator nearby? On the other hand, if one of your goals is to improve your language skills, does the volunteer experience provide ample opportunity to do so?
What resources are there in-country for volunteers?
Is there a number you can call 24/7 if you need assistance with anything? If traveling with an international organization, do they have a contact person based in-country as well?
You may want to ask about the average age of their volunteers. This is also the time to ask if the organization can accommodate any special needs, such as a vegetarian diet or physical limitations.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.