Selecting a Site and Organization

As a prospective volunteer, you should certainly consider your individual interests before deciding on a specific organization. What type of project—teaching or service—do you prefer? What are your personal goals of participation and what are the project’s goals? Is there a religious organization or service club affiliation (such as Rotary International)? Where are the locations of the organization’s projects? What length of service is required? Can family members be accommodated as volunteers? These are just a few questions to investigate. In your exploration of an organization to become affiliated with, speak with people who have participated in other projects sponsored by the different organizations. As you get closer to actual site selection, other questions will need to be asked and answered.

  • What is the political and social climate of the site?
    • For example, is the location politically and socially stable? Is it friendly to Americans?
  • Can the country be reached by reliable commercial transportation?
  • Are special licenses, registrations, or work permits needed?
    • For example, Jamaica requires all entering volunteers to have a temporary work permit issued by the Jamaican Ministry of Health. That requires the submission of professional credentials well in advance of arrival in the country. Treating patients without official permits falls outside the law, so a volunteer could be subject to criminal sanctions. Remember, volunteers are subject to local laws; the U.S. Embassy may not be able to assist if laws have been broken.
  • Are there appropriate logistics such as ground transportation, housing, ability to communicate with home cell phones, Internet access, and food for the volunteers?
  • What health alerts or restrictions are there and what vaccinations are needed?
  • Has the dental project been developed? Have the specific dental needs been defined?
    • It can be frustrating to prepare for a surgical project only to arrive on-site to find out that restorative services are the primary need.
  • Are dental materials and equipment available on-site, or does everything have to be brought in?
  • What are the customs restrictions regarding the transport of dental supplies into the country? How might materials be shipped before volunteers arrive in the country?
  • Is there a suitable facility in which to work? Will patients or professional colleagues be available at appropriate times?

Many good sources of information exist for obtaining answers to these questions. For example, the U.S. Department of State publishes travel warnings and consular information sheets The Department of State Web site lists areas of pertinent interest under the home page. There are also sections about U.S. Passports, country information, things to keep in mind when abroad and handling emergencies while overseas ( Providing up-to-the-minute international travel and security information is also an important focus for many private organizations. Companies such as Kroll Associates of New York specialize in a wide variety of travel, security, intelligence, risk management, and other types of information for international travelers and business people. Kroll travel-watch advisories are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round by fax or by subscription over the Internet. The reports detail local news, transportation options, currency-exchange information, upcoming festivals and events, health considerations, safety and security issues, and emergency telephone numbers. Although vacation travel guides are generally not the best sources of detailed country information, particularly for travel off the beaten track, they may be helpful for planning the usual in-country touring that volunteers may wish to do either before or after a project. One commercial series that could be of more than passing interest is the Lonely Planet travel survival guides from Lonely Planet Publications, which are country guides that explore all aspects of a country from the traveler’s, not the tourist’s, perspective. The guides are packed with useful information not found in other more tourist-oriented publications and address topics such as culture, religion, language, as well as sights to see and places to stay that, while not targeted specifically to American tourists, are still acceptable and perhaps more reasonably priced than some accommodations in other strictly tourist-focused books. More than 500 Lonely Planet titles covering 195 countries are in print and available at local bookstores.