How do you evaluate a volunteering project and the organization that manages it? First you ask questions…
There are 2 sets of questions: those questions that are general enough to apply to all, and the more specific/targeted questions, which depend on the type of organization itself and the species they care about specifically, or the type of work they do.
Here is a list of important questions to ask any organization that you intend to visit, whatever and wherever this organization is.
❓ Ask for an explicit breakdown of where the money you will pay goes – Financial transparency should be mandatory for any non-profit. Any elusive answer should be considered as a red flag.
❓ Ask for the policies of the organization you will visit or volunteer with, and read them: This will give you some indications of their ethics level, on how they treat and use their volunteers, etc.
❓ If not highlighted in the project description, ask what you will be doing (e.g., assisting in research, manual labor, education, etc.).
❓ Ask what is the duration that is recommended to have a positive impact and make a difference.
❓ Ask for evidence of how previous volunteers have made a difference: Just because an organization appears to sell itself on ethical credentials does not mean it delivers. Some groups can be very good at describing their vision but not so good when it comes to the details.
❓ Money again: How much goes to the operation itself (maintenance, etc.), to the locals, to in-situ conservation projects? Ask for an answer that qualifies and quantifies the budget breakdown.
❓ What are the viewing regulations in place? –do they allow touching or close interaction with wildlife? (this should be a no-go).
❓ Are they accredited or tied to a recognized set of regulations (and then check how accepted and legal is this accreditation)?
❓ If they are partnering with conservation, ask them to qualify and quantify the results –e.g., research, animal release numbers (if they host animals), rehabilitation success.
Zoos are a vast topic all in itself and we invite you to check our Zoo Evaluation Essentials Guide, to understand what a ethical zoo facility entails.
As for sanctuaries, the ethical ones support and rescue wildlife with the intention to rehabilitate and if possible release back into their natural habitat. They do not supply breeding. They do not allow close interaction opportunities such as petting or walking with the animal for the purpose of human entertainment. They do not they trade in animal parts.
❓ Accreditation?: That is, are they accredited zoos or sanctuaries? Zoos who follow minimal accepted welfare standards usually have an accreditation that falls under WAZA (the unifying organisation for the world zoo and aquarium community). Sanctuaries –that provide humane and responsible care of the animals and for which the nonprofit meets the definition of a true sanctuary, rescue or rehabilitation center– should be accredited by the country’s official federation of animal sanctuaries (e.g., the GFAS in the U.S.).
❓ Money again: How does the budget break down? How much goes to care of the exhibits, how many goes to vet research, how much goes to in-situ conservation projects (where, who do they work and partner with).
❓ If they are partnering with in-situ conservation organizations, ask them to to qualify and quantify the results: e.g., research, release numbers, rehabilitation success.
❓ Ask who is(are) the veterinarian(s) on site.
❓ Ask how their animal care standards compare to the Five Freedoms (i.e., a framework that outlines five aspects of animal welfare under human control and widely recognized worldwide by veterinary associations ([5F], [RTA]) –If you can visit the facility before volunteering, even better. You can use our EwA Zoo Evaluation Guide then to help understanding where they stand with respect to animal welfare standards.
❓ Ask for the organization’s volunteer handbook, and their policies in place and read them. This will give you some indications of their ethics, on how they treat and use their volunteers, etc…
❓ Ask about the conservation issues they are trying to alleviate or resolve and the conservation mandate of the organization.
❓ Ask who is/are the scientist(s) on site, and para scientists. Ask if you’re going to be able to talk with them directly.
❓ Ask about the University partnerships and conservation affiliations. Note that the lack of affiliation (yet) is not necessarily a bad sign: there are smaller outfits who are ethical, credible but however have not got the maturity yet or the resources to have all the proper affiliations. Then talk about it and ask what is their course of actions to get there.
❓ Ask about their volunteer training methods –e.g., for taxon identification, sampling/study protocols. Do they have downloadable/accessible material that the volunteers can study before joining the in -situ project?
❓ Ask if the data collected by the citizen scientists/volunteers are used in peer-reviewed scientific publications and if so in what ratio. In the majority of the cases it is not [TE14], then ask what role these data fulfill in the project.
❓ Ask for the list of publications that the project help published or contributed to.
Home / Explore / The Complete Guide to Choosing Wildlife & Nature Venues / ☆ What to Ask
◊ The references mentioned on this page are listed in the Extended Bibliography.