Choosing a Service Corps: Questions to Ask

To bring the most to your community, and to get the most out of your service experience, ask good questions before you even sign on.

Enlisting in a service corps is a great commitment: long hours, little pay, intense investment in the people you serve, and often close quarters with other corps members or colleagues.

On top of that, you have easily over a thousand program options available to you if you are a U.S. person. (I don’t have an exact number for you but I am working on that.) Domestic and international, secular and faith-based, direct service and indirect service, famous and obscure, individual placement and team-based placement—so many options! (See Corps and Coalitions in the sidebar of this blog for a partial list.)

You owe it to yourself and the corps to investigate your short list of programs thoroughly. But you also have to know yourself, your preferences, your requirements, and your goals. Be smart about your search!

Listed below are questions that I adapted from the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, a member association of Christian service programs, which offers these lists of questions for you to ask yourself and to ask program staff when you are researching programs.

Questions to ask yourself:

WHAT IS MY MOTIVATION FOR SERVING?

You should enter a service program keeping in mind personal and professional goals, so that when you encounter challenges at site, you remember why you joined in the first place. Some responses may fall into categories such as:

  • Commitment to changing my community for the better
  • Professional development/ skill building
  • Spiritual path
  • Personal growth
  • Experience before career and grad school

WHAT EXPECTATIONS DO I HAVE?

  • Of myself
  • Of the program
  • Of my work

Really spend some time figuring out your assumptions and expectations. Do you envision yourself helping  people in your community directly? — or are you expecting an office job? Do you anticipate using some skills you’ve already got, or learning everything from scratch? Are you hoping your service program staff will be very involved with your work—observing, offering feedback—or removed from your day-to-day activities?

WHAT DO I HAVE TO OFFER?
Listing assets will help you apply for a position, craft your resume, etc. Let your list influence — at least in part — where you choose to serve. Searching for a program that takes advantage of your current abilities will help you find a good match — one that’s beneficial to your community, your service site, and you. Consider what you’re bringing to the conversation:

  • Professionally
  • Personally – talents/gifts
  • Strengths/weaknesses

HOW DO I HANDLE CHANGE AND STRESS?
You’ll encounter stresses. Are you sure you are ready for them?:

  • Moving/ leaving support system
  • New supervisor, constituents, community, job, and environment
  • Low-income lifestyle
  • Cultural adjustments

WHAT FINANCIAL NEEDS WILL I HAVE?

Consider not only groceries, rent, and entertainment. Once you know what your living allowance would be in the corps, work out a budget. Can you make ends meet? Read more on financial management for the corps member.

  • Options for forbearing or deferring student loans
  • Managing other debt you’re bringing with you to the program
  • Child care expenses
  • Transportation

Questions to ask the service program director and/or site manager before joining

Generally speaking, it’s preferable to research the program’s web site and literature thoroughly before asking any questions of program staff. To learn more about preparing for an interview, check out Chapter Nine of the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers.

WHAT IS YOUR PROGRAM’S FOCUS?

  • Issue areas (poverty, environment, education, etc.)
  • Function (do corps members serve as grant writers, construction workers, educators, program developers, communications, etc.)
  • What other service programs are doing what yours does?/What’s the difference between your program and [another program you are considering]?

WHAT IS YOUR SUPERVISING STYLE?
It’s important for you to find a supervisor who can balance attention to you, with freedom for creativity and autonomy. Once at site, you can get what you need from your supervisors by asking for it clearly.

  • Highly directive
  • Hands off
  • Adaptive of the corps member’s needs throughout the year

WHAT TYPE OF PLACEMENT DOES YOUR PROGRAM OFFER?

You must balance what you have heard about the program, with what the program truly offers.

  • Domestic/ international
  • Rural/ urban
  • Professional skills required
  • Length of commitment
  • Direct or indirect service
  • What will I spend my day doing

WHAT CAN I EXPECT FROM YOUR APPLICATION PROCESS?

  • Paperwork involved
  • Apply to the service program headquarters, or to the host site/agency
  • Personal interview/ phone interview; how many
  • Medical and dental examinations
  • Documentation (If your program is affiliated with an academic degree program, will I apply separately to each? Do I need to take any standardized tests? Do you need to see my undergraduate transcripts?)

WHAT ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS DOES YOUR PROGRAM HAVE?

  • Citizenship
  • Education level
  • Undergraduate Grade Point Average
  • Volunteer experience?

WHAT BENEFITS CAN I EXPECT FROM YOUR PROGRAM?

Sometimes the true benefits cannot be listed on a page.

  • Opportunity to serve; work for social justice
  • Training and networking opportunities
  • Career transitions support
  • Community and peer support
  • Cultural education
  • Language training (when applicable)
  • Room and board
  • Stipend or living allowance
  • Health insurance (Does it exclude coverage of pre-existing conditions and certain prescriptions? Does it cover mental health services, if I need access to that?)
  • Child care allowance
  • Student loan deferment/forbearance (Are these allowances compatible with my student loans?)
  • Scholarship or fellowship opportunities

MAY I CALL SOME OF YOUR PROGRAM’S ALUMNI?

This is helpful in getting a different perspective from someone who has completed the program.

  • What kind of support did the service program staff offer (skills training, conflict resolution, access to benefits, career transitions, etc.)
  • What did you do every day?
  • Did you feel you could see a difference in your community through your service?
  • How did you live on the stipend?

Resources

Treat your search for a service corps as you would a job search—cast your net widely, and make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. For more on nonprofit careers, see the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers. Chapter Five includes a table that compares a handful of the most famous corps: service programs for early-career professionals (PDF), service programs open to mid-career professionals (PDF).

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