StopPress’ SXSW correspondent Tom Bates (from Contagion) is once again on the ground at the event and chatting to some interesting people along the way. He recently bumped into New Plymouth-born Dan Radcliffe, the executive director of International Volunteer HQ, and asked him a few questions about his organisation.
Tell us about your organisation and why you started it.
International Volunteer HQ is the world’s leading volunteer travel company with programmes in 30 countries around the world. We arrange trips abroad for people who are looking to have a holiday and also volunteer in a different country. I started the company in 2007 after I did a trip similar straight out of university. I found the options available at the time were extremely expensive and poorly run, and thought I could do it better. We started with a focus on providing programmes that were affordable but well run and that people were proud to be involved in. In a little under eight years we’ve place over 42,000 people into our programmes and are now the world’s most trusted operator with over 15,000 people choosing to travel with us annually.
Why is having a higher purpose or a cause for an organisation so important in the world we live in today?
It’s no longer good enough for companies to look at corporate social responsibility and their bottom line as two distinctly separate areas. People want to know how your company is sustainable and what greater good you bring to the rest of the society. If an awesome company with a great product or service is having a negative impact socially or environmentally, eventually consumers will vote with their wallets. Sustainable businesses, which contribute to the greater good of society, will be the firms that thrive in the next 50 years.
What’s it like being a young Kiwi doing such great work all around the world? Do you sometimes stop and pinch yourself?
When you start a company like this you have big dreams, but to see them come to fruition and then see the impact that tens of thousands of international volunteer travellers can make globally is pretty incredible to be part of. My favourite part of the job is getting out on the road and visiting the programmes and projects where we operate. To visit a school we’ve been working with for seven years in Kenya, and see the impact we’ve had there in that time is pretty awesome.
What advice would you give to young Kiwis who have big dreams and aspirations like you?
Have a crack. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to try things while you’re young, as you’ll always regret the things you don’t do. I started IVHQ for very simple reasons, I wanted to be my own boss, I wanted to travel and I saw a massive opportunity to provide volunteer trips more affordably. Before the business was off the ground, it seemed incredibly daunting but we started simple (I lived with my parents for the first 18 months of the business and ran the company from the family farm) and over time have developed and grown. Even if IVHQ had failed, the amount of lessons I would have learnt in those two to three years would’ve far outweighed any financial losses. Be brave.
What advice would you give to organisations that are struggling to enable and mobilise an audience for the greater good?
Social and online media are king – create something that people are proud to be part of or involved in, then harness the power of social media. When we started IVHQ we wanted people to be proud of their experiences, proud of what they were doing and we wanted them to share this experience with others. We didn’t want to focus on poverty or the causes for volunteering but rather the positives: great travel experiences and positive volunteer travel moments. We were fortunate that as we started IVHQ, social media quickly developed and the two fed off themselves. We have thousands of people travelling annually, doing great things that they’re proud of and sharing it with their friends and family via social media. This of course makes other people aware of us and our programs, with thousands of people sharing great moments, which ultimately contribute towards the greater good.
Do you think we care more about the world we live in than previous generations or is that just a truth of all youth throughout time, that we’ve always believe we can change the world?
The younger generation are much more socially conscious in their spending habits and behaviours, and volunteer travel is a great example of that. 20 years ago, volunteer travel wasn’t really on anyone’s radar and it’s now recognised as one of the fastest growing areas in tourism. People no longer just want to travel—they want to travel and do something positive. For all the criticism of the millennials, they’re far more socially conscious than previous generations ever were and this isn’t just limited to volunteer travel.
Has digital and social media been critical in being able to mobilise such a large audience? Could this have been done 15 years ago?
International Volunteer HQ is based from New Plymouth, New Zealand and yet 99 percent of our volunteer travellers come from abroad. Launching the business, we recognised that in many respects we were an online company and as a result SEM, SEO and social media have been central to our success. We were very fortunate, that as we started IVHQ, social media quickly developed and was used widely among the majority of people on our trips (18- to 25-year-olds) which has fuelled our growth. Entering the market, Google AdWords also gave us an opportunity when we launched back in 2007 to compete with ‘big boys’, when we were just a little company. There’s not a chance we could have existed or been as successful as we are now, if we had tried to launch the same company 15 years ago.