GoAbroad Interview

Fiona Millar - Operations Manager

Fiona Millar - Operations Manager

Born in England, raised in New Zealand, Fiona’s first real step out of her comfort zone was in 2008 when she ventured to Vietnam, but it only took one step for her to be hooked on all things travel. Her experiences abroad also sparked her interest in development, which led her to earn her degree in Development and International at Victoria University in Wellington. Currently, the Operations Manager for Global Volunteer Network and the GVN Foundation, Fiona supports the organization’s holistic approach of pairing responsible volunteering with grant distribution for sustainable development. Over the course of her career, Fiona has helped raise over $320,000 (and counting!) for sustainable, grassroots community development projects in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Fiona is also involved with event planning, granting procedures, advocacy training, leadership development, and intercultural communication for GVN.

What does your role with GVN entail?

I am the Operations Manager at GVN, but I also have a series of programs and volunteers that I manage. I’m based in our headquarters in Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

What is the most fulfilling part of your job?

One of my main passions is encouraging and enabling people to take action about the issues they care about. My role gives me the unique opportunity to do this, but I also get to hear from volunteers when they return home about what they've learnt, the connections they've built, and the overall impact the experience has had on them.

On the flipside, I also work with some fantastic people around the world, in Africa and Asia, who are committed to the development and empowerment of their community - they continually inspire me and their work is incredibly motivating! 

What have you learned by working with GVN?

Often, when people think of "developing countries", a lot of negative words spring to mind - poverty, illness, and images of sadness or hopelessness. My role at GVN has showed me the opposite - there is so much life, motivation, innovation, creativity, and spirit in the communities we work with. It's great to be able to contribute in my small way to helping them achieve the goals of their community in whatever direction they lead us.

How many volunteers participate in GVN programs each year? Do volunteers interact with one another frequently?

We place around 1,000 volunteers around the world each year. We put all volunteers in contact with the other people they’ll be placed with before they arrive to introduce themselves. Our volunteers tend to stay connected with their fellow volunteers once they return home – every now and again, we hear about reunions happening either where they originally volunteered or somewhere else in the world!

Our Facebook page is a great place for volunteers to connect with other people who have spent time with our programs and to learn more for those who are interested.

What is one thing participants must know before joining a GVN program?

Keep an open mind – allow yourself to learn from the experience, not to solely focus on teaching what you know. Particularly in our community programs, poverty might not necessarily look or act as you think it might – happiness still exists at all stages of the economic spectrum.

What is the biggest benefit of GVN programs?

Stepping outside their comfort zone and taking on a new challenge. If you truly allow yourself to be open to the experience, you will gain far more than you will give. We hope that this experience sparks a love of volunteering or community work, and this passion continues on once a volunteer returns home.

How does GVN distinguish itself from other volunteer programs?

We truly focus on “local solutions to local problems” – instead of establishing a big GVN office in each country we work in, we find unique, hard-working, exceptional grassroots organizations that we think are doing great work, but could do with a little support to help them reach their goals.

We also believe in a holistic approach to social change – alongside volunteer placements; GVN is also involved in advocacy, fundraising, grants distribution, training, and any other kind of support our partners may need to progress their project and lift their community out of poverty.

What is the main goal of GVN’s programs?

Long-term, we want to create social change agents, rather than one-off volunteers. We do what we can to equip and empower people to become a force for positive change, and there are so many different ways people can do this!

How do you motivate your participants to avoid homesickness or to cope with their new environment?

Culture shock is a big adjustment, but for the most part, if a volunteer can get through the first five days, they’ll adjust. I think laughing is sometimes the best way to cope with the “quirks” of your volunteer country. I jumped into a matatu (taxi van) in Uganda recently, which probably had 20 plus people crammed in, plus some chickens and a woman just plopped her child on my lap. Laughing was the best way to cope with such a bizarre situation – and these situations turn out to be some of my best memories once I return home!

What is GVN’s most popular volunteer placement? Why do you think participants are drawn to it?

Of the programs I work with, I would say Uganda is the most popular. Having been there twice myself, I can definitely see why! Uganda has a pretty rich and varied history, but you don’t hear too much positive information in the media, but there is so much great stuff going on!

The great thing about the Uganda Program is that we work with such a range of local projects working on different things. Every day is varied, and you have a chance to try your hand at almost anything. Our Village Teaching and Outreach placement is great for someone who wants to see all the different cross-sections of life in Uganda.

What is one cultural activity you encourage your volunteers to participate in most?

FOOD. This is my cultural must-do when I visit a new place – not only do you get to try out some amazing delicacies and different foods, but there are so many great rituals, community events, and occasions that are centred around meals. Or if you’re a coffee lover, the coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is amazing!

What should participants look for from GVN in the coming years?

Look out for more in-depth and specialised opportunities to get involved at the grassroots level with our new Internships Programs. We’ve also got something incredible happening starting June 1st, 2015 called Meaningful Summer, and we can’t wait until it launches! Coming November 2014...