GoAbroad Interview

Steve Gwenin - Chief Executive

Steve Gwenin - Chief Executive

Steve started with GVI in 2002 as a marine biologist and commercial diver with a history of working around the world with NGOs and commercial companies on natural resource conservation initiatives. He joined GVI to set up and run GVI's first ever marine research program in Mexico. He has since worked around the world setting up and directing almost all of the projects that GVI runs today. Steve offers GVI an wealth of experience and knowledge, but above all, he brings a very clear focus upon the impact of our work and the satisfaction rates of volunteers, interns, and partners.

Volunteers tracking leopards
Tracking leopards in the evening.

GVI started in 1997, what inspired it?

Our founder and director, Richard Walton, volunteered internationally when he was 18. He had a great time but felt the experienced was focused upon his personal development as opposed to community development. I think he built a bandstand or some such thing which was pulled down by the community afterwards and used for firewood. GVI puts the needs of the community and partners as high as the needs of the volunteer, if not higher. We focus upon impact on the ground, and the impact upon the volunteer comes as benefit, not the principle aim. 

GVI is one of the most prominent international volunteering providers in the world, what is the organization’s key to success in your opinion?

Our people and our culture. We are a passionate, intelligent, hard working bunch who love what we do and care about it a great deal. We want to make a difference, it’s why we are here, so our organization, our staff, and our volunteers all have the same aims; there is a very high degree of alignment.

What sets GVI apart from other providers offering international internships and volunteering opportunities?

We invest heavily in our staff structure and programs, which we run in partnership with our local partners and under their direction. We spend time researching our partners and work with some of the most respected NGOs and government agencies on the world, including Save the Children, and the National Parks of South Africa, Costa Rica, Thailand, and the Kenya Wildlife Service. Hence our programs are well directed and address local needs, use local methodologies, and we have the sufficient staff numbers and local knowledge to manage situations well when we meet the unexpected. 

You were acknowledged in 2011 as “The World’s Best Organization to Volunteer with,” what is the best characteristic of GVI’s volunteer programs?

Our passion. It is in our nature and it’s often seen that our staff go above and beyond what could ever be expected of them. That attitude filters down to our volunteers and hence our teams are able to achieve so much more.

Before committing to volunteering or interning with GVI, what is the number one thing people should know about your organization?

We are serious about what we do, and require volunteers to met our expectations. If you wish to volunteer and make a difference on the ground, whilst gaining unique experiences and having the time of your life, volunteer with us. If you wish to go on a cheap beach holiday and not work, perhaps look elsewhere.

You offer more than 150 programs all over the world, what’s your most popular destination? What do you see as the biggest draw of that location?

Our most popular destination is an even split between Fiji and South Africa presently. We try hard not to sell the destination, but focus on the experience. In South Africa we research big game, including lions, leopards, and cheetah, looking at predator prey relationships, or work on education, sports, and health care programs in Cape Town with local disadvantaged children.

In Fiji we conduct marine research, install water tanks, set up and run natural resource conservation initiatives and work within local schools upon literacy and numeracy under the Ministry of Youth. In both locations, volunteers gain access to environments and experiences unobtainable to normal tourists.

The fact that your organization is one of the most prominent and highly respected internship and volunteering providers in the whole world may make interested individuals assume your programs are very expensive. How do you make sure that your prices are still very competitive and affordable, without sacrificing the quality of your services?

We do not really try to make our costs competitive as we feel we are quite different from a lot of the other organizations in our sector. Our prices are based upon what it costs us to run the projects year round to a high standard and achieve real impact on the ground. We run our programs long term and to our own high standards. The costs of this are not really relevant to other organizations who may run other types of programs, perhaps in starts and stops and perhaps with no real focus upon impact or quality. Whilst it’s true our operations have a lot of costs, and not that much more than some of the other organisations, our prices are well worth the extra!

How do you help volunteers who have limited financial means join your programs?

We work to support potential volunteers with fundraising support if they need it, which allows anyone determined enough to come and help us. We also offer a scholarship program to host nationals to ensure it’s not only westerners who get to volunteer, make a difference, and learn  new skills, but also local budding biologists and teachers from all of our locations we work in.

Adjusting to life in a new place is always difficult, how does GVI help participants feel comfortable and prevent students from experiencing overwhelming adjustment periods?

We have been managing and running our volunteer programs since 1997 across the world. During this time we have tried and tested many techniques and refined practices which are used across of all our programs. We manage the entire volunteer experience, from pre-departure, to arrival, welcome, orientation and training, project work, program completion and departure, to arrival at home, and post project communication.

Our arrival and training programs are standardized across projects and locations to contain a minimum set number of topics which we have found help mitigate the culture shock some volunteers may experience. We have a strong staff structure on the ground which is able to support volunteers who may be struggling, and every team has daily briefings and access to staff for informal one on one conversations. All in all we have 14 communication channels available to our volunteers, to help catch and support those may be finding the conditions, culture or work challenging. 

Aside from the well-known recognitions and awards given to GVI, what do you see as GVI’s biggest achievement thus far?

On the ground, we have achieved some amazing impact, ranging from implementing community managed reserves to supplying well over 10 million hours of primary education around the world. However, these achievements primarily impact upon local, specific areas.

Surprisingly, given the stats, where I feel we make our biggest difference is through global awareness. Through our volunteers and staff, our passion and knowledge has now been shared with over 130,000 people directly, and millions through our media channels, and as we mature as an organization we are seeing more and more of our alumni holding increasingly senior positions in the third sector, and the number of people being made aware of and educated in global issues is increasing exponentially.

It’s hard to track other than through examples, but it’s becoming clear to us all that it’s our alumni, be them our former staff, our volunteers. or our community members, that are our route to changing the world’s attitudes and supplying solutions to the world’s issues.

What words of wisdom would you give to students, families, or individuals who wish to embark on meaningful international travel experiences?

Do your research. There are many different orgs out there, with varying aims, standards, prices, qualities, and experiences. Decide what you would like to do, and then work out which organization is the best fit for you. If you wish to make a difference, what you will be doing exactly, ask about who they work with, who runs the project, what they have achieved so far. If you wish to budget, ask specifically what is included, and what isn’t, sometimes the lower advertised price does not result in the lower price to you once you have paid for your airport pick up, your food, transport, side trip, etc, so be clear about what you will receive, and what else you will need to fund.

Should you wish to be well supported on the ground and your experience to be well organized, find out what staff your organization has on the ground, how many, and what their qualifications or experience are. Above all, do your research. Check out the organization on social media, ask to speak to alumni, and make sure the organization has good reviews and is a good fit for you and your specific needs.

After almost two decades of success, what is there to expect from GVI in the future?

Expect more of the same. Our passion, and our vision, is making an impact on the ground and being the best at it. We work every day to be the best and when we face an issue or a tough decision, we ask ourselves, what would the best do? We are focused upon it and discuss it regularly internally and take pride in it. It guides our culture and controls our decisions, even when those decisions do not make the most financial sense! 95 percent of our volunteers wish to return and volunteer with us again, and so we know two things: that our programs are very, very good, and that we can still get better!