GoAbroad Interview

Alex Tarrant - Co-Founder & Managing Director

Alex co-founded Pod Volunteer in 2002 and currently serves as the managing director. Before starting Pod Volunteer, he spent several years traveling and working in Africa and Asia, including being a TEFL teacher, PADI Divemaster, and in a previous life he spent six years in management consultancy.

Locals in the village of Yamba in Tanzania welcoming a foreign visitor

Visit to the village of Yamba in Tanzania to set up a new project there and being welcomed by a huge crowd with gifts, including local crops and a rabbit!

You are one of the co-founders of Pod Volunteer, what about your volunteer experience establishing a charity in Africa inspired you to start your own organization?

It was one of those unplanned sequences of events in life that turns out to be pretty life changing! I decided to quit my job working in management consultancy and do something a bit more meaningful, but I had no idea what! I decided to take some time out and travel and one of my best friends was heading out to Tanzania the summer of 2001. I joined him, and while traveling around we bumped into an English man living out there in a very remote rural village. He was in the early stages of setting up a charity to help the very poor local community, and he asked for our help.

We spent an amazing six weeks living amongst the local community there getting everything in place for the charity. When it came time to leave, he asked us whether there was any way we could send out more volunteers like us to keep the work going, hence the seed of Pod Volunteer was sown!

What does a day in the life of Pod Volunteer’s Managing Director look like?

Varied! I suppose that’s why I love it so much! We are a small organization, so it means I can get involved in many different things each day at quite ranging levels of involvement. Looking at my inbox today I have marketing jobs, some technical things to do on the website (I like to get involved in the tech stuff!), volunteer feedback to read through, plans for an upcoming office move, and a Year Out Group initiative, an industry body of which I am a member of the executive committee.

What sets Pod Volunteer’s programs apart from other volunteer abroad organizations?

It’s a simple principle, but one that we are constantly challenging ourselves with: to be as ethical as possible. Whether it’s the way we do things in our office or the way we work with our overseas volunteers projects and volunteers, we only want to do things in the most responsible or ethical way. Sometimes it’s tempting to take a shortcut, but it’s not the right way to do things and in the long term we believe our ethics will set us apart from many of the other organizations in our industry who may have other short term motives, such as being profit making.

Pod Volunteer is a non-profit with a sister charity, this means we focus all our attention on the right objectives.

English summer camp in Thailand

Running an English Summer Camp with a group of volunteers in Thailand

How do you prepare and support first time volunteers?

For many of our volunteers it’s their first time volunteering overseas, although they may well have volunteered at home before. We have to prepare them both for volunteering and for traveling overseas, as life in the countries we work in is pretty different!

We believe very strongly in providing a strong support network, from the point someone applies to the time they are overseas to the stage when they return and we ask them for their feedback. We provide a comprehensive volunteering guide, and each volunteer has a dedicated placement manager available by email and phone. While volunteers are in country they will have local in-country support as well as 24/7 back up from the Pod Volunteer office.

How would you define a successful volunteer? 

I think ultimately it’s about being of genuine help to projects that need it. Successful volunteers tend to be those who are open minded and can adapt to the challenges and situations they find themselves in, which will be very different to what they are used to at home.

In the broader scheme of things, I’d like to think that a successful volunteer will take away things from their experience which will influence what they do in the rest of their life and the impact that they have in the world.

You taught abroad previously, how did this experience shape your development of volunteer abroad programming?

I really enjoyed teaching abroad in Thailand, and it was very useful understanding TEFL teaching when we came to planning our teaching placements. Mike (the other co-founder) was also a teacher in the U.K., so it was an area we understood well and many of our first placements were teaching English. 

In some of the countries we work with (such as Ghana) they use the English alphabet for their own language, whereas in others (like Thailand) it’s a completely different alphabet. As such, it’s really important to tailor the type of teaching to the level and needs of the students and the environment they are living in.

Pod Volunteer Co-Founders ready for a Pod Charity run

Alex doing a 10k charity run for the Pod Charity, pictured alongside Pod’s co-founder, Mike Beecham and holding his two week old baby daughter, Rose

What has been your biggest challenge in establishing Pod Volunteer? 

I think the biggest challenge looking back was a financial one. In 2008 and 2009 there was a sudden and dramatic shift in exchange rates. Most of our costs are overseas, so we were very exposed and Mike and I had to invest personal money to make sure we survived. It was worth it, but pretty stressful at the time. Now that we are larger, we have reserves in place to protect us against this sort of thing, which will no doubt happen again sometime (hopefully not soon!). 

Alternatively, what would you say is your biggest achievement thus far?

The biggest achievement for me is one that is very recent and still current, assisting with the Nepal earthquake disaster relief. We had staff and volunteers there at the time, and we launched an appeal through the Pod Charity to assist local villages who were not receiving any other aid. Volunteers, friends, and family were incredibly quick to help, and were so generous. It brought tears to my eyes and was incredibly humbling how kind people can be, something we don’t often hear about on the news.

With the money we raised (almost $20,000), and with our staff on the ground working incredibly hard, we were able to get provisions out to villages within the first few days after the earthquake struck and help people who had lost everything. Apart from everything else, it made me incredibly pleased that we had taken the decision to set up a registered charity to help support our projects, the appeal wouldn’t have been possible without this.

Centipede crawling on a mans arm in Thailand

Alex traveling in Thailand with his wife and experiencing some creepy crawlies!

What is Pod Volunteer’s best characteristic?

That’s an easy one for me to answer: adaptability. The ability to change and adapt to all the challenges we have experienced over the years has meant we have survived and made a real difference. Our team are very quick to identify and implement new ideas.

You’ve traveled much of Africa and Asia, if you had to hop on a plane tomorrow to volunteer abroad somewhere new, where would you go and why?

Sorry, it’s Asia again! I would love to go to Burma. I came close a few times in the past, but never managed to get there. It’s a fascinating country with a chequered past and emerging future. 

What is the most fulfilling part about working for Pod Volunteer?

Two things for me. First and foremost, the difference we are trying to make in the world; it’s a pretty good feeling to be part of that and helps you sleep at night even when times are tough! Closely followed is the people I work with, working with a team of passionate and committed individuals who are incredibly dedicated and always happy to challenge me is something I thrive on.

What’s in store for the future? Any new projects or updates we should know about?

We are quite cautious about adding new projects, as we always want to make sure it’s a project where there is genuine need and a good structure for volunteers, but we do have some exciting new developments at the moment. We have literally just added Madagascar to our portfolio, some incredible conservation and community projects in an incredibly poor country. It’s always nice to add a country where people know a little about it, even if it is due to an animated movie!