GoAbroad Interview

Ben Brown - Head of Sustainability

Ben Brown - Head of Sustainability

International Volunteer HQ has been providing affordable, responsible, and high-quality volunteer travel experiences since 2007. Today, IVHQ is one of the world's leading volunteer travel companies, placing thousands of volunteers in projects in 29 countries every year. Ben Brown is the company's Head of Sustainability. His aim is to ensure that IVHQ operates transparently and plays a positive role in supporting communities to thrive in the long term.

Sustainability is a word often heard in international volunteering. How do you define sustainable volunteering? 

Posing in New Delhi, India

During a visit to India to meet stakeholders (Delhi).

Sustainability is fundamentally about balance. It’s about behaving in ways that enable a diverse range of stakeholders to succeed and flourish in the long-term. There are many elements to sustainable volunteering, but some of the aspects for a volunteer to consider include how transparent an organization is in terms of how they identify the projects they support, especially in relation to projects that involve children, the extent to which volunteers will be trained and supported to work with local people in a responsible way, and the ability of an organization to demonstrate the long term impact that their projects have had on supporting genuine community or environmental needs.

Sustainable volunteering is about having the right expectations and being conscious that you’re not going to change the world, but you might provide a useful resource of time and money that helps to build capacity in a community over time. It’s also about considering the lifecycle of volunteer travel and identifying ways to reduce your travel carbon footprint, by using alternative modes of transport or offsetting the emissions of flights for example.

How does embedding sustainability in everything International Volunteer HQ does make the organization stronger?

Volunteers and our community partners expect us to operate sustainably, so embedding it into everything we do makes us more resilient in the long term. It ensures that our programs can continue to operate and have a positive impact, it makes us more attractive to volunteers, and it enables us to recruit and retain the best talent. 

 IVHQ is one of the world's leading volunteer travel companies. What is the main contributor to the organization’s success in your opinion?

We’ve been big on honesty and openness from the very beginning. IVHQ started at a time when volunteer travel was expensive and there was little transparency about where the money was going, and how it was benefiting the communities where volunteers were placed. Our success has come through challenging the status quo and providing a volunteer travel experience that is affordable, responsible and transparent. We’re also a passionate and youthful organization and that appeals to volunteers young and old.

Volunteer teaching in India

Visiting an IVHQ volunteer teaching in India.

How does sustainability impact volunteer program development and maintenance?

Sustainability plays a central role in how we select programs and it is key focus in our ongoing quality control processes. We spend a lot of time assessing potential local teams before we open a new program and we ask them some pretty tough questions about their people, their understanding of local needs, and how they select projects. We need to have certainty that the people we work with in a country can meet all of our expectations around sustainability and transparency, and we’ve certainly said no to a good number of organizations who fall down in this area. Each member of our Head Office staff is trained to audit our programs and we assess them against the same tough criteria every year. This helps us to build plans for continuous improvement. 

IVHQ offers a wide range of volunteer programs in a similarly broad array of countries. Which volunteering programs or destinations do you consider your “pride and joy” as Head of Sustainability? 

Our turtle conservation project in Bali is a strong model of sustainability. Volunteers support a local organization to address a conservation need that has typically not been met, through the rehabilitation and re-release of injured turtles. Our local team has built partnerships with local fishermen and other members of the community to report sightings of injured animals and they are invited to be a part of the rehabilitation and re-release program. Volunteers on this program support the local organization to operate by maintaining and enhancing the facilities and through providing basic veterinary care. Volunteer fees fund the more specialized care that is required by many of the injured turtles.

Rehabilitated turtle in Bali, Indonesia

A rehabilitated turtle ready for release - Bali.

The program ticks a number of boxes in a “sustainability” sense because volunteers are supporting the long-term viability a project, which aims to restore a vital part of the marine ecosystem. The program has been created in consultation with local stakeholders and the impact over time is very tangible.

IVHQ has volunteer programs in Latin America, Africa, the Pacific and Asia. What makes countries in these regions ideal destinations for volunteer programs from a sustainability perspective? 

We think any destination is suitable for a volunteer program. Volunteering, whether at home or abroad, is essentially about offering time and resource to a supporting a community or environmental need that is not being addressed by a government or local non-government organization. These needs exist in many countries around the world including those that are typically considered “developed”.

For example, in New Zealand we have a growing problem with the quality of our freshwater ecosystems that the government isn’t being particularly proactive about sorting out. Volunteers would be valuable in New Zealand to support projects focused on helping to restore these ecosystems through riparian tree planting. It is not the location that makes a volunteering program sustainable, but the way it is structured and run.

How do IVHQ programs teach volunteers about sustainability? 

We’ve got a series of online training modules that teach volunteers about sustainability. We want IVHQ volunteers to be both responsible and valuable when they’re abroad, so our training teaches them about steps they can take to ensure their contribution is a sustainable one. We encourage volunteers to set realistic expectations, to challenge themselves to understand that they will need to learn about community before they can “help” and we give them tips about how to ensure their volunteer work supports long-term goals that are decided by local people.

Our online training is free and exclusive to IVHQ volunteers, and it’s supported with detailed face-to-face training as part of the in-country orientation, once a volunteer arrives on their program.

Visiting Temples in Cambodia

Visiting temples in Cambodia.

What makes IVHQ programs stand apart from those offered by other volunteer program providers?

I personally believe we provide the best value responsible volunteering option. I say “value” because whilst we’re a highly affordable option, we also offer a huge amount and service and support to volunteers. Beyond the basics that you expect, like strong health and safety and risk management measures, this includes a dedicated “logged-in” section within our website packed with volunteer information, detailed training, first rate service on almost any platform, and access to a community or more than 50,000 current and future volunteers who can provide advice, inspiration, and guidance.

What is the top reason volunteers should join International Volunteer HQ programs? 

We’re trusted by thousands of volunteers every year to provide a brilliant, sustainable, and responsible experience. They tell us time and again that they choose us because of our affordable programs and our transparency.

What can we expect from IVHQ and its bid for sustainability in the next five years? 

We’re going to continue setting ourselves apart through our approach to sustainability. In the short-term that means better communication of our policies and operating practices, and more information becoming available about the long-term impact that we’re having in each country. We’re also looking at how we can partner with other organizations to collaborate and bring change on important issues faster, and at greater scale than we can on our own.   

Vegetation in New Zealand

Even “developed” countries like New Zealand can benefit from the contribution that volunteers make.

We plan to be around for a long time and we’re committed to ensuring that every community we work in is supported to thrive. Sustainability is part of our DNA, so watch this space.