GoAbroad Interview

Jonathan Gilben - Co-Founder & Co-Director

Jonathan Gilben

After completing his bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, Jonathan began volunteering in different conservation projects around the world. His positive and powerful volunteering experiences led him to believe that other like-minded people would also enjoy similar opportunities. Jonathan then decided to complete a master’s degree and went on to create GoEco with his high school friend Jonathan Tal. He now leads the daily operations of GoEco.

You went to high school with Jonathan T., your co-founder. How in the world do people at the office keep their Jonathans straight?

The honest answer is that I am bald and Jonathan Tal has a wonderful head of thick dark hair, so on the surface we couldn’t look less alike. Alternatively, people in the office generally refer to us by our different surnames.

How did two high school buddies put their heads together and come up with the mission behind GoEco?

The idea behind GoEco came from our own personal experience volunteering. After an amazing volunteer experience in Mexico, I convinced Jonathan Tal to join me on a sea turtle program in Greece. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to do things you would never do as a tourist and after our time together there we decided we wanted to give international travelers similar opportunities on different projects in and around the world. Our first project was working with sea turtles at the Alexander River in Israel, and from there the concept just grew. The rest, as they say, is history.

GoEco staff members

Members of the GoEco team. Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Gilben

In your own mind, what makes GoEco’s programs different from other environmental and conservation programs available around the world?

There are many volunteer opportunities out there, but GoEco provides clearly focused projects so you get the best out of your volunteering experience. We offer a large variety of opportunities, with wildlife and in the humanitarian sphere, for all types of volunteers; there are hands on experiential opportunities as well as research based practices. You can work closely with children and have the benefit of immersing yourself in the country’s culture, and of course learn new things and meet new people.

Have your own international volunteer experiences helped you shape GoEco into what it is today?

Absolutely! The fact that we’ve lived the experience gives us insight into understanding what makes a project worthwhile, both to the initiative and the prospective volunteer. We also attend international volunteer travel conferences when we can, so we get the opportunity to meet many different people from the industry and share ideas. All of our experiences have enabled us to understand all spheres of the volunteer experience. 

Clearly, volunteering abroad has had an immense impact on your life. How does GoEco convey this “life-changing” nature of international volunteer work to participants before their departure?

We have a strong and enthusiastic operations team who know and believe in our product. Through their own personal experiences and knowledge about GoEco and our projects, as well as our destination countries, they are able to provide insight and support to all our volunteers prior to their departure.

Man mixing ingredients at a Vegan Bakery in Tel Aviv, Israel

Jonathan helping to mix things up at our Vegan Bakery Internship in Tel Aviv

If we joined you in the office for a day, what would our day look like?

I’m generally up at about 6 a.m., as I like to get my exercise in before I get to the office (I’m a big fan of swimming). In the office, my day generally consists of overseeing the operations of our various volunteer projects. This includes tasks like, communicating with our partners, meeting with the staff, developing and overseeing promotional campaigns, and ensuring that any issues on the ground are dealt with in a timely fashion.

What is most rewarding part about your job?

Being able to promote and provide opportunities for people the world over, to engage in volunteering. I have done it and I know how rewarding the experience is, and I love knowing that other people are able to benefit from the experience because of the service we provide. On top of that, we are supporting local initiatives, through funds and manpower, allowing them to promote and support their conservation and humanitarian aid efforts.

What is one thing you hope every participant takes home with them from GoEco programs?

I would love to know that volunteers are taking all the knowledge and experiences they gain on their projects and apply it to their everyday life. That they return from these wonderful, rewarding experiences abroad where they practically learn about world issues, and are able to, and of course motivate others to, live a more sustainable life

Over the years, GoEco’s programs have developed and expanded. What can we expect from GoEco in 2016?

2016 is a year we would like to focus on promoting new, exciting, and innovative projects. These will include opportunities in new destinations. We are currently looking at grassroots projects that will benefit both animals and people. We hope to be working with more high quality education projects and will be offering TEFL training programs, in order to provide more opportunities for volunteers to develop their own individual skill sets. We are also developing our own personal systems, ensuring a more user-friendly experience with a clear focus on our feedback system.