GoAbroad Interview

Mike Brackenridge - Programs Manager

Mike Breckenridge - Programs Manager

As the programs manager for a fast-growing global volunteering organization, Mike plays a key role in ensuring volunteers are placed in only the highest quality projects where their help is truly needed. A proud Kiwi, he is a key member of Love Volunteers’ management team, a self-confessed travel-junkie, and a bit of a foodie!

What is your background in volunteering and how did you get connected with Love Volunteers (LV)?

I had always loved travelling and experiencing new cultures, but like most people I always felt as though I should be “doing more” with this one and only life of mine. I wanted to help people and to give back rather than take selfishly, as modern society grooms us to do. I had worked very hard to forge a career, to “earn”, to have the best “stuff”; but by my early 30’s, I had grown to almost loath it all, and a chance meeting with Kelly, LV’s founder and “inspirational leader”, led me to challenge all the assumptions I had made about what it truly meant to live life.

I quit my job, joined the LV team, and here I am helping thousands of volunteers every year do amazing things all over the world. I’ve never looked back!

Volunteers with children in Oaxaca, Mexico

Visiting with some of our awesome volunteers in Oaxaca, Mexico!

What does your day-to-day look like as programs manager?

We are a relatively small team here at LV, especially compared to some of the more “corporate-type” organizations out there, and we do this rather deliberately to keep internal costs (and hence our program fees) as low as possible. As a result, every member of our team is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades. So whilst my job title and main function here at LV is programs manager (which entails all things to do with our projects, including project creation/validation and process review/continuous improvement), you can also find me answering emails and chatting to volunteers on the phone about their upcoming placements. 

Love Volunteers offers a variety of volunteer projects in a wide range of destinations. What is your most popular project placement and why is it so special?

Since I joined the LV team three or so years ago, the one and only thing that has remained constant is change itself! We will go for months with volunteers seemingly all seeking projects in one continent, Africa for example, then (perhaps following global travel trends) Asia or the Americas will become “hot property”.

Needless to say, volunteers are always needed all over the world, but currently the hot spots are definitely Peru, Honduras, Argentina, and Thailand; no doubt this will change again in a few months! At least with LV though, our volunteers know that we have all of the options covered, and with 200+ projects across 37 countries (and counting), we are sure to have an amazing project for them no matter what.

What sets Love Volunteers apart from other volunteer organizations whose goal is also to “make a difference”?

Easy, we mean it! Making a REAL difference is not just some tagline we use, it is the ethos we live by, the force that drives us, and the foundation to everything we do. We go to great lengths to ensure our volunteers are giving their time, effort, and heart where it is truly needed, in communities that are desperate for the ongoing support that international volunteers can provide. On top of this, we do it for less than other organizations and can provide volunteering abroad opportunities to people from all over the world for a fraction of the cost offered by some other organizations. 

How do you go about making sure your volunteer projects are ethical and sustainable?

We spend a great deal of time and energy researching, consulting, reviewing, vetting, and verifying all of our projects before they are even considered for our volunteers. We visit each and every project on a regular basis. We shake the hands and put in the face time. We spend time at the project sites, interact with the children and community members, we visit and chat with the host families, and we stay at the volunteer houses. We do it so that we can provide the best quality advice and support to our volunteers, who can rest assured that the leg-work has been done, that they will be in safe hands, and that their help is genuinely needed. As programs manager, this forms the core of my role on the LV team, and while often challenging, is it a very rewarding part of what I do and what I contribute. 

View of Aguas Calientes in Peru

Definitely one of my favorite spots in South America - Aguas Calientes!

What type of pre-departure and in country orientation do you have for volunteers?

Every Love Volunteer receives a comprehensive pre-departure guidebook upon registration into any of our projects. This extensive document contains heaps of really useful information, including sections on the volunteering destination, the local area, the project itself, the local team, accommodation, food, communication, safety, and so much more! Not only does this help our volunteers prepare completely for their service trip abroad, it is a great way to ensure everybody’s expectations are aligned prior to ever leaving home. Of course, the team here at LV is available throughout the entire preparation phase and we’re more than happy to help. 

Once a volunteer arrives at their volunteering destination our local teams provide a full project and safety orientation, following a strict set of guidelines so as to ensure every volunteer receives all the information they will require to have both a safe and a productive service placement. 

What kind of onsite support can volunteers expect, especially in relation to culture shock?

Culture shock is one of those things that everyone can see and comprehend rationally, except when it is happening to them! It can affect anyone and, from my experience at least, does affect everyone to one degree or another. But culture shock is not something to be wary of, or something to try and avoid; quite the opposite in fact.

It is the presence of culture shock that lets you know you are experiencing something completely different and seeing a new perspective, and that, if you allow it, will make you a better person.

After years of supporting volunteers and assisting many thousands throughout their placements, I can honestly say that it is those volunteers who have exhibited the greatest culture shock (which can sometimes manifest itself as “a bit of a freak-out”) that are the ones who come out the other side having gained the most from the experience.

Witnessing this personal growth in people on an almost daily basis is certainly a very rewarding aspect of what we all do, but for those volunteers that do experience culture shock, our dedicated onsite teams are there to provide 24/7 support and guidance.

You’re a newer addition to the Love Volunteers team, what was your first impression and how has that changed?

I think the biggest difference that I have noticed since starting at LV until now is how incredibly hard the team works each and every day. I naturally assumed that by working in the voluntary service sector and helping so many volunteers help others every day I would (excuse the cliché) “sleep like a baby”.

The truth is, however, that behind the scenes there is so much more going on than most people get to see. So many people put their faith in us to “get it right”, and this is not something we take lightly. Our volunteers have often worked their butts off saving for their service trip abroad, and for most people it is going to be a truly life-changing experience, so it is our job to ensure that becoming a Love Volunteer means more than just words; it means trust, transparency, community benefit, and to us, it means family. Every one of our team members put their heart and soul into what we do every day, but it pales in comparison to the amazing things being done by our volunteers every day all over the world, and that is after all why we do what we do!

Volunteers with children in La Ceiba, Honduras

Project visit in La Ceiba, Honduras - these kids were so much fun!

What is the most fulfilling part about working for Love Volunteers?

Wow, well to be honest it’s kinda hard to narrow it down, but if I had to choose one aspect it would certainly be the knowledge that every day, all over the world (even while I’m sleeping!), there are Love Volunteers out there teaching, educating, guiding, nurturing, protecting, rebuilding, learning and growing, and changing lives. Their work doesn’t stop, their efforts don’t cease, and the change is happening. It’s a wonderful thing to just be a part of, and that’s volunteering!

What are some upcoming projects or new programs you are working on that we should know about?

One of our key philosophies here at LV is that more programs equals more benefit. We do not focus our efforts on filling projects with large number of volunteers to “maximize profit”. If a particular project only requires two or three volunteers at a time to be successful, then that is the number we cap it at. We simply seek to help where it is really needed, big or small, and as such the search for new projects to support is never ending and unrestricted. We have lots of exciting new projects and project locations that are already in the final stages of our rigorous vetting procedures, and we hope to have these ready for volunteers as soon as possible, so watch this space!