Volunteer Travel Operators: Get Off Your Asses and Help Your Industry!

Our goal at Voluntourism Gal is to provide insights into and facilitate discussion about the volunteer travel industry. And aside from a few wonderful, vocal people, you’re all clamming up—and that makes the whole “facilitating discussion” thing incredibly difficult.

In 2009, the State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey polled 28 U.S.-based organizations with a few short questions, which we’ll get into below. This survey allowed researchers, media, and stakeholders to understand where we were that year and what you guys projected for the future of your own industry.

Well, the landscape has changed and the information on the previous publication is outdated. This spring, we asked you five questions that would allow us to release a brand-new report with updated, relevant information. This report is intended to help the community grow and understand where we’re headed.

As of today, we haven’t received nearly enough responses yet to compile the 2013 edition. Many of you are interested in seeing the report, but you’re not actually participating in the research. Do you want to have a solid answer when someone asks, “Is volunteer travel growing?” How about, “How has your industry fared during the recession?” Do you want something to actually back it up? Do you want to see the most popular countries U.S.-based organizations are sending their volunteers to? How about an average return rate to see how you stack up against the national number? I know I did when I operated my own volunteer travel company. I built the 2009 report into my freakin’ business plan.

Those are answers we want to provide for you—and unfortunately, we can’t release or report on anything until more of you get back to us.

So! As a reminder: all participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced. Your competitors will not know how many volunteers you specifically are sending abroad, or what your company’s return rate is, or any other information about you individually.

Please take a couple minutes to answer the following five questions (plus the optional ones, if you have time) and send them to me directly at Sarah@FrayedPassport.com or to Alexia at alexia@lassocommunications.com.

And to those that have already responded: Thank you!

MAIN QUESTIONS

  1. To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  2. What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  3. How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  4. Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  5. What is your return rate for volunteers?

OPTIONAL QUESTIONS

  1. Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  2. Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  3. Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To qualify as an operator in this survey, you must have a U.S. office; send U.S. volunteers abroad; not be faith-based in any way; require that volunteers must pay for their placement; and require that travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component).

Please send all responses to Sarah@FrayedPassport.com or to Alexia at alexia@lassocommunications.com.

Reminder: State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey

Just a reminder in case you missed it: the 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey is underway!

You can view the previous one here (opens in a new tab as a PDF), or on our Voluntourism Research page.

With this report, we want to continue our research to see how the field has expanded, shrunk, or changed. Your participation in this survey will give us an accurate pulse of the industry within the United States, and will help us as we move forward with research, best practices, and more.

All participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced—for free, and for all to see.

There are two ways to participate: wait until Alexia or I call and harass you, or just send me an email (Sarah@FrayedPassport.com) with your answers. We’d much prefer an email, as this will help us keep a record of your responses—from you directly—so that nothing gets lost in the mix, and so that we’re both completely on the same page about what you’ve reported.

Also let me know if you’d be willing to send the volunteer survey out among your networks, and I will send you a survey that is branded for your organization.

Criteria to qualify as an operator in this survey:

  • Have a U.S. office
  • Send U.S. volunteers abroad
  • Not faith-based in any way
  • Volunteers must pay for their placement
  • Travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component)

Questions for operators that meet the above criteria:

  • To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  • What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  • How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  • Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  • What is your return rate for volunteers?

Optional, if you have time:

  • Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  • Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  • Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To be included in the report, we ask that you get back to us via email by this Friday, April 26. (Update: we’ve heard from those of you who’d like to send your answers along still–please send your surveys ASAP to Sarah@FrayedPassport.com and we’ll include you in the report!)

Thanks very much—we’re looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

Call for Entries: 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey

Alrighty, friends—we’re ready to start the 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey!

You can view the previous one here (opens in a new tab as a PDF), or on our Voluntourism Research page.

With this report, we want to continue our research to see if the field has expanded, shrunk, changed…well, you get the idea. Your participation in this survey will give us an accurate pulse of the industry within the United States, and will help us as we move forward with research, best practices, and more.

All participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced—for free, and for all to see.

There are two ways to participate: wait until Alexia or I call and harass you, or just send me an email (Sarah@FrayedPassport.com) with your answers. We’d much prefer an email, as this will help us keep a record of your responses—from you directly—so that nothing gets lost in the mix, and so that we’re both completely on the same page about what you’ve reported.

Also let me know if you’d be willing to send the volunteer survey out among your networks, and I will send you a survey that is branded for your organization.

Criteria to qualify as an operator in this survey:

  • Have a U.S. office
  • Send U.S. volunteers abroad
  • Not faith-based in any way
  • Volunteers must pay for their placement
  • Travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component)

Questions for operators that meet the above criteria:

  • To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  • What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  • How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  • Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  • What is your return rate for volunteers?

Optional, if you have time:

  • Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  • Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  • Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To be included in the report, we ask that you get back to us via email by Friday, April 26. (Update: we’ve heard from those of you who’d like to send your answers along still–please send your surveys ASAP to Sarah@FrayedPassport.com and we’ll include you in the report!)

Thanks very much—we’re looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

On Client Feedback: Guest Post from Ken Jones of Maximo Nivel

“Feed me…,” not just the words of a hungry child, but the daily demand of any small study abroad or service-learning organization. Or, [maybe] more famously, from the 1980s movie Short Circuit, “Innnpuuut, innnpuuut…” Anyone who runs their own business knows it’s consistently responding to feedback that ensures the organization delivers a great experience for its volunteers and students.Maximo Nivel Logo

The primary means of getting feedback is through client surveys. But feedback is of little use if 1) answer choices aren’t clear, and 2) response rates are low. Thankfully, you’ll find many experts giving advice about:

1) Unipolar versus bipolar response types.
2) What type of rating levels should be used?
3) Should negative responses be listed first?
4) Exactly how should questions be worded?
5) How long should a survey be?

My post here is not an end-all guide for creating the perfect client survey, but the simple, straightforward “survey powered by squirrel” approach we use and have developed over 10 years in business.

GET PHYSICAL

Our system is based around physical feedback cards. These are filled out on the volunteer’s last day of their program. We regularly achieve collection rates in excess of 90% of participants, and we do this by requiring our teams to collect a minimum of 90% in order to qualify for team bonuses. A 90+% collection rate helps ensure the results reflect a wide view of our program.

When we miss a volunteer on their last day, we email an electronic feedback form. In our experience though, the physical cards get a far higher response rate and volunteers give us more useful information on them. E-surveys are likely less effective because of crowded email boxes, effective spam filters, and emails are just too easily set aside (and never returned to).
Physical feedback cards also have immediacy—the volunteer’s feelings about the program are upfront and fresh in their mind; it’s not a week or two after the volunteer’s experience.

SHORT & SWEET

Our survey fits on a 5 x 7 card. There are 10 key points on which we ask volunteers to rate us. This means when a volunteer looks at our card, it’s something that immediately looks easy to complete and is not time consuming. Volunteers rate us on four areas: Orientation, Accommodation, Volunteer Project, and Our Organization (e.g. Client Service and Facilities).

RATING LEVELS

Most performance review systems use four level, five level , and seven level rating scales. For example:

Always Exceeded Expectations / Frequently Exceeded Expectations / Sometimes Exceeded Expectations / Met Expectations / Sometimes Didn’t Meet Expectations / Frequently Didn’t Meet Expectations / Never Met Expectations

Five level and seven level rating scales are most common and I’m told the most accurate. Be careful, because the experts say 0-10 rating scales reduce reliability and validity. The argument for more options in rating levels is that when there are more answers to choose from, the volunteer has more options to better reflect how they feel, and the survey provides improved granularity for analysis.

The problem with these systems is that I’m never sure what to make of them. Does a 7 out of 10 equate to 70%, so that’s a “C” or “Satisfactory” or is it actually a stronger rating, because it’s above the mid-point (5/10)? Also, what’s the difference between “Okay” / “Satisfactory” / “Fair” / “Acceptable?” And, should these ratings be considered any “good?” Aren’t these just nicer ways of saying “needs improvement?”

To keep things simple and straightforward, we use only three rating levels: “Excellent,” “Good,” and “Needs Improvement.” We look at the volunteer experience in these terms: “Did we exceed, meet, or not meet the volunteer’s expectations?” Three rating levels keeps it super simple!

ANALYZE OPEN RESPONSES

On the back of our feedback card, we ask our volunteers to give us additional comments. Approximately 70% take the extra minute or two to leave us additional thoughts. These free text answers provide valuable insight into volunteer satisfaction. However, they need to be analyzed and comments need to be categorized for tracking.

We read every single one of them, and we react. If a team member could have been friendlier, this is brought to their attention; if a team member is mentioned by name in a really positive way they’re told and congratulated; if a host family is criticized, we hold a meeting with the family, and so on.

BE REAL—Read, Evaluate, Act, Learn

Most importantly, we track our feedback statistics. These are discussed in weekly team meetings and action points are identified. If there is something very serious, the card is immediately brought to the Executive Director’s desk!

We insist that teams track their results week by week. If feedback statistics are put off until the end of the month, the gathering and reporting becomes too large a task. Also, by looking at statistics week to week, our teams can react more immediately and they’re not “surprised” at the end of the month with lower than expected results.

Finally, volunteers are happy to leave feedback, but they’re even happier when we’ve acted on their feedback. When we identify tough or critical comments we respond to the volunteer. We never respond defensively, though we do take the time to provide things like price breakdowns, answers about our business relationships, our plans for improving a particular project, etc.

In the end, client feedback is an incredibly effective business tool, but it can easily become over complicated. Read up on what the experts have to say and experiment and adapt your process as you go along. Above all, keep it simple and look for ways to drive collection rates as high as you can—this maximizes your input.

Learn more about Maximo Nivel at www.maximonivel.com.

Does Your Organization Follow Any Specific Set of Voluntourism Guidelines?

Every few months, a new announcement—or at least discussion—about volunteer travel guidelines flies by my inbox.

Proposals of watchdog groups, new ethical and practical standards, and even research reports find their way onto voluntourism discussion boards like clockwork.

A few we’ve seen in just the past few years:

As many of us know already, there have been rumblings for years about creating a voluntourism umbrella group that would serve to unite providers and neutral parties alike—one that could attempt to pull together the scattered research and varied sets of guidelines set out by the many parties involved or interested in the voluntourism industry. At least from the discussion boards I frequent, I haven’t seen much conversation about this idea actually taking off—but would love to hear feedback from others about whether it’s happening, or whether you think it will or will not happen.

And so with all of that said, my question to you is this: as a volunteer abroad operator, do you adhere to any specific set of guidelines put out by researchers or other providers? From simple guides, to more complex ones, to membership and evaluation groups, have you actively set forth efforts to adhere to any particular set of standards?

And if so, where are you in the process? What have you found to be the most challenging part of following those standards, and what do you do to continually monitor and evaluate them?

Where in Nepal is John Doe?

Where in Nepal is John Doe?

By Will Harper, Director – Projects Abroad USA

Kathmandu? Annapurna? Chitwan? But I am getting ahead of myself …..

The concept of self funded volunteer work, i.e. paying to volunteer, was much more novel when
I was a volunteer in 2003 and when I first started working in the international volunteer field five
years ago. With more people familiar with the concept and the numbers of Americans traveling
abroad to volunteer increasing every year, the debate has now shifted to understanding the cost
difference and value of different programs.

Mimicking this volunteer increase is the significant growth of the international volunteer field
over the last couple of years with organizations of all stripes. This is a good thing. It has pushed
established programs to improve their projects and it has increased the number of Americans
traveling to developing countries to volunteer. I am a firm believer that the more people that
live and work in local communities overseas on sustainable projects the better. But a trend I
have noticed is that, all too often, prospective volunteers think that they are comparing apples
to apples. Many people think subconsciously that different organizations offer the same level
of support, staff back up and focus on developing sustainable projects, and increasingly choose
their organization on price alone.

What triggered this observation was a call several weeks ago from a very worried Mom in
Minnesota. Her son, let’s call him “John”, had left for Nepal a month ago and she had not any
word from him since. Unfortunately John hadn’t told his Mom with whom he was volunteering
or where he would be staying. She on the other hand was not very internet savvy or adept at
email. It was a perfect storm of non-communication! She gave the Projects Abroad office in
New York a call after she found our brochure in John’s room. After she explained the situation
I looked at our internal database system and saw that her son was not volunteering with us as he
never applied. I explained that if he was a volunteer with us we would have his application on
file, would know when he arrived, have periodic updates on him from our staff in Kathmandu
and we would be able to pass on a message. But it appeared that he was working with another
organization. My heart went out to this Mom, especially as someone who similarly left my own
mother out of the loop for a couple of weeks when I was volunteering in Romania. Through
the amazing power of the internet I found out that her son was indeed in Nepal with another
organization that didn’t have a US office or any easy way to get in touch with them other
than through the internet. I called her back and explained what I found and how to make an
international call, which she was very thankful for.

Long story short, there were a lot of things John could have done to assuage his poor Mom. But
it is important to consider that this could have been averted if he went with a comprehensive
organization like those associated with the IVPA or BBC with a proper support system (both project and

volunteer) in place. Local staff would be checking up on him, his Mom could call
a US office to relay her concerns and there would be an emergency number that John and his
Mom could call if there was ever a need. As the field of international volunteering grows, it will
be more and more important that prospective volunteers understand the value and structure of
different organizations.

What are your thoughts?