That’s where GivingWay comes in. I recently interviewed GivingWay’s founder founder and CEO Orit Strauss, and she explained how her own longer-term (travel) volunteering experiences compelled her to launch the online platform.
Why were you inspired to launch GivingWay?
As a volunteer myself almost 20 years ago, I was quite amazed to see how volunteering abroad had become a “business” – and a lucrative one at that – in which the biggest beneficiaries are the (mostly Western) placement agencies and not the local communities themselves. We want to make volunteering accessible and easy for all and we want to enable even the remotest of organizations to be found by suitable volunteers that match their actual needs. We believe that by cutting out agents and agent fees and allowing volunteers and NGOs to have direct and open dialogues, the chances of maximizing impact to all involved are much higher.
Tell us about your own experiences with volunteering abroad? Share some of the highlights and difficulties you found along the way.
When I was about 19 years old, a family member suggested that I volunteer with the Burmese refugee community in the Northern part of Thailand where he had contacts to a local Burmese NGO. I thought I’d give it a try for a couple of weeks and then continue to backpack through South East Asia. I ended up staying there for a year and didn’t even make it to Bangkok. Life as a volunteer, living first within one of the refugee camps and later on in the small border town of Mae Sot, was so fulfilling and interesting and challenging that I quickly dismissed all other travel plans and would not hear of anything else. I taught English in the camp and in Mae Sot to various groups of Burmese NGO staff, migrant workers and medical clinic staff. Since I was not affiliated with any organization and did it all independently I connected with these groups through word of mouth. The highlights of volunteering are so numerous but for me the most wonderful part is that the relationships and friendships I made during my time there have remained for almost 20 years, and some of the people I worked and lived with are friends to this day. I really believe volunteering is about receiving as much (if not more) than giving and I can say that I received so much out of this experience. One of the biggest challenges I found was the uncertainty and the degree in which things would change unexpectedly. Cliché’ as it may be, to “expect the unexpected” is probably the first thing I would tell first time volunteers coupled with the advice to be very flexible and open-minded.
What differentiates GivingWay’s platform from other volunteer-focused organizations?
As a free and direct platform, GivingWay is unique in that it makes volunteering abroad accessible to all and allows for even the remotest of organizations to connect with suitable volunteers according to actual needs and relevant skill sets. Unlike placement agents that charge an arm and a leg to connect volunteers and organizations (with the majority of these fees remaining with the agents and NOT reaching the local organizations…), through GivingWay there are no agents and no agent fees, and if certain fees are charged (for example in exchange for providing accommodation), such fees are charged by and paid directly to the local organizations themselves. In addition, we offer various free online tools to organizations to help them manage their relationship with volunteers, and are creating a vibrant community rich with content and services through which people can discuss, learn, share and prepare for their volunteering trip so that the positive impact to all involved is maximized.
What are some issues you see with voluntourism, and how do you think GivingWay addresses these?
I believe the main problem with voluntourism is that it has become in many respects a “business” that often times places financial considerations before the actual needs of local communities. Because so many placement agencies aim to send as many volunteers as possible, this is often done randomly and without due consideration of what the local organizations actually need, which in turn reduces impact and benefit to the organizations as well as the volunteers, who feel their contribution had not been maximized. Another issue with voluntourism is that many times placement agencies and even volunteers think they know what is needed or lacking in a certain community and this, again, does not correspond with the actual needs on the ground. By eliminating all agents and agent fees and allowing for direct dialogue between organizations and volunteers, we are shifting the focus and the power back to the organizations themselves, who can now manage and run their volunteers as they see fit.
How do you select and work with nonprofits?
To be eligible to create a profile on GivingWay, an organization must be legally registered, must be run by and for the benefit of local communities and must have a contact person with at least basic English. In addition, since we are strongly opposed to “orphanage voluntouring,” we took an ideological stance and do not allow orphanages on the platform. It is important, however, to understand that as opposed to a placement agency or a volunteering company that is itself the provider of the volunteering opportunities, GivingWay is an online platform that provides a virtual “meeting space” for organizations and volunteers. While we are in close contact with many of the organizations, we build strongly on the “power of the crowd” and strive to create a strong community where peer-based-reviews by volunteers, the exchange of knowledge and the sharing of information play a strong role in vetting organizations from the ground up. We do take very seriously any negative report we receive about organizations, and always reserve the right to remove from the platform organizations that do not comply with our policies. We have had a couple of cases where we received very bad reviews about certain organizations, and we immediately removed them from the platform.
Which types of volunteer opportunities exist for travelers as part of GivingWay?
With over 250 active organizations from more than 60 countries worldwide, there is a rich variety of organizations and volunteer opportunities that range in type of work and duration etc. Some organizations offer short term volunteer projects while others require a minimum period of time, some organizations don’t provide accommodation while others do (and will typically charge their volunteers for such) and many organizations also welcome families. Volunteering types range from teaching, childcare, administrative work, fundraising, animal care, conservation projects and many more.
Can you share some tips for someone who may be interested in volunteering, but who has no prior experience? What should travelers be aware of?
We strongly believe that preparation and learning are imperative to a successful volunteer trip and have therefore prepared a 10-tip guide for the responsible volunteer. This can be found in our “Resources” section on our platform – http://givingway.com/volunteering_tips.give.
Why is travel important to you personally?
I think that today, with the endless online possibilities to connect with people and places worldwide, it is easy to get lost in the virtual world and forget that nothing can substitute physically traveling and discovering new places. To truly experience different cultures one must actually be there – taking in the sights, sounds, smells and most importantly – connecting with people from backgrounds and cultures other than one’s own. For me traveling is a way of getting out of my own little “box” and opening my mind and heart to experiences that hugely enrich my life. There are always interesting things to see and learn in any destination, so really there is no end to the possibilities out there!
Where have you had the most unique cultural experience during travel (i.e. meeting interesting locals, trying new food, exploring local customs)?
By far the most enriching cultural experience I had was during the year I spent as a volunteer on the Thai-Burma border. I lived and worked with various Burmese refugee and migrant communities in and around a small Thai village called Mae Sot. Living at first within one of the refugee camps and later on in a small house together with Burmese refugees and volunteers from all over the world allowed me to really experience different elements of Burmese culture. Even though almost 20 years have passed since that year on the border the memories are so vivid that it all feels like yesterday. A year ago I went back for the first time to Mae Sot and met with Burmese friends that are still living there and it felt as if no time at all had elapsed since I left.
As a travel entrepreneur, what advice would you give to someone looking to launch a travel-related company?
I think the travel world is extremely diverse and wide and I believe companies in this field, especially when just starting out, should be very focused on their area/s of activity and target audience so that the mission statement, messaging, content and voice are coherent and consistent. Branching out and expanding can come with time but I believe tackling a specific field or problem are very important in the outset. Of course passion, dedication and loving what you do are super important as well, but that applies to entrepreneurs in any industry…