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A guide to attracting professional volunteers – WTM presentation highlights

At WTM Africa last week in Cape Town, Ilha Blue discussed how they have managed to bring young professionals from across the world to work as volunteers in their Responsible Tourism business, creating mutually beneficial experiences. These volunteers can bring exactly the skills that many small tourism businesses struggle with, and help the business by completing a specific task such as setting up an online booking system or creating a website; enabling the business to be more competitive internationally.

Ilha Blue used the WTM forum to share practical tips so that other responsible Tourism business operators can do the same.

Also discussed was which is the best online platform to attract exactly the volunteers your business needs along with tips to ensure the experience is rewarding both for the volunteer and the host business.

According to Pete Allsop from Ilha Blue “What we are realising is that as responsible tourism business operators we have a unique value proposition to offer volunteers. They are attracted to us because they believe in what we do, they want to participate in our activities and immerse themselves in the special social and cultural landscape that we have fostered – this makes us very appealing as hosts, and this allows us to select the very best volunteers.

A good host will enable young professionals to contribute something meaningful towards the community and environmental goals of the business. This is in addition to making the business operate more smoothly and be more competitive in the international tourism marketplace. It’s a classic all-round win situation.

Some key points from the presentation were:

  1. Volunteers are well educated; the best have several years of work experience often in a demanding commercial setting. They tend to be in the mid to late twenties and perhaps at a point where they need to make important career decisions. We find that many travel as couples, they are comfortable travellers with healthy budgets but may still use backpacker style accommodation. It’s important to note that they are not looking for a job to earn money; they are looking for an experience where they can learn and give something back.

  2. Travel behaviour. Volunteer travel is not open ended, probably between 3 and 6 months is normal. Whereas backpackers see travel as transformative and perhaps even the start of something completely new, these individuals are happy with what they have in life, most have travelled extensively before and are now taking time-out to think things over.

  3. Skills and experience they can contribute. The skill range is endless but as a tourism operator you are most likely looking for Multi-media, finance, design, marketing, business administration and general digital know how. Ilha Blue have been able to attract volunteers with all these skills. In addition volunteers have the added advantage of being in a travel mode, so they can contribute there learning on travel trends and consumer behavior as well.

  4. What volunteers expect in return. They are expecting a creative and friendly environment, lots of social engagement, learning about language and culture, learning about small business especially ethically driven enterprises, and they expect to be able to contribute something meaningful. There’s also the Workaway expectation of remuneration in the form of food and lodgings as agreed. A business host must get this right and that takes effort and could evolve over time.

  5. How long they are likely to stay. Remember, this volunteering is a way to enrich their travel experience, an interesting activity along the way, so it can’t get in the way of the bigger travel objective. We find 2 to 4 weeks seems to work well for volunteer and host.

Which is the best online platform to attract volunteers?

There are perhaps 5 or 6 platforms worth considering but we find Workaway is the best for finding the volunteers with the particular skills we are looking for.

Workaway is an international online service that allows members (volunteers & hosts) to contact one another to organise an exchange. Volunteers or “Workawayers”, are expected to contribute a pre-agreed amount of time per week in exchange for lodging and food, which is provided by the host.

Specifically, volunteers create an online profile including personal details and particular skills they have, after which they can contact hosts through the website and discuss a possible exchange. Business Hosts register and provide similar information about themselves, the type of volunteering they require to be performed, the accommodation they offer and the sort of person they are expecting.

Workaway has more than 37000 hosts and zillions of volunteers worldwide. The service is free to hosts and volunteers pay an annual fee of $42. Its important to remember that the platform is not about providing professional volunteers to responsible tourism businesses; Workaway’s goals are much broader than that. But because of our ethical approach to business many volunteers find us more appealing than profit only businesses, and this enables us to be specific and attract the very best.

Responsible tourism businesses have more to offer than most other hosts – that’s the simple fact of the matter.

Further tips

  • When registering with Workaway be specific about what skills you want and what you can offer in return

  • Just like on Airbnb you should check the backgrounds of people contacting you. Take the time to read comments from previous hosts and message back and forwards to see if you have similar values and will be able to work well together

  • When you feel pretty sure just do one last check – have a skype call, it could make all the difference

  • Make a plan, it can be pretty loose but should agree the type of work and length of time the volunteer will stay

  • Once the volunteer arrives, perhaps after a day or two of settling in, work together to adapt the plan making it into something tailored to that volunteer. Its all about deliverables – on both sides.

  • Don’t try to achieve too much in a short time, everyone needs to enjoy the experience and the last thing you want is to be left with lots of unfinished jobs.

  • Each volunteer is important as an individual and also as one of many, so do whatever it takes to make it a success

  • Make sure you set aside plenty of time for work & play with the volunteer, especially at the start

Finally, be realistic with what you expect and be generous with what you provide in return.


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