Those of you who follow this blog and are interested in general global travel are well aware that there’s actually a lot of people who enjoy to be out and about exploring the world and enjoying their own (our own) time. There is, however, a select group of people who like to do this but prefer to give something to the community they are visiting, making their experience not only one of enjoyment but one that leaves something behind to locals who are less fortunate and see in them a friend from outside who came to help. This select group of people are international volunteers, who give their time and money to help those in the need around the world. In today’s article I interview ProWorld founder Richard Webb, and ask questions whose answers not only offer an inside look at the world of volunteering but also shed some light on doubts many people have about these organizations. Read along!
1) Hi Richard, let’s begin by telling us a little bit about yourself: your background, experiences, travels…
I’ve been a bit of an accidental traveler and fell into jobs that took me all over the world. From my experiences abroad, I fell in love with traveling and the experiences it has given me over the years. Travel became a passion of mine that I knew I wanted to share with others.
I was born in Lima and then I moved to the U.S. when I was a child. Throughout my childhood, I spent many summers returning to Peru to visit family. It was during that time I developed my passion for the country.
After graduating from college in the U.S., I played professional soccer in Hong Kong for nearly three years. Then I returned to the U.S. and began working in the field of volunteerism. I worked with a program called Visions where I organized and coordinated a volunteer program in Peru for U.S. teenagers. I realized that this is what I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to share Peru with other individuals and help support the underprivileged communities in the process.
2) Why start an NGO? What prompted you to enter the world of volunteering?
I also fell into the world of volunteering by accident. I ran into an old friend at a college reunion and found out that his father was running a teen volunteer program called Visions. I began working with Visions, and I have been in the volunteering abroad space ever since – 15 years later!
The reason I started an NGO is because I envisioned a future for each country that would be self-sustainable. I wanted each of the countries where we have a ProWorld office to be self-sustainable, have the ability to raise funds, and collaborate with local governments and organizations.
3) Who were the primary actors that brought the group together? What roles did they take, e.g. funding, hosting, facilitating? Who were the initial members of the group?
ProWorld (or ProPeru as we were called at the time) was founded by me, my business partner, Nick Bryngelson, and a few trusted local contacts in the communities where we worked. We all did a little bit of everything to make the organization and the projects work. We would cook breakfast for the group participants, be on the ground working on the projects all day long, and even drive the buses home.
But as ProWorld began to grow, we started to focus our efforts on key areas, such as project development, volunteer recruitment or budget keeping. By knowing all aspects of the group needs, helping out with projects, and focusing on specialized areas, we were able to help grow of the organization and increase the impact of the projects.
4) What were the objectives of the group, and who decided them? Have those objectives changed over time, and why?
As a social enterprise, we have two fundamental objectives. The first objective is to sell and deliver meaningful experiences to our participants. The second is to ensure that our volunteer projects are meaningful and valuable for the communities we are working with. Nick and I formed our mission statement early on and have modified it only very slightly over the years. When we did, it was only to be more specific about how we would achieve those two key points.
5) What is the structure of the group? How has that structure changed over time? How does the structure reflect (or not) the activities of the group?
ProWorld is a social enterprise with a number of associated NGOs in countries where we send volunteers. This allows us to operate like a business but also similar to an NGO. The business sells the travel experience. The funding is then used to support the NGO’s in our host countries that coordinate and host the volunteers and execute the projects. This structure allows us to efficiently engage with our participants and our communities abroad.
6) Who funds the group (if funding is necessary)? How that funding is managed? Has the funding been consistent and, if not, how has that affected work?
As a social enterprise, all of our operational funding is generated out of program fees for the travel experiences. This means that all of the project materials, the field staff managing the projects, and onsite transportation are all paid by the ProWorld participants.
One of the main challenges for us is that funding is not always consistent. For example, when political troubles hit Thailand a few years ago, we had to discontinue our involvement in a few of our projects. Many potential participants did not feel comfortable volunteering in Thailand at the time, or in some cases, they were not able to fly into Bangkok. Without our participants, we have no volunteers to help execute our projects and very little to no funding.
7) What does impact mean to the group? What has the impact of the group been, and how has that impact been judged (informal) or measured (formal)?
Impact is an overused word these days…both as a noun and a verb! As an organization, we like to focus on longer lasting results that are perhaps a little more intangible. For example, while the brick and mortar of a new school we construct may show impact on a community – we also know that there are other things that may have an even greater impact. At ProWorld, we see longer lasting impact in agreements to guarantee salaries for the new teachers, or the degree in which we are successful ensuring communities’ investment and engagement in a project.
We have struggled to measure our impact, thought I believe we do it better than most volunteer organizations – but not nearly as well as many pure NGO’s. The small nature of most of our projects makes it difficult to track and measure. However, as an organization, we have developed and instituted a number of tools that we use to track our bigger and longer running projects. And to the extent that our local NGO’s are required to report activities to their local governments, we are forced to be better at it all the time.
8) What are the key issues the group has dealt with or is dealing with? What are the approaches that have been taken to address these issues (e.g. working groups)?
Over the years, we’ve dealt with the difficult balance of making sure we are providing the experience our participants are looking to achieve while also serving the communities. We have also dealt with the challenge of engaging in local projects where our funding swings up and down with enrollment increases and decreases.
The best approach to address these issues is to ensure all our stakeholders (participants and community members) understand our mission and our goals. We also reinforce those beliefs in each interaction we have with any of stakeholders. That ultimately sets expectations for everyone.
9) Where in the world is the group most actively involved in? Why? What other areas in the world do you feel ProWorld should intervene as soon as possible and why?
ProWorld has worked a great deal in Peru, which has our original and oldest locations. But we are also very active in several other countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, including Ghana, Thailand and Belize, to name a few. The locations are selected through a process where we evaluate how effectively and safely we can serve our participants and community members through projects. I would love see ProWorld engage in some areas that are a little less traveled, or remote. However, if those places are not on the radar of our participants, we will not be able to manage and run projects there since there will be no funding for the work without participants!
10) Why do you think people from around the world should not only take time to volunteer, but pay to volunteer? What are the most common satisfactions volunteers take home once their time is over? What are some common complaints? Misconceptions?
In a world that is increasingly fast paced and pressurized, we want everything packaged, condensed and delivered quickly. We want our news, our food and now even our life changing experiences to be scheduled and quick. People have one week for this and they want the full, rich experience of accomplishing a lot – but to also have it be sustainable. While people cannot be faulted for wanting to have amazing, sustainable experiences on a single scheduled week once a year, they must also know that to make this happen, it requires a great deal of time and resources.
Finally, volunteers don’t often speak the language or have familiarity with the culture of the country they are going to – another challenge for finding a sustainable and impactful experience.
ProWorld understands that people want to connect and they don’t have much time to do it. And so, our job is to invest a lot of time and resources to ensure we are able to continue funding the projects by providing our volunteers the opportunity to engage with community members, work on sustainable projects, and accomplish those projects, or pieces of them, in their short period volunteer vacation.
The successful volunteers almost always comment on the friends and the people they met. It is the relationships that they form, even across language barriers, that satisfy them the most. In addition, they often enjoy having learned how complex and rich other cultures can be, and they are proud of the work they were able to share in during their time on site. But, I think it is also common for volunteers to wonder how much they were really able to help the community, and to be frustrated by culture shock they may have experienced while on their travel. That is one reason it helps to go with an organization and not just setting out on your own, so they have other volunteers and staff they can talk to about their experiences, frustrations and joys.
11) Any final comments?
Thank you very much for your time not only for this interview, but the time you are giving to help people around the world.
Thank you Richard for sharing your time with us and giving us these answers. We wish you the best of lucks in all your projects.
And now it’s your take:
Have you ever volunteered, or thought about volunteering? Where and why? What do you think about NGO’s like ProWorld in general? And about the volunteers who invest their money and time working abroad for no pay? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and this post too if you liked it!