Lets start with a brief introduction. Who are you, where are you, and what are you doing?
Randy: My name is Randy LeGrant and I'm the Executive Director of GeoVisions. Our inbound office, where we operate the J-1 Visa U.S. Work and Travel program is located in Chesterfield, NH. Our outbound office, where we operate the volunteer and teach abroad programs is located in Guilford, CT. I work in Guilford and I love it. The building we're in was built in 1750 and the town Green we overlook was built in 1639. About a mile down the road is a working harbor for Lobstermen and we even have a lighthouse. We feel like we walk around in a postcard all day.
Tell us a little about GeoVisions and what this organization aims to accomplish?
Randy: We founded GeoVisions on August 11, 2001. We hit our first real challenge a month later on September 11, 2001. But through that, and most recently the global financial meltdown, we have managed every year to grow our programs and the number of volunteers and teachers we send abroad.
Something many people don't realize is the amount of experience the three principals of GeoVisions have. We're old guys and in some respects that works against us. But combined we have 109 years of experience in this field. When we sit down at a table for a meeting, 109 years of experience is a good thing.
And before you take pitty on this old man, I'll also share that I'm a Black Belt in TaeKwon-Do and hold 5 Gold Medals in International competition. I'm in the Dojang four nights a week unless I'm traveling. Even then I research a GTF or ITF school where I'm going to be.
Describe a typical GeoVision volunteer.
Randy: Is there a typical volunteer that is drawn to GeoVisions? That's a good question. Our volunteers and teachers are mostly 22-35 years of age. 80% come from the U.S. and the other 20% from the UK, Canada and Australia. 65% are female and that actually is lower than the industry average of 80%. We attract more males, I think, because of the unique projects we have available.
When we talk to people with an interest in volunteering abroad or teaching abroad, we ask a lot of questions. A good volunteer is either going to have a very precise reason for going abroad and a very precise location in mind, or the volunteer will be open to suggestions and countries. You either need to be focused on one type of project in one location or you need to be an open canvas, ready to write or draw your experience as it happens.
GeoVisions engages in Voluntourism. We are not an aid or development organization and we don't pretend to be. The type of programs we provide give a volunteer or teacher plenty of time to experience the local culture and to travel around the country. And then we provide the time to roll up your sleeves and get a lot of experience working in a community, and living with a local family.
Many aspiring volunteers are surprised to learn they must pay hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to volunteer abroad. How does GeoVisions address this concern?
Randy: The "why do I have to pay to volunteer" is a question we get from time to time. Interestingly, as Voluntourism is now a "mainstream" travel experience, most people know they are going to have to pay. But years ago it was a question we received all the time.
When we open up a new project, we calculate fees based on what it will cost us to support the project properly. We don't want any volunteer to be a burden on the community or a host family. So we build in an insurance policy that covers death, accident, medical and dental. In countries where families need assistance with food for another mouth to feed, we calculate that cost. And almost all projects require a financial arrangement to help offset the cost of a foreign volunteer. The volunteer found out about GeoVisions and the project through the Internet and I don't think anyone understands the enormous cost of marketing programs online. Our annual online marketing fees are more than we pay in any salary to anyone on our staff. And then of course we don't set up a project unless someone from our team goes abroad and fills out a 15-page Risk Management report on the project, the people who work at the project, the community and the host family if we use one.
We maintain a page on our website that explains how we spend volunteer's money and we try to be transparent. Above all, we respect anyone who is going abroad to help others. We respect the time our volunteers are giving and the money they are spending.
I like to think we honor the commitment of our volunteers and teachers by providing solid but very unique experiences. We have a live person answering our phones 24/7 and we care about what our volunteers think and what they are doing. We write to them when they are abroad and check in from time to time with our offices there. We have a big presence on Facebook where volunteers can write anything they want and we also encourage comments on our blog. We don't remove anything that is negative because we know we aren't going to please everyone. But the fact that we are transparent and we do provide many open forums, we know that makes us a better organization each day.
What do you believe is the continuing benefit of volunteering abroad after returning home?
Randy: There is a global debate, you know, about whether an organization is for-profit or non-profit. And there is a debate on whether or not voluntourism does more harm than good or if the projects benefit the volunteer more than the local community. We engage in this debate everyday. I comment on at least three blogs each day about these topics.
What GeoVisions is really interested in is what our volunteers and teachers do AFTER the experience. Here we call it the 'Experience after the Experience'. If we do our job in finding sustainable projects that are unique and different from other organizations, and if we do our job in making sure the projects and host families have a sustainable need, and if we do our job in making sure the volunteers and teachers we send are matched appropriately to the projects, then the experience the volunteers have will be positive. What we want to do is encourage our volunteers to be engaged locally when they return. Or volunteer abroad again. We are engaged in research along these lines with Southern Connecticut State University and Voluntourism.org.
What does the future hold for GeoVisions?
Randy: We have a very bright future. We do a pretty good job of differentiation in a sea of so many volunteer abroad organizations. If you hear the name Conversation Corps or Conversation Partner, you can equate that with GeoVisions. The Corps represents 65% of our volunteers. Just this week we added Conversation Corps-Nepal and Conversation Partner-Rio.
Thanks for asking these interesting questions. We appreciate your interest in GeoVisions.