Personal Growth

Disruptive DNA: Running a social enterprise

September 2016

Dan Radcliffe, a world entrepreneur hall of famer started a volunteering travel company in 2007, and now operates in over 35 countries.

International Volunteer HQ Limited (IVHQ), a volunteer travel company, was founded in 2007 and today operates in more than 35 countries. Founder Dan Radcliffe is a well-known New Zealand entrepreneur who has garnered several awards for his social enterprise activities, including 2014's Young Entrepreneur of the Year and Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Zealand Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards. In 2015, he was added to the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Hall of Fame at an awards ceremony in Monaco.

In 2006, Dan Radcliffe, fresh out of university and a keen traveller, decided to participate in a volunteer program, teaching English in rural Kenya. With little money, he selected one of the cheaper international volunteer travel companies - but was perplexed to discover the trip still cost him US$ 3,000 for three months. Problems plagued him from the beginning. His arrival in Kenya was completely without fanfare as no-one was there to collect him from the airport and both the host family and the school were unaware of his pending arrival. Radcliffe ended up enjoying the trip but says “it was through good luck rather than good management".

His experience sowed a seed: he realised there was a need for a far more professionally-run organisation that would co-ordinate better-supported volunteers to organisations where there was a real need for them. He was committed to the concept of volunteer travel but said that it was important to make sure these trips also provided tangible social benefits to the volunteer's hosts.

Nine years on, IVHQ places 15,000 volunteers worldwide each year

On his return to the family farm in Taranaki, New Zealand, Radcliffe did a cost analysis, and quickly came to the conclusion that volunteer travel could be arranged for far less expense than what was currently on offer - particularly if travel companies worked with professional local teams. In 2007, Dan launched his new enterprise: International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ). He was self-funded (with the help of his parents, who stumped up a loan of NZ$ 12,000) and rolled out a service that was 50 per cent cheaper than competitors and involved transparent fees.

“People understand what they are paying for and where the money is going, which is very important," says Radcliffe.

Fast forward nine years: IVHQ has since placed more than 60,000 volunteers (with more than four million hours of volunteer service), created in excess of 300 jobs in 35 countries and invested more than US$35 million from its programme fees in these countries.

With volunteer projects that run the gamut from childcare, teaching and medical to wildlife, conservation and construction, IVHQ offers plenty of choice for prospective volunteers. Volunteer travel may seem like a simple process to manage but the reality is very different. It is not just a matter of: select charitable projects, send volunteers and repeat volunteer exchange until projects are completed. There are many other aspects to consider and it is only when all stages of the process are managed correctly that maximum benefit is possible, Dan explains.

“We want people to understand that they can volunteer and do some good in any country rather than just in developing countries”

Running a social enterprise

IVHQ is a leading example of the new breed of entrepreneurial venture - the Social Enterprise. Often run as a for-profit business, social enterprises exist with a primary mission of generating positive social impact and benefiting the community through a commercially-viable venture.

Worldwide, social enterprises are estimated to employ up to six percent of the working population and contribute hundreds of billions of $US to national GDPs. Australia has an estimated 20,000 social enterprises while in NZ, a survey of over 420 social enterprises found the sector is growing rapidly.

Professional Local Teams

Radcliffe says that IVHQ's business model spreads the benefits of volunteer tourism into the communities, generating ongoing roles for people in developing countries. The model works best for charitable projects whose owners do not have the means or funds to organise volunteers themselves. Selecting the right local team is a key part of the company's success. Radcliffe says it's important to make sure he only includes teams that have the necessary communication skills to manage international volunteers, who can provide local support and who can help with the selection of services, accommodation and leisure activities.

“Sorting the wheat from the chaff is the biggest difficulty in this area. Some are very keen to take part but have very little knowledge of managing international volunteers," he says.

The company takes a hands-on approach, sending a senior team member from the company headquarters in New Zealand, to check out each project in person, on site. That's an important aspect of volunteer safety, Radcliffe says.

Volunteer Selection and Technology

Although IVHQ is New Zealand based, only a hundred or so of the 15,000 annual volunteers are from NZ - the rest all come from other countries. That means technology plays a critical role in communication with volunteers and local teams. Radcliffe settled on a cloud-based platform to process applications and facilitate communication. And while local teams provide local support, volunteers are all encouraged to contact the headquarters if there is an issue, where there's 30 staff on tap to resolve any problems.

Radcliffe says that ideally, the volunteers he recruits will "come with the right intentions and not merely seek to pad a curriculum vitae." He says the best volunteers also have an open mind and are willing to understand the local customs and way of life.

“If we get a young American travelling to Kenya and they try and do things the American way, they will not enjoy it. We're not providing five-star accommodation and you're living with local Kenyan families, the equivalent of three star accommodation," said Radcliffe.

While individual bookings form the bulk of the travel arrangements, IVHQ also caters for groups of volunteers - usually academic, corporate or medical groups. In these cases, the requirement is for bespoke solutions that let the group foster a culture of sustainable development and social responsibility within their organisation.

Solving Problems

Radcliffe says he's looking for people that are solutions-focused at IVHQ. For the last three years IVHQ has provided English-language volunteers to a teaching programme in China, the company's most prominent activity in the region and one that is experiencing rapid growth.

At one point, a rumour started on Chinese social media (by person or persons unknown) that IVHQ were providing TEFL qualifications for English language teaching in China. IVHQ were not, and ended up disappointing many Chinese volunteers who expected one. Rather than let it lie and weather the storm, IVHQ has since partnered with a provider of TEFL courses, allowing certification at a discounted rate.

As the number of volunteers and projects grows each year, IVHQ seeks to expand volunteer travel opportunities into other countries.

“We're really excited about volunteer travel and a big push is to make volunteer travel more mainstream, involving volunteer travel in developed countries. We want people to understand that they can volunteer and do some good in any country rather than just in developing countries," said Radcliffe.

He is currently investigating the viability of virtual reality (VR) as a means of providing a first-person demonstration to prospective volunteers.

“I'd love to get to the stage where we could give people an idea of what it's like to volunteer abroad."

From humble beginnings on a family farm in New Zealand, IVHQ is now a force to be reckoned with in the volunteer travel market, with an award-winning founder at the helm and a company-wide desire to exert a positive influence at a global level.

It's proof positive that a social enterprise driven by a desire to make the world a better place, can also be a commercially-viable success story.


Writer: Michael O'Dwyer

Photographer: Brendan Fitzpatrick