About Volunteer BaseCamp
Volunteer BaseCamp was started by three friends (Jim, Dave and Noelle) who took part in an environmental expedition at Mt. Everest in 1998. While working with the expedition they realized that tourism was having an enormous negative impact on the surrounding communities that lined the trails through this remote region. The environmental damage and cultural collision inspired our founders to reach out to small NGOs (non governmental organizations) working in the region to see if they could help.
For a few years they brought several groups back to the area from Canadian universities to participate in waste management and educational projects in this area; they began to find similar challenges along the Inca Trail in Peru and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Having graduated, Jim, Dave and Noelle were all looking for a way to continue with these projects when they were approached by the Canadian University Travel Service. This company was completely owned by the not-for-profit Canadian Federation of Students and helped to facilitate Canada's largest international student exchange program SWAP (Student Work Abroad Program). The partnership made perfect sense and the Volunteer Abroad Program was born.
Travel CUTS provided a means to recruit volunteers from Canada, the USA and the UK which was enormous at a time before the internet came into its current prominence. So, while they managed recruiting volunteers, our founders set about establishing a system and an overseas infrastructure that would help to connect volunteers with placements in a wide range of positions. There were three key objectives that guided this development:
1) It Must be Safe
Naturally the safety of our volunteers and the organizations staff and clients has always been our first priority. One of the best ways to manage the risks associated with international travel and volunteering is to ensure that volunteers are aware of these risks and what they can do to mitigate them. For this BaseCamp developed their comprehensive 7 day orientation and training program.
BaseCamp also developed a system by which emergency situations can be managed 24 hours a day. This includes the 24/7 support of our own staff on the ground overseas as well as the 24-7 monitoring of our emergency support line back home where friends and family of our volunteers can always find assistance.
There are several other program aspects that have been developed to address safety concerns including the provision of detailed pre-departure information regarding health care, visas, insurance and the collection of criminal background checks for all our volunteers and host families.
Finally, the BaseCamp Center itself is a major component of our risk management plan. By having a dedicated center where volunteers come for their first week abroad, we have a more controlled environment in which volunteers can become comfortable with their new surroundings. For volunteers who would prefer, it is possible to spend an entire program living at BaseCamp which ensures that the immediate support of our staff is always close at hand.
2) It Must be Effective
Both BaseCamp and Travel CUTS were adamant that our Volunteer Abroad Program must be effective. There were many examples of programs where volunteers were building toilets that communities never used or schools where the community could not afford to hire teachers and buy books. So, from early on it was clear that the needs of the communities and the organizations that served them had to be at the centre of the placement selection process.
We developed the first system that used an on-line database to begin categorizing the various organizations with which we worked and the various jobs/placements that they were looking to fill. The first version of this database went live in 2003. This system has proven to be an extremely effective way to connect volunteers with placements that genuinely need their help. Through it, volunteers can see exactly who they would be working with and exactly what tasks they would be doing for each and every potential position. Our staff on the ground work directly with each volunteer to develop a customized list of placements for which they would be appropriate. Then the volunteer chooses from this list the placement(s) they would prefer.
By ensuring that volunteers have all of this information before having to make any kind of commitment to the program we know that our volunteers are confident that they have found a good fit with their own objectives. This is essential for when a volunteer is not confident that the placement meets their objectives they are much more likely to change their placement once they are overseas. This wastes the time of both the volunteer and the organization and is a major challenge for many short-term volunteer programs.
This system also helps to ensure that each organization receives volunteers with the skills and background that they are looking for. For each placement, the organization receives a complete volunteer profile. This includes a CV, two reference letters, a cover letter from the volunteer and an outline of the volunteer's program expectations. Through this, any organization that accepts a volunteer can be certain that the volunteer has the appropriate training and skills for the position that they are looking to fill.
This system has allowed Volunteer Abroad to become one of the most effective short-term volunteer programs in the world.
3) It Must be Affordable
As the program developed there were several programs starting-up that were extremely expensive. BaseCamp's founders were living on the ground overseas and could see that much of this expense was caused by the outsourcing of the various components of their program. For example, many programs outsource their accommodation, language training and even staff support to travel agencies and other providers on the ground. This renders these programs with middle people, driving up the costs and reducing the ability to control the implementation of their programs on the ground.
To ensure that the Volunteer Abroad Program remained accessible to a wide range of volunteers (not just the very wealthy), BaseCamp established their own centres and hired their own staff to operate the program on the ground. So, when someone volunteers with BaseCamp they can be sure that they are not paying a chain of middle people and that the program fees are as close as possible to what it would cost to do this on their own.
Recently the ownership of Travel CUTS changed hands from the Canadian Federation of Students. This, and changes with the importance of the internet as a means of recruiting volunteers, has lead to the end of a 15 year exclusive partnership. The Volunteer Abroad Program is now exclusively available through Volunteer BaseCamp.
This has yielded a number of advantages for our volunteers. First of all it has allowed us to expand our program beyond serving volunteers from Canada, the USA and the UK. We are now able to receive volunteers from anywhere in the world.
Also, this change has allowed us to further reduce our program fees as we no longer have to include the costs of maintaining a retail partner. As a result, our program fees are now among the most affordable of any program out there making Volunteer BaseCamp one of the world's longest running and most affordable international volunteer programs.