ivhq reviews: The voluntourism industry & its connections to review websites 15


Voluntourism and review websites highlights: ivhq reviews and abroadreview.com

Voluntourism Review platforms such as www.goabroad.comwww.gooverseas.com as well as www.abroadreviews.com and voluntourism companies are closely connected as they benefit from each other. For years there have been rumors that International Volunteer HQ is connected to one of them, the review and advertising platform www.abroadreview.com which contains plenty of ivhq reviews and comments. Finally, we were able to carve out some strong indicators such as same names and ip adresses. After reviewing our work, we feel that they are strong enough to proof connections. A good friend of the IVHQ Director and the review website owner are named Nathan Kelly. Both, the friend of the IVHQ Director and the review website owner come from New Zealand and hosted the websites on the same server with the same hosting company. Even so the review website owner was based in London, emails were answered from New Zealand.

We ask ourselves, if International Volunteer HQ might have run the page all along or the close friend of the owner, Nathan Kelly, has taken on that role? Are there connections? We are excited to find out the answer. You can form an opinion by reading the whole article:

The major voluntourism review platform www.abroadreviews.com has recently been for sale on www.flippa.com. The auction ended on the 26th of August, we have used this occasion to write about the review platform.

International voluntourism agencies and it`s connections to review websites

Volunteers should stay away from International agencies that lack transparency in their business operations, a common problem in the voluntourism industry. The financial statements, responsible volunteering guidelines and marketing content on many agencies websites are designed to hide, rather than reveal information so volunteers could make independent and informed decisions. Most volunteers assume that review platforms are designed to bring this to light so they can choose the best volunteer program. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Many international voluntourism agencies have close connections to review websites, some are operated and controlled by the agencies. Companies and local programs try to influence reviews wherever possible, which is also common in other tourism sectors and industries. This concerning trend, that harms ethical operators, has made it difficult to select a sustainable program based on review websites. These websites often promote programs for the wrong reasons: financial profit or sympathy but not a set of quality standards.

The history of www.abroadreviews.com

www.abroadreviews.com, which has often been associated with the name International Volunteer HQ, has been talked about for a while within the voluntourism industry. Connections to each other have always been denied.

www.abroadreviews.com contains no information about who is running the website and the premise of its operations. Many indicators seem to allude to the probability that some connections between the review and advertisement website and International Volunteer HQ exist or existed since the website was sold in 2011.  So far the question about the owner of the website was raised on a regular basis but has not yet been answered.

www.abroadreviews.com has been registered and developed by Thomas Noonan who has built and sold plenty of other review platforms. When he went online with abroadreviews.com in 2008, he claimed that is was his mission to promote the site to help people to choose the right program. His mission die not last long as the website wasn’t profitable enough and other projects generated higher revenues. Therefore he decided in 2011 to sell the website for 25000US . By that time he already figured out, that review websites are a great way to make money. Thomas Noonan didn’t Initially expect that such websites would make tons of it. Well, it was so good that he is nowdays living from them.

At the time of selling in 2011 the website was already dominating the market with more than 700 reviews and a substantial amount of traffic. Today with more than 3000 reviews and almost 100 000 page views every day hundreds of potential volunteers are visiting the website through their search for a sustainable volunteer program. It is hand in hand with gooverseas.com, goabroad.com and volunteerforever.com one of the most important and influential review and advertisement platforms in the voluntourism industry.

Websites can earn huge amounts of money if they work with reviews. www.abroadreviews.com has grown, but not yet to its full potential. With a bit of work put into the website www.abroadreviews.com, their facebook and twitter page (which has never really been maintained at all), some substantially higher profits could be generated in the future and the impact on the market could be far greater.

The credibility of the review platform has been questioned before, as some well-known global volunteer companies pay a fee of 500 US Dollars to be listed as a verified program with the option to refute (comment) or to get reviews deleted.

IVHQ reviews and Abroadreviews.com: Important marketing tool of International Volunteer HQ

Right after the auction in 2011 of the website, abroadreviews and it’s ivhq reviews became an important marketing tool for International Volunteer HQ, one of the few companies that has been using this website within their marketing strategy by commenting to ivhq reviews and advertising on it. From August to now, the only voluntourism company advertising on the website was International Volunteer HQ.

In 2011 Sebastian, currently running this page and former development worker in Cambodia, was told personally by the owner of International Volunteer HQ Daniel Radcliffe, that he knows the person who has bought the website in that year. Sebastian did not see any connections at that time.

Public accusations and statements

When searching on google for ivhq reviews, the third search result includes another accusation from 2012, in which a blogger claimes that International Volunteer HQ and www.abroadreview.com are connected. The alleged owner of abroadreviews Nathan Kelly came public for the first time. The google search engine forced him to comment and deny the allegations.

He wrote that the website is in no way owned or associated with International Volunteer HQ or “any other volunteer or study abroad program listed on our” website. Furthermore he added that most reviews were from before the time he bought the website, which we have found not to be true. Just weeks after it was sold in 2011, it had already increased from 700 to more than 1000 reviews and that was only until the beginning of 2012. In addition, Nathan claimed in the post to live in the UK and would liked to prove that by meeting up with people who pass through London. In the end, he added, that this can be substantiated through www.gapyear.com if they intend to verify the ip of his posts. The reason www.abroadreviews.com is hosted by sparksinteractive, so he wrote, is that he is originally from New Zealand and plans someday to move back there. Finally Nathan admitted that registering the website with no ownership details was a mistake which he committed when he bought the page for 25,000 US Dollars. Until September 2016 it has not yet changed. There is still no phone number, no address and not a single name that verifies who is behind the website. The websites states (click on verified programs and what is this) that they are trying to fix the faceless internet. Unfortunately, the website is still faceless and we hope to hear from Nathan soon as to why this was/is the case. For us, the post is not convincing. This comment has been so far, the first and last time that an owner commented publicly, until the auction of the website started.

Same names

In 2012 a good friend of the IVHQ Director, Nathan Kelly, lived in London at the same time the website owner Nathan suggested to meet up in London. In 2012 the current Head of Risk and Sustainability Ben Brown, who also lived at that time in London, travelled with Nathan Kelly and the owner of International Volunteer HQ to South America for a leisure trip and enjoyed regular other private quality time together. Furthermore they all met 2010 in London with Nathan Kelly and graduated from the same University. Ever since they have been close friends, their connections date back as far as 2007.

Same IP Adress and webcompany

Knowing all this made us check the IP address of www.abroadreviews.com and IVHQ related websites ourselves. What we found were further connections. The website of abroadreviews is hosted on the same sever and through the same web hosting company (Web Drive Limited) as the IVHQ travel website www.volunteeroverseas.com. The same web hosting company was used by www.ivhq.com in the past. www.abroadreviews.com has been hosted since the 9th of February 2012 on the same servers through sparksinteractive, the company that also built the International Volunteer HQ website. The website and International Volunteer HQ are based in the very same city in New Zealand. On the home menu of the website of Sparks Interaktive IVHQ is shown in first position. Geovisions discovered relations between www.abroadreviews.com and a major international volunteer company which is based in New Zealand in 2012. When they emailed abroadreview.com, they found out via a reverse ip check, that the emails were answered from New Zealand.

Twitter and facebook connections

Also the website developer Hayden, who works for sparksinteractive, administrated the IVHQ website volunteeringoverseas.com and The IVHQ Directors company website www.safarireviews.com (the company is owned by the IVHQ Directoras well as other IVHQ websites and the IVHQ twitter account. Not only is Hayden retweeting posts from Safarireviews.com and International Volunteer HQ but also following www.abroadreviews.com on twitter. Besides showing personal sympathy towards International IVHQ he also ‘liked’ www.abroadreviews.com`s content via his facebook page in the end of 2012. Furthermore Hayden spent private time with Daniel Radcliffe and they are connected through facebook. Hayden „likes‟ the business facebook page of IVHQ, the abroadreviews.com business page and commented and liked other content that is related to Daniel Radcliffe`s businesses.

The abroadreviews.com facebook page likes only 14 other pages, ammong them only int. volunteer travel companies, countries as well as the New Zealand based charity Sustainible Coastlines. In 2016 International Volunteer HQ opened up a volunteer program in New Zealand in cooperation with exactly this charity.

The twitter page of www.abroadreviews.com is following 95 accounts. Among them are only three non commercial twitter profiles. One of them is George Coltart plus his travel company Travelstormer. He was responsible for the filming of the IVHQ advertising materials and joined Daniel Radcliffe on a one year filming trip around the world. The www.abroadreviews.com twitter page was supporting in 2012 George Coltart`s company through twitter feeds, posts and relating to travelstormers new website asgreat redesign, team. This is one of the very few tweets on the www.abroadreview.com`s twitter account that are not related to voluntourism. George Coltart is also living in London, studied at the same University and has been for many years friends with Ben Brown and Daniel Radcliffe.

Review website www.Safarireviews.com and IVHQ

Also the IVHQ related company safarireviews.com has not been designed to shed light to the equally messy safari industry but to promote businesses and to generate profits. Tour companies can use a similar advertising system as on abroadreviews.com or can pay 50$ for blog posts to “put your company as an authority in the industry, build backlinks, and attract traffic to your website.” Daniel Radcliffe is operating the review business from New Plymouth, where the IVHQ headoffice is based. Even so the review website claims to be independent and a response to a need for an unbiased platform with no connections to safari operators, it obviously has affiliations to some. On safarireviews.com International Volunteer HQ is advertising to combine safari tours with volunteering as many ivhq programs run their own safari opperations and can offer discounts.

The safarireview website was set up around the same time Nathan Kelly bought the review platform abroadreviews.com and includes also no contact or owner details.

What do you think?

Considering the amount of indicators, such as common names, locations as well as the recent statement of the abroadreview.com owner Nathan about the connections, raised more questions due its questionable content.

You now have to decide yourself if abroadreviews.com will be and has been an independent platform. For us, it seems likely that some connections between the review platform and International Volunteer HQ existed. However, to what extend cannot be proved at this point.

Further Questions raised

Other questions that were raised through our research is, how independent can research be, if good friends carry it out. In 2013, Ben Brown quit his job in London and started independent research as an independent advisor for International Volunteer HQ. He was contracted to find out more about the social impact of the company. In the end of the research trip he thanked IVHQ on his facebook account for sponsoring his trip. Today he is a full time staff member.

More to come…

We have found other companies with connections to review websites. It is not a crime nor forbidden for International volunteer agencies to own, run, sponsor or influence review websites but it raises questions about ethics within the industry and to what extent the consumers are being misled on purpose. We ask ourselves how far would these agencies go to promote their programs? What do you think?

Please leave your view below in the comment section and follow us here for part two about review websites.

The full research on this article, ivhq reviews and abroadreviews can be found here.

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About Sebastian Drobner

Sebastian has eight years of experience in international development cooperation, lived in five countries and on three continents. He started to get into the world of development in 2008 when he volunteered for one year in Cambodia for a local Voluntourism project. He then received a contract as an advisor through Bread for the World in Germany and supported the development of the program Volunteer Action for Cambodia by Star Kampuchea until 2012. At the same time he was responsible for the development of the government founded volunteer program Weltwärts of Bread for the World in Cambodia and it`s mentoring. From 2012 to 2013 he changed into the head office of Bread for the world where he was responsible for the administration of their volunteer program as a program assistant. Now he is studying International Social Work and Development and works part time in development projects. Part of this course was an internship in the Solomon Islands where he worked in a tourism course and developed a volunteer program for Don Bosco Technical Institute Solomon Islands. The knowledge he gained when he finished a three-year training in Hotel and tourism helped during this experience.


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15 thoughts on “ivhq reviews: The voluntourism industry & its connections to review websites

  • Will

    An insightful article to say the least; good job on getting this out there. I am not at all surprised to see these big volunteer organisations are being run with shady tactics… Fuck these guys.

  • Michelle

    Hi. I came across your website while researching for IVHQ. I was interested in their placements as I can only offer 2 weeks (in between jobs), so the idea of doing short term volunteering came up which led me to IVHQ. However after doing some research it looks like there are many articles that do not support short term volunteering eg. 2 weeks in my case. Can I get your thoughts on this? Am I better off instead taking a 2 week holiday? It is just a bit conflicting thinking I can contribute to a community somewhere but online reviewers are saying it would just be a waste of time and do more harm than good.. I was looking at doing the Laos/Cambodia placements with IVHQ. Do you recommend any other short term volunteering companies (or if at all?). Appreciate your help, would love to get your thoughts.

    • Sebastian Post author

      Hello Michelle. Thanks for posting your questions here.

      I have worked for years in Cambodia as a development worker. I worked alongside many int. volunteer travel companies, check them out in the about us section. Most of them offer the same product. The int. companies use middlemens they partner with. Or you will find different middlemens (local partners of the int. volunteer travel companies) but they are sending volunteers to the same placemeent. Sometimes you will find in one orphanage volunteers from three, four, five different companies. Sometimes it is difficult to find placements as there is no need, but donations make it possible.

      We might need some more information to answer your question. If a two week volunteering experience will be helpful for you and the community depends largely on the local partner the volunteer travel company (in this case IVHQ) works with, the project you will be placed in and the experience you have to offer. Generally: The more time you have, the better it is!

      Several IVHQ short term placements, especially when working with children, were facing problems in the past.

      When I worked in Cambodia almost all companies including IVHQ never required reports, did not to a single evaluation and had no idea in which projects the volunteers were placed in. There is no long term development plan in place, volunteers come and go and little improvements can be seen. This is one reason why volunteer travel and especially short term placement cause harm. Often too many volunteers are placed in one placement. It is very hard for the companies to find enough short term placements that atually really want volunteers. Sometimes it even feels like the companies are battleing each other, as the damand for short term placements (in cambodia) is higher then the need. I have seen volunteers teaching again and again the same subjects or replacing teachers. Volunteers are not matched appropriately, the companies and the local partners have not the ressources (and sometimes interest) to do so.
      The good local organizations that actually can make a difference refuse usually to accept volunteers for a short time.

      We conducted a workshop in Cambodia about volunteer travel were 90% of all placements said they would rather not offer short term placements. If they do so it is often because of the interest in donations (many short term placements do not have any donors or financial support) or out of favour towards the local partner. Unfortunately almost all companies I worked with require the local partner to offer short term placements, otherwise they will not partner with them. Short term placements are a big part of the business strategy. When I worked in Cambodia the average stay was only 5.1 weeks.

      If you do choose International Volunteer HQ, make sure you ask the right questions:

      -Get in touch with former volunteers before paying (don’t fall for excuses why this is not possible)
      -Make sure you know your placement and what you will be doing early enough
      -Ask how you can prepare best
      -Ask about previous experiences and why this project needs volunteers. Is there an exit strategy?
      -Have the programs been evaluated?
      -Where does the money go to (also the founds the local partner receives)
      -Make sure most of your questions are answered.

      Of course not all of them will be answered to your satisfaction but most of them should.

      Here are some good articles about what to ask:

      http://matadornetwork.com/change/7-questions-ask-volunteering-abroad/

      http://www.volunteerforever.com/article_post/how-to-volunteer-abroad-10-questions-to-ask-organizations

      https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/02/seven-questions-you-should-ask-before-you-volunteer-abroad

      http://www.thedailypeak.com/ethical-volunteering-abroad-how-to-do-it-right/

      Usually I will not personally reccomand any programs but as I worked in Cambodia I make an exception. You might look into Conversation with foreigners. It’s for free and is really ok. Of course there are other good short term projects but they are rare and you won’t find them in orphanages.
      If you do have specific skills and a profesional development organization that facilitates AND prepares you can of course help as well as a consultant (build a website, overview a business strategy of a small ecotourism program etc.). By the way, you can also do a lot good while “just” traveling or join an expedition or learning program.

      I hope we were able to answer some of your questions.

      You can also reach us via our emails sebastian@responsible-volunteeing.com or Dan@responsible-volunteering.com.

      Please send me a message at sebastian@responsible-volunteering if you need more advice on voluntourism and traveling in Cambodia or just reply to this comment. We are happy to help.
      Have a great day.

      Sebastian

  • Ketut

    Hey Sebastian,
    Thank you for sharing your research about volunteering. It is not surprising me a lot because those international volunteering programs that you have described are working in Bali/Indonesia at the moment. Anyway, I really appreciated your thought.

    I have been running my own charity program since 8 years ago in the small village in the northern part of Bali-Indonesia.
    At the the beginning I even don’t know that we can get the international volunteers since I worked only with the local people and for local goals. It started when a friend of mine from Holland introduced me about volunteering program and how we can get people from all over the world to come along to help our community. I started to look on internet and tried to invite some people to come. I used to use helpx.net which is an exchange program website. It was really fair and transparent website for both parties: host and volunteers.

    One of my helpx volunteer from England has helped me to build a website for my local charity. Simple website about what we are doing and also the link for volunteers to apply. I was so positive that this website could encourage the potential volunteers to come to our village because we are 100% non profit. Unfortunately, our website wasn’t good enough to compete with the other big volunteer programs that have a huge budget for promotion on google.

    But, it’s OK. “if you do good things good things will come to you” This quote came from my volunteer from Holland on his last day at my center. That’s true, a few months later, a friend of mine from Australia told me that he can build a website and promote it (Organically without paying) and we can be independent in few months time.
    Fantastic! in 3 months we are number 3 in google, just amazing.

    What I want to share to you is that mostly of the local NGO have a similar challenge. They have lack of knowledge to promote their charity programs to the world. The other reason is kinda of wrong to “sell” or promote poverty to the world.
    What we are doing is not selling that points, yes we still need help for funding our projects but the most we need for sustainability is transfer of knowledge.

    What people can do to support the genuine local NGO’s is to help them to be independent. How? Teach them Help them Empower them to be a user of their own NGO’s. So in the future they are not depending on the volunteer COMPANIES anymore.

    Be the Change!
    Ketut – Bali

    • Sebastian Post author

      Hello Ketut

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts from a grassroots perspective, a wonderful story!
      I find it really interesting how you outlined the challenges local chareties face on how to find volunteers. I understand that

      – the commercialization of volunteer travel is a challenge
      – the lack of knowledge to promote a charity and hot to find founds
      – because of the need for founding, volunteers become a source: poverty sells.

      For many small charities the only option to receive volunteers might be to connect to one of the big volunteer travel companies. The big once appear all over google, know how to attract volunteers. In addition for many smaller NGO`s the poverty sells strategy is the easiest one to find money. International organizations do not make it easy to apply for funding’s.

      Finally, I am really glad that it is a success story and you did not give up!
      You clearly outlined the difference between a good and bad organization:

      – Sustainability and transferring knowledge is the key to success.
      – Many volunteer travel companies increase dependency of their local partners
      – Many organizations rather focus on founding rather than impact and quality.

      Your volunteers did a great job; you outlined how helpful voluntourism can be. Your experience as a local organization is definitely a big motivation for both, volunteers and local hosts.

      “If you do good things good things will come to you” , that is a wonderful sentence. We would love it if you could share your thoughts and experience to our readers! Would you be interested to write for us a guest post?

      Thanks again for your great and inspiring comment.

      Greetings to Bali!

      Sebastian

  • Melissa Bell

    Great article but now I don’t know where to turn. My Son wants to volunteer this summer in Tanzania, looking at Love Volunteers. Where do you find legitimate reviews?? Any help and additional resources would be greatly appreciated. He needs to pay his admin fee in next few days and I am just not finding enough info.

    • Daniel Grossbroehmer

      Dear Melissa,
      Sorry for this late answer – please use our Q&A section next time, so we can discover your question right away 🙂
      It is very difficult to find reliable reviews for volunteering companies. I’d suggest you to join our facebook group where you can talk to former volunteers.
      First of all, don’t let them pressure you by paying the fee. We think it should be your right to have detailed info on the placement. In your case, it would be best to just give them a call and ask them for information on the placement.

  • Deborah Lynch

    So the question remains, Sebastian, how are people new to international volunteering to choose a good company to go through? My 23-year-old daughter would like to do an animal conservation volunteer experience in either South America or Africa, but doesn’t know how to choose based on these things: 1. Best experience helping with real animal conservation; 2. Best organization for safety and honest advertising; 3. Reputable organization. I’ve been Googling everything and finding the review sites you name in this article as well as your site, but I haven’t found anything by an oversight organization or business bureau. Any thoughts?

    • Daniel Grossbroehmer

      Dear Deborah,
      Thank you for your comment! You are right, there is no easy way and no simple answer. I’d suggest you to go one step further and get in touch with former volunteers who can give you some personal opinion on organizations and placement. A good place to start would be the Facebook group on negative reviews and the list published by Volunteers in Africa Beware. Usually, the owners of the page also reply to personal requests.
      Best
      Daniel

    • Claire Bennett

      Hi friends – I love this discussion and it’s great to see so many people being conscious about choosing an ethical volunteer organisation. I am the co-founder of an initiative called Learning Service http://www.learningservice.info and some of the (free) resources and videos we have on the website may be of help. We are also writing a book that covers the whole process of ethical volunteering that will be released later in 2017. Hope this helps!