IVHQ Zimbabwe and Nakavango – an example on how to find an ethical wildlife volunteer project in Africa

We have received recently a very interesting question in our Facebook group critical volunteering reviews and in our Question and Answer section. The question about IVHQ Zimbabwe received very interesting comments and answers. That’s why we decided to write an article about it.

How to search for a wildlife project in Africa

It is important to know that most international volunteer travel companies outsource responsibilities (read here why) to local organizations, most int. companies are just a middle men (agent) between the volunteer, the local partner and the placement. Local project partners are the institutions that team up with international volunteer travel companies. They take care of

  • the volunteers in the host countries
  • the matching process
  • project development
  • and much more

When searching for a volunteer project through a volunteer travel company in a wildlife project, it is important to:

  • know with which local organization the international company teams up with
  • research carefully about the local project
  • ask as many questions as possible to the international company
  • contact the local partner directly to get more information
  • compare prices (how much does it cost to go directly, how much does it cost through the international company)


Why do International Volunteer travel companies keep their placements and local partners secret, before volunteers pay?

Future volunteers should be concerned, if an international volunteer travel company is not sharing the names of their local project partner or placement.

The most common reason behind keeping the names a secret is that the international volunteer travel companies want to make sure that volunteers don’t sign up directly with their local partners. Another reason is that more questions are being raised once volunteers know where they will be working, which can lead to a lot of work for the local partners and the company which means also less time for their daily work. Preparing volunteers and a good matching process costs time and money and can lead to complications. As a result,  some companies submit placement details as late as possible to their volunteers, some don’t even know where they work before their arrival.


How volunteer companies dominate their local partners

Another way to make sure volunteers travel with international companies but not with local volunteer organizations is to require local partners to charge volunteers that apply directly higher rates or to prohibit them to accept volunteers directly.

Sometimes international volunteer companies also prohibit the local volunteer organizations (their local partner) to accept volunteers from other companies (so that they have an exclusive partnerships) and projects or ask the local partner to charge them higher prices. For example, International Volunteer HQ asked their local partners to stop giving “IVHQ replicas and startups” instant access to local programs or to charge them 200% of what IVHQ charges.

In 2012, IVHQ outlined in an email that their international partners were agreeing that it was best to send volunteers their placement details as late as possible. IVHQ added, that there are of course “volunteers that are not happy and are hard to deal with because they want to know everything“. IVHQ outlined that “giving out placement details causes questions, sometimes frustration (because volunteers do not like the placements) and extra work“. We (IVHQ) “always tell volunteers that we do not share names of projects nor family address and contact information prior” to the arrival in the host country. IVHQ asked one of their international partners, to tell their volunteers “that each organization requests volunteers from us every month. Sometimes projects change at the last minute because we ultimately assign volunteers to the organization that has the most urgent need for volunteers and provides us with the best project. Once volunteers arrive, they will have all the information they need regarding their accommodation and project.

IVHQ explained, why this is helpful for their operations. It “ensures that volunteers do not have too high expectations and that all details they need to know about their stay and project will be provided during the orientation” – as there is plenty of time for volunteers to be “introduced to their projects at the orientation“.

To sum it up, International Volunteer HQ asked their local partner to lie to the volunteers about why project details cannot be sent to them in advanced. Internal organizational reasons are the main factor but not that they “ultimately assign volunteers to the organization that has the most urgent need for volunteers“.

In our case IVHQ told  Matilda, who raised the question, that they don’t disclose their partner’s in-country information due to privacy policies. But this does not make any sense to us. We have seen one IVHQ contract and haven’t found any parts in them that confirm this. Privacy policies are usually developed to protect customers and partners. As we see no benefits behind this policy the reason behind it might be most likely financial interests, which have been reflected by the above cited emails in the past.


How to find out where you will be working before you sign up for a program or arrive in a host country

Even though we believe it is the right of the volunteer to know what they will sign up for and where they will volunteer, in most cases they will not receive information about the local partner and placement before paying.

Whereas it is difficult to get information about the work, it is possible to find out with which local partner the international volunteer travel companies work with. We recommend to research in expats or NGO facebook groups. This is a good way to reach out to locals who know more than any former volunteer.

Matilda found out, that the local IVHQ Zimbabwe partner for their wildlife projects is the institution Nakavango. It was not difficult. She contacted the well-known Facebook Page Volunteers in Africa Beware. (Check out the Volunteers in Africa Beware list about good and bad organizations operating in Africa.) The Facebook Page is an excellent source to get information about wildlife projects in Africa. The Nakavango projects has been verified by Volunteers in Africa Beware as an ethical organization which does a great job. Thanks to this information Matilda was able to contact Nakavango directly. Nakavango charges around $300 more to volunteers that apply directly with them than IVHQ. For the same course and duration.


Why does IVHQ have cheap programs  – IVHQ Zimbabwe

The high numbers (around 100 000 volunteers) of IVHQ customers make the low prices possible and give the company a huge bargaining power over their local partners. To team up with IVHQ, the local partner has to fit into the IVHQ pricing model. IVHQs main point is the slogan, that they are the “Most Affordable & Trusted” volunteer organization. In the past IVHQ has asked their local partners to charge non IVHQlers more in order to prevent volunteers to sign up directly with the local partner.

IVHQ prefers to have “exclusive relationship partnership in place with” their local partners. Some of their local partners are now not allowed to work with any other agent nor to accept volunteers directly.


Should I volunteer with a NGO or a commercial provider?

Matilda was not able to find out if Nakavango is a non-profit organization or a commercial provider. Well, they are a privately operated Reserve and International Volunteer HQ a private company.  But we at Responsible Volunteering believe, that the non-profit status does not necessarily make a difference. There are many companies that have more transparent and ethical operations than non-profit organizations. It is often not difficult to receive a non-profit status. Especially in the voluntourism sector, many organizations grace themselves with such a status. But unfortunately, the list of unethical NGOs which do so is long.


Do not pet and play – canned hunting

If volunteers are allowed to “pet and play” with animals, in this example specifically with lions, don’t volunteer there. Often the animals end up in a canned hunt, which is a “hunt for animals that have been raised on game ranches until they are mature enough to be killed for trophy collections”.

Also breeding wild animals in camps should not be supported.  Animals shoul live in the wild. Many animals are being exploited or used to attract Volunteers. Let it be elephants, turtles or tigers. In many countries, the wildlife industries are unregulated, uncontrolled and often they are responsible for cruel projects. It is a pity that animals are used to make high profits. Volunteers are unwillingly supporting this. It is important that the volunteers are aware of the partners and placements that are behind volunteer companies, so that they can make informed decisions so they don’t support an unethical industry.


Go local- Why is it sometimes better to volunteer directly with a local organization

There are many benefits if volunteers avoid going through an international volunteer travel agent and choose to go directly with the reserve or a local placement. Even though this is sometimes the more expensive option, there are many other advantages. Often there are many parties involved, the company you pay to, a local partner and a local placement. This and the few information volunteer receive ahead of their arrival make it hard to know where the money you pay is going and to prepare the work well ahead.

When volunteering with an agency or an agency drives down prices it is often at the costs of sustainability and quality. Therefore, sometimes it is worth considering to cut out the middle men (international company), especially those which charge fees without adding enough value or protection to the process.

Also the advantages of going local are

  • You know where your money is going
  • You are able to prepare yourself better because you know exactly which project you will support ahead of time
  • Local organizations are more open to your questions and give you more information about their projects
  • It makes local organizations more independence from other institutions and volunteer companies
  • You are able to get in touch with former volunteers from that exact project before you start your placement
  • As many placement do not charge more you might even save money
  • You are not supporting a profit driven company

Where ever you choose to volunteer, make sure you know where and what project you will be placed before signing up. Otherwise you might be supporting an unethical or unsustainable project, which is designed to satisfy you as a volunteer only.

You have Questions? You know more advantages, some disadvantages or disagree with us? Have you volunteered with IVHQ Zimbabwe or Nakavango? You have some advice? Then please leave your comment below!

Update 31.12.2017

More about IVHQ can be found here:

1. The company has or had connections to a review platform where volunteers can review their experiences, which is well known for fake reviews.

2. The company outsources responsibilities.