IVHQ Review – The Capitalization Of The Volunteer Sector

One of the biggest volunteer travel agents, International Volunteer HQ, was taken over by an investment firm. Furthermore, the Global Travel Academy seems to be a good example, on how the industry takes advantage of volunteers. This article explains the the story behind this take over and what it means for the volunteer travel industry.


Major share of the volunteer travel agent International Volunteer HQ sold to global investment company


International Volunteer HQs (IVHQ) owner Daniel Jon Radcliffe has sold an 80% stake in the company to an Australian investment company. [1] The leading New Zealand volunteer travel agent was taken over by Sydney based firm Mercury Capital.[2] The investment firm, run by former Goldman Sachs dealmaker Clark Perkins, focuses “on long term investing in established Australian and New Zealand private businesses, with enterprise values of between $50 million to $200 million.” [3] The firm also only invests in “businesses that demonstrate the potential to achieve rapid and sustained growth […] with a good business potential”[4]. Radcliffe is expected to stay on as Deputy Director of the volunteer travel agent.[5]


Global Travel Academy sells its courses to International Volunteer HQ


Almost at the same time,  the company Global Travel Academy established a new venture, that provides pre-depature courses to volunteers. [6]. IVHQ was one of the main initiators of this program.

Picture retrieved from https://www.volunteerhq.org/volunteer-certificates/ on the 10.01.2018

IVHQs selection and preparation process


IVHQ has long been criticized by development professionals , social workers and fair trade tourism lobbyists for its poor and basically non-existent pre-departure preparation and selection process for its volunteers. Responsibilities and activities have been largely  outsourced to local agencies. As a result, many volunteer travel programs had not been sustainable and damaged the local communities.

However, mandatory preparation is an essential element of quality volunteering programs, not only to keep volunteers healthy and safe, but also to generate learnings and to create a minimum impact. Especially when it comes to working with children in orphanages, schools and care institutions, previous qualification and a pre -departure preparation are necessary to avoid unintentional child abuse, culture shock, neocolonial behavior and prejudice. IVHQ has finally reacted now.


Optional 3 hour online prep course available for an extra $99


Since 2017 IVHQ has been partnering with  Global Travel Academy to offer its future volunteers  “exclusive access to online volunteer training, at a discounted price [of $99]. According to IVHQ the course is a critical aspect to comprehensive pre-departure training” , and IVHQ “ strongly encourage[s] all IVHQ volunteers to take” itThe company heavily advertises the Global Travel Academies preparation course and also recommends its volunteers theirStay safe and healthy course for $69as well as the Refresh your travel skills class for $29 for for special prices.


Owner and director of IVHQ owns the company that sells the pre-departure preparation course for IVHQ volunteers


The New Zealand Business register shows that both,

  • the Global Travel Academy, which offers the optional online preparation course for (IVHQ)future volunteers
  • and IVHQ (the volunteer travel agent recommending these courses)

are (were) owned and run by Daniel Radcliffe[7].

Picture retrieved from http://www.bizdb.co.nz/company/9429041113516/ on the 10.01.2018

So why is the  much needed and essential pre-departure preparation course not automatically included in the IVHQ package? Shouldn’t it be mandatory? And why is he using the company he is about to sell to advertise and work for his new venture, the Global Travel Academy? He probably knew he was going to sell most of IVHQ.


Global Travel Academy – preparation by real and independent experts?


Interestingly, almost all staff listed as experts on www.travelacademy.org have close relations to IVHQ and its director and former owner, Daniel Jon Radcliffe.

In addition, one former (or current?) IVHQ employee[10] has been largely in charge of the development of the educational course and is now in charge of the marketing of the Global Travel Academy[11] [12] . Furthermore a family member of Daniel Radcliffe is running the blog of the online Academy.[13]

The courses are advertised as a service by passionated world travelers for volunteers. But it seems that the commercial volunteer industry itself is behind the academy and courses. Almost all experts involved in the preparation course (except one) are running institutions within the volunteer travel industry. Furthermore, the company is run by current or former IVHQ staff. This  may also be the reason why the Global Travel Academy does not show ownership details, nor an address or names of the staff on its website.


Aggressive expansion of IVHQ explained


The director of IVHQ was planning as early 2011 to sell the company in long term. This helps to explain the companies aggressive expansion strategy in recent years. In 2017[14] the company set up an internship program which offers similar products under a different name and website. The only differences lie in the price and that volunteers know beforehand where they will be placed. There is also a better (included) pre-departure preparation. However, in the end, most interns are placed in almost the same locations and positions as the volunteers.

IVHQ grew from having projects in over 18 countries in 2012 to over 30 in 2015.[15] Today IVHQ is working in over 40 countries.

To keep control of the major share of the market, IVHQ asked in the past their local partners to exclusively work only with IVHQ as an agent or not to take on volunteers from other agencies anymore. As an alternative, IVHQ demanded of their local partners to charge other agencies 200% more what they would receive from IVHQ. At the same time the company went into legal arguments with other competing low cost volunteer companies.

This aggressive expansion strategy might have been long planned, so that the company can be sold at a high price. It might also explain why IVHQ did not follow other companies in withdrawing from orphanage tourism, a practice that is increasingly frowned upon. It would have simply slashed the market price of IVHQ. Today IVHQ claims to be the market leader in a highly-fragmented sector, with a 34% share of the global market.[16]


Questionable business connections and transparency issues


The Global Travel advertises on their social media channels mainly IVHQ. the company has been known in the past to be connected to other businesses, that promoted IVHQ. For example, Radcliffe promoted discounted combinations of safari tours with volunteering through Safari Reviews Limited[17], a company also owned by him.  It was also proven that the IVHQ had connections to the volunteer travel review platform www.abroadreviews.com,[18] A website that was used heavily by IVHQ to advertise its programs. Furthermore Radcliffe owns Fund and Seek, a fundraising website which IVHQ reccomends to their volunteers.

None of the websites of these companies – Global Travel Academy, Safarireviews or Abroadreviews – feature any ownership or staff details.

The investment decision by Mercury Capital shows the tremendous economic potential of volunteer travel programs. However, the facade of being a social enterprise can hardly be maintained when having venture capital investors.

Radcliffe received millions of dollars [19] to sell his company. At the same time, he guaranteed his future in the industry by setting up a venture that sells much needed pre-departure and travel preparation courses to the volunteers and customers of the company he is managing and just sold. Neither he nor his company are transparent about this connection, yet they are heavily advertising the courses as a necessity. Preparation courses for volunteers should be included in every sold package; they should be free of charge and obligatory.


The future of the volunteer travel industry?


It remains to be seen what direction the company will take under the ownership of an investment company focused per definition on growth and expansion and has no link to the tourism industry nor to the development or social sector. More sustainable solutions, more profound education or better protection of vulnerable beneficiaries seem unlikely. Frank Seidel, an industry expert from the volunteer travel platform www.wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.com shares our concerns. He outlined that the quality of volunteer programs that were bought from companies outside of the volunteer sector declined (for example i-to-i and Real Gap after being bought by TUI) in the past. Mr Seidel points also out, that the investor of International Volunteer HQ seems to have no experience with tourism or social businesses. This are concerning signs for the future of their programs, local partners and host projects.

What is obvious after this deal is that volunteer tourism is a multibillion dollar industry. An industry, that investment company Mercury Capital is expecting to grow even further.


Check out our Facebook Group for discussions with past and future volunteers as well as industry professionals


[2] http://www.afr.com/street-talk/mercury-capital-books-ride-with-new-tourism-play-20171118-gzoa93
[3] http://www.mercurycapital.com.au/
[4] http://www.mercurycapital.com.au/partnership/
[5] http://www.afr.com/street-talk/mercury-capital-books-ride-with-new-tourism-play-20171118-gzoa93
[6] https://www.facebook.com/danradcliffe/posts/10158403758415537
[7] http://www.bizdb.co.nz/company/9429041113516/
[8] https://www.volunteerhq.org/volunteer-travel-insurance/
[9] https://www.goabroad.com/providers/international-volunteer-hq/programs/one-week-volunteer-experience-in-brazil-135673
[10] https://www.volunteerhq.org/blog/volunteer-abroad-for-college-students/
[11] https://www.linkedin.com/company/global-travel-academy/
[12] https://www.travelacademy.org/blog
[13] https://www.travelacademy.org/blog/1342550/solo-female-travel-guide
[14] https://www.facebook.com/internabroadhq/?hc_ref=ARTiuLNRB2fIVNCmZaQHfxBLwtaz-j8f_L7RuiBiR6YyPBX4sv34_jy9NgcTI3k7wRY
[15] https://www.vergemagazine.com/tags/volunteer-abroad/1546-affordable-volunteer-abroad-programs.html
[16] http://www.vpeg2.info/mercury-capital-fund-2/
[17] https://app.companiesoffice.govt.nz/companies/app/ui/pages/companies/3185725/detail
[18] http://www.responsible-volunteering.com/2016/09/connections-review-websites-ivhq-reviews/
[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Volunteer_HQ

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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.

6 thoughts on “IVHQ Review – The Capitalization Of The Volunteer Sector

  • Mary

    Sad to see the whole voluntourism thing explode but I love that people are wanting to do something positive and help others. My first IVHQ trip to Uganda in 2012 almost all my emails were answered by Daniel Radcliffe himself and I don’t know how he managed it all. He was certainly charging a lot less than other companies I looked into. There is a place for comparatively rich people to interact with the less fortunate, getting them out of their comfort zone. I think they should be more transparent about where the money goes. Some places are obviously in it for the money and hint about further donations while others really try to do their best for volunteers and clients. I do think IVHQ provides a valuable service but it does seem that it has gotten too commercial and that more vetting of local organizations is needed. Also I have met too many volunteers who are there mainly for the social aspects and drink way too much. But I’m happy for Daniel’s success because he put made something out of his passion that has helped many people.

  • Luis Felipe Murray

    You can’t imagine how unethical this “Daniel” is. I used to be his partner in Brazil, and after a couple of year when I was trying to raise the fee a little because I could barely cover my costs, he came to Brazil to close a “new deal” with me. Of course he did not come to an agreement with me, his answers were all maybe, we will see, etc. The dirty thing is that before he met me he stayed two days with another local organization called Project Favela promising them partnership, the director showed him all his partner projects and operations, then he came to meet me, and during the same two days he was having meeting with me, he met my main coordinators behind me and organized to betray me. He bought the guys (this Jive company mentioned above) promising a better future to work directly to him.
    He went back to New Zealand, turned down Project Favela and introduced the projects that the director had showed him to my two main coordinators to receive volunteers “independently of Felipe”, on his exact words. The worst is still to come, 4 days after I have my first baby, they betrayed me and left me with a big structure (2 house and an office) and no business. He worked with this two guys that betrayed me and founded Jive paying the same fees he used to pay me for about 6 months, then, because he had them on his pocket, he made them reduce the fees in 20%, in a way the programs could be cheaper and he could sell more. And, even worst, it wan’t only with me, he did the same thing with the partners that he had in Peru, and again, right after they had a baby.
    I hope one day he pays for his unethical way of doing business and for been so greedy, causing a bad impact on the international volunteer initiative.

    • Sebastian Drobner Post author

      We have heard similar stories from other local partners such as from South Africa, Cambodia (were I worked) and Vietnam. Often staff of the former partner took over after disagreements. Did you hear of others? They changed partners in Uganda as well some time ago. And India, I think 2011?

      • Luis Felipe Murray

        I am from Iko Poran in Brazil. We are a non-profit organization that implements volunteer programs to cause a positive impact in the communities in which they take place. I was running only a local organization since 2003, but after he betrayed me in 2014 I went on the international market. Now I work in 15 countries with the goal to make international volunteerism very affordable so more people with good intentions can travel to lend a hand. We treat our volunteers like people, not numbers like he does.
        In my case there wasn’t any disagreement, everything was already arranged behind me. Scott, the director of Project Favela forwarded me the emails in which he introduces Scott’s partner projects to my coordinators to place volunteers behind me, months in advance. This is illegal competition! He only waited until my first baby was born to drop me and transfer the bookings to the company mentioned above. They had already established the company and were working for me like everything was fine. They even complimented me when my baby was born, and then 4 days after Daniel created a confusion to finish with me. I had a 4 days baby and he dropped me…
        It hurts me to know that there are in the Voluntourism field, and the good organizations will suffer because of IVHQ’s practices.
        As I mentioned above, my actual partners in Peru were also betrayed by him, so, if he does this to a couple of orgs, he might be doing everywhere, you mentioned 5 other countries. His greediness has no ethical limits.

  • Leslie Jones

    This is a very revealing and troubling issue and I commend you for your very thorough research Sebastian. Might I add that the aggressive tactics that inevitably go along with firms controlled by private equity (IVHQ in particular) serve to tarnish the work of non-profits operating in the same regions.

    The line between skilled humanitarian workers and casual volunteers should never be blurred and IVHQ’s profiteering alienates many stakeholders. I am personally aware of (but won’t disclose) several African communities that have shunned further humanitarian outreach following questionable behavior of casual volunteers touring poor communities as a form of thinly veiled poverty tourism.

    We need to do more to stamp out manipulative business practices in this space because the consequences of bad ethics are particularly severe when it comes to the needs of vulnerable people.