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.  The leading New Zealand volunteer travel agent was taken over by Sydney based firm Mercury Capital. 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.”  The firm also only invests in “businesses that demonstrate the potential to achieve rapid and sustained growth […] with a good business potential”. Radcliffe is expected to stay on as Deputy Director of the volunteer travel agent.
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. . 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” it. The company heavily advertises the Global Travel Academies preparation course and also recommends its volunteers their “Stay safe and healthy course for $69” as 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)
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.
- One expert works for the insurance IVHQ sells to their Volunteers- World Nomads
- Two experts are from the local IVHQ partner and agent in Brazil- Jive Brazil 
- One expert works for the local IVHQ agent in Kenya- NVS Kenya
- One expert is from the advertising platform Go Abroad, in which IVHQ has heavily invested
- One expert is the founder of the advertising platform Go Overseas, who is not only close to IVHQ but also receives large amounts of money for IVHQ advertisements.
- The remaining experts are a medical specialist and directors from two other major volunteer travel companies
- Two experts are close friends of the IVHQ director but also current or former employees of the IVHQ.
In addition, one former (or current?) IVHQ employee 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  . Furthermore a family member of Daniel Radcliffe is running the blog of the online Academy.
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 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. 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.
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, a company also owned by him. It was also proven that the IVHQ had connections to the volunteer travel review platform www.abroadreviews.com, 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  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