We’ve interviewed Steven Weddle, Co-Founder and CEO of Volunteer Forever – our ELITE member, who after his own volunteering time abroad decided to fill in a gap in organising similar opportunities for other young people wanting to experience the same.
Tell us your story. How did your business get started?
I started Volunteer Forever after my first volunteer trip to India. I found the process for researching a volunteer trip online to be complicated and scary, especially since the trip would cost thousands of dollars! I remember arriving at the airport in New Delhi wondering whether the organisation I found online was legitimate and if someone would even be picking me up as promised. Thankfully, the organisation I found was legitimate and I ended up having a life-changing experience.
When I got back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the problems I experienced finding and funding my trip. So I started Volunteer Forever as an all-inclusive platform to find and fund your volunteer trip. Think of us as a next generation travel directory with helpful travel guides, profiles of international education providers, and a crowd funding platform to help travellers raise money for their trips abroad. We’ve since expanded to intern and teach abroad trips due to high demand from our audience for these programs.
What are your unique selling points? What makes you different?
For program providers, Volunteer Forever offers three key differentiators from other listings sites:
- We do all of the legwork to get clients featured on our platform. There’s no need to upload lots of project listings to make your program visible on Volunteer Forever – we take care of all of the hard work for you!
- We dig deep into understanding the unique value proposition of each of our partners to convey their strongest points to our audience. Based on each partner’s strengths, we create custom, high-quality editorial content when featuring programs on our website. Rather than reading the same project descriptions as found on other websites, visitors to Volunteer Forever read completely unique content about our partners, presented in the voice of a trusted travel advisor to give prospective travellers the right information and confidence to book a trip. It’s for this reason that we have to be very selective about which programs we decide to work with on our platform.
- We’re so confident about the results that our partners will see that we offer a 30 day free trial for our advertising packages. That’s pretty unheard of with listings sites and advertising platforms in general, particularly in our case where we are doing the legwork to create custom editorial content for our partners! Because we think WYSE members will see especially strong results, we are offering you a 60 day free trial for our advertising packages: https://www.volunteerforever.com/signup_landing.
What are some of your success stories?
First and foremost, I’m blown away by the growth we have experienced in the last few years and I am incredibly humbled to be part of WYSE as an Elite Member and to be sponsoring WYSTC 2017.
In terms of connecting travellers with programs, I love hearing from our partners about the fantastic traffic, conversion rates, and ROI we are delivering to them. It’s such a great honour to become one of the top ranked sites for travellers looking for volunteer, intern, and teach abroad trips and to count among our client list some of the largest and most impactful programs in the world.
And when it comes to helping volunteers afford their trips, over 10,000 people have used our site to raise $2,000,000 to travel abroad. We’ve also instituted a quarterly scholarship program and plan to award 8 scholarships to well-deserving travellers this year.
What are your future plans?
We’re ever focused on staying on the bleeding edge of technology – yesterday was the age of mobile, today is the dawn of the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Think about how amazing it would be to use algorithms to personally tailor your online experience to each visitor – imagine if we could show the perfect project to each person rather than have them dig through tons and tons of projects to find what they’re looking for. We know that our program partners sometimes need help with staying abreast of the latest technology trends as well, so we’re going to announce an entirely new product at WYSTC 2017 to help partners with this pain point.
Which trends and challenges do you see in the volunteering, teaching abroad or internship abroad?
Trends: we increasingly see more traditional receiving organisations starting to do their own advertising and establishing their own brand name – the internet gives local organisations worldwide reach to promote their programs. On the flip side, we also see more programs starting to vertically integrate such that they are sourcing participants and operating their own projects (or at least trying to gain exclusivity with in-country partners).
Another big trend that we see has to do with volunteers’ preferences. There has been a ton of interest in volunteering in Cuba from U.S. travellers given warming relations between the U.S. and the island nation. Right now, just a few of our partners operate projects in Cuba, but we expect that number to increase significantly.
Challenges: One of my big fears at the moment is the effect of the Trump Administration’s immigration and travel policies on people’s willingness to travel. Though we’re not seeing any noticeable effects from our end, I do fear (hopefully unsubstantiated) that Americans in particular may be more fearful about travelling abroad (for any reason). We as a globally-minded community need to continue to foot-stomp the importance of travel and cultural exchange to creating a more connected, tolerant, and peaceful world.
Another big challenge for our partners is the speed at which digital marketing and technology are advancing. As a program, you can’t just rely on study abroad fairs – you need to be present online when a prospect searches for you after that first interaction all the way to the point that they are ready to book with you.
Tell us about your team – what unique experiences do you bring to this space:
As a team, we are data-driven, eat and breathe technology, and take a customer-first approach to building and refining our product.
Brian, our Chief Product Officer, is a PhD in Operations Research (emphasis on statistical analysis, optimisation, and machine learning). He’s responsible for building, testing, and iterating all of our features on Volunteer Forever and also developing the new product we are launching at WYSTC later this year.
Sarah, who heads up all of our content, is a serial entrepreneur who is quite well-known in the international volunteer space. She also used to work for the Peace Corps helping returned Peace Corps volunteers transition after their two-year tours.
As for me, I’m a former product manager for Google Analytics. I work directly with our partners to help them reach their marketing and recruiting objectives on our platform.
What was your motivation to join WYSE Travel Confederation?
We joined WYSE because we have experienced a lot of success meeting great partners at events like WYSTC and WETM-IAC and wanted to deepen our relationship with the Confederation. Furthermore, we want to continue to connect with the best organisations in the world – our model only allows a select group of programs to join our platform and we find WYSE to be home to some of the most compelling organisations in the world.
For more information visit their website https://www.volunteerforever.com/.
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