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Mission Impossible?

Chris Braunlich

Chris BraunlichAre we on a mission impossible? When I took on the role of CEO for Conservation Volunteers International Program five years ago, I knew it would be a difficult task. The image of Don Quixote came to mind.

ConservationVIP® leads volunteer trips to world-class destinations to work on conservation projects. The nonprofit was started in 2007, with energy, enthusiasm and no money. The idea was to have volunteers pay to work in foreign parks. This was not an obvious model for success. Yet we have managed to survive and grow. Some days I’m amazed by what we have accomplished. Other days I’m overwhelmed by how much there is to do.

We can only accomplish our mission, our dreams, by engaging and motivating volunteers on our trips. I understand that need to feel motivated because, like the other people who manage and staff ConservationVIP®, I am a volunteer. How do I stay motivated? I love mountains, yet many days the only mountain I see is the giant pile of travel planning, documentation, insurance, bill paying, nonprofit regulatory compliance, etc. that needs tending. Believe me, this is not what I envisioned when I imagined my retirement.

Hearing the stories and enthusiasm of our volunteers is very motivating. Volunteers on our trips are the kind of people who care enough about the world that they are willing to devote time and money to help conserve it. But despite the glamorous CEO title, I don’t get to go on many trips, so I can’t count on that on a daily basis. Plus, we can never take volunteer satisfaction for granted. No matter how hard we try, no trip is perfect. The occasional negative blast from someone who was not happy can be discouraging. On the hard days it can drown out all the positive comments we get from the overwhelming majority of our volunteers.

My main motivation has been, and has to be, the knowledge that what we do preserves the landscape and helps the parks. I know how much the parks need and appreciate help. I could go on and on about it, but my ConservationVIP® colleagues frequently remind me that I am too wordy, so I’ll save it for another time.

My brain rarely rests, probably an occupational hazard of volunteering as CEO of a nonprofit. Thinking of all we have accomplished and how much is left to do, I decided that we should start a blog. Do I think we need one more thing to do? Absolutely Not. Do I think the world needs another blog? No. I’m not totally out-of-touch with reality! So what’s with this wacky idea?

A blog will give us a better way to engage in conversation with volunteers. That could help us improve and it could help volunteers decide which trip is right for them. It will also allow us to shine a light on some of the amazing volunteers who go on our trips and help run our organization. Plus, a blog will give us a medium to better explain who we are, what we do, and why we do it. I think it would help to talk about how being a nonprofit makes us different from other travel companies.

Can we write something that is interesting enough for people to want to read it? Many nonprofits send out communiques, competing for attention. I understand how tough it is to be a nonprofit, to really care about your mission, and to know that the wrong word can lose a supporter. So, most newsletters are carefully edited to put the best foot forward, which results in a sameness that can make it hard to distinguish one from the other. To convey a true sense of our organization and what we do, we will need to acknowledge some of the warts. When we talk about our trips, we will tell you the best parts and the not-so-great parts. When we shine a spotlight on our volunteers, we will let them tell you what they loved and what they didn’t love. Since my mantra is “So much to do, so little time”, we won’t be publishing too frequently.

Finally, I’ve been told that humor is dangerous when writing for the public, because it is easily misunderstood. Still, I hope we can write with a sense of humor because if we can’t laugh at ourselves, well, we are in trouble. Besides that, if we take ourselves too seriously, who would want to read us?

What do you think? Should we try it?
Chris Braunlich

Next post Spotlight on Peter Murphy

Comments

Sam Jamke

Good luck, Chris and all CVIP! Hope to join up with you again in the future. Am missing Torres del Paine already and it had only been 1.5 years since my last visit when I ran into your crew!

Glenda Denniston

Hi –

Had a great time both in Peru and more recently in Alaska. Will go again, I’m sure, though don’t know where.

As for the blog idea, I’d love to see one. However, I don’t think that’s the problem. The main problem, as I see it, is the fact that not many people have heard of Conservation VIP, so will never check the website, blog or anything else. The connection with REI was an excellent idea, as they provide advertising.

The question I would ask is: How do we best advertise the fact that Conservation VIP exists and that it has options for several spectacular service trips? In other words, how do we get people to go to the Conservation VIP website in the first place?

Hi Glenda, you are absolutely right. We are a tiny organization by the standards of the Internet, so one of the main challenges we face is trying to get the word out about what we and our volunteers do. REI Adventures is a great help on the advertising, a volunteer named Paul Adams has spent many hours improving our website’s organization to help search engines find and read our site, and referrals from past trip participants and sharing on social media are also a huge help. We want to keep costs down so we can spend our money supporting parks rather than on advertising. I would love to hear any small budget ideas!

Shelley Fast

Hi Chris, agree with Glenda. A blog is an ok idea but will only be read by people who know it’s there and subscribe. My ideas, as previously discussed with you on a glorious hike up the side of mountain in Peru carrying 10 saplings :), is to take advantage of Salesforce.com non profit offering. (no cost CRM for CVIP) The non profit instance of SFDC would provide you an amazing infrastructure to manage your business.
In addition, advertise to company’s like Salesforce, who focus on philanthropy and provide their employees giving back opportunities. There are A LOT of us out here now that have woven philanthropy into the core of our corporate values. Salesforce alone has 19K employees World Wide and we all get 56 hours of PAID VOLUNTEER time annually…and there are loads of other organizations that offer this as an employee benefit as well.
I feel like that could be an easy, small budget way to draw more participation. An HR department or in my case, our Foundation, communicates these types of opportunities all the time. You contact one person, they blast it to hundreds or thousands of employees.
You could offer referral discounts as well. If someone refers another person they get 10% off their next trip? All you have to do there is advertise that in your trips and have a referral field on your sign up page.

Hi Shelley, I remember that hike with great fondness! One of the lasting legacies (beyond the trees that were planted at Machu Picchu!) was that I put the non profit offering from Salesforce.com on my “To Do” list. I toured your site and was impressed. I followed the advice there and charted out the complex flow of information we have from operating via a virtual office, and now I just need to find the time to take the next steps. It will happen, very soon.

And, you are so right with your other suggestion: if we could tap into a reservoir of employees with your enthusiasm for volunteering, imagine how much good we could do in the world. Thanks for the suggestions

Shelley Fast

Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help with your set up of SFDC when the times comes! One of the benefits of having a CRM in place is a “Community” page that would essentially take the place of a blog and be a real time discussion mechanism where you can also post files, attach links and more. Your users can search topics, ask questions, view files and provide feedback (and a variety of other functionality). A community is more effective then a blog in that it would truly provide the discussion that you are looking for around selecting a trip, highlight volunteers and activities, etc. Here is the coolest part though, you don’t have to do all that work…the community does it along with you. Everyone has the opportunity to weigh in, post items, ask questions in a more collaborative, engaging format. So, again, when you’re ready to launch please let me know how I can help. I have no problem providing some direction or even some facetime meetings to answer questions or give you a demo. All free of charge of course 🙂 Take care! Shelley

Jeff Chabot

Glenda hits it on the nail-head, a blog “if people subscribe and interact – works” but in many senses I liken a blog like a website – if you have a fantastic billboard out in the woods – what use is it. It all comes down to traffic and that is what everyone in marketing struggles with. It takes someone to be the catalyst or center of enthusiasm which is why most social media pages fail – everyone need to put some effort into staying connected – consider how FaceBook operates – if someone does not occasionally interact with CVIP’s FB site -FB assumes you are no longer interested and FB does not keep you up to date on the latest posts of CVIP.
If volunteers often pointedly shared their last experience on their own FB pg and included a link it would radiate exponentially, but rarely happens with most organizations. FB is very Pay Per Click focused these days.
REI is a great partner, but Volunteer Vacations is even buried on their web site too and my feeling is not found by many that might be interested.

Thanks Jeff. I have to admit I’m a failure at social media, since I personally can’t quite wrap my brain around how it works, but I sure appreciate those who do help us in that community.

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