International Nature Volunteers – Volunteering that Won’t Cost the Earth

Olivia Congdon speaks with Toby Malcolm about the International Nature Volunteers.

The eternal struggle that accompanies being a conservation volunteer is the financial burden. How frustrating is it when you find that amazing international volunteer project, but then realise that the project fee, on top of travel costs and life expenses, just won’t be feasible? As a decade-long member of the global volunteer scene, Toby Malcolm was frustrated with this problem. Toby’s dream was to generate a platform for conservation volunteering in New Zealand that was affordable as well as meaningful and responsible. So in 2012 he founded International Nature Volunteers (INV), and created just that.

INV connects volunteers across the world to environmental projects, which help protect the stunning natural environment of Toby’s home nation, New Zealand. The enthusiasm Toby has for maintaining a symbiotic relationship between volunteer, project coordinator and the environment was evident when I spoke with him about his career and volunteer philosophy.

What inspired you most to work in conservation?

Growing up, my mother was very nature-minded, and she would often take me, with my two older sisters, on camping trips and hiking adventures. I grew up in the city (Auckland) and always loved getting away from the big smoke. Spending time in the outdoors always felt like home for me. I have wonderful memories of family camping trips and meditating on the sounds, smells, and visual beauty of nature. As I got older I knew that the typical 9-5 office job would not suit me, so my experiences in nature as a young boy, thanks to my mother, lead me to study ecology conservation.

You’ve spent a lot of time volunteering and leading teams for various conservation projects across NZ — can you describe some of your favourite projects?

The first project I led a team of volunteers on is one that I am still involved with to this day. Our nature reserve project partner in Wellington is a wetland reserve, which is home to numerous native birds, both wild and in aviaries. It is run by a charity that was set up in the 1970s to protect a rare fragment of wetland forest, as well as make it accessible to the public. Part of what makes it one of my favourite projects is the diversity of work — animal feeding (birds, eels, and reptiles), helping with school groups and educational talks, enclosure care, planting, track and other maintenance — and also working with a great team of people who care about conservation and making nature accessible to those who might not otherwise get the opportunity.

Another favourite project of mine is our project in a remote part of Coromandel helping to protect kiwi birds. I got involved with the project over 10 years ago now, and the reason it’s one of my favourite is the aim of the project and the serenity of the location — when working in the forest there’s nothing like the silence of only hearing nature. The activities are also hard and physical work, and require a lot of hiking which is very satisfying at the end of the day. The project has made real strides to increase kiwi bird numbers by providing a protective zone from introduced predators, and it’s exciting to see the progress that has been made over the years with the help of so many volunteers. It’s a real conservation success story and the people involved a very knowledgeable and passionate.

Toby Malcolm holding a Pateke/Brown Teal (Anas chlorotis), a recovering endemic New Zealand waterfowl. 

Toby Malcolm holding a Pateke/Brown Teal (Anas chlorotis), a recovering endemic New Zealand waterfowl.

What did you find most valuable about working with conservation volunteers, early in your career?

The standout for me is the synergies created between volunteers and projects. Having volunteers helping with a local grassroots project is a huge boost both in terms of wo/manpower and also sharing of ideas and networking. Particularly when volunteers from overseas come with different conservation backgrounds and perspectives, volunteers provide an opportunity for projects to improve their methodologies and processes. I’ve seen volunteers and project leaders form great friendships that continue on past a placement. And volunteers come away from the experience with further skills, knowledge, and a deeper appreciation of the conservation issues facing another part of the world. I think this is what is needed today with so many pressing conservation issues — a way for conservationists around the world to come together and network with practical ideas and effort for conservation. I’ve seen first hand how volunteering is a great way to make this happen.

Can you briefly describe International Nature Volunteers and the projects you have on offer?

International Nature Volunteers (INV) was established in New Zealand in 2012 with the purpose of connecting volunteers with environmental projects. We provide opportunities for people globally to help nature conservation projects through volunteering.

We have two projects that volunteers currently have the opportunity to work with – the New Zealand Kiwi Bird Project, and the New Zealand Nature Reserve Project. We hope to add a new project in Australia soon.

Volunteers hike amongst ferns while following a trap line in the Coromandel, New Zealand.   

Volunteers hike amongst ferns while following a trap line in the Coromandel, New Zealand.

Did you find any frustrations in the volunteering process that you wished to change when you formed your organisation?

One of the issues I saw as a project leader was managing the cost to both the project and volunteer of a volunteer program. A volunteer program can be a double-edged sword to a small community conservation project — on the one hand it enables fantastic opportunities for volunteers, and also projects to achieve amazing conservation results. On the other hand, projects do need to invest time, energy, and money into orientating, training, and supervising volunteers for it to operate successfully. Covering the cost of this through volunteer fees is one way to enable projects to maintain a volunteer program long term. Having said that, I was frustrated by some other organisations that appeared to charge excessive fees for the opportunity for volunteers to participate in other projects around the world. One of my aims with setting up INV back in 2012 was to make volunteering accessible to as many people as possible through realistic fees. We work with projects to keep these costs down for volunteers, yet at the same time ensuring that the program for the project is financially sustainable.

In addition we have set up a scheme called the INV Grant Fund to support projects financially for things such as equipment, new initiatives, or other costs. The fund is open to anyone (not just volunteers) to contribute to. Also, a portion of volunteer fees goes into the fund, which is another way in which volunteers help support the project.

Have these changes been feasible and successful?

So far it seems to be working well, although we have had feedback from some volunteers that they thought the fees we charged were too low! We do re-evaluate the fees occasionally but are conscious of making it as accessible as possible for those who want to contribute.

What do volunteers find the most rewarding about these projects?

The opportunity to be involved with local experts in practical conservation ecology (New Zealand is a leading centre for endangered species recovery and conservation). In addition, being able to see areas of New Zealand that they might not otherwise get the opportunity to experience.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your job now, as Founder of International Nature Volunteers?

It is extremely rewarding to receive positive feedback from both volunteers and projects about volunteer placements. Supporting community conservation projects by connecting them with people who can help is awesome. The other I aspect I really enjoy is the communication with volunteers before they arrive and helping them prepare and plan for their placement — I get to share in their excitement!

What makes a standout International Nature Volunteers application?

The number one aspect to a great application lies in the motivation behind the person applying. More than anything, having the right reasons to want to help is key – in particular a concern for nature conservation and willingness to help. Specific skills and prior experience is less important – an eagerness to learn and work within a team environment is essential.

As part of the application process, candidates have the opportunity to attach their CV and I encourage them to do this — it firstly demonstrates a level of effort in the application, and secondly, prior work/study experiences (even if not in the field of conservation) can demonstrate proficiency, motivation, and attitude that are relevant.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

I don’t recall when or from who, but I have since found a quote which nicely sums up the sentiment of a key piece of advice I myself have received and believe in: “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Unknown

You can find out more by visiting the International Nature Volunteers website here: http://www.nature.org.nz/

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