Podcast: Steve Gwenin | GVI

If you’re looking for hands-on conservation experience but don’t know where to start or are feeling overwhelmed by choice; perhaps you’re mid-career looking to take a break from the grind and get back to nature whilst also exploring new career paths. Joining us this week to discuss these matters and more is Steve Gwenin, Chief Executive of GVI. GVI is an award-winning organisation that tackles local and global issues by operating education and training programmes on sustainable development.



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Audio Transcript

NICK: Welcome to the podcast, Steve Gwenin, Chief Executive of GVI. Steve, could you just introduce yourself to the audience a little bit?

STEVE: Certainly, thanks Nick. I’ve been with GVI since 2002, my background is marine biology – I was once a marine biologist and a commercial diver, so I’ve worked in a number of scenarios around the world, a number of locations around the world, off the coast of Africa, within Africa, within Asia, within Australasia, Latin America, up in Arctic waters as well.

Really focused on natural resource conservation initiatives, and when I joined GVI in 2002 I joined to set up the first marine research and conservation programme, which was over in Mexico. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world working with a range of NGOs and government agencies and inter-government agencies, really with a heavy focus on conservation but as my knowledge and interest in conservation grew, I’ve become more and more engaged in community development and across the board sustainable development, around from my own personal perspective of focus on natural resource conservation. I’ve built up sort of a wealth of experience along the way, very clear why I’m here with GVI – to focus really on GVI’s mission, which is to build a global network of people united by their passion to make a difference.

NICK: And GVI, for those who haven’t heard of you before, that’s Global Vision International, right?

STEVE: That’s right. There’s a lot of global and international in there, so for short we call it GVI.

NICK: So where does GVI work now, what are the sorts of projects and programmes that you’re involved with?

STEVE: At this stage we’re in 14 countries around the world so across Latin America, Africa and Asia and then the Pacific as well in Fiji. So programmes range from wildlife conservation and marine conservation to general community development with segments of that being health programmes, education, teaching, gender equality and healthcare as well.

NICK: Maybe you can sort of paint a bit of a picture about some of these projects, just to kind of bring it really to life for the listeners. I mean I was lucky enough to visit one of your sites actually last year, you kindly invited me down to Karongwe in South Africa, where you do wildlife conservation but also community development work. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about Karongwe, you know, the sorts of things that interns and volunteers can do if they visited a site like that.

STEVE: The real focus of all of the locations, all of the work that we do is set in collaboratively with local partners, so in Karongwe we’ve got a range of local partners that include the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the local land owners so in Karongwe in particular we’re working on a small, private reserve, not unique but it’s quite a small amount of reserves in south Africa that have cheetah and lion living side by side so it’s got quite a great reputation for cheetah conservation and trying to develop a cheetah population that actually is able to live alongside lions.

A lot of our work on the reserve is really focused on predator-prey relationships and research around that, especially with the consideration that it’s on a small, private reserve. So conservation in south Africa is more and more focused upon reserves, as indeed it is around the rest of the world so it’s, how can we have a higher density of species, particularly the bigger mega fauna living side by side, how do they interact, what number of prey species do you need to be able to balance it and then sharing that information with the local land owners, but also more broadly around the scientific community.

So as a volunteer you get involved in all of the research activities which generally involves going out, doing a research drive morning and afternoon, so heat of the day, not so much is happening with the animals but it’s mostly sort of dawn and sunset. You’re out looking for the predators, you’re looking for the elephants, all of the big 5 are on the reserve, and recording their behaviour, recording when did they last eat, have they eaten, what was their prey species, trying to find their location and looking at their behaviour, what other predators are in the area, are the cheetah coming close to the lions, are the cheetahs avoiding the lions, are there wild dogs in the area, what’s their behaviour with the lions, etc.

It’s quite hard work, it’s in the heat of the African savannah, basic living conditions, it’s a research centre on a reserve so it’s pretty basic – bunk beds, mosquito nets, on the basis we all take turns in sort of cooking and cleaning, so it’s community living, there’s normally about 7 or 8 different nationalities on the site so there’s a lot of inter-cultural communication and learning going on between the teams as well.

NICK: What are the types of people that come on GVI experiences? Obviously I met a bunch, you know, at Karongwe myself but how would you typically describe a GVI volunteer or intern?

STEVE: Quite hard to give a typical picture. I think our average age is around 27, but that’s morphed by a few people that are older as well, so we get a lot of undergraduates and a lot of graduates that are already engaged in conservation but would like to learn more, would like to get more hands-on experience, and then on top of there we have quite a few career-changers, people that have already started one career, decided it’s not for them and would like to engage in another career. And then we have some older people as well joining that have got more time and potentially money on their hands and would like to do stuff they never got the chance to do when they were younger.

NICK: And what are the sorts of benefits people get out from being on an internship or a volunteer experience that you guys offer? Why are they coming to you and what are they taking away with them that’s going to benefit them in some way?

STEVE: Let’s start with the volunteer programme, which is the core of what GVI did originally. But we found more and more people were joining it really as part of building their careers. So they wanted that international experience, they wanted to challenge themselves, they wanted to explore the world, to explore some of the subjects that we’re engaging them in, so all of our work is set around clear objectives, develop the local partners and it’s aligned with UNSDGs. So we definitely have people that wish to make a difference, a positive change. So people’s two biggest needs really being around that, doing something positive and then change in themselves and learning about themselves and personal and professional development sort of through that route.

On the internships we give much more focus to that so there’s a lot more attention – we run our Institute Of Leadership course and we’ve also developed a career-building course around sustainable development, so if you do wish to go in that direction, how to explore that, how to look at the various elements of research and be clear about where you wish to go, and how to get those skills.

NICK: And one thing you mentioned there a few times is SDGs, that’s sustainable development goals?

STEVE: Yeah that’s right, so there’s 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, so they’ve all been set up with a view to in the year 2030, they’ve come off the back of the UN Millennium Development Goals and we align all of our objectives to those. So it’s fairly complex trying to track the impact because there’s 169 targets and I think 242 indicators, but it’s a framework really for expressing and exploring the biggest issues that globally we face as a global community and then some targets to try and overcome those issues, so the United Nations has been reaching out across government agencies, NGOs, corporates to try and find the solutions to those problems that we face and then have found a framework for looking at the indicators, so we can measure the various actions that have taken place around the world actually making a positive contribution to those issues.

NICK: So organisations like yourself and other NGOs, you know that your work collected is working towards tackling some of the biggest challenges on this planet, things like climate change, poverty alleviation, wildlife conservation, obviously so on and so forth.

STEVE: Yeah, sure. So wildlife conservation comes under Life on Land, and there’s a whole range of targets around it really addressing biodiversity and habitat, conservation mostly.

NICK: International volunteering in the internships, the experiences that you offer people at your sites around the globe, there’s a number of providers kind of working in that space nowadays – what sets GVI apart from other similar providers? Is there some things that people should bear in mind when looking at this sector?

STEVE: Yeah, I think the sector’s definitely gotten more organisations in now, I think there’s some broad choices that people can make if they’re looking to go and volunteer. Probably the most important thing is to be clear and honest with yourself why you’re looking to volunteer and what you’re looking to get out of it, so the sector is certainly split between sort of cheaper experiences and more expensive programmes, so there’s a range of quality available and there’s a range of type of experiences that people can have, some more focused on impact, some more focused on fun and personal experience.

NICK: I know you’ve got three young kids, as have I, you know, if in the future they want to go off and do an experience like GVI’s offering and they’re kind of you know, researching the marketplace, what things would you encourage them to look into? What practical steps should they take when choosing their experience?

STEVE: I think the starting place is to be clear about what you’d like to achieve, and is it just a cheap backpacking experience or do you want to do something positive, do you wish to build your career, are you looking to learn skills – as I say, there’s more and more organisations out there, there’s more commercial organisations getting involved, so being clear about what you’re actually looking for and then asking a lot of questions – there’s so much information online, from reviews, get a sense of how other people have found those programmes to be, to get a sense of the quality or the reputation of the organiser.

You can ask questions around are they actually working locally with organisations, who are those organisations, do they know the names of them, what’s been achieved so far, are there project objectives, if so what are they, how have they done against those project objectives in the last 12 months, will there actually be staff on the ground from the organisation that you’re talking to, if so what are their qualifications, where does your money go, as much transparency as possible. And ask the questions, I think that’s the key. Ask as many questions and do your research, go online, check out what other people are saying.

NICK: That sounds like great advice. So be clear what it is you’re looking to achieve from one of these experiences and then really drill down on the detail by asking from the organisation themselves and also doing your researching around them by seeing what other people have said about them.

STEVE: That’s right. And I think a big part, to do volunteering well, it’s complex. It needs a range of stakeholders, you have to look at the participants but you need to look at the community members, the partners on the ground, the staff on the ground, how are those objectives getting set, are they actually aligned with anything, are they aligned with the regional SDGs, is there any knowledge or information around that that you can get, and then what are the ethics of the organisation? So there’s lots of experiences out there that are not necessarily well aligned with good, sustainable development practice, shall we say. So I think that looking heavily at the ethics of the organisation, you know, do they have policies around ethics, around working with animals, around human empowerment, are there strong leanings towards hand-out or is everything done collaboratively with local partners, is there a statement around empowerment of people and clear guidelines about how the project should or shouldn’t work.

NICK: So what are the sorts of skills that people typically develop on a GVI experience?

STEVE: On a GVI experience, whether it’s a volunteer programme or an internship where we give a bit more focus to actually attention on these, obviously there’s the experience of going out into the field and getting the practical experience, learning how to do research, survey techniques, teaching, depending upon the focus of the project but behind all of that, there’s this huge intercultural experience where you’re living in quite different conditions, can be tough conditions, sometimes remote conditions, you’re living with a group of strangers that you don’t know, mostly it’s an international group so on any of the hubs, we might have sort of 8-10 different nationalities there at any one time, so you’re learning a lot about yourself, you’re putting yourself in difficult positions, challenging positions, you’re learning around intercultural communication, you’re learning teamwork, you’re learning around problems and how to overcome problems, how to overcome problems as a team with timelines, you have to be able to present to each other, to communicate well, self-initiative and motivation, when things are tough can you actually step up and continue, can you overcome problems as they arise, which they always do in these sorts of conditions, and flexibly as well.

So there’s a lot of core skills that employers are looking for, which you’re inherently developing. And more and more we start to frame those and talk about those and explore those on the programmes as well, so people are aware that they are actually skills, they may be soft skills but they’re skills that they are developing and experiencing and refining as part of these programmes.

NICK: And this is good evidence, as you touched on there, that employers are looking for, so whether you’re going into conservation or another field, actually these are things you can talk to potential employers about and actually provide evidence – in this situation, I did this, you know which shows problem solving, x, y and z.

STEVE: Exactly, so it’s how to frame the experience in a way and communicate that experience in a way that is relevant to the employer.

NICK: Let’s talk a little bit about you then, if we can, Steve. So you are the Chief Executive of GVI, and you started GVI in 2002 so at the top. How long have you been the Chief Executive, when did that start for you?

STEVE: 2014, so about four years now.

NICK: What’s been your focus over the last four years, what have you been trying to change and shape within the organisation?

STEVE: That’s a good question, Nick. Since taking over as Chief Executive, really I’ve been laying out clearly our long-term path. We were very much purely a volunteer organisation, we had a lot of participants joining us to do more than that. We’d only really focused on the impact on the communities, but really true human empowerment and to do that well we had to take a greater account of the objectives of the participants, the objectives of the staff as well as the local communities and the local community partners. So we’ve been very clear about how to do impact collaboratively and well.

So long-term change, not just short-term change. And that for us as an organisation led us towards looking at who we are, we were very clear about our mission, we were very clear about our values, very clear about why we’re here and what we’re supposed to be achieving, but we hadn’t been clear about where we wish to go so there’s been much more focus on education and training across the stakeholders, so for the participants as well as the community members. And I see us heading very much in that direction of an education and training organisation, the leading one around sustainable development.

NICK: And where do you see GVI say five years from now? Not in the long grass, but in the medium term. Where are you trying to take things?

STEVE: This year Nick, we won the Best Volunteer Programme award at WYSTC, which is the World Youth Travel Conference. So we know we’ve got a great reputation, we know we’ve got good standards but I think as the global community’s knowledge of sustainable development grows, through research and through communication, I think we can keep improving our standards, we can keep improving how we’re doing sustainable development, we can keep improving our care and support for our participants, for our community members so really a lot of the focus at the moment is driving and improving those standards and practices. The reason I think we need to do that is really to reach more people, and as we reach those people to have a bigger impact upon them.

NICK: Great, sounds like an exciting journey that you’re on. Not many people in this world get to be Chief Executive of a significant organisation like GVI, what’s it like being Chief Exec, what’s it like day-to-day, week-to-week? What do you enjoy about the role and what do you find quite challenging?

STEVE: I think what it’s like is really up to you as an individual. Yesterday I was sat here in a ghost costume and a mask and I’ve put a lot of attention on fun and trying to make sure it’s a happy place. Not everywhere is like that but particularly at the moment I’m working in South Africa. You know, it’s got more of a traditional workplace and I do think that any organisation follows the values and the methods of its leaders. So there’s a lot of responsibility there and I think as soon as you show any stress, everyone’s stressed. If you look happy and you’re having fun, everyone’s happy and having fun so I think for me that’s probably the best part of the job, is the people.

Not every leader is focused on the people, some more focused on the spreadsheets and the finance etc. For me it’s the mission, it’s why I’m here. I love working with people, we’re lucky we’ve got a really strong culture here and I think that’s in part something we really protect and try and nurture and bring that out, so we’ve got a very liberal and accepting workplace and it’s a lot of fun to be. And then in this particular job I get to do quite a lot of travel, which is really good. And I guess it’s fair to say there’s constant challenges and problems to overcome. No one day is the same, as soon as you think you have everything lined up, something’s gonna happen and there’ll be a big problem that needs to be overcome and I love that challenge. So I think people have to be very keen to embrace challenges and not get too bored, you need that sort of personality.

NICK: What would you say have been your career highlights so far, kind of replaying things back? You know, you’re still mid-career, let’s face it so you’ve got plenty of time to go but what have you done so far that really stand out in your kind of career story?

STEVE: It took a lot of energy, patience and commitment to really get long-term paid work as a marine biologist, it wasn’t easy. So I had to do a lot of different things to gain experience, at one stage I was working nights in a milk packing factory whilst volunteering in the daytime for a Wildlife Trust in the UK. So to actually get that first paid job as a marine biologist is definitely one of the highlights.

NICK: What was that job?

STEVE: That was actually with Wildlife Trust, in the end so it was off the back of the volunteer work that I did in the UK. And then when I joined GVI I was running one programme, so that for me is certainly now, what – 15 years with GVI? That’s a big landmark move for me and that was my first real long-term position in the tropics, which was a very big move, so very different. And from there I went on to be the field director so overseeing all of the projects and setting up most of them along the way, so that was another landmark. And then from there, really becoming the Chief Executive. So I became more opinionated around the financial side of GVI, the funding for the projects, how we were getting that, around the recruitment of the volunteers and the interns, around the marketing, how we were presenting ourselves and then I was lucky enough to be given the chance to have more influence upon those decisions.

NICK: How did you feel when you were offered the job of Chief Exec?

STEVE: I was surprised, actually. It was quite a bizarre thing to do. It wasn’t something I was chasing at all, it wasn’t something I was really looking for but I think it was a good move for GVI, obviously or I wouldn’t have taken it. But I certainly had a lot of different things to learn. I knew a lot, I worked well with people and with teams, processes and structure, I had a lot of vision for GVI, but I didn’t really know anything about sales and marketing so I had to do a lot of learning.

NICK: When you kind of replay back your career today, is there anything that you’d like to, I don’t know, change about things? Anything that you’ve learnt that you might seek to do differently next time around that others can learn from at this stage?

STEVE: Oh, that’s a really good question. My immediate answer is no but Nick, I’m fairly content with life. I’m happy, I’m a happy man. I have a lovely family, I have a job that I’m super passionate about, I’m involved in sustainable development, which is probably my biggest passion in life, I get to influence a lot of projects and play a part in making those projects happen that affect a lot of people, so no I think if I could give any advice at all it would be to take some time to explore yourself and explore the world before deciding on what you’d like to do.

I see a lot of people, younger guys, graduates or career-changers on GVI programmes, that felt pressured to make a decision to go to university, to learn something, start a career and they’re unhappy in that. And those people I’ve met are the ones that are willing to make that change, I’m sure there’s a lot that aren’t willing to make that change so education’s expensive, it takes time, it takes energy – be clear about where you wish to go first and if that takes a bit longer, spend some time talking to people, travelling, trying out different jobs, understanding what the marketplace looks like, what the career avenues are and choose the one that you think might be the right fit for you.

NICK: Yeah and I totally feel that, too. And come across like-minded people, really in terms of like mid-career switches or people leaving university, trying to get that first job and not really knowing where to go or where to start and I would sort of build on that, I don’t know how you feel but I would say, if you feel that you know, you’re not in the right job for you for whatever reason, perhaps you made a poor choice, you know – don’t be afraid to change. It’s never too late to kind of switch and explore other things, you know, we all think we’ve got the right thing, you know and then oh, it’s not quite right for whatever reason – learn from that, move on.

STEVE: Completely agree and I think probably what I would recommend, and I did this to a degree but not as much as I should have done, is talk to people. People don’t mind if you ask them questions, if you ask them what they do. Normally they’re really, really happy to talk about it but it’s not, they don’t want to talk about themselves unless you’re asking questions so ask questions. What’s it like? Oh, you do that, what’s that like? What do you actually do and do you enjoy it? And I think we often don’t ask enough questions, we’re guilty of trying to be polite and not digging too deep but I think actually most people are really happy to share their knowledge, to share what’s good, what’s bad, what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy – it’s a compliment if someone’s interested in them so ask questions. That I think everyone can benefit from. Ask more questions of people, when you meet them, ask them questions and learn more.

NICK: Absolutely. And I know I’m in a slightly different position to many, but I’ve asked a lot of people – can I talk to you about your career story and I haven’t had a ‘no’ yet, you know. People are flattered, you know and are happy to share advice. Perhaps you have to be a little bit brave, I guess, if you’re not confident and not outgoing, you know, but do put yourself out there, you know, there will be people who are more than happy to kind of talk you through what their job’s like and give you a bit of guidance for free.

STEVE: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

NICK: Great, ok. Before kind of I guess bringing things to a close, I’d like to know a little bit more about the beginning, like little Steve, if you like (laughter). What kind of drew you into, you know, conservation and natural world, you know? Where did your clear passion for this come from?

STEVE: From my father, I think really. So I lived in Hertfordshire, I lived in a little cottage that was next to a farm and across the road from some woods, so we were out in the woods all the time as kids playing in nature. And I think really it came from there. As I got older, we went camping most of the time for our holidays up in north Wales, I started surfing, so that was even more nature, and really got into marine biology off the back of surfing. I was actually going to be, I was going to be, Nick – I got a scholarship from the Royal Airforce, I learnt to fly, I was in the cadets, again basically because I liked running around in the woods a lot, but out the back of the cadets I got a scholarship from the Royal Airforce, so I got my private pilot’s licence and I was all set to go and be a military man, and then I found out that they wanted me to be a navigator and not a pilot, which wasn’t good enough for me so I left that.

Then I got a scholarship from British Airways to go and be an airline pilot. Then there was a recession on at the time so they put a year’s delay on the start of that course, I went off to travel around the world, I made it to Guernsey, worked in a pub, met some students there that were working over their summer holiday, they pretty much laughed at me and said, you should definitely be going to university, what are you doing, it’s great fun. You can do courses around surfing and marine biology, dragged me down to the local library in St Peter’s Port in Guernsey to go and look at some prospectuses and then I ended up signing up to do oceanography and marine biology at Plymouth.

NICK: Wow, and the rest is history, eh?

STEVE: The rest is history. Again, through talking to people really changed my career path.

NICK: Last question then, if I can. So looking at the biggest picture, if you like. If I could make you like a global tsar for the day so you can kind of make one thing happen in the world, you could change one thing and it would have a big impact on the planet, whether that be people, the environment or whatever you want, you know, if you could change one thing, click your fingers and make it happen, what would you do?

STEVE: Oh that’s a tough question, Nick. I would make… I sound awful saying this but I’m being very honest, I think I would make being a vegetarian more socially acceptable globally. I think it is in the UK, it’s not in South Africa, the real traditional thing here every weekend, everyone’s braaiing, so it’s like a barbeque over wood rather than charcoal. Everyone braais. Everyone eats loads of meat and drinks loads of red wine. The impact on conservation of farming and farming animals and meat production is so big I think it’s really underestimated and there’s so many people that want to do stuff for nature, that don’t take that jump to be a vegetarian. And I’m not, I’m not myself, which is why I sound awful saying this (laughter) and I’m not, because I live in South Africa and I’m English and I need to make friends and I can’t turn up at the braai with my three kids and we’re all going to be vegetarians. I’m really conflicted in saying this. And the welfare of animals, if a human species was treated the way we treat animals, it’s absolutely appalling.

Well we should not be treating other species in a way that we’d never treat ourselves. So I think if I could make it more socially acceptable, I think there’d be a massive impact on conservation and there’d be a massive impact on the welfare of animals as well and I think as a species, the human species which has so many challenges to overcome, we don’t know what the future is for the human species, but I’d be very surprised if we make it through the next 100 years in the numbers that we’re in presently, so I think that it’s about time we started thinking about how we treat other species and how we would like to be treated ourselves.

NICK: Sounds like a pretty good rule change to me. And actually, I’m in a similar boat to you, I’ve been on and off vegetarian for years, mainly off, if I’m honest but when you look at it, you know, it takes, what 10 times as much energy to produce meat as it does to produce vegetables and the same goes for water and everything else so just switching away it makes a huge impact on the planet, so I can totally see where you’re coming from.

STEVE: In South Africa last year we had a drought and it got down to, you know, there was limits on the amount of water people could use, and there was talk of, you know, all the taps being turned off and moving to standpipes in the street, etc. And I think one steak was the equivalent of 40 showers, was the standard being bounded around. Most people were down to, you know, one shower a week with a bucket.

NICK: Gosh! That really brings it to life, doesn’t it, yeah. Great, look Steve, I know you’re a busy guy so I really appreciate your time that you’ve carved out today to talk, it’s been really interesting to kind of hear your story, hear a little bit more about GVI and I’m sure our audience is going to be really keen to hear a little bit more. If people wanted to find out more about GVI and what you do and perhaps you know, sign up to a programme, where should they go?

STEVE: For the UK, there’s www.gvi.co.uk, it’s the core website explaining all about who we are, what we do and some details on some of the programmes that we offer.

NICK: Great, we’ll put links in the show notes, people can kind of click through that way. Thanks again Steve for your time, it’s been really nice to chat, I hope you have a great day!

STEVE: Absolute pleasure, thanks a lot Nick.

NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone. If you did then please do subscribe and give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you want to find out more about GVI then please visit gvi.co.uk and if you enjoy these interviews, we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into our free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. Finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.

STEVE: Yesterday I was sat here in a ghost costume and a mask.

Careers Advice, Podcast, Senior Level, Organisational Manager