Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Everyone can be a Changemaker

 

Everyone can be a ChangemakerName of Social Enterprise and URL?

Ecuador Eco Volunteer – www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org

What is your product or service?

We run volunteer work and conservation programs for young idealistic people fresh out of school or university in Ecuadors Andes mountain range, Amazon rainforest, and Galapagos Islands.

What came about that made them help in social change? Why was this social venture created?

Ecuador Eco Volunteer was founded by myself Jake Ling from Australia and my Ecuadorian business partner Wlady Ortiz. Before I met Wlady I had been travelling around South America for six months and after finding the endemic environmental destruction and level of poverty quite confronting I made the decision to “give back” in some way, shape, or form.

The problem was I didn’t know how and felt quite insignificant in the face of these problems and challenges the world faced. I had heard about volunteer work being a great way to give back but after a little research I was incredibly surprised to see that these programs cost thousands of dollars a month. Way too expensive for a shoestring backpacker like me!

Then I met Wlady in Ecuador and over a few beers he told me about the price fixing and dirty tactics of the big Volunteer Work Cartels in the developing world. What these cartels do is find amazing NGOs that are doing inspiring work, list them on their popular web directories, and then charge thousands of dollars to volunteer at the NGO and take up to 80% of that money for merely being middle men.

That isn’t social entrepreneurship – that is unbridled greed and taking the advantage of the good intentions of these volunteers and the NGOs on the ground doing all the work.
After a few more beers we decided to create our own social enterprise using ecotourism and low-cost / high quality volunteer work programs as a vehicle to advance conservation in Ecuador.

Date officially launched?

We unofficially launched Ecuador Eco Volunteer early 2007 but because of our shoestring budget and the cost and time it took to jump through all the legal hoops to register the company our official launch was delayed until late 2008.

Even then we weren’t earning enough money for me to quit my day job in Sydney so I could come back to Ecuador and focus on the social enterprise full time. I spent the next two years working on the websites remotely in my free time after my day job finished until slowly but surely Ecuador Eco Volunteer grew and I could quit my job and buy a one way ticket to the beautiful Ecuador.

How many years and how many people has your social enterprise helped?

Everyone can be a ChangemakerIt’s hard to get a concrete idea of how many people we have helped since the results are not always apparent right away. On paper we have received over 400 volunteers that have worked in 7 different indigenous communities and on 3 conservation programs since we started Ecuador Eco Volunteer.

Also we try and make this volunteer experience the “adventure of a lifetime” that inspires our young volunteers to continue to be changemakers even when they get back to their home countries. Hopefully this creates a ripple effect when people realize how good it feels to help other people.

Another reason is because we aren’t solely helping people either – In our conservation projects like the Animal Rescue Center in Ecuadors’ Amazon our volunteers take care and rehabilitate endangered animals like several species of monkeys, tapirs, and exotic birds that have been rescued off deforested land or from the black market in animal trafficking.

Since 1970 over 30% of Ecuadors Amazon has been destroyed due to rampant deforestation and the criminal practices of foreign oil companies. These companies are above the law and have polluted hundreds of thousands of hectares of pristine rainforest and have almost wiped out entire indigenous tribes by driving them off their land and murdering those that fight back.

Just as destructive is the black market for exotic animals. On average for every 20 Macaws that are trafficked to collectors in Europe and America 19 will die in transit but these traffickers justify the massacre because they make $10,000 for every Macaw that survives. Today Ecuadors Great Green Macaw is fighting extinction but Ecuador Eco Volunteer and many other great organizations are on the front-lines fighting back.

How many people need help?

In a developing country like Ecuador there are many demographics that are incredibly vulnerable and it’s impossible to help everyone. What we can do however is pick our battles correctly and fight for causes where we know we can make a difference.

At the moment we are in talks with another organization about creating a shelter for street kids in Riobamba, the city where we are based. There is a very big social problem in the impoverished indigenous communities where parents rent or sell their children to people in the big cities.

Once in the cities the children are sent off to wander the streets and sell chocolate and chewing gum and if they do not make a certain quota for the day they are beaten. Others are sold into sex slavery and trafficked out of the country. Riobamba, a city of 200,000, doesn’t yet have a refuge for this very vulnerable demographic but hopefully by next year it will!

How many people are currently working, including employees (freelancers or independent contractors for specific projects)?

We normally have about 7 – 10 new volunteers with us every single month working anywhere between 2 weeks to a year. We have two long term volunteers with us right now, the first is Freidy from Berlin who is translating our webpage into German and will continue to help us when she goes back home. Our other long term volunteer is Jennifer from Chicago who is visiting all of the indigenous communities we work with and getting their input on how we can improve our programs for them and our volunteers.

We also have a receptionist who works in the afternoons after university and my business partners’ wife who organizes things in the Riobamba Guesthouse that we offer free of charge for our volunteers. Then there are our mountain guides that work for us whenever our volunteers want to trek into the Andes or experience high-altitude mountain climbing on volcanic peaks like Cotopaxi 5897m (19,347 ft) or Chimborazo 6,333m (20,777 ft)

Could others help you and how?

Oh of course there is so much more to do here in Ecuador and the more help we get the better. Check out our website and see the volunteer programs we have available and find a cause that resonates best with you: www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org/volunteer-work/

Do you tweet, facebook fan page, myspace friend or use any other social media to get the word out? (Please provide links)

Yes of course it’s a great way to get the message out and help drive traffic to our sites. You can find us here:

Facebook:
http://www.facebook.com/ecuadorecovolunteer

Twitter:
http://twitter.com/#!/ecoecuador

Youtube video:
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38FlN2-E9-M&

What is the best advice you never got?

It took three years of bumbling around before we discovered that by trying to cater to everyone we were seriously damaging our business. We had so many different trips and programs on our website that we essentially paralyzed any potential customer with the “Paradox of Choice”

This is not a problem isolated to our company either – I’ve seen other shoestring ventures and social entrepreneurs grapple with this same misconception time and time again – the misconception that by narrowing your niche you will scare away potential clients outside of it.

Since then we realized catering to everyone is like looking for your soul mate on some match making website and saying you want someone between 18 and 80 years of age with blonde, brown, black, or red hair (but willing to make an exception for grey) and an height anywhere in the vicinity of 4 to 7 feet tall.

Now upon reading that would our soul mate say “Oh wow here is a man/woman that is looking for someone exactly like me and will know how to cater to my very special needs!” No.

Same goes for attracting our dream clients and customers – they are looking for a company or organization that really “gets” them. That shares their ideals and specializes in the product or service that they are looking for.

As you have noticed above I mentioned that we offer volunteer work programs for young idealistic people fresh out of school or university. That’s our niche and we are determined to be the best in it. There is no way shoestring ventures like us can compete with giant companies and multinationals by catering to everyone but what we can do better than anyone else is master and dominate our niche. Remember less is more.

What is the one thing that you did right?

Letting our volunteers have an active say in the direction of Ecuador Eco Volunteer and how we improve our programs. Also really communicating with the indigenous communities to find out what they want, what can we do to really improve our programs rather than assuming we know what is best.

What was the biggest transition you had to make (i.e. new skill set, habits, abilities, focus)?

Learning Spanish has been a very difficult yet incredibly rewarding journey. Having to make the transition from a soulless call center in Sydney to a small Andean city surrounded by four volcanoes in Ecuador was a big transition but as you can imagine not very difficult at all.

What free online or offline tools do you use?

WordPress.org – this is the most advanced and user friendly system out there for those who want to create professional custom-designed websites but don’t have the time, resources, or know-how to do so.

There are hundreds of thousands of different “themes” on the internet which you can easily install onto WordPress to give your site a personalized and professional feel. It also lets you visually edit the text on your websites pages, add photos and videos, as well as activate various plugins that add infinite possibilities to this completely free tool.

Google Analytics – this is a great tool to keep track of how many visitors are coming to your website every day, month, and year. The program will also tell you where the visitors are coming from (which other websites, which countries, which cities) as well as the time the visitors are spending on each page. Go to analytics.google.com and sign in for free to use it.

Google Adwords Keyword Tool – is another free program offered by Google that lets you research the popularity and competition of various keywords and phrases on Google. Im going to be talking a lot about this tool in the next section on SEO so check it out by following this link

https://adwords.google.com

Are you doing any type of Search Engine Optimization?

Everyone can be a Changemaker

Of course! SEO is imperative for any shoestring social entrepreneur that wants to create a greater awareness of the work he or she is engaged in. At first it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the world of SEO but as long as you write great content and know the basics which I’ll explain in detail below you will do fine.

About a year ago we decided to split our original website into two – keeping all of our ecotourism trips on www.ecuadorecoadventure.com
and move all of our volunteer programs to the brand new domain www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org

Starting from scratch meant 0 hits a day for Ecuador Eco Volunteer but it also meant I could put into practice everything I had learnt about SEO from the previous website. After a year www.ecuadorecovolunteer.org rates number 1 and 2 on Google for “Andes Volunteer Work” and number 5 for “Amazon Volunteer Work” keyword phrases with quite a lot of competition. This is how I did it:

1. Start off by using Google Adwords Keyword Tool to identify popular keywords and phrases in your niche with less competition. A keyword phrase is a sentence that a potential client may enter into Google like “volunteer work in Ecuadorian Amazon”

2. Keywords in the domain name are ranked higher than keywords located in other areas of your site. Notice how the new domain contained the word “volunteer” the most important keyword we were trying to target. Pick a domain name that simultaneously utilizes these keywords as well as faithfully represents your company / brand name.

3. Name and structure the pages on your website to effectively utilize the keywords you are trying to capture. By default programs like wordpress use a “dynamic” page structure so you might get a page named “/?v=cefca2” which is horrible for SEO. In WordPress it’s easy to change this by going into Settings – Permalinks and enter the keywords you are targeting.

Here is an example of two different volunteer programs on our website:

ecuadorecovolunteer.org/volunteer-work/andes/andes-alpaca-ranch/
ecuadorecovolunteer.org/volunteer-work/amazon/animal-rescue-center/

Each link contains several keywords and two keyword phrases – you want your website to look something like this with the keywords you are targeting.

4. The next most highly ranked sections of your website are the headings. Make sure you use keywords and phrases here that you have identified using the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. Finally is the content part of the page where you should use keywords and phrases but be really careful to ensure that its legible to humans not just Google.

IMAGES –
Images are not only great to break up walls of text and increase the user friendliness of a website but they are also brilliant ways to boost your rank on Google. Here is what you do:

- Rename photos from the camera default (eg. DCM123, DCM124, etc) to a name utilizing two or three keywords you are trying to capture. In our case “amazon-volunteer-1, amazon-volunteer-2” etc.

- By default WordPress will upload images into directories named 2010, 2011, etc depending on the year. Instead create a directory tree on your server utilizing the keywords you are trying to target, in our case: images/volunteers/amazon/

- Add “ALT tags” to all of the photos – the HTML code for every image will look something like this:

<img src=”http://www.ecuadorecoadventure.com/wp-content /images/volunteer-work/animalsanctuaries.jpg”>

 

Inside the brackets after the direction of the image file add this code: ALT=”description with keyword” – here is an example:

<img src=”http://www.ecuadorecoadventure.com/wp-content /images/volunteer-work/animalsanctuaries.jpg” alt=”Volunteer in Amazon” />
Notice the name of the image, the folders the image is located in, as well as the ALT tag all have keywords that im targeting. The ALT tags themselves are invisible to users but are read by the Google “spiders” that judge your sites ranking. Be careful not to do any “keyword stuffing” that is – repeating the same keywords over and over for each photo or you will get penalized by Google.

LINKING

- One of the ways Google measures the authority and rank of your website is by looking at the quality of the sites that are linking to it. Create great content on your website and you will have other websites wanting to link to you naturally.

- While it can be quite hard getting other websites to link to yours one thing that is under your control is “internal linking”. By this I mean creating links between various pages on your website. Internal links aren’t ranked as highly as external links but they are still important.

- When I first started out I used to link to an article or page on my website with the words “click here” as the link description. This pretty much wastes the potential of the link because you want Google to associate the link with a certain keyword or phrase not “click here” –

Now whenever linking to the website I ensure that the description contains a keyword or phrase, in the following example the link is in quotation marks:

To see the amazon volunteer program “click here” BAD
Check out the new “amazon volunteer program” GOOD

That is some of the basics to SEO which I have no doubt you will master after a little practice. Remember though that the best SEO in the world means nothing if your website doesn’t have great content. Good Luck.

What book(s) have you read that others should read?

One of the most amazing and inspiring books I have ever read is “How to Change the World – Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.” The book, often referred to as the “bible” in the field of Social Entrepreneurship tells the story of Ashoka, the organization created by Bill Drayton in the 70s whose mission was to find and fund social entrepreneurs from all walks of life back before anyone had ever heard of the term.

If it wasn’t for Ashoka planting the seeds for this “silent revolution” of social entrepreneurship then there is a very high chance that we would not be talking about this for another 10 or 20 years. Bill Drayton was the first person to have the audacity to declare “Everyone can be a Changemaker”

The other book I highly recommend is “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” by John Wood the founder of Room to Read. The book follows John’s journey after he takes a vacation in the Nepalese Himalayas and discovers the poor access that the children there have to books and education. He also realizes that he is unhappy in his high-profile job at Microsoft, irrespective of the buckets of money he was earning, and wanted to do something more rewarding with his life.

Ultimately John summons up the courage to take that leap of faith and quit his job then use the lessons he learnt in the corporate world to start an NGO and make the world a better place.

What can you tell other potential social entrepreneurs who are deciding to make a difference?

There has never been a more urgent time in the history of humanity for people like you to step up and become a social entrepreneur than right now.

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