Conservation Enterprise Case Study: Knowlunteering

One of the organisations that I had the privilege to work with in Vietnam was the Human Ecology Practice Area (HEPA). HEPA is a 500 hectare rainforest and ecological farming practice and training area, and a network of people supporting rights-based ecologically sustainable development of ethnic minorities and rural people in the lower Mekong region.

The have spent 20 years restoring their stunning rainforest site on the border with Laos in Central Vietnam, and training ethnic minority and rural communities on ecologically sustainable farming. Currently almost entirely grant funded, I worked with them on developing an earned income strategy, as funding for NGOs in Vietnam is drying up as the country reaches middle income status. I ran series of workshops and conducted market research, which led to the development of an approach to generating income, based on the convergence between international volunteering and tertiary research, which we termed “knowlunteering”.

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HEPA has restored the rainforest, blocking what used to be a major smuggling route out of Laos

As scientists and practitioners deeply committed to their work, It was important to start with identifying what their values were, and what their red lines were in terms of generating income. We also committed to using appropriate language and avoid marketing terminology – “engagement” was adopted, rather than “promotion” and “customers” are “supporters”.

From there, we started the conservation enterprise development process, mapping the assets of the organisation using the approach I have blogged about here, and identified the products to be selected for research using this method. It emerged that they had hosted a variety of fee-paying services in the past on an ad-hoc basis – paid volunteering and work experience, domestic short courses, and research facilitation, which they wanted to scale up. I collaborated with staff to engage with former and potential partners as well as reading established research to identify a number of powerful points that pointed to success for the organisation in line with this conservation enterprise development stage.

International Volunteering

One of the fastest-growing trends in travel, 1.6 million people spend 2.6 billion USD annually on international volunteering. Potential international volunteers face an overwhelming variety of choices, and tend to use aggregation sites like this one and intermediary organisations like IVHQ to find and organise volunteering opportunities. Popular countries generally mirror popular places for backpacking holidays, of which Vietnam is one of the fastest growing destinations, and conservation was the fourth most popular choice – yet on the aggregation sites there were currently no opportunities for conservation volunteering in Vietnam – a clear opportunity for HEPA with its rainforest restoration focus.

Research Partnerships

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HEPA has worked with Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam to develop an ethnobotany database

The number of universities, student places, researchers and published papers has expanded rapidly worldwide, with no accompanying increase in state funding. As a result there is hyper-competition for both research funding and fee paying students in the tertiary education sector. This is driving a strong need for universities to develop cross-sector partnerships, conduct relevant applied research, and provide compelling student experiences including field schools abroad and industry placement. As countries like Australia and the UK are increasingly funding domestic universities to achieve international development outcomes, there’s strong impetus to partner with organisations like HEPA, who are able to support applied research in a developing country.

Convergence between Volunteering and Research

Whether independently, through university clubs or part of university courses, young people generally volunteer overseas in the period just before, during and shortly after graduating. They are increasingly volunteering to stand out academically or in the job hunt, rather than just feel good or make a difference. As a result, they are looking for work experience placements, skills acquisition and training that can give them an edge. They also increasingly need to conduct original field research on even undergraduate research projects to get top grades. For example, most of the past volunteers at HEPA often called their time at HEPA work experience, or they were conducting research for their PhDs or honours theses.

From the other direction, universities themselves are looking to facilitate these opportunities for students in order to differentiate themselves from the competition, and attract more fee income and research funding. We called this convergence between volunteering and knowledge acquisition “knowlunteering”. It’s really the future of volunteering, and social enterprises, particularly in the marine conservation field like Blue Ventures and Blue Corner Dive (the way Andrew has led their transition from dive school to marine conservation training enterprise  is really interesting) are really tapping into this demand as a way of generating income and scaling their impact.

Strategy Development

Market research presentation
A representation of the engagement strategy we developed

Together, we identified a number of actions to tap into the “knowlunteering” trend in Vietnam and overseas, from the development of structured short courses to a website redesign – see the strategy summary above. My main task with them was to create a prospectus-style document that would showcase HEPA to these convergent markets – that would be just as relevant to an academic looking for a place to host a field school as it would to a student club looking to volunteer overseas on their holidays. Have a look at the Research Prospectus I produced (click on the link to open) and see if you think it manages to articulate this distinct “knowlunteering” value proposition – and  of course please let me know if you are interested in engaging with HEPA.

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