“people give me my greatest rewards”

“people give me my greatest rewards”

look at that! – another interview with Kate our placement director. This one is a little

Kate at Kagiso pre school

more personal.

Interview with Kate Stefanko, co-owner and co-founder, people and places, UK by Kutoa

  • Q: When was the business founded?

A: people and places was founded in 2005, and our first volunteer placement was in April 2006

  • Q: What inspired you to run the business?

A: That’s easy: because of our years of work in responsible travel and tourism, we (myself and co-founders Sallie Grayson and Harold Goodwin) were familiar with volunteer travel as a rapidly growing part of the travel industry.  We were also well aware of its potential – for harm as well as good.  Volunteers and local communities and projects need to be properly prepared, well-informed and well-matched.  When this isn’t the case, the results can be disappointing at best and downright harmful at worst.  We initially thought that ‘naming and shaming’ would be the thing to do … but then what? That’s hardly an effective means of bringing about long-term change … so we decided to found our own volunteering company to prove that volunteering can and must be a ‘win-win’ experience, for volunteers and local communities alike.

  • Q: What did you do before?

A: The three of us together had differing and complimentary skills and experience in travel and in business:

I have over 20 years of experience in the travel industry, including the development of cultural immersion tours for specialist UK travel companies.  I have always placed particular emphasis on matching travelers’ cultural experience to the need for sustainable and empowering experiences for their hosts.  I firmly believe in the inherent ability of individual people to achieve great things, and I’m a true ‘people person’!

Harold Goodwin is an acknowledged expert in responsible and sustainable tourism – having years of experience in working with local communities, governments, international funding agencies and within the tourism industry to advance responsible, sustainable and pro-poor tourism.  (His ‘little black book’ was an invaluable resource for people and places from the very beginning!)

Sallie Grayson ran a niche marketing company for 20 years, and has served as a non-executive director and consultant in industries as varied as retail, finance, health and tourism.  Sallie’s own experiences as a volunteer, as well as the shared experiences of other volunteers and the communities in which they worked, left her frustrated and cynical about the volunteer industry, but also inspired by the potential benefits for volunteers and local communities … and determined to do something!

  • Q: How was the location chosen for the business, and what draws you to that location?

A: The head office (a very posh name for bedroom number 4 in my home!) is in Faversham, where I’ve lived since 1985 – so convenience and low overheads were the primary deciding factors!

But there’s more to the story than that … the business effectively has a base in every one of the destinations where we work with local projects, from Cambodia to the Caribbean.  There are so many great community projects around the world that are doing great work, but before we start arranging volunteer placements with these projects, we first seek out local partners – people who are already doing great work, who are in and of their communities, who understand local needs far better than we ever could, and run their own responsible and sustainable businesses.

The locations of our volunteer programmes reflect the places where we’ve found great local partners to work with.

  • Q: Did you start out with the goal of being a “socially green” business that helps the community, or did that idea evolve over time?

A: A definite YES to being “socially green” from the very beginning!  We started people and places to set benchmarks for volunteer travel.

The local community is our starting point – to the extent that they are the people who have the final say when it comes to accepting volunteers.  Both volunteers and local communities therefore need to be fully informed about each other in order to make informed choices and decisions.

Truly accountable, ethical, responsible and sustainable volunteer travel – this is our raison d’etre from the very beginning –  being “socially green” has always been and always will be our goal – that’s what people and places is all about.

  • Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect for you about the business so far?

A: Another easy question to answer: people give me my greatest rewards!  I’m fortunate to spend my working life in building relationships with all kinds of people from all walks of life – volunteers, overseas partners, individual community members – and helping them to work together and learn from each other.  This is the ‘win-win’ result we constantly work for.

There’s a much bigger picture, of course – the contributions made by hundreds of individuals building on each other’s work creates long-term gains – but for me, it’s the everyday communications with people that bring personal reward.

  • Q: What has been the most challenging aspect so far?

A: My partners Sallie and Harold may well disagree with me on this one, but in my particular role as people and places’ placements director, my biggest challenges are two-fold, with each side of the matching process:

Projects – getting confirmation of dates when placements are possible around the world (especially in countries where the national and religious holidays and festivals are a fluid and moveable feast!)

Volunteers – ensuring they have all the available and necessary information about their placements is relatively straight-forward … ensuring that everyone reads and absorbs the information is sometimes a bit more of a challenge!  But this is where I have the help of previous volunteers who definitely talk with future volunteers and share their own experiences too.

  • Q: What do you feel makes your business special or different?

This may sound pompous – but for me, informed consent and financial transparency are the biggies:

Informed consent is a two-way street: volunteers and local people must be enabled to make their own informed decisions, and that’s a major part of my job as placements director.

Financial transparency: there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and responsible volunteering involves real costs that need to be met.  I believe we’re different because we spell out the costs from the very beginning with each and every volunteer and explain not only how their money is spent, but also where it is spent – the bulk of which is in destination where it’s needed.

  • Q: If you were to start over, would you do anything differently?

A: Not really … but with the knowledge we have now, we’d be able to do more, more quickly if we were to start again.  Technology and social networking sites have moved on apace, and recently we’ve been using videos as a way of volunteers telling their stories.  If every picture tells a story, then every moving picture is even more powerful as a means of getting the story across!

  • Q: What are your goals for the business in the future?

A: More volunteers to do more effective work for local communities and projects.  That’s the business goal – but my personal dream would be to work with projects in Pakistan and in the United States (as both countries hold precious memories for me), and to be able to place volunteers successfully from each of those countries in the other so that individual people can be part of building mutual understanding.

  • Q: Where in the world do you still want to visit?

A: I will always enjoy revisiting the projects and communities where we work – that’s one of my life’s treats!  Other than that, I’ve no particular destinations on my list … and as we build our programme and add more projects and destinations there will be no shortage of places I shall want to go.

  • Q: What has been your most memorable trip?

A: The Karakorum Highway (connecting China and Pakistan) – fabulous scenery, monumental geology, green and productive valleys through some of the starkest landscapes on earth, amazing human achievements … and most of all, welcoming people who were pleased to share their lives and experiences with me … what else is there?

This article was first published on http://www.kutoatravel.com/owner-interview-kate-stefanko/

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