As a community of animal lovers and adventure seekers, we all want to know we’re putting our hard-earned dollars towards the companies and organizations that are leaders in responsible tourism and are truly making a difference. Nora Livingstone, founder of Animal Experience International is doing just that. Started from a desire to provide animal loving travelers with quality volunteer opportunities, Animal Experience International visits each program in person, so they can ensure the organizations are making a difference. We sat down with Nora to talk about Animal Experience International, things travelers should know, and a whole lot more!
What drove you to create Animal Experience International?
CreatingAnimal Experience International came from two wants. I wanted people from all different backgrounds to know they could make a difference and I wanted organizations from all around the world to get really great volunteers.
Too often people think they can’t make a difference because they don’t have experience or really specialized education. Animal Experience International serves everyone who wants to help animals, no matter who they are because it shouldn’t matter who you are, if you want to help, we can find you a program. It’s not just veterinarians and scientists who help animals, there are massive teams behind them that make their work possible. Animal Experience International is here to highlight those teams and show the importance of each individual on that team.
I also really wanted to have a strong and real partnership with our organizations. A partnership that they could tell us what they needed in a volunteer and we could honor that. I wanted to make sure we were working in the cultural context of each placement and not take leadership roles. I didn’t want to just send people around the world who would get in the way of the program or take jobs away from skilled local people. I wanted these programs to be real and to be beneficial, giving hands and feet where they asked, not where we assumed they were needed. I wanted to show everyone that we can help as individuals without hurting individuals.
What do you want people to know about your organization?
I want people to know that we are a company. We are a B Corp, which means we have a triple bottom line. We value the environment, our communities and our profits as our three most important indicators for success. That means we have a third party look at the quantifiable benefit to each community we work in, the quantifiable benefit to the environment that our programs bring and our governance- how we treat our employees.
We have been a certified B Corp since 2013 and we have won the Best For the World (in the top 10% of all B Corps) twice! I think it’s really important to mention we are a for-profit company because people get a bad taste in their mouth when they think of companies vs. organizations. B Corps are trying to change that, showing that a lot of good can come from supporting those who want to pay their bills but not cut ethical corners to do it. This isn’t a hobby of mine and if I was only doing this on evenings and weekends we would have a far smaller impact. Having Animal Experience International be a certified B Corp means we can make a much bigger difference to all the communities we work in, all the families we touch, all the ecosystems we send volunteers to and all diverse populations of animals we try to serve. It also means we have the numbers to prove we are of benefit and that low financial costs often lead to high social and environmental costs.
“Having Animal Experience International be a certified B Corp means we can make a much bigger difference to all the communities we work in, all the families we touch, all the ecosystems we send volunteers to and all diverse populations of animals we try to serve.”
What are the most difficult aspects of building your trip offerings?
We visit all the programs first, which is a wonderful adventure and very inspiring. We get to meet people from all around the world who want to help animals in their community. They want to engage their local community to be better stewards and more humane animal companions. What’s more, they are excited to host international volunteers who will return home as storytellers and advocates for these communities and the animals they serve. The other side of that coin is the reason they are there. They are there because there is something hurting their biodiversity or the welfare of the animals. That sucks. Seeing sick, injured, orphaned, tortured and homeless animals are awful. We can’t fight for what is right if we don’t know and see what is wrong so on these visitation trips, I get to see a lot of what’s wrong. Deforestation and habitat loss up close is heartbreaking and so is animal abuse. It makes me more passionate and probably more of a workaholic because once I see something I feel like Animal Experience International is responsible for doing what we can to help.
What are the most rewarding aspects of building your trips offerings?
I love when people come back from trips and tell me their life has changed. It is beyond rewarding because I can really empathize with that. I have been on these trips and have experienced life changing days. We have had more than 400 volunteers come back from a trip and that makes me just over the moon! That is 400 different people who are now advocates for the animals they worked with, they are friends with the people they met on their experience, they are engaged and inspired and know they can make a difference- because they did! If I tried to make a difference with just my life, I could do a little bit for a few people but our volunteers are able to make a MASSIVE difference and how cool is that? 400 people are thousands of hours of hands-on work, it’s thousands of dollars of donations, it’s thousands of new and excited people in their network who they have inspired to be the change.
How do you prepare for worse-case scenarios on your expeditions?
Building on the ground teams that we trust is crucial. We know and have a personal relationship with everyone who the volunteer will interact with from the center. We have traveled to all the placements and since we have felt safe there, we feel safe sending our clients there. So if the worst-case scenario happens, we trust our partners on the ground. We had a few volunteers in Nepal during the April earthquakes of 2015. None of them were injured because our partners and the community saw them as a family, they kept them safe and secure. Two of the volunteers delayed their flights home because they felt so safe and so thankful, they wanted to stay and help the community!
We also send everyone an Animal Experience International travel (country specific) manual before they go that get’s them in the frame of mind to be thoughtful when traveling. It get’s travelers thinking about keeping safe physically but also emotionally- compassion fatigue and culture shock can affect all of us, it’s important to think about them BEFORE going away.
What is your single greatest learning?
The power of the ask. I don’t have an animal background, I don’t even have a business background. I had no idea and probably still don’t have any idea how to run a B Corp successfully. I do know that I love what I do and I want to support everyone as much as possible so the best thing I can do is ask for help. I ask for help on understanding parasites, I ask for help on delivering speeches, I ask for help in writing tweets. I ask for help a few times a day, every day. People are filled with all kinds of information and passion that they want to share, why not ask them about it? Again, if it was just me, AEI would be nothing. AEI is really the sum of hundred of people’s support, advice, hints, belief, and charity.
How important is it to work with local people in-destination?
We understand that each community is different and each center will have different needs, objectives, and measurements for success. We make sure that we work with the staff at the centers to only send them volunteers and donations that will be beneficial to the individual center. I am not a local to any of these programs and can not understand the local cultural and social lenses that lead to the systemic conservation problems unique to each community. That also means I don’t understand how to help. Again, I have to ask. Animal Experience International can support the partners by supporting their proven successful local strategies- both in the care of the animals and the education and outreach methods they use.
What is the one item you would never go on a trip without?
I always bring a scarf with me. I typically travel only carry on so a good scarf can go a long way to making it look like I have more outfits than I really do. They are multi-functional: I have used them to dress a wound, cover my hair while going into temples, put over my face while sleeping in airports, the list goes on. For warmth, modesty, to cover up that stain on the shirt, to dress up an outfit, for first aid, scarves save!
If you weren’t doing this, what else would you be doing?
I honestly have no idea.
What advice would you give to someone that was interested in creating a social enterprise that is similar to yours?
Ask for help from your community. There are people everywhere who want to help you, they just don’t know how! Ask for help, reach out and know you are part of a really big world with lots of really awesome people who believe in you. You don’t have to know everything, that is what everyone else is for! If we all know one thing and share that one thing, we can all know everything together.
Find out more about Animal Experience International and the exciting programs they offer on their website. Also, make sure to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!