Combining Adventure with Animal Conservation Nora Livingstone, Founder & CEO of Animal Experience International

Nora Livingstone is the founder and CEO  of Animal Experience International, a certified B Corp on a mission to help animals around the globe by matching clients with animal related volunteer opportunities at sanctuaries, hospitals, wildlife rehabilitation centres, research projects and government programs. Her mission is to empower students, professionals and animal lovers to travel by providing exceptional volunteer adventures!

She shares how AEI got started, the lessons she’s learned along the way, and her advice for people that want to find their purpose.

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what career path did you follow?

I sort of fell into it, not realizing what my dream was or what my purpose was. When I graduated from university I decided to travel and volunteer. I thought that I would love for other people to do this and I wanted to help my friends have the same experience.

It was a low stakes idea – I could tell other people how they could volunteer. I was a volunteer coordinator at a wildlife center in Canada, which is where I met my current business partner. She’s a veterinarian there. After I left that center, I floated around for a while.

I loved coordinating volunteers and getting people involved and investing in people. I especially appreciated the amount of help and benefit that can go into one project, if you have a team. My (now) business partner, Heather, came up to me at a BBQ and basically pitched the idea for Animal Experience International.

The idea stemmed from the fact that I had traveled before and she had a lot of great connections with vet students. Our goal was to help people (not just students) have these amazing experiences. I thought ‘how hard could starting a business be?’ Famous last words. That was 2011.

There was no pressure when I started that ‘this was what I was going to do, and this is how I’m going to change things.’ Instead, it was all about focusing on incremental change – one more person helping dogs, and one more person getting into vet school because they had an interesting experience on their CV. From there it expanded into 500 people going on different trips.

When we pulled all of the volunteers over into a new database, we didn’t bring everyone over for logistical reasons. So, 512 is the official number in the new database, but we know that we’ve had even more volunteers than that. That’s a lot of people and a lot of stories. To think every volunteer has put 2 weeks of volunteering into different centers means that real change is happening.

Tell me a bit about how Animal Experience International is working to make a positive impact?  

How AEI works is people go away individually. We go for the programs first – we make sure they are safe, ethical, and confirm they are doing real work in the community.  We want to make sure it’s hands and feet volunteering and actually local solutions to the community’s true problems rather than what we think they are. We actually visit the center before we give it the clear. We then send our volunteers individually and they work with organizations that operate every day and are a place setup for international volunteers.

We just recently partnered with Child Safe International even though we only work with animal groups. We recognize there are certain types of people that want to volunteer with different organizations while traveling. In our manuals, when we talk to people, we say that ‘if you want to work with children, here is a great organization to work with if your heart is drawn to working with marginalized people and how to actually help them.’ Our big focus is on impact.

What does impact specifically mean in international volunteerism?

What we have seen, very unfortunately in the volunteerism community and industry there are awesome amazing lovely people that want to help, but sometimes that helping hurts. If it’s willful ignorance or naivety, some programs by design are negative and some even out of the best intentions hurt. People WANT to help but they just don’t know, or don’t want to know that the program they signed up for is not all positivity and helpfulness.

For example, between 75% and 85% of “orphans” in Cambodia are not orphans at all, they have one or more parent. Their parents have either been manipulated or these children are part of a child trafficking ring. People go as part of volunteer trips to work with these orphans, but what they don’t know is that these kids would be better off with their families, in their local communities. People volunteering here likely just don’t know the questions to ask.

Therefore, we want to have as many touch points as possible to make sure people know the right questions to ask and what exists.

We’ve started to see this type of issue come up in the animal sector as well.  We’ve seen people start wildlife sanctuaries, but it turns out they’ve actually stolen the animals from the wild and put them into tiny enclosures. There is a heartbreaking documentary called Blood Lions. It’s about people going into southern African centers to work with lions on lion breeding programs. They have this experience where they cuddle with lion cubs and take just the cutest pictures. But, these lions are taken from fake these conservation centers and put into parks where people use them for hunting. It’s devastating to think about.

It’s not a question you would even know to ask unless you are deep in the industry. Why on earth would you ask the center – “hey, are these lions going to be killed later?” And, even if they did, would they get an honest answer?

It’s such a joy to do what I do because I get to meet people that really care about doing amazing work. I can send them to places where I have personally been and have done all the due diligence possible. It takes 2 years to get partnered with us. Every time I send someone over, I can say ‘yes, they will be in an amazing placement and you will stay with wonderful families, and I can confidently say they will make a positive impact.’

What are the biggest obstacles?

I love what we do and sincerely, if I could live off of hopes, dreams, and happiness and the proud feelings I get from clients and partners, I would be sorted. However, because I do need to live off of money, that has been difficult. I’ve been trying to learn how to monetize my time and think strategically about marketing. What does owning a business look like? How do you pay yourself?

During our last B Corp Certification we were looking at our books and we realized we donate 6% of our profit to the planet – which I love and never want to change, but it also means I’ll be paying off my student loans for another 10-years. It is a challenge. My computer webcam doesn’t work, but I don’t have enough money in the company to invest in a new computer and I would rather put money somewhere else. It’s okay. I don’t need anyone seeing my face on webcam, but it’s these small struggles that we don’t often talk about when talking about the glittery world of being a CEO.

We started officially in 2012, and with the model that we’re working in, we’re often paying ourselves 2nd. We are prioritizing being an amazing partner first and a good business after. It has definitely been a steep learning curve to understand what it means to own a business.

Sometimes, we do have group trips! I, personally, have led 2 trips. There are times when people want more leadership and and a bit more hand-holding, and I totally get that. These can be big trips for people!  It’s important for some people to have a travel buddy! But for those who want to travel on their own, I’ve been to all of the programs we are partnered with — except our partners in Australia (Heather got to visit them).

A lot of the work is putting the experiences out there and doing volunteer matchmaking. When people say “I think this would be good for me,” we have an interview and determine whether it’s a good fit. Sometimes we will recommend them waiting a few years, traveling a bit more on their own or getting a few more courses under their belt. We find that our focus on matching and making sure our volunteers have an amazing experience makes us fun and sustainable — we know our volunteers are perfect for the program they are part of and will become lifelong advocates for that community. There are other companies that send leaders on all the programs. Leading that many trips would be really difficult, though.

The last trip we did was crazy — it was 5 women that went to Kenya, including my mom, and we did giraffe conservation. We left on international women’s day and I never stopped being proud of this group of amazing women helping with giraffe conservation in Kenya. It was so cool and so interesting. I love investing in women and in travel, it was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life because it was incredible AND all women. However, by the end of 10-days, I was ready to not talk to another human for another 10-days. Self care in this industry is really important, something I am still working on.

Power of Partnership

We are a B Corp, but I think the really cool part about what we do is our partnerships. The partners that we have are what makes the impact so interesting. For example, if someone goes to Nepal to volunteer with dogs – they volunteer with the dogs, which benefits the animals, and it helps the clinic. It’s also a public health issue – they are giving them vaccines, so there are less instances of rabies. Our volunteers also do a home stay and we ethically compensate the home stay hosts. The hosts pick up the volunteers at the airport. The volunteers then become global advocates because their Nepalese family hosts them, feeds them, and takes them around the area for sightseeing. We jokingly say we trick people, who really just want to help dogs, into becoming global advocates for people, too.

They have very authentic experiences with these families, with these people, and the entire community. It makes a huge impact when you think about the stories they tell to their families and friends.

From the very start we partnered with The Carbon Farmer (a small organic family farm in Northern Alberta that plants trees in the Boreal forest), to carbon balance all of our trips. If you’re going on a trip, you’re using carbon. We don’t give them an option to opt out. There will be trees planted for you.

All of my friends that are designers, artists, etc. encourage me to make sure that I get paid, that the service I’m offering is my craft. We live in this awesome time where B Corps exist and there are so many people that are disrupting industries. They are turning being a CEO and running a for profit on its head. I love that. When we would talk about international development – it was always charities vs. for-profits. The discussion was always the world was ending because of what for-profits are doing. It’s exciting to see such big brands becoming B Corps. You can still be successful and still have purpose.

Yes we are a company, but we still absolutely make an impact.  Don’t trust us, trust our numbers.

What advice do you have for people who want to change the world?

Something I’ve been thinking about recently is, if you want to change the world, you don’t have to know ‘how’ yet. So many people talk about passion and purpose. There are people, when they were 5, who lined up all their dolls and knew they were going to be a teacher. There are others that are like bumble bees pollinating lots of different flowers, who have many different interests but didn’t know their passion yet.

We put so much pressure and so much stress on figuring out where you’re ‘supposed to be’ in life.

If you want to change the world, you will. Just stay the course and know that you’ll get there, you’ll figure it out.

It takes all kinds and it takes so many different models to drive change. It’s those small incremental changes in each industry, that together will change the world.