Deirdre Bounds: From i-to-i Founder to Filming Documentaries in Africa

GoAbroad’s Outreach Manager, Ashley Houston, had the pleasure of sitting down with Deirdre Bounds – business woman, super-mom, author, and founder of i-to-i. Hear from Bounds about her work with i-to-i in this exciting interview!


Volunteer visiting children in Africa
Deirdre Bounds visiting with children while in Africa.

You founded i-to-i, one of the first “voluntourism” programs in the world, and one that became the largest voluntourism program in the UK, what was that experience like?

From a standing start to 11 years of turbo-charged business growth, it was of course very exciting as we were breaking new ground (the internet was pretty new too). But, coming from a non entrepreneurial/business background it was a very steep learning curve. I’d say 10% excitement, 60% hard slog, and 30% worry.

At times in its history, i-to-i had hundreds of volunteers in one country, how did i-to-i provide quality experiences while dealing with mass amounts of well intentioned volunteers?

With a well trained, and well paid staff abroad who were keen to put the project’s aims before the volunteer’s. We also worked with our volunteers a lot about managing expectations before they departed from their home country. Of course we had issues, but it really is about training and explaining very carefully what volunteers were needed to do.

You started as a stand-up comedienne, how does comedy help you deal with the challenges of sending young people abroad to volunteer?

You certainly need a good sense of humor when dealing with sending anybody abroad. My comic training helped me to write interesting marketing copy and create a company that wanted people to smile. I became a great public speaker who wasn’t afraid of long pauses when I’d forgotten what I was going to say!

How do you think i-to-i changed volunteering abroad?

We changed the whole concept from volunteering being a long and sometimes dowdy charitable excursion, to a short and exciting/meaningful way to travel. We didn’t create anything new, we just changed the sector it was in.

Deirdre Bounds

i-to-i was one of the first organizations to do online TEFL certification, what was developing that platform like?

Well, it was 1999 and the internet was still pretty new. I developed online TEFL because I wanted more Americans to volunteer with us and I knew they would need some training. I’d met with Troy Peden for the first time to discuss volunteering and told him about my idea for OLT. He suggested a PHP platform. So, I went to the University of Manchester and asked for their best computing student. As I didn’t have the expertise to write the course, I found an experienced and well qualified ELT teacher and it all came together.

Being the first in the world to do something is liberating as there really is no benchmark or ability to ‘copy’. As the saying goes, “if you create something new, customers think you did it for them. If you copy something, then customers think you did it for yourself.”

Even though we were a UK company we put the price in USD to hopefully make the world think we were a large global. Hey presto! – the world wanted it, the product was so successful we were able to expand globally.

Two years later the product was copied.

Do you think that getting an online TEFL certification is as valuable as getting an in person TEFL certification?

I think if you can combine both that is the best solution. Really any type of training will not make you a teacher. You need the basics, and then you need to get as much experience as possible. It is the experience that really makes a teacher.

Who’s the perfect online TEFL recipient?

Someone who commits to completing it and is ready to use the knowledge in the classroom.

You sold i-to-i a few years ago to a major travel company, what have you been doing since then?

  • Speaking about Enterprise
  • Writing a book
  • Making TV documentaries
  • Enjoying my family
  • Waiting for the next new global idea to hit me!

How do you stay involved in volunteering abroad?

I mentor a couple of organizations in the UK who organize volunteering.

Deirdre Bounds

What impact do you think you had on the volunteer abroad industry?

We made it more accessible and changed the brand so that it became inclusive and a great way to travel.

Since you sold i-to-i you have still been engaged in mission driven projects, including the documentaries that you do with Channel 4, a film company in Liverpool, can you tell us a little about that?

Yes, I went to Africa to uncover the practices of child labour in gold mining. This was a major documentary in the UK.

You taught abroad yourself, what was that experience like?

Really life changing. I taught in Japan, China, Australia, and Greece. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a professional and authentic experience of living abroad.

You wrote a book called Fulfilled in which you talk about overcoming personal challenges, including substance abuse. It’s a process that you began while teaching abroad in Japan. How did you become a better traveler when you had control over your own life and your own personal achievements?

Well, when you have an addictive personality, what I’ve found is that if you overcome that addiction and channel the huge determination and energy into something positive, then the results are astounding. I’m proof of that I suppose.

For updates about Deirdre Bounds, follow her on Twitter!

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