Handprint Adventures, Social Capital, And VolunTourism
For this issue of The VolunTourist, I am grateful to connect with Dara Parker, Founder of Handprint Adventures. During the Corporate VolunTourism webcast held on November 6, 2007, Dara spoke about her belief that VolunTourism can make a contribution which does not necessarily revolve around sustainability and community development. In fact, she suggested, during the discussion, that the formation of Social Capital may very well be the most important derivative of VolunTourism. It was this conviction that led me to reconnect with Dara and pose this issue's 3 Q's to her.
1) What inpired you to start Handprint Adventures?
In 2003 I decided to move to Lesotho, a tiny African Kingdom landlocked by South Africa. Having never stepped foot on the continent and barely being able to find Lesotho on a map, my work was simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding I have ever accomplished. During my time in Lesotho I was responsible for developing a youth engagement program using sport as a tool for development. This experience led to more work in the non-profit sector and of course, extensive exploring in developing countries.
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Through my international work and travels I both experienced, and observed in others, the incredibly positive impact and personal growth that result from volunteering abroad. The relationships I formed, the skills I developed and the unique experiences I participated in (e.g. pony-trekking in the beautiful highlands of Lesotho and learning how to make “papa”, a local dish), were unparalleled. In fact they were life-changing. My experience inspired me to return to graduate school and eventually found Handprint Adventures.
2) In some minds the value of VolunTourism is compared and contrasted with "bricks & mortar" community development work. But to you, a former community development person yourself, the real value of VolunTourism is in the development of social capital. Why do you see it this way?
While there are thousands of opportunities to volunteer abroad there are few short-term opportunities for people with professional skill sets. By founding Handprint Adventures I wanted to extend the volunteer experience to working professionals who have so much to offer yet are bound by careers, families and mortgages that restrict their time commitment. I also recognized immediately the mutual benefits for both the private and non-profit sectors in developing international corporate volunteer programs.
Part of the reason there are so few short-term volunteer opportunities for people with professional skill sets is because they are more difficult to identify and manage. To volunteer successfully requires time and effort on the part of the non-profit. Local organizations and projects have limited resources and the more specialized the skill set the more difficult it is to harness that skill set in a short period of time. To compound the challenge, working in a new country requires strong cross-cultural skills, contextual knowledge and, potentially, language abilities. It is for this reason that large development organizations usually require a minimum of 2-year commitments from their employees.
Despite the challenges, the value of short-term international volunteer experiences is significant. Professionals with expert knowledge can make an important contribution if the experience is properly organized and prepared for. With pre-departure training and a clearly defined role, individuals can transfer vital knowledge and build capacity among local organizations and projects.
Most importantly, international volunteering builds extensive social capital. Social capital refers to connections among individuals - social networks and values such as reciprocity and trust that arise from personal connections. In a world where loneliness, isolation and individualistic tendencies are paramount, social capital is a vital component of society. Social networks contribute to increased awareness, knowledge, and trust that in turn form the building blocks of a democratic society. Social capital lays the groundwork for a healthy world.
Building social capital through voluntourism happens in many ways: through the casual relationships formed in country, the professional relationships formed in country, through the partnerships formed between organizations and by way of experiences that are brought back by the individuals. People who volunteer experience a tremendous growth curve and are often profoundly impacted by their experience. As a result volunteers share their stories upon their return and the experience is spread to colleagues, friends and family.
By supporting these experiences through a corporate framework there is the potential to build continuing relationships that will be mutually beneficial. Companies will benefit from increased corporate profile with regards to CSR, leadership development opportunities and highly engaged and motivated employees. Non-profits will benefit from skill-sharing, expert knowledge, potential funding opportunities and corporate networks. It is these relationships that have the power to transform the world.
3) You have made the determination to conduct VolunTourism excursions primarily for Canadian Corporations. Why do you think the development of social capital through VolunTourism should be of particular interest to this group?
Canadian companies are now recognizing the importance of Corporate Social Responsibility, as demonstrated by the rapid growth of the Canadian Businesses for Social Responsibility. This leading peer-to-peer membership based organization is paving the way for Canadian companies who are interested in progressive CSR policy and practice. An important component of membership in CBSR is the social networking opportunities afforded between members. Information sharing on market trends and sector-specific programming provide industries with vital knowledge regarding current CSR practice.
The Canadian corporate community has an inherent understanding of the significance of social capital in the private sector. Businesses have long recognized the role of relationships and social networks in building successful companies. In a global economy where technology facilitates daily international communication, global relationships are extremely important. CSR is becoming the norm for corporate Canada, and building social capital lies at the heart of this concept.
Dara Parker brings a wealth of knowledge on international development based on 10 years of working, volunteering and traveling in over 30 countries. Dara founded Handprint Adventures after working for the United Nations Association in Canada, recognizing the mutual benefits of strong relationships between the private sector and civil society. Previous to that she consulted on CIDA–funded programming and managed development projects in Southern Africa. Dara also worked as a professional tour guide in Europe. She holds a Master’s Degree in Planning from the University of British Columbia, with a focus on international development planning.
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