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Kathryn & Mike Pisco
The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 9 Issue 4 Highlights

 
Kathryn Pisco Digging in the Dirt

FEATURE ARTICLE 1

When Voluntourist Meets Business Professional

There is a new trend that should be duly noted when it comes to the evolution of voluntourism. Describing this trend in a few words is a bit clunky. We could call it "professional voluntourism sabbaticals," perhaps, or "professional voluntourism gap years," or, simply, "professional voluntours." Whatever we call it, we are seeing Gen-X, Gen-Y & Millennials moving about the planet with professional business skills and assets coming into contact with volunteer programs that have typically catered to an audience that rarely questions or rarely provides constructive feedback. When this occurs, something has to shift. In the case of Kathryn Pisco and her husband Mike, two medical industry sales professionals, they realized very quickly what one foundational element was missing from the volunteer engagements with which they connected: Customer Relationship Management (CRM). In the piece that follows, Kathryn shares the ups and downs of voluntouring over a 9-month period in Southeast Asia and Africa and how she and her husband uncovered the CRM key - quite possibly the key which will open the door of engagement for future professional voluntourists.

Introduction

What role does a corporate professional have in voluntouring?

As it turns out, if the opportunity is right and the person is open, this could be a match made in heaven.

Nine months ago, my husband, Mike, and I decided to quit our successful sales jobs in the medical industry to pursue a lifelong dream of traveling the world.  In addition to scratching our wanderlust itch (20 countries in 250 days), we wanted to make this journey mean more than obtaining stamps on our passport.  So, we decided to give back and voluntour in five of the locations that we visited - Kathmandu, Nepal, Chiang Mai, Thailand, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Ofaakor, Ghana, and Mwandi, Zambia. 

We embarked on our trip and entered our volunteer projects with zeal and the best intentions.  While we had unbelievably beautiful and rewarding experiences, we also realized that voluntouring is not easy.  It is difficult to find community driven, projects and almost impossible to know if what you are doing actually helps.  I realized that having good intentions is only a small part of the equation.

In speaking with the management of this fledgling organization, the NVC, the group was overwhelmed by everything that starting a school and a volunteer program at the same time brought.  They asked us to critically examine the project and volunteer experience and lend advice. Mike and I were thrilled to be able to alleviate some of the workload from the NVC and really enjoyed advising the leaders of NVC on volunteer management. Our job description in Nepal quickly morphed into serving as consultants for how to run a volunteer program.  In addition to working side-by-side with the founders of the school, living with a local family and 3 other volunteers, and fostering relationships with local Nepali people, we utilized our business skills to examine the volunteer experience from a CRM perspective.  The project turned out to be one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences of our trip!  We felt productive and were able to strengthen our project management, leadership, communication, and conflict resolution skills all at once. And, it helped to set the tone for our next four projects.  We decided to approach each subsequent volunteer experience with not only love, passion to serve, and cultural awareness, but also with a business mindset and focus on servant leadership.

I also realized that Mike and I seemed to be looking at each project from a unique perspective – the corporate perspective.  We were surprised that we did not come across many other business professionals while volunteering.  Most of our fellow volunteers were 20-somethings on their gap year or in the social services industry.  Upon consideration, this makes sense because it is immediately obvious what benefit both groups can gain from volunteering.  Young people are able to experience a completely unique culture, donate their time and resources, and pad their resume.  Those with social service jobs can utilize and hone their expertise (whether it be in medicine, teaching, social work, etc.) while contributing to the greater good of society.  But, why were there not more business professionals? 

While I still do not have an answer to this question, I speculate that it is for a few reasons:

  • It is very difficult for people in the corporate world to get time off to volunteer.  (I mean, Mike and I had to quit our jobs to do it!)
  • The benefits of voluntouring are not easily recognizable to the business professional. 

It is this second reason that I would like to discuss further. My corporate mindset had me pre-conditioned to believe that volunteering was just an opportunity for me to personally grow rather than evolve as a business professional.   In fact, Mike and I decided to volunteer for purely altruistic reasons. However, I now know that my experiences volunteering internationally developed skills and allowed for experiences that I never could have had in corporate America.  And, because of these unique experiences, I will be better able to contribute to whatever business I choose to enter next.

Before I go into more detail about each project, I would like to state a disclaimer:  Our projects were not perfect.  Our experiences might not have changed the world.  But that is OK.  We changed, and we contributed towards positive change for the individuals we worked with.

Our five projects varied from teaching English, to caregiving for children, to building homes for families affected by AIDS. 

And, while each project seemed different from its outset, we eventually discovered one common thread. When it came down to it, each project was all about relationships.  These relationships are aptly described in an article by David Clemmons, the founder of voluntourism.org, entitled Voluntourists Foster Interaction and Strengthen Relationships. In this piece, David discusses the different relationships at play while a person is voluntouring.

  • Relationships with people (with the local people, the volunteer facilitators, and our fellow volunteers).
  • Relationships with our destination (the history, culture, and geography).  Relationships with ourselves (our values, preconceived notions, expectations, and self image). 
  • And observed relationships between NGOs and tour operators, hoteliers, and transport companies. 

These relationships hit home with me and made me think of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) in the corporate space.  Below, I have briefly described each of our projects from my perspective as a former business professional.

Kathmandu, Nepal- Teaching English at a school located in the ghetto

Mike and I spent two weeks working with the Nepal Volunteers Council (NVC) at a school in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of Kathmandu.  Right off the bat it was clear that the success or failure of this volunteer project hinged on clear communication and the ability to manage several relationships at once.  We were originally placed in the project by a volunteer placement agency called Love Volunteers.  Once we arrived, we realized that developing relationships with the leaders of Nepal Volunteers Council (NVC), the teachers at our school, and our fellow volunteers was paramount.

Our job description in Nepal was to teach English to the underprivileged students of Deya Shree English Boarding School in Kathmandu.  And, while we did plan lessons and teach basic English to a class of 15 students daily, we also recognized a need to serve as project managers for the school’s annual “Parents Day” celebration.  The volunteer experience was rewarding but chaotic and disjointed.  We did not have much clear guidance. 

Unearth The World - Kathryn & Mike

One evening Mike and I and the other volunteers discussed how disorganized the volunteer program was.   We all felt a bit better after complaining to one another and decided to head to bed as it was getting late.  But, Mike and I continued to talk.  We realized that if this volunteer project was a job, we would be much more assertive in expressing our unhappiness.  We would collaborate with management to identify issues and address them head on.  Why did we treat this experience so differently? It seems that we are not alone.  Volunteer projects are often treated in a different way from the real world of running a successful business.  So, Mike and I decided to go against the grain and confront the efficiency issue head on as we would in our jobs.  And we were so glad we did!

I should note that before we said anything, we made certain that our advice was wanted and needed. We tried to approach this from a culturally sensitive point of view as we realize that imposing a “Western” view on the communities that we volunteer with is often inappropriate, unhelpful, and unrealistic.  In fact, sometimes the “Western way” can do more harm than good! We delicately brought up our opinions to the head of NVC and it turns out that they really did want some advice and guidance.  Once we got the green light, we dove right in!

In speaking with the management of this fledgling organization, the NVC, the group was overwhelmed by everything that starting a school and a volunteer program at the same time brought.  They asked us to critically examine the project and volunteer experience and lend advice. Mike and I were thrilled to be able to alleviate some of the workload from the NVC and really enjoyed advising the leaders of NVC on volunteer management. Our job description in Nepal quickly morphed into serving as consultants for how to run a volunteer program.  In addition to working side-by-side with the founders of the school, living with a local family and 3 other volunteers, and fostering relationships with local Nepali people, we utilized our business skills to examine the volunteer experience from a CRM perspective.  The project turned out to be one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences of our trip!  We felt productive and were able to strengthen our project management, leadership, communication, and conflict resolution skills all at once. And, it helped to set the tone for our next four projects.  We decided to approach each subsequent volunteer experience with not only love, passion to serve, and cultural awareness, but also with a business mindset and focus on servant leadership.

We were thrilled to realize that our previous life and business experience will help increase our contribution to the organizations we work with as well as our contribution to the other people we volunteered with. 

Chiang Mai, Thailand – Working at a Children’s Home

Our second project was working at a Children’s Home in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Unbelievably, this project was even more disjointed than our Nepal experience.  We worked with a crew of unmotivated fellow volunteers at a home for disadvantaged children.  The “house parents” spoke zero English and there was no day-to-day structure.  Without a focus on building relationships, this experience might have been a nightmare.  And while the project was far from perfect, Mike and I focused on developing meaningful connections with each of the groups that we interacted with.  We tried to creatively fill the days of the children, utilized body language to mime messages to the caretakers, collaborated with our fellow volunteers in an attempt to work towards a common goal, and actively communicated with our host organization on pros and cons of the overall project.  Much like in the business world, a communication breakdown with any of these entities might have led to a project failure.  Even though our Chiang Mai Children’s Home project was somewhat of a disappointment, Mike and I chose to look at it as a model illustrating how the potential for communication breakdown can and does lead to failure. While we made the most of it, many of our fellow volunteers will forever be lost as “customers” at this project. 

By examining our Thailand experience with a business mindset, we realized how complex voluntouring can be and vowed to take our mixed feelings and experience from this Thailand project into our next three projects in an attempt to understand how we could positively contribute to disorganized projects in the future.

Unearth the World - Teaching in Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Teaching English at an orphanage

By our third volunteer experience in South East Asia, I have to admit that I was hoping for a little more structure.  I knew that there were many organizations and volunteer projects available that provided a more exact schedule and a more precise job description.  However, I also realized that, for me, part of what was so magical about these volunteer projects was figuring it out for myself and, in the process, becoming part of the project and local community.  This was CRM at the core.  Mike and I were able to form incredibly deep relationships with the major players at each project because of the level of communication that we engaged in.  While teaching English at an orphanage in Cambodia, we were once again the only English speakers. We had to actually develop a daily curriculum that was used to supplement the children’s studies at school.  It was once again chaotic and uncertain but all the more rewarding.  After spending two weeks evaluating the level of English that the students had, I realized (with sadness) that there was no way of effectively communicating my findings to the next volunteers.  In fact, when I had first arrived in Phnom Penh, it took me a good two days to figure out which lessons the children had mastered and which ones they needed help with.  Unfortunately, this is where I started to feel a bit helpless.  While I could utilize and hone my communication and management skills in the midst of a volunteer project, I could not effectively relay my learning to future “customers” or volunteers.  Without the technology or processes of the traditional CRM model, many of my “takeaways” stayed with me instead of being communicated!  Even though the project in Cambodia was rewarding and wonderful in many respects, I view it as a CRM failure! 

Upon leaving Asia and heading to our two projects in Africa, we vowed to utilize our business and interpersonal communication skills in our final two projects to create and implement our own version of CRM.  Our goals were to understand the volunteer project's needs, build lasting relationships, and help the projects attract more volunteers to ultimately increase their productivity.  We had experienced three projects and learned different things from each.  It was our hope that we could take our varied learning and newly developed skills to truly see and feel our impact in our final two projects.

Unearth The World - Community Photo

Ofaakor, Ghana – Caregiving at an orphanage

We arrived to our fourth volunteer project, the Royal Seed Home (RSH) Orphanage, with high hopes and left forever changed.  We spent one week living with and assisting with the care of 150 orphans.  The children are the most memorable, angelic, and inspiring individuals that I have ever encountered.  With our increased focus on our “volunteer CRM” model, we dove in headfirst.  Mike and I spent most of our mornings with 20 toddlers – bathing, clothing, and feeding them in order to get them ready for school.  Our afternoons were spent preparing and serving the children local Ghanaian food.  And our evenings were focused on getting to know some of the older children and speaking with the founders of the orphanage in order to assess their needs.  We learned that the orphanage had grown and expanded a great deal over the past few years.  What started out as 4 orphans in a small room had expanded to over 150 children, two dormitories, and a school.  I was amazed by the organization’s progression but also learned that RSH was still very much in need of skilled volunteers and funds to aid in future expansion and to ensure their survival.  Mike and I spent hours discussing how we could help.  After communicating with the founders of RSH, we decided that we could be the most effective by helping the orphanage attract more volunteers and streamlining their fee structure to ensure that any donations were going directly towards future projects.  We helped restructure the RSH website and hope to help facilitate future volunteers by starting a small company that will attract service-minded individuals.  While it is just a start, we are encouraged that it is a step in the right direction!  By approaching this project with a business mindset focused on relationship management, we finally felt as if we were able to utilize our unique business skills to truly make an impact.

Mwandi, Zambia – Building homes for children and elderly who have lost the middle generation to AIDS

Unearth The World

Our fifth and final volunteer project was a physical building project so it promised to be much easier to see and understand our impact.  Our job description was to help physically build huts for children and the elderly.  The middle generation in the village of Mwandi has passed away due to the AIDS epidemic, leaving many orphaned children homeless.  These children are typically cared for by the aging generation.  We spent two weeks constructing huts and working side by side with the locals.  It was incredibly rewarding to end our project with completed structures that we could say that we had a hand in.  Volunteering with a program that is structured and focused on physically building something enabled me to experience a different kind of project.  While I did not have to apply the same critical thinking skills or creativity in order to see impact, it was still useful to approach the project from a business perspective.  Relationship building, reciprocal learning, and clear communication (our volunteer version of CRM) is still incredibly important whether we engage in projects that are structured and hierarchical or disorganized and constantly evolving.

Conclusion

Our trip around the world changed my life.  I feel so fortunate to have been able to travel and give back with my husband for an extended period of time.  Personally, I will forever remember our journey with fondness and gratitude.  And upon reflection, I am not surprised that this travel and volunteer experience had such a positive personal impact on my life. 

I am amazed, however, by the tremendous influence that our five projects had on me professionally.  I was able to hone my interpersonal and written communication skills, strengthen my leadership capabilities, and improve my human resource and customer relationship management approaches.  And I was able to do all of these things at a much faster rate than I would have if I had spent the same amount of time in corporate America.  I was also able to develop new skills like stress management, teaching, and project management.  But the best thing about the volunteer experience was that the benefits were not one-sided.  While I learned a great deal and improved professionally, I was able to utilize my existing business strengths to impart a positive impact on the non-profits I served. This reciprocal benefit is the reason that I believe that every business professional would profit from engaging in such a voluntour experience. In fact, I would argue that the best volunteer is one who has this previous life and business experience and believes in servant leadership.  Either way, I would love to see more corporate professionals seek out such experiences so we can collaboratively change the world and ourselves – one volunteer experience at a time.

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Kathryn Pisco, Co-Founder, Unearth The World

Kathryn & Mike Pisco

www.unearththeworld.com

 

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