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November 2005 - Feature Article 1

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Inbound VolunTourism: The Crime Of Invention

"Hey, we would like to do a volunteer project as a social activity in conjunction with our annual meeting!"

"Can you come up with something by Monday?"

It's been a long week at the planning office. Folks are tired and restless waiting for the weekend to finally arrive. In your voicemail you hear this message:

"Hey, we would like to do a volunteer project as a social activity in conjunction with our annual meeting!"

"Can you come up with something by Monday?"

Rather than panic, you are not the type of operation that panics. You've been in the meeting planning business for years and years. Quite possibly, you wrote the manual on meeting planning. But this is something different. You begin whispering to yourself:

"Yes, I am a volunteer at the battered women's shelter, and have been for years. But I don't think they can accommodate 200 people to volunteer."

"Wait, I am a meeting planner, I can deal with this situation. It is simply a matter of logistics. I can come up with something that will work."


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A Misconception

Wouldn't it be grand if we could go down to the corner grocer and ask for a volunteer experience for 200 people?

I wish it was so simple.

Volunteerism is misunderstood by most people because they are not privy to what happens in order to make such an experience possible. This is through no fault of their own. How could they know? There is not a class called "Volunteer Experience Creation 101."

Yet clients expect meeting professionals to be able to handle these requests and quickly create a volunteer activity to serve large numbers of participants; and in some instances - VERY QUICKLY!

This is not plausible. And to think that the marketplace may even have this thought ambling through its collective brain leaves much to be desired.

The Effort

When you begin the phone calls at three o'clock on a Friday afternoon, you don't realize that the local nonprofit organizations are busily preparing for the rush of volunteers that they will be "serving" throughout the upcoming weekend. Saturday is a big day for reaching out to those less fortunate and Sunday may be even bigger depending on your destination.

You realize the dilemma in which you find yourself as the clock strikes four. How can you determine the needs of your destination three months from now when your client needs an answer by Monday?

Then you start reviewing a few websites that talk about the various volunteer activities that folks can connect with during a weekday. You also start reviewing nonprofit organizations that specialize in dealing with the challenges that you face.

You decide to call one of them.

"Yes, of course, we understand the situation in which you find yourself. We deal with it regularly because companies here in our own destination have done the same thing. Have you looked at their website to see what types of volunteer projects they have supported in the past?"

"Yes," you answer quickly, "yes, we have outlined three areas of interest for them - kids, homeless persons, and the arts."

"Well, it will be tough to get kids out on a school day to your event. I don't know if there is a museum that you can support with 200 people. How do you feel about working with the homeless? Or, rather, how do you think your clients will feel?"

"I don't know the answer to that. Could we put together something that gives us the option of not having homeless people there? Just in case, of course, we don't want to frighten the client."

"Yes, of course, we can put together an activity in which participants can assemble food care packages for the homeless."

"Great! Now remember it will be for 200 people."

"Yes we have the information and have you scheduled for the date you mentioned. Thank you for calling and we look forward to working with you."

"Thank YOU!"

The Crime

With no due diligence you have, in a short period, discarded the potential needs of the destination and its residents.

Of course, you can justify to yourself the fact that you are supporting the homeless people of the destination. You are meeting the requirements set forth by your client. Yes, you have certainly done this. But what is that funny feeling in your stomach? It isn't the avocado and alfafa sprout sandwich you had for lunch, I can guarantee you of that!

You have just sold out to the pressures of the "quick fix." The client needs an answer, and you need a solution. Doubtless, you have found a solution - Bravo. But what else have you done. You have "invented" a volunteer project.

Yes, you can say all kinds of things to yourself about the importance of feeding the homeless and how it is necessary to do so. But did you really make a sincere effort to discover the "truth" about the needs of your destination?

This is the question that should stick with you as you select the stripes for your "prison" outfit.

A Remedy?!?

Unless your telephone is out of order, pick it up and dial your client. Let them know that it is a fabulous idea to include a volunteer activity in conjunction with their annual meeting in your destination. Outsanding!

But also share with them this important point: As a meeting professional you take these activities VERY SERIOUSLY. You want to conduct your due diligence to find out the needs of the community. What needs are not being addressed by local companies and volunteers that could really be impacted if a group of 200 people addressed them.

And, just so you understand, Dear Client, this takes time.

"I will need a week to make the appropriate phone calls and connect with several different organizations to discuss the current needs that are not being addressed in our destination. I will report back to you my findings on that date."

"Thank you for your understanding and consideration. As I said, we really want to do our best in determining what is needed and helping you to address that need, or needs accordingly."


It is very difficult to "ethically" create VolunTourism events for your clients.

There is a time element, a discovery element, and a due diligence element that cannot be overlooked. (It can, of course, but who wants to sleep with a sense of - "I could have done more.")

I am preparing myself for the day that I tell a meeting professional, "I cannot help your client. They have made a request that is not within the scope of my ability to determine a volunteer activity that will address a 'true' need in our destination. Perhaps there will be someone else that can help you. I wish you great fortune in your efforts."

I know the day will arrive. I actually hope it will arrive sooner than later. It will be a statement, of course, and one that may go unheard. But at least I will be able to digest my next meal and sleep soundly that night.

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A seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel—arts, culture, geography, and history—in that destination.

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