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Volume 2 Issue 3 - Feature Article 2




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VolunTourism: Hands-On, Hands-Off, Or Both?!?

There seems to be a growing debate between those who focus on philanthropic travel and those who focus on VolunTourism. One could take the view that it is simply an attempt to establish competitive differentiation. But the question remains: Is one or the other more correct?

Recently I had a call with a freelance writer who was putting together a story for US Airways in-flight magazine. He was making an effort to cover both philanthropic travel and VolunTourism. He shared with me some of his research regarding the philanthropic travel side and some of the entities that are organizing high-end vacations with a core purpose of promoting philanthropy in the destinations to which the operators travel. (I will not reveal his sources in this article, but will share with you some recent developments in this area that have come to my attention.)


After publishing this article for The VolunTourist in November 2005, there have been some updates in the world of Philanthropic Travel & VolunTourism. US Airways Magazine has recently published an article on this subject entitled, "Travel With A Heart," by Christopher Percy Collier. You will find several entities mentioned in the article that you may wish to review if you are inclined to enrich your travel experience in this way. And for those who enjoy listening to discussions, check out the Traveler's Philanthropy & VolunTourism webcast.

What I did share with him, however, is the fact that philanthropic travel does not have the broad appeal that VolunTourism has. VolunTourism operators are much more plentiful and come in a wide array of options via multiple practitioners throughout the the world. Comparing and contrasting the two is difficult, particularly because VolunTourists tend to also leave money in destinations in which they serve. This has been troublesome for some for-profit operators because they do not have nonprofit status to help "donor" VolunTourists receive tax-deductibility for their contributions. But we will discuss this topic in another issue.


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On the other hand, the question arises from the development community as to whether the "hosting" of volunteers in a destination creates more challenge than it is worth. Depending on the nature of the work, pre-trip training may not be possible. This means that in-destination orientations may be additionally time-consuming and pose a challenge to anxious, ready-to-serve VolunTourists. It is, therefore, more convenient and less intrusive to conduct an "educational" experience in a destination to share with travelers some of the social challenges of the region. These "add-on, hands-off" tours of the area give folks an opportunity to discover the issues for themselves and determine how their financial resources may ameliorate the situation.

Who's Right?

To suggest that one approach has greater value than another is, well, a positioning statement with very little merit. One could certainly argue that specific destinations and communities or issues in those destinations might be better suited by philanthropic travel as compared to VolunTourism. But the reverse of this is also true.

After hearing from our very own, Christina Heyniger, following her recent trip to Morocco to establish a VolunTourism program for an operator there, it is clear that in some destinations it may not be possible to determine whether "money" will ever make it to the folks who need it most. But volunteering and utilizing financial resources to complete projects will guarantee that money is reaching the folks that are most in need of receiving it and that the money is staying in the community.

Photo Courtesy Of Xola Consulting, All Rights Reserved

When money is at stake, you can guarantee that questions will abound. Doubts and concerns will also run rampant, especially in destinations that are "foreign" to the traveler. VolunTourists receive some peace of mind by seeing the physical products created through their labors whereas philanthropic travelers may question how much money is "actually" making it to a project.

Due diligence is the answer to this dilemma. Discussion with nonprofit organizations, NGOs, grassroots efforts, and community leaders can assist a tour operator in determining the best course of action. If an operator is not in a position to make connections with knowledgeable folks in the destination, then it may be worthwhile to refer to other sources to determine the best approach.

If you want to look at how to support your VolunTourists in being philanthropic, here are a couple of options:

Option One: Global Giving

John Hecklinger tells us how Global Giving is facilitating philanthropy abroad and how their due diligence can support VolunTourists and Philanthropic travelers alike:

"GlobalGiving can provide VolunTourism Operators (VOs) with a safe and easy way to financially support their project partners around the world, serving as the financial conduit through which VOs transfer funds," John told me. "Once the partner organization is qualified through GlobalGiving’s rigorous due diligence and vetting process, funds transferred through the GlobalGiving Foundation are tax deductible."

Of course, this tax deductibility is only applicable to U.S. Citizens at present, but the future may hold opportunities for VolunTourists from other countries to receive the same benefit.

Photo Courtesy of Brilliant Voices, All Rights Reserved

Option Two : Travel Matters

Dominique Callimanopulos, President of Elevate Destinations, has recently launched a travel philanthropy initiative entitled Travel Matters. According to the press release provided on CSRWire:

"'Travelers can make a donation of any amount in an area that matters to them: protecting wildlife, preserving the environment, helping with community development, youth and health projects in the countries they are visiting,'" states Dominique Callimanopulos, founder of Elevate Destinations, and creator of Travel."

Handling The Challenging Question

I recently took a group of Alumni folks from Regis University on a VolunTourism experience in the U.S./Mexico Border Region. Towards the end of their visit, a couple of the folks began asking how they could "help" to support the communities in which they had conducted work projects. My answer: "Tell A Friend."

But the question will invariably follow: "What about computers, or books, or some other products that could benefit the people, or money?"

These are wonderful thoughts, really, and in my opinion may be warranted in certain situations. But overall, the best thing that VolunTourists can do, and this, in turn applies to VolunTourism Operators & Suppliers, is return to the destination and bring a group with you.

Each time a group sets foot into a community, everyone benefits in some way. You could suggest all kinds of arguments to the contrary, but I would still say that the power of the engagement and the exchange that stems from it via VolunTourism is more powerful than any perceived negative impacts that can occur. (Anyone could create absurd scenarios, but if people are self-selecting a VolunTourism option, they do have some idea that they ultimately want to serve a destination and its residents. The intention to bring good, not harm, is present.)

Photo Courtesy of Brilliant Voices, All Rights Reserved

As I said, you do not want to discourage individuals who want to lend more than a hand. But if you can shift that desire by encouraging them to bring friends, other family members, a group of other alumni, a social club, etc, then you have opened the door to greater possibility - more exchange, more service, more education, and more engagement. Change the "wanting to give money" mentality into a "sustainability" mentality.

Self-Reliance, in terms of earning an "honest" dollar rather than receiving a financial gift, can bear greater fruit than giving alone. We all know that it takes far more effort to organize a group than it does to right a check. Help your VolunTourists avoid even the perception that they are looking for a way to "clear their conscience" by doing that which requires a greater commitment on their part.


Philanthropic travel may very well play a most significant role in the development of VolunTourism. By facilitating an initial connection between travelers and communities, the door is opened to a potentially deeper engagement wherein the "money-giving" hand has an opportunity to meet the "serving" hand through the promise of a return visit.

Likely, once a traveler has had an opportunity to experience both options, she/he will continue to support a destination-specific cause through both the use of her/his voluntary labor and her/his financial contribution. Then we may truly see some significant change occur at the destination level.

In his recent book, Leaving Microsoft To Change The World, John Wood, Founder of Room To Read, provides a personal glimpse of how his trekking experience in Nepal transformed him to being both a funding source and a lifelong servant to the cause of child education.

Travel gets us to the "situation" where we can better assess it with our own faculties. How we proceed from that point is all a matter of personal preference. Some will prefer writing a check; some will prefer "getting dirty;" and some will prefer both. The choice is up to you, as a VolunTourism Operator or Supplier, to determine how to incorporate the philanthropic side for those who prefer both... and have them invite their friends!

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