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VolunTourism: Maintaining Its Integrity

Now that VolunTourism motivations and business practices are being questioned by travelers, practitioners within the nonprofit/NGO Community & the tourism sector, as well as members of the media, it may be the appropriate time to release my thoughts on how the VolunTourism Industry will be able to maintain its integrity. But, don't expect to find the customary ethical code of conduct or association-based "commandments" from this little corner of the VolunTourism Universe. I have a much more proactive approach - The Mystery VolunTourist!


It finally happened. I thought I could avoid it. Well, guess what, the Cosmos has finally conspired against me. I finally received a complaint about an organization that offers placement for volunteers abroad (technically not VolunTourism by our definition). Instead of avoiding the situation, I have determined that it is my duty to address it and follow the "rabbit hole" wherever it leads me.

Note Well: I do not want to mislead anyone into believing that complaints will not happen just because you have decided to run a VolunTourism operation or "Do Good." Ask Los Ninos, Inc., the parent organization behind VolunTourism.org, which has been running VolunTourism programs for nearly 30 years. During this period Los Ninos, Inc. has hosted more than 15,000 participants. Any member of the team can tell you - YOU ARE GOING TO GET COMPLAINTS!

Thus, I will not post the letter entitled "The Diary of an Angry Volunteer" at this time. It came to my inbox and certainly dislodged my ordinary day. I had been forewarned via a separate email that this person needed an outlet to express discontent over a volunteer experience abroad. But it wasn't enough to prepare me for what was detailed in the missive. Suffice it to say, it has compelled me to conduct my own background check on the organization.

But where does one start?

INTERNET BACKGROUND CHECK

Step 1: Review The Entities Web Site & Look For:

  • Board of Directors/Advisory Team
  • Date Founded
  • Form 990 or Annual Report

Step 2: Check for the Domain Registration Records for the Entity

Step 3: Check Out IRS Publication 78 for U.S.-based NGOs or Similar Publication in Other Countries

Apprised as to the name and URL of the organization, VolunteerVisions.org, I have only done what I call the "Internet" Background Check (IBC). When I conduct an IBC for an organization, I first visit its web site. (To see what else I do, review the sidebar-->.) Immediate questions to which I am seeking an answer:

  1. Is there a statement or mention about how long the organization has been in existence, when it was founded, etc.?
  2. Does the organization, if it is nonprofit, have a 990 Form, or other such document for review? If it is for-profit does it have an annual report?
  3. Is there an advisory team or board of directors listed?

Why are these so important?

As for Point #1, it establishes a track record. If I want to speak with another VolunTourist who has used the services of an entity, there will likely be someone with whom I can speak. As for Point #2, it let's me know how the monies are being allocated - salaries, program costs, etc. As for Point #3, which is, I think, the most important, it lets me know that someone is willing to publicly put their reputation on the line for this entity, other than employees or executives. (In the case of a Board of Directors, Directors & Officers (D&O) insurance will likely be in place which is another indication of how serious the entity is about being in "business.")

If you are reviewing a for-profit company (generally speaking a .com or .co, .biz, .net, or possibly .travel), you will not find a 990 Form, but you may find an annual report. On all sites, you should be able to find a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board, and a founding date.

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Now, if it is an NGO and none of these items are available, I move on without a second thought. In the case of VolunteerVisions.org, there is a brief mention in Lawrence Woo's bio regarding a desire to start Volunteer Visions after a trip to Thailand in 2005, but I could not find an official founding date, no 990 Form, nor a board of directors/advisory board. I decided to dig a little deeper.

On the United States Government's Internal Revenue Service (IRS.gov) web site, there is a Publication 78 that includes a database of ALL nonprofit organizations (501 (c)3 designated entities) incorporated in the United States (I believe the UK and Australia have one of these portals as well.). I did a search of Publication 78 and Volunteer Visions did not come up on the list. I followed with a second search on the Public Internet Registry (PIR) which lists all of the .org's registered on the Web. (To see a full copy of the registration, click here.) I have highlighted several items from that entry for your perusal:

Domain Name:  VOLUNTEERVISIONS.ORG

Created On:  20-Feb-2007 03:02:40 UTC

Volunteer Visions PIR Registration Entry

"Created On" date of 20-Feb-2007 - This suggests to me that the entity may only be less than 8 months old

Registrant Name - Lawrence Woo is listed as the founder of Volunteer Visions so this makes sense

Registrant City/State/Postal Code - There is no Playa Samara, New York, 10011

Registrant Phone: This must be a Costa Rican telephone number because it certainly isn't a New Brunswick, Canada, telephone number.

Registrant Name:  Lawrence Woo

Registrant Organization:  Volunteer Visions

Registrant Street1:  Contiguo al Hotel Las Brisas Del Pacifico

Registrant Street2:  Casa Amarilla

Registrant City :  Playa Samara

Registrant State/Province:  New York

Registrant Postal Code:  10011

Registrant Country:  US

Registrant Phone:  +506.6560373

Registrant Email:  lawrence.ny@gmail.com

NOTE WELL: What is written above is a result of my initial Internet Background Check. Afterwards, I sent an email to Lawrence Woo and his team in hopes that they would respond to my questions. Lawrence did. My initial letter along with his response is posted here. I am, for the most part, satisfied with Mr. Woo's answers to my questions, although he did not provide a founding date for the organization and I still need to research what a Costa Rican "Sociedad Anonima" is - - something that is not mentioned on the web site.. My next step will be to submit "The Diary of An Angry Volunteer" to him. I hope to have a response to this by the next issue of The VolunTourist.

The Internet Background Check (IBC) is a series of simple steps that you as a traveler, you as a tour operator or hotel/supplier looking for a potential NGO or company in a destination, can use to begin your research and assessment of that operation. Not all entities will have a web site, of course, but if you want a partner to have a solid foundation, which most of you will, this is a good way to start the discovery process.

Now, these questions remain:

  1. How will a VolunTourist file a future complaint?
  2. How does the VolunTourism Industry maintain its integrity?

Well, I think I have a common solution to both of these quandaries, and it comes from my roots in the restaurant business.

The "Mystery VolunTourist"

How does the VolunTourism Industry address complaints and maintain integrity simultaneously?

I offer the idea of appointing "Mystery VolunTourists" to travel the globe and participate in a variety of itineraries with different VolunTourism Operators and then to report on their experiences. These reports or "shops" will be available to all, to review at their leisure, via VolunTourism.org.

In addition, VolunTourists who wish to file a complaint will be able to utilize the "shop" form to file their complaints anonymously.

The "Shopper" Program

I spent fourteen years of my life in the hospitality industry and much of that time in direct interface with guests in restaurant settings as a server and "floor supervisor." If you are in the business long enough, you will have the wonderful, joyous experience of having someone "shop" you. (This term is also used in retail for those who may be coming from that world.)

What is a "shop"? Well, let's just say it is an inconspicuous manner by which you can discern how well your outfit is running from top-to-bottom. It doesn't depend upon whether your consumers are loyal enough to your operations to give you their honest feedback. It doesn't depend on great speeches and lectures about the need to have excellent customer service. No, a shopper program gives you, as the leader of an entity, a chance to determine how well your people do in delivering your product, which we all know is ultimately service, especially in the hospitality & tourism industry.

A list of criteria are established by a company/organization. This list may include such things as:

  • A specific phone greeting - "Good morning/afternoon, this is Mr. David with VolunTourism.org, how may I help you?"
  • If you left a message, sent an email, was that message returned within 24 hours?
  • A specific "Welcome" when you enter a space - "Good morning/afternoon/evening, welcome to VolunTourism.org"
  • A list of specific products/services explained to a guest/customer
  • Clean menus, clean flatware, napkins, etc.
  • Knowledgeable Servers & other staff
  • An opportunity to ask questions
  • A chance to speak to other customers/guests, if desired
  • A visit by a manager/key personnel to check on the status of your experience

This list can be as exhaustive as you want to make it.

The next step is to identify your shoppers. Generally, the hospitality and retail companies outsource this service to a business that recruits shoppers. These shoppers are then supplied a list of criteria for which they will be looking and will go through the entire process as set forth by the shop. In most instances, shoppers will also add comments and feedback in addition to the structured evaluation.

Upon completion of the "shop," the evaluation is sent to the company and is internally processed as to how well the team scored in each category. Not everyone plays a role in each category, of course, so there are often category-specific scores and an overall score for a "shop." Employees may be rewarded and/or disciplined for having high or low shop scores respectively. My experience was that good shops amounted to gift certificates and restaurant credit and three bad shops within a year's time meant termination.

The "Mystery VolunTourist"

For the last year, I have been revolving this thought of introducing a "shopper" program for the VolunTourism Industry. As I said, I am not one to start an association with a list of ethical codes and have a group of organizations and companies sending me a check every so often for membership dues and a little "sticker" on their web site that says:

Copyright © Hands Up Holidays

"VolunTourism.org Approved, Tested, Screened" (Sounds like a visit to the doctor if you ask me.)

I am an economist at heart, and the marketplace is already saturated with membership organizations. This means that VolunTourism.org will establish a "shopper" program that relies on specially appointed individuals from around the world to be "Mystery VolunTourists." (Please do not solicit yourself as a Mystery VolunTourist!)

No one will know who these people are. Their identities will not be revealed, even to the media. They will pay for their own trips just as any other VolunTourist would. There will be no question regarding their integrity because no membership dues will support their activities. They will not be affiliated with any VolunTourism organization.

To initiate this venture, I will contact a number of organizations that will have input into the criteria for which the VolunTourism Industry will be shopped. This information will be made public and will be posted on the VolunTourism.org web site. It will likely include:

  • Web Site-Specific Information
  • Communication Benchmarks
  • Customer Service
  • Pre-Trip, During-Trip & Post-Trip Information, Services & Processing, and
  • Evaluation & Follow Up

These items and others will be garnered from a group of VolunTourists, VolunTourism Operators & Suppliers, and Community Residents. When the final list is compiled, it will be presented on VolunTourism.org

Reporting & Posting of Reviews

Each Mystery VolunTourist will be allowed to select an organization/entity of their choosing. Initially, all Mystery VolunTourists will pay their own way for these experiences. A stipend may be offered in the future, but we will first have to determine if this will have any impact on the objectivity of the "shoppers."

Results from each "shop" will first be presented to the organization/entity that is shopped. They will have a chance to review the information for a pre-determined length of time before it is posted on VolunTourism.org for public viewing. The organization/entity will also have an opportunity to respond to any comments as well as specific categories within the shop. Whether an organization/ entity has agreed to the criteria established within the shop or not is immaterial. If a Mystery VolunTourist determines that she/he wants to participate in a "VolunTourism" trip with a particular operation, this is her/his choice. No entity that declares itself to be offering VolunTourism itineraries will be barred as an option. (Although, we will specify if its operations are in alignment with our defining characteristics of VolunTourism when the final report is posted.)

If an organization/entity decides to respond, the response will be posted along with the "shop." We know that any of us can have "a bad day." We will make a separate determination as to whether an entity receiving a certain number of "bad shops" should be reported elsewhere. For now, each shop will simply be listed on VolunTourism.org.

Why am I not posting "The Diary Of An Angry Volunteer" at this point in time?

In the case of a complaint, as we have in this situation, my idea is to allow a VolunTourist to use the "Mystery VolunTourist" shop form to express that complaint. Filing the complaint in this manner will give the organization a chance to respond - no "flaming," no "outing" - without due recourse and a chance for a fair trial in the court of public opinion.

Final Thoughts

I know this will require some adjustments on many levels. NGOs, communities, and other stakeholders are not accustomed to being "shopped." Nor are travelers accustomed to having a real voice in expressing their challenges with the practices of operators. It's one thing to post a blog entry; it's entirely different to post a shop.

But I fully believe this type of approach can truly revolutionize the VolunTourism Industry! There will be no questions about ethical practices, no concerns of legitimacy. Yet the creativity & entre-preneurial spirit of VolunTourism Operators as well as open-market economies will be preserved because only those organizations that want exceptional shops will do what is necessary to score high marks.

Likewise, consumers (VolunTourists) will have the choice of selecting organizations based upon shop scores or what is reported in the shop by the "Mystery VolunTourist." In either case, transparency will prevail. Anyone who wants to benefit from these evaluations by modifying their traveling habits and business operations accordingly will have that privilege.

With the Mystery VolunTourist initiative, differentiation will not be based upon whether you can financially afford to be a member of an overarching governance structure. Most entities cannot afford such a proposition, especially in this industry. But if you can give such things as: exemplary customer service, projects that are supportive of the goals and objectives of local communities, enriching and unique tourism experiences, and delivery of pre-, during-, and post-processing materials & guidance, you will see that you can afford to be a VolunTourism "member."

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