FEATURE ARTICLE 2
A Media Guide To VolunTourism
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? "Who guards the guardians?" Good question. In the case of VolunTourism, we will ask a more poignant question: "Who guides the information custodians?" The power of the Media is unquestionable. Much of what is known about VolunTourism is, in large part, due to the influence of the Media. Pick up a magazine, newspaper, or search through your favorite online version thereof, and you will discover that someone, somewhere, is writing about VolunTourism. But how much does the Media really know about this subject? How many staff writers and freelance journalists have actually taken a VolunTourism trip? As complex as the VolunTourist Life Cycle and the VolunTourism Ecosystem are, can we make a better effort to support the 'custodians of information-delivery'?
A freelance writer, representing a respected travel publication, recently contacted me asking for a recommendation of a VolunTourism trip provider. A brief few moments of clarification regarding the distinction between recommendation and endorsement ensued; once clarified, he offered criteria couched in explicit detail – something “cutting edge,” demonstrating the future direction of VolunTourism and what travelers might expect.
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In my opinion there were quite a number of entities that I could easily recommend to fit the characteristics he had presented, but I had a caveat: what happens when a little-known VolunTourism operator, which might fulfill said requirements, receives recognition and exposure of this caliber? Let me share with you the scenario that passed through my mind:
Certainly, our young friend, the VolunTourism Operator, will have exposure, something to post on the website, send to members of the board, cut and paste and send to mom to put in the scrapbook for safekeeping, but one question remains: do the distractions and the additional time spent on processing inquiries translate, ultimately, into participation and more bookings?
It is difficult to measure the short and long-term effects of media exposure. One could argue that any exposure is good. Yet, in the case of VolunTourism, future participation in a VolunTourism adventure with a given outfit is dependent upon such things as past success with a friend, colleague, or family member who makes a personal recommendation to a would-be VolunTourist.
Many folks are unaware of the “power of the personal,” for they do not know that it is the clay from which VolunTourism experiences are essentially sculpted. The success of each trip is rooted in the chemistry that is the individual, the other participants, local residents, the moment in time, and countless subtleties and nuances that cannot be completely shared in seven-hundred-fifty words, much less a sidebar.
The following are some items which staff writers and freelance journalists may find helpful as they approach a story on VolunTourism:
Understanding The Differences: "Volunteer Vacations" vs. VolunTourism
One of the biggest shifts in the last eighteen months has been the proliferation of the notion that “volunteer vacations” and VolunTourism are one and the same. There are, however, some differences. In a generic sense, volunteer vacations could be placed under the broad category of Volunteer Tourism, voluntary service combined with tourism; but, if the individual participating in a volunteer vacation conducts no tourism-related activities because they focus their entire time on volunteering, wherein lies the tourism?
Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT)
|There is another point of distinction here as well and that involves unrelated business income tax (UBIT). Most nonprofit organizations design volunteer vacations to be consistent with their respective missions as set forth in their bylaws. An individual coming and volunteering with one of these organizations for a work-week allows them to remain compliant with their bylaws and not subject to UBIT-taxation. These entities may be able to earn income from someone participating in a "volunteer vacation" with their organization, but it will not result in them having to pay taxes like a normal business. If they become too "tourism-related," i.e. VolunTourism, they may very well be subject to UBIT as Professor Daryll K. Jones of Stetson University College Of Law points out in this most excellent blog post.
Intent seems to be the primary factor that separates volunteer vacations from VolunTourism. The intention held by the traveler and the entity providing a volunteer vacation is voluntary service. When it comes to a voluntourist and voluntourism operators, the intention is to have a holistic travel experience that includes voluntary service - giving back to the destination and its residents in some way - and the traditional elements of travel & tourism - one's to which travelers are accustomed - history, geography, arts, culture, and recreation.
Volunteer vacations are historically defined, especially in the United States, by the number of hours dedicated to voluntary service. If you are taking a weeklong trip, on average you will participate in five eight-hour days of service per week, roughly the equivalent of a forty-hour work week. VolunTourism, on the other hand, focuses on delivering a blended experience - combining a portion of time dedicated to voluntary service, while the bulk of the experience, in most cases, will be focused on travel & tourism. Thus, a typical week may involve anywhere from a half-day to two or three days of service while the rest of the time will be spent by travelers engaging in tourism-related activities.
Why the distinction? In the case of nonprofit organizations there are parameters such as mission-driven activity, tax-deductibility, and unrelated business income tax. For some nonprofit organizations, there is also an aversion to the term "tourism" and the connotations associated with it. Just as travelers do not want to be called "tourists," some nonprofits do not want their missions and objectives encroached upon by a term with perceived reputation-issues.
As mentioned, part of the distinction is related to tax-deductibility. In order for a "volunteer vacation" to be entirely tax-deductible, which has been one of the hallmark "selling points" for these trips to date, the participant must not participate in activities that are deemed as personally beneficial. Of course, there is a gray area as it relates to cultural immersion and "education," but most volunteer vacations involve a full-work-week's worth of service hours. If there is travel & tourism-related activity involved in a volunteer vacation, say snorkeling, it is usually experienced during off-hours or on weekends. (In the U.S., the guildelines on tax-deductibility can be found in IRS Publication 526.)
There is another point of distinction here as well and that involves unrelated business income tax (UBIT). Most nonprofit organizations design volunteer vacations to be consistent with their respective missions as set forth in their bylaws. An individual coming and volunteering with one of these organizations for a work-week, by most standards, allows them to remain compliant with their bylaws and not subject to UBIT-taxation. These entities may be able to earn income from someone participating in a "volunteer vacation" with their organization, but it will not result in them having to pay taxes like a normal business. If they become too "tourism-related," i.e. VolunTourism, they may very well be subject to UBIT as Professor Daryll K. Jones of Stetson University College Of Law points out in this most excellent blog post.
To further differentiate, VolunTourism is being used beyond the scope of the leisure travel market, i.e. the "vacation" segment. VolunTourism is also utilized by the business travel community. Incentive travel executives and meeting professionals may incorporate VolunTourism into a pre-conference or post-conference day for spouses, delegates, or both. It is highly unlikely, however, that these groups would participate in a "volunteer vacation" as part of their meetings, conventions, or incentive trips.
For some VolunTourists, a VolunTourism journey can be described as an “awakening.” Dormant feelings, thoughts, dreams, hopes, and desires may surface at any moment through these catalytic experiences. The tongue is not the only thing that must be loosed in order to express all that occurs. Often, the confines of responsibility and daily grind eclipse the awakened perceptions of a VolunTourist. It may very well require some guided questioning and serious listening in order to unearth the gems of clarity lying hidden beneath the surface of “life-as-we-know-it” and the reinsertion into the homefront "matrix."
But how does a writer become a "Story-Elicitor"? You have deadlines, editorial & content guidelines, and an org-chart full of folks waiting to review what you have written to determine its viability for inclusion in the final cut. No doubt about it - - your story has parameters and a paycheck is held in the balance. Yet the extraction of the "real" story can often take much longer than a traditional interview.
In April, I conducted a webcast with two writers from Conde Nast Traveler. I remember before the show began, one of them asked: "What will we talk about for an hour?" Needless to say, I think each of them could have spoken for much longer than an hour once the discussion began. What was required was patience, key questioning, and a willingness to let the words flow, even if they were not in alignment with what was originally intentioned.
For best results...
- Try to establish an appointment in advance and ask them to review and send you some photos from their trip. (Even if you do not use the photos, it will give them a chance to reflect on the experience as they do so.)
- Call your interviewees well before deadline; you may discover that you want to call them back.
- Whenever possible try to interview two or more people from the same trip, and, preferably, at the same time. (This will provide some excellent insight into how different an experience can be for participants.)
- Send your questions in advance, again, to encourage them to think about the experience.
- Try this question initially: "What was the first story you told about your trip when you came back? And to whom?"
Attempt To Avoid The Colloquialism
A staff writer for a newspaper in the UK contacted me a couple of months ago asking my opinion on the new “voluntourism scheme” that had been created by a company. As soon as I read the word my stomach churned. I sent a quick response asking for clarification on the word “scheme.” Did he mean “programme”? “Yes,” came the reply. Although I was relieved, I knew that as soon as he published his article, anyone who might be reading the story beyond the confines of the UK, perhaps Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as well, would likely consider “scheme” to be a derogatory term.
In an age governed by the internet and global communications, we must consider that we are writing for multiple audiences in multiple lands with multiple expressions and multiple interpretations. The days of writing an article for a particular group of folks is no longer an entirely valid prospect for those who write and publish on the internet. This is not an easy task; it will require some practice and patience during the review of your piece.
The Untold Stories
Alright, so let's say your editor will let you write absolutely any story you can conceive, what would you write about?
The good news is, there is a LOT out there that hasn't been covered. For example, why are women leading the VolunTourism "charge" two-to-one over men? Do we blame it on oxytocin? Or is there something more to this phenomenon?
When it comes to points-of-view, there is a tremendous dearth of information regarding the responses of communities and local residents to VolunTourists. How do local residents perceive folks coming into their villages or townships? Have they been asked in advance what they would like visitors to do while they are there?
If you consider members of the faith-based community who have been heavily involved in mission trips and service forever, does the departure from complete service and the inclusion of a mix of travel & tourism constitute too big of a "leap" for this group?
And to touch on a point above, why do some members of the nonprofit community have a difficult time with the term tourism? Is it a philosophical issue? A business issue? Something else? Do they recognize the role of the tourism industry - airlines, hotels, transport companies, etc. - in there success?
These are just a few of the options available and certainly, in my opinion, worth the ink.
David Clemmons, Publisher/Editor
The complexity of VolunTourism is subtle because it crosses so many elements of the human condition. The stakeholder groups are broad, much broader than originally envisioned; and the philosophical approaches to this "business" can, quite possibly, be polar-opposites depending on the audiences with whom you are speaking.
The Media plays a dramatic and essential role in the continuing unfoldment of VolunTourism. There is so much that we do not know. Statistics are minimal; less-than-stellar testimonials and reviews of trips are difficult to acquire; yet, millions of people are getting connected to this type of travel through the increasing number of messages via stories and articles presented by the Media. I am hopeful that staff writers and freelance journalists will embrace the opportunity of delivering an ever-more complete story to an audience still sitting on the sideline - an audience waiting to determine if this is a sufficiently-purposeful life experience worthy of engagement.
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