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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 1 Highlights

 
San Jose Costa Rica

FEATURE ARTICLE 2

Do We Fully Understand the Implications of Crowdfunding for Volunteer Travel?

Have any of you noticed the proverbial fast-track that crowdfunding has taken in relation to volunteer travel over the past 18 – 24 months? Sure, fundraising has been part of the volunteer abroad amalgam for many years, revolving around travelers leaving a financial legacy for host NGOs and grassroots organizations; however, the shift to fundraising to make one’s trip possible in the first place, well… now we are talking about something entirely different. Responsibility to the host organization, your fellow voluntourists, and yourself brings its own challenges, but introducing the additional responsibility to the “crowd” brings a brand new variable to the mix and raises an important question: Do we fully understand the implications of crowdfunding for volunteer travel?

Definition

Crowdfunding Comes in Different Shapes and Sizes

Ryan Caldbeck recently (1 March 2013) inked a piece for Forbes.com – “The Disruptive Power of Equity Crowdfunding" – in which he described the advancement of crowdfunding into the equity investments marketplace. Whereas only large-scale investors could once gain access to the up-and-coming entrepreneurial breakthroughs, crowdfunding has made these opportunities accessible to even the smallest of investors, “disrupting” as he suggests, one of the final bastions of the yet-to-be-disrupted. He wrote:

Wordle Compilation

Crowdfunding is everywhere. Want to help send someone to school… from Kenya? There’s a solution. Want to fund a small start-up in Borneo? Can do. Want to help someone publish a book on the 13th Century Mongol invasion of Europe? Check. Want to fund a film based on the life of an Argentinian ornithologist? Hecho. In fact, there are so many options for crowdfunding, we are very likely to soon witness the emergence of “Bucketlists for Crowdfunding”!

Crowdfunding and Volunteer Travel

Crowdfunding in relation to volunteer travel has at least some roots in faith-based mission trips. Congregations of faith-based practitioners have cooperatively contributed to members, especially young people, for the purpose of traveling abroad on missions to foreign lands to spread beliefs and offer help to receiving residents. This “donation from the crowd” trend was later reproduced in fundraising efforts to support NGOs and grassroots host organizations in destinations across the globe. Volunteer travelers would reach out to their friends and family, colleagues as well (i.e. “their congregations), and provide some details of their trips and the hosting organizations, in hopes that this network of folks would help them raise additional funds for the charitable entity with which they would be volunteering. Some host organizations would even make such donations a prerequisite for participation.

21st Century crowdfunding for volunteer travel began as an appeal to friends, family, colleagues, and even complete strangers, to assist individuals in traveling to multiple destinations, engage in multiple service projects, and do so over the course of a lengthy timeframe – 6 to 12 months. Appeals have come from families, couples, individuals, and even groups. In the midst of these appeals have also come appeals by videographers, photographers, writers, journalists, artists, and others who have sought funds to support a “tell-all” video project, publish a “how-to-guide,” or run a photography session, including cameras, for local residents. The appeals are as varied as the destinations and the conviction of the “fund-seekers” as to the merit of their respective projects is seemingly unquestionable.

Most recently, even the shortest of time commitments appears to be a viable option for crowdfunding. Crowdfunding for volunteer travel has moved beyond Indiegogo and Kickstarter. There are crowdfunding sites being introduced that specialize in volunteer travel. Volunteer Forever, as but one example, will soon be joined by VolunteerGO. And the existing options will be joined by others – much as microfinance institutions multiplied following the success of Grameen. The explosive growth will, in all likelihood, eventually lead to consolidation. In the meantime, volunteer travelers will have yet another item to consider amongst the countless “resources” available to them on the Web.

Another Degree of Responsibility: Does It Have an Impact?

Each traveler who decides to volunteer in a given destination assumes, at minimum, a three-fold responsibility to: 1) the host destination which consists of the environment & local residents as well as the host organization (its staff & constituents) for whom s/he is volunteering, 2) her/his fellow volunteers, and 3) her/himself. When taken in the right spirit and with the concomitant understanding of just how important these three responsibilities are, the traveler has more than a full-time job on her/his hands.

Responsibility to the host destination requires a significant level of self-consciousness. Every person living in the host destination becomes someone to whom you have a responsibility. How will you treat that person? How will you respect her/his customs and traditions? The environment of the destination is something else worth considering. What will you do to reduce your carbon and resource-depleting footprints? How will you respect the environment, in other words? And, when it comes to your host organization, how will you be responsible to the staff and its constituents?

When it comes to your fellow volunteers, what will you do to support them, to provide them with feedback? Will you call them out when they are acting irresponsibly? Will you treat them respectfully? Will you be able to appreciate their constructive criticism with the proper attitude? Will you be willing to ask them for help, especially those who may have been volunteering for a longer period of time than you have?

As we do not understand, at this point anyway, what is likely to occur as this newfound responsibility begins to slowly assimilate itself into the psyche of volunteer travelers, it will be important to have discussions with those who use crowdfunding for their trips. The additional responsibility could drive them to do more research to ensure the legitimacy of their host organizations, for example. On the other hand, it could also cause them to meltdown in the middle of a trip if it turns out to be a disastrous adventure. Conducting a study on crowdfunding recipients seems like a good next step. Perhaps crowdfunding sites can begin partnering with academics and researchers to do exactly this.

Finally, when it comes to yourself, will you take the necessary time to decompress on a daily basis? Will you give yourself the space to reflect on your experiences, to really masticate and digest them? Will you go to sleep when you should, so that you can be fully functional the next day rather than staying out for another hour dancing at the local Casbah?

Gargantuan responsibilities are these. Yet, when crowdfunding is introduced to this mix, it adds a new layer of responsibility, one that is driven by performance and monetary expectations from those who have provided travelers with funding support. Of course, such expectations will not apply to every single contributor to a crowdfunding campaign; nonetheless, a certain level of expectation will be present, regardless of the nature of the relationship between the crowdfunding recipient and the supporters.

When it comes to responsibility to the “crowd” for volunteer travel, there is no published academic literature on the subject. There is an indication, however, from other sources in the academic literature, that crowdfunding does lead to a sense of added responsibility from the recipients to the crowd. Aitumurto (2011), for example, discovered that journalists felt an increased sense of responsibility to consumers, “donors” in essence” who provided content to them for stories – journalists viewed donors as investors who could not be let down. Additionally, as volunteer travel holds similarities to social entrepreneurship, if not forming a subset thereof, at least as it pertains to some of the possible organizations with whom travelers will be coordinating their experiences in a given destination, we may be able to discover some overlap and answers from that space.

Lehner (in press) defines social entrepreneurship (p. 3) as: “all kinds of ventures that have a social or environmental mission as their primal goal, aim to be financially and legally independent and strive to become self-sustainable by means of the market.” Part 1 of this three-part definition seems to fit well with various descriptions of volunteer travel; however, it is unclear as to how volunteer travelers would identify a part 2 and 3 aspect of their experiences as equally compelling as the items listed above. Doubtless, volunteer travelers can tout the social return on investment (SROI) for their respective trips, but if the experience is seen as including an emphasis on tourism-related activity, the crowdfunding option could dematerialize instantaneously. (This is why you may perceive a definitive “shunning” of the term “voluntourism;” instead, it is often replaced with “volunteer,” “help,” “assistance,” or other words lending to the function of the traveler as being of a legitimate social beneficence to the host community or project in which they will engage.)

Thus, rather than feeling a sense of responsibility to an investor, volunteer travelers will likely view those who “invest” in their upcoming trips as “donors.” The rigor included in reporting to an investor, something that is creating significant ripples in the crowdfunding space as it relates to governing bodies such as the United States Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), will, most probably, not be utilized. Still, a volunteer traveler must consider how they will “report” on the “success” of their venture – a responsibility that has not traditionally existed in the context of these experiences.

Final Thoughts...

Medical project in Peru

Crowdfunding is a global phenomenon, an equalizer in the socio-economic disparity of our day. It is being used for countless creative ventures, ideas, and processes. It is making things possible that would otherwise be impossible. The crowd is becoming the judge and jury of what is worthy. What is not clear, yet, is the level of responsibility to which the crowd will hold the recipients of its collective investment power. Surely, it will have an impact on the traveler who sets course for far-flung and/or nearby destinations. What will the impact be?

As we do not understand, at this point anyway, what is likely to occur as this newfound responsibility begins to slowly assimilate itself into the psyche of volunteer travelers, it will be important to have discussions with those who use crowdfunding for their trips. The additional responsibility could drive them to do more research to ensure the legitimacy of their host organizations, for example. On the other hand, it could also cause them to meltdown in the middle of a trip if it turns out to be a disastrous adventure. Conducting a study on crowdfunding recipients seems like a good next step. Perhaps crowdfunding sites can begin partnering with academics and researchers to do exactly this.

divider dots

References

Aitamurto, T. (2011). The Impact of Crowdfunding on Journalism: Case study of Spot.Us, a platform for community funded reporting. Journalism Practice, 5(4) 429-445.

Lehner, O. M., 2013. Crowdfunding Social Ventures: A Model and Research Agenda, forthcoming in Routledge Venture Capital Journal, 15(3), (ISSN: 1369-1066)

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