So You May Know
S.1464: Will It Create An Imbalance In The VolunTourism Industry?
Since June 2006, the Brookings Institute has been working on a policy effort to engage Americans in volunteering abroad - the Brookings Initiative on International Volunteering and Service (BIIVS). Roughly 70 NGOs, Agencies & Policy Makers, Corporations, and Colleges & Universities were convened and part of that effort generated the Building Bridges Coalition (BBC). Absent from the beginning, however, have been for-profit Volunteer Placement Organizations (VPOs) and the travel industry. Was this just an oversight?
It has come to my attention, over my years of researching, creating and participating in VolunTourism initiatives, that there continues to be lack of clarity and understanding that the travel industry plays an invaluable role in making volunteering abroad possible. In fact, without the travel industry, I would argue that volunteering abroad would be impossible. And here, in my estimation, is another instance of the perpetuation of this misunderstanding in the form of the Brookings Initiative on International Volunteering and Service (BIIVS).
Apparently, when the Brookings Institute was convening their group of participants for the BIIVS, the list of invitees did not include the travel industry nor the for-profit voluntary service placement sector. (Granted, the discussion looks as though it focused on "best practices" and elements to consider in the volunteering abroad sector, but even then one could pose a question as to why the for-profit voluntary placement sector would not be invited to attend.) Would not these entities also be able to assist in the development of an unprecedented effort to engage Americans - a proposed goal of 50,000 more of them - in volunteering abroad?
The Brookings Initiative on International Volunteering and Service
From its June 2006 foundational roots, the BIIVS has gone on to establish "four distinct areas of operation" to achieve their objectives. One of these "areas" is the Building Bridges Coalition (BBC). The Chairman of the BBC is Steven Rosenthal, Executive Director of Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). Steven's Team at CCS is familiar with the travel industry. To date, they have collaborated with at least one tour operator, General Tours, in an effort to introduce CCS's products and services to travelers; they are also currently recognized as a partner in the Travel For Good program with Travelocity, along with another member of the BBC Steering Committe - Earthwatch Institute.
Both CCS and Earthwatch Institute have made distinct efforts over the last several years to represent themselves as Voluntourism entities in the media. Most recently, Earthwatch Insititute posted a press release on its web site regarding its recognition by National Geographic Adventure. The opening salvo reads:
The release continues:
This bodes a question: If Earthwatch Institute and CCS are competing in the Voluntourism marketplace with for-profit companies, as the language in this press release from Earthwatch Institute seems to suggest, then why on "earth" are such entities not also present on the BBC Steering Committee, or, at the very least, on the originally-convened group of 70+ entities?
From every piece of information that I can discover in researching BIIVS and the BBC, I have not found which, if any, members of the for-profit volunteer placement community or the travel industry have been actively consulted in order to contribute to the crafting of Bill S.1464. This has me very curious.
Bill S.1464: Global Service Fellowship Program Act of 2007
I will not go into the details of the 70+ organizations that appear as having been members of the BIIVS Working Group at one time or another since June 2006. You can review that list at your leisure.
The following, however, will prove relevant:
S.1464: Global Service Fellowship Program Act of 2007
Sec. 3 Global Service Fellowship Program, (d) Coordination With Sponsoring Organizations, (2) Prioritization Of Projects:
(C) Promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and families.
(G) Promoting environmental sustainability
(K) Helping to build or provide decent housing
(L) Providing disaster and humanitarian response, preparedness, and reconstruction
(M) Promoting cross-cultural exchange, conflict resolution, and peace
(N) Developing global partnerships for development in the areas of economic growth, microenterprise, asset development, and agricultural and rural development
Earlier in 2007, two Bills were crafted and submitted to The United States Congress. The U.S. Senate now has before it S.1464: Global Service Fellowship Program Act of 2007. (The U.S. House of Representatives has a similar Bill before it - H.R. 3698.) S. 1464 was introduced in May 2007, is sponsored by Senator Russell Feingold [D-WI] and, as of December 11, 2007, the following co-sponsors:
- Sen. Robert Casey [D-PA]
- Sen. Thad Cochran [R-MS]
- Sen. Norm Coleman [R-MN]
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D-CA]
- Sen. Frank Lautenberg [D-NJ]
- Sen. Robert Menendez [D-NJ]
- Sen. George Voinovich [R-OH]
- Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI]
Under Sec. 2. Findings, appear these words in item (1):
One conclusion that I draw from this legislation is: the "war on terror" can be advanced - some way, somehow - by getting Americans to volunteer abroad. Sounds like a positive PR campaign for America; I wholeheartedly agree that it could serve the purpose of "chaning minds and opinions." However, I am not sure that "changing opinions and minds" should be focused entirely on those responsible for acts of terror against the United States and its citizens & assets.
Maybe there needs to be a "changing of opinions and minds" about the seemingly held belief that for-profit volunteer placement organizations (VPOs) and the travel industry may not be able to contribute to this initiative - one that is given the task to increase participation in the amount of 50,000 U.S. citizens in volunteering abroad by 2010, and, coincidentally, is slated to release a proposed $50 million (USD) annually, over three fiscal years - 2008, 2009 and 2010.
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If you have questions as to whether the travel industry or for-profit VPOs can provide some valuable input toward the achievement of the goals set forth in S.1464, then review some of the priorities of the Bill in the sidebar (above). I would suggest that these entities could demonstrate even a minimal contribution in at least one of those areas, if not more.
Balance Or Imbalance?
Despite the absence of for-profit VPOs and the travel industry on the BIIVS, as this could have simply been an oversight, the all-important question is: Will S.1464 allow for-profit entities - tour operators, suppliers, etc., AND VPOs - to apply "fellowship" monies to support their Voluntourism initiatives?
Well, certainly the airlines and supply-side of the travel industry will automatically benefit from these fellowships. Individuals, depending on their term of service - 90 days or less, 91 - 180 days, or 181 days to one year - will apply for fellowships in the amount of $2,500, $5,000, or $7,500 (USD), respectively. Monies can be used for items including: lodging, supplies, transportation, program fees, and language & cultural training.
But what I cannot ascertain, after having read through the proposed Bill, is whether or not a "sponsoring" organization can be for-profit. To date, outside of corporate foundations, every entity that is listed as a sponsoring organization is an NGO, non-profit, or educational institution. Not that I necessarily relish the thought of having to deal with what may be a potentially large "red-tape" scenario; however, I am sufficiently compelled to suggest that the travel industry and for-profit service organizations take action and scrutinize this piece of legislation. Questions such as:
1) Does Bill S.1464 have the potential to create an unfair, competitive advantage for NGOs and non-profits in the Voluntourism marketplace?
2) Could the travel industry expand the financial "footprint" of this legislation by adopting practices that would benefit the fellowship recipients and make their "dollars stretch," e.g., reduced-price travel packages or programs specifically for fellowship-awardees?
3) When it comes to economies of scale, is it possible that some for-profit entities could meet the demands of moving and placing 50,000 volunteers with greater financial efficiency than some non-profits?
These are just some of the questions that come to my mind as I review this piece of legislation.
Leveling the Voluntourism playing field, i.e. balance, has been a cornerstone of my philosophy since the inception of VolunTourism.org. (It is one of the reasons why I have always emphasized the "T" in VolunTourism.) No entity should be eliminated from potentially contributing to the growth of citizens from all nations in enhancing the well-being of others, regardless of the nature of that "vehicle" - for-profit or not-for-profit, tourism-based or voluntary service-based. What I have hoped would occur would be the emergence of foundational practices utilized amongst all conscientiously-run VolunTourism establishments. Yet, if the balance is tipped because not all parties have access to the same financial opportunities, then we need to address this, and address it immediately!
Therefore, I encourage members of the travel industry and for-profit volunteer placement organizations to review these Bills. Discuss it with your peers and contact Congressional Leaders, if necessary, who have put forth this legislation. Determine whether you will have equal access to Global Service Fellowship funds. Will, for example, the committee assigned to review applications show no preferential treatment toward specific types of entities and allow participants to utilize any and all services provided in the marketplace?
An even bigger question to consider may be: How will this impact entities with headquarters outside of the United States that also cater to Voluntourists? Will they be allowed to access these funds based upon choices by fellowship awardees?
The clock is tick, tick, ticking...
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