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President Barack Obama: Could He Change The Global "Voluntourism Landscape" Permanently?
Unbeknowst to President Barack Obama, should he sign the Service America Act into law, he may very well start a domino-like series of events that could change the very fabric of what we currently describe as "voluntourism" and "volunteer vacations" in the United States. This, in turn, could catalyze a chain reaction across the travel & tourism industry and throughout the nonprofit sector on a world-wide scale. What could it mean for you?
As we enter the fifth year of publishing The VolunTourist Newsletter, there is so much about which we can be truly excited. If things hold to form:
- The May issue of Business Traveller Magazine will feature a story on VolunTourism, including a focus on hoteliers,
- Lufthansa Magazin will feature voluntourism as its cover story for the June 2009 issue - to my knowledge it will be the first in-flight publication in the world to do so, and
- Catholic Digest will feature articles on voluntourism as part of its June 2009 cover story.
But what could prove to be the biggest event of 2009, lies with the signature of one man: President Barack Obama.
If President Obama signs the Service America Act into law in the coming weeks, it will, in part, create a fund in the amount of $10 million per year for five years ($50 million total). The fund will generate a set of matching grants for highly skilled American volunteers to be administered by Volunteers for Prosperity (VfP), a US Government initiative established in September 2003 "to encourage international voluntary service by highly skilled Americans supporting our Nation's agenda to promote health and prosperity around the world."
Of course, all of you are saying to yourselves: "Well, what does this have to do with voluntourism? Highly skilled volunteers are not going to be 'vacationing' and enjoying the travel & tourism amenities of the destination."
My response is that you are absolutely correct. However, some of the organizations that we have come to know in the "voluntourism" and "volunteer vacation" circles, may opt to apply for these monies. We also know that US Taxpayers would hound their congressional district offices, probably more so than when AIG bonuses were doled out, if they felt tax dollars were being spent for someone's "vacation," even if they did volunteer five days a week. It is this factor that would change the entire playing field of voluntourism as we know it today.
Imagine, for example, if Cross Cultural Solutions, or Global Volunteers, or Earthwatch, applied for these funds, they could no longer, market and promote themselves as "voluntourism" or "volunteer vacation" outfits. If they have Google Ads under the heading of "voluntourism" or "volunteer vacation," these would have to be taken down. If they are written up in a book on "volunteer vacations," they would have to refuse to be included in a future such publication. Should the Travel Editor for the New York Times or a writer for Conde Nast Traveler call them up to ask for a quote about volunteering and traveling, they would be forced to offer no comment and ask that the newspaper or periodical not carry the name of their organization in the article. Think of the implications!
And it goes even further. It also poses an ethical conundrum for members of the travel industry. If you are Travelocity, for example, and have some of these entities listed as part of your "Travel For Good" program - a "voluntourism" and "volunteer vacation" initiative established by the company nearly three years ago - you will have to consider whether to drop these organizations from your fold. Of course, from the practical side of things, I am sure the company would want to avoid being embroiled in a potential public relations nightmare should the media determine that US tax dollars are being allocated to "vacations."
There is, of course, a tremendous upside - - should these entities elect to receive VfP monies and remove themselves from the world of "voluntourism" and "volunteer vacations." Think of the opportunities and doors that could open for a host of nonprofit and for-profit companies that have received little or no attention from the media thus far, even though they have been running voluntourism trips for years. We may be privvy to being exposed to some incredibly unique entities, and, in turn, these entities may be able to accomplish more grassroots community development work than ever before while giving voluntourists an opportunity to explore uncharted destinations. Truly exciting!
Upon due reflection, I think it is extremely doubtful that these "voluntourism" and "volunteer vacation" entities will apply for VfP funds. Especially for the larger, more "public" outfits, their brands are too intertwined with "voluntourism" and "volunteer vacations" to be able to take on the task of extricating themselves from these tags - the cost would be astronomical!
The ethical dilemma poses an additional challenge - "how can my organization receive government funds when other entities with which I compete on a global scale are ineligible for those funds?" Finally, the cost of potential backlash through blog posts, other social networking sites, or media leaks from their competitors regarding any number of topics - unfair competitive advantages through "US Government subsidies," for example - the risk is simply too high to justify a move of this sort.
Nevertheless, with indefatigable zeal, VolunTourism.org will follow this story; in so doing, we will make every effort to maintain the highest ethical standards for what has become one of the fastest growing travel segments. As our promise to voluntourism stakeholders everywhere, should any of the entities which we currently feature on the website apply for these funds, we will immediately remove them from VolunTourism.org. We are hopeful that such action would demonstrate our commitment to integrity and prevent any potential backlash from US Taxpayers, would-be voluntourists, world-wide voluntourism operators, the general public, or the media. As stewards of voluntourism, we have a global family to consider, and we really do appreciate the amazing efforts of each and every one.
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