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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 6 Issue 3 Highlights


So You May Know

'Volunteer Vacations' At "40": Should We Expect A 'Mid-Life Crisis' Or Continued Evolution?

'Volunteer Vacations,' which date back to 1971 and the founding of Earthwatch Institute, will turn '40' in 2011. Yet it was not until the mid-80's that we began to take note of this emerging trend through books like Volunteer Vacations by Bill McMillon. A decade later, tourism entered the picture and we saw the emergence of 'voluntourism' and 'voluntours' in the late-90's and early 00's. Virtually ever since that time, the majority of the remaining volunteer vacation practitioners have gone to great lengths to maintain their separation from tourism; that is, until recently. As touristic activities begin to find their way into the volunteer vacation, what can we expect: a 'mid-life crisis' or continuted evolution?


Over the years there has been a slow but steady alteration to 'volunteer vacations' - originally a minimum 40-hour per week commitment to volunteering that takes place in a destination other than one's native home environment and in what would be considered a relatively short period, anywhere from one to three weeks, or the equivalent of one's vacation time.

The beginning of the shift can be traced back to the mid-1990's, as individuals from the tourism sector began to influence the 'volunteer vacation' model. Two such persons - Nancy Rivard, a former executive with American Airlines and founder of Airline Ambassadors, and Dr. Sally Brown, former president of Ambassadair Travel Club and founder of Ambassadors For Children - recognized the importance of the tourism industry, and the role of touristic activities in particular, as integral to a traveler's experience and the concomitant experience of receiving communities. These early tweaks by individuals such as Ms. Rivard and Dr. Brown led to the emergence of voluntours.

In Decade 1.0 of Millennium 3.0, the majority of 'volunteer vacation' practitioners continued to hold a fine line between their activities and the emerging voluntourism trend, notably, for two very important reasons:

1) To avoid any association with tourism - - much maligned throughout the nonprofit world and poorly understood as an engine with vast socio-economic development potential (certainly something that has no place in the realm of idealism), maintaining distance from tourism is indicative of risk mitigation and its consort - - self-preservation, and

2) To avoid any challenges to tax-deductible status for nonprofit organizations - either the tax status of the entity itself or the tax-deductible nature of 'volunteer vacations' as held, for example, in Publication 526 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service Tax Code.

As Decade 1.0 continued its maturation, we started to notice the influence of tourism:

  • Travel agents were introduced to volunteer vacations in hopes of increasing the customer base.
  • Some nonprofit 'volunteer vacation' practitioners contracted with tour operators to include touristic activities for weekend getaways for volunteer vacationers. Day excursions to Machu Picchu, for example, began wending their way into Peruvian itineraries.
  • Others began to collaborate with tour operators to assist the tourism industry in crafting short-term - - half-day, full-day, and multi-day - - volunteer projects as part of an overarching itinerary, with varying degrees of success, or lack thereof.

But there was still no outward recognition, either by volunteer vacationers themselves or practitioners that tourism was slowly but surely becoming an integral part of these journeys.


The Philosophical and the Ethical Seemingly Collide with the Unfolding Reality

If we say the answer is money, then we fail to see the philosophical and ethical dilemmas posed by the inclusion of touristic activities in these experiences. We also fail to see the shift in humanity in general. "We ain't what we used to be!"

There was a time when it was thought that people should only volunteer for the sake of volunteering, whether that volunteering was domestic or international in scope. This idealistic view, however, is no longer in tune with the unfolding reality, as the academic community is clearly apprising us. The emerging reality is that as human beings we are no longer fitting into a "collective" volunteer mindset. We are evolving with a new approach, one that demonstrates, I think, how we are identifying more and more with our existence as earthlings rather than citizens of communities or nations - the "reflexive."

Walter Rehberg discovered this when he interviewed 118 Swiss young people who were planning to volunteer internationally. In "Altruistic Individualists: Motivations for International Volunteering Among Young Adults in Switzerland" he writes:

Human beings are undergoing, on a variety of levels, a 'biographical reorientation.' The global citizen is not a citizen of Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Myanmar for that matter. The global citizen is an earth dweller; and I am convinced that this new mindset results in exactly what Mr. Rehberg refers to as "biographical discontinuity," specifically because these evolving global citizens are surrounded by a vast majority of individuals who still experience themselves within the context of nation-states, or smaller yet, communities.

The struggle for 'volunteer vacation' practitioners is that the nature of their 'clientele' is changing, which, in turn, is forcing them to change. Changing your business model and/or operational style mid-stream is not ideal, especially when you are compelled to hold hard and fast to your original principles that guided you in establishing your operation. What does all of this mean?

For some practitioners this will lead to some sort of 'mid-life' crisis as idealism and reality collide. For others, likely the ones that are more recently established, they should be more nimble in their adaptability. Rather than being concerned over whether they will be able to offer such things as tax-deductibility or not, they will focus their attention on how to maintain the integrity of their underlying principles while embracing what is likely a 'healthier' view on volunteering - one that recognizes the importance of balancing service to others and service to self. These volunteer vacation practitioners may even join the ranks of the VolunTourism Community, demonstrating a further commitment to balanced engagement in the communities in which they operate.

Is this a necessary evil?

If you read this recent post from Kate LeGresley, it doesn't look too bad for 'volunteer vacation' practitioners (unless, of course, they become inextricably linked with tourism, then there might be a problem). Ms. LeGresley writes:

Ms. LeGresley doesn't complain about taking classes or city tours (something we would expect from traditional tourism itineraries); on the contrary, she, in fact, stresses the importance of the touristic engagement as an integral part of her experience and a meaningful interaction with the people and the culture.

If this trend continues, however, as our research at VolunTourism.org is bearing out, one of the initial outcomes will be the death of the "tax-deductible 'volunteer vacation.'" I do not think the majority of folks will miss this; nevertheless, for some practitioners it will be hard to let it go as it has served as a point of differentiation within what is becoming a very competitive marketplace. It is true that some 'altruistic individualists' will be looking for the tax-deduction, but with so many benefits accruing to the volunteer vacationer, it will be more and more difficult to justify this to any accountant who might be reviewing your taxes at the end of the year. 

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, it is good news if we can move beyond such things as tax-deductibility, in large part, because we can now be very clear that volunteer vacations, at least ones that are incorporating touristic activities, are as much or more so about the volunteer vacationer as they are about the communities being served. (Great! We can depart from the idealism of altruism and concentrate on reality.)

What some may see as a stepping backwards from the 'good old days' of volunteering for the sake of volunteering may actually represent a stepping forward. How do we know that, as Ken Wilber suggests in his book, Integral Spirituality, we were not simply denying some part of ourselves, some part of our motivation to volunteer?

Wilber writes:

If we can own up to the fact that volunteering feels good (it's okay, really!); if we can own up to the fact that volunteering affords us an opportunity to interact with some 'wicked cool peeps'; if we can own up to the fact that engaging in touristic activities delivers more meaning to our engagement - if we can do all of these things and more, we might just discover that by honoring these various motivations, and fulfilling them, we may actually be of greater service to people and communities around the world than we have ever been previously.

By embracing what we perceive to be the 'shadow' side of ourselves - that which extends outside of the singular, altruistic motivation to volunteer, we may come to understand that this is not some 'dark side' of our alter ego, but an important and integral part of our selves that has the potential to transform, not only us, but also those around us.

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