How to make a difference when traveling to developing countries, with the founder of Pack for a Purpose.

Rebecca Rothney never set out to found a non-profit that positively impacts communities in over sixty countries around the world. In fact, she didn’t set out to found a company, at all. In her own words, she always believed that texts belonged in a book, blackberries belonged in a cobbler, and the only spreadsheets she used were on a bed. Oh, how things have changed.

Now the founder and chairperson of Pack for a Purpose, Rebecca oversees a non-profit that connects travelers with institutions around the world through which they can donate useful, relevant goods that they bring with them when traveling to their destination of choice. She is, in essence, helping travelers to give a gift to the communities that they visit, a gift that both expresses gratitude to that community for hosting them, and does a good deed for those that live there locally. Her work has been so well-received and highly respected that she had the incredible honor bestowed upon her in 2014 of being named the National Geographic Traveler of the Year.

We sat down with Rebecca to delve into Pack for a Purpose, how and why it was founded, and the impact it has on the global travel community as it seeks to rethink the extra space we have in our suitcases when traveling abroad to do good for so many around the world.

Let’s start at the beginning — can you share with us how Pack for a Purpose was founded?

Like many things in life, Pack for a Purpose began as a bit of a happy accident. When my husband and I went to Africa for the very first time, 19 years ago, we absolutely fell in love with the continent, or as we call it, were hit with a case of Africa-itis. We also discovered that there was a two hundred pound luggage limit between us, which we knew we would not need for ourselves.

On our second trip back to Botswana, we went through Wilderness Safaris, and when they mentioned that we could visit a local school, we were over the moon. I had been a teacher in North Carolina, so I of course asked in advance of our trip if there were any school supplies that we could bring. I figured that I had to beg for school supplies as a teacher in North Carolina, teachers probably faced similar issues. Wilderness Safaris emailed me what the school needed, and I reached out to friends and family, and managed to get together one hundred and forty pounds of school supplies. When we landed in Botswana, we were able to visit the school where the supplies were going. It was a truly eye-opening experience. The kids were playing soccer outside with a ball of rags wrapped in plastic, and the principal nearly broke down in tears when I showed her the rules we brought as they did not have any at the school.

From then on, we made sure to collect and bring supplies with us every time we traveled back to Africa. During AIDS crisis, as there were more orphans, Wilderness suggested we bring children’s clothing for a local orphanage which they distributed on our behalf. On our trip to Kenya, we contacted the clinic in the area where we were staying and asked what they wanted. They requested a stethoscope or a blood pressure cuff as they did not have either of these items. These supplies made a world of difference..

I asked our travel agent if other travelers were bringing supplies with the large international luggage allowances they had. The agent’s response was no, “They just don’t think about it.” I believed that if we could provide a way for travelers to think about it, and make it simple for them, they would take supplies with them. We started Pack for a Purpose with no money, some incredible volunteers, generous donations of time and energy, and a lot of homemade cookies given to friends as thank yous. Now, we partner with over four hundred and forty accommodations and tour companies in over sixty countries.

What is the mission of Pack for a Purpose?

I grew up with the notion instilled in me that when you are part of a community even as a visitor for a short period of time, you have to contribute to that community. You must give back. That’s not optional. You wouldn’t show up without a hostess gift when you accept someone’s hospitality, would you? That’s not charity, it’s a way of thanking someone for their hospitality and expressing gratitude.

Pack for a Purpose provides travelers with curated needs lists sourced from the community so they can know that the gift they choose to bring will be useful and impactful for that community.

Please walk us through how the process would work once someone decided to use Pack for a Purpose, from start to finish. Can you provide an example please?

Packing for a Purpose is simple and easy. You can participate on five continents and take requested supplies to over 500 community projects. I’ll walk you through the process, as an example. Let’s say you’re traveling to Costa Rica. You simply go to our website, select your region and country, and you will see a list of all accommodations and tour companies supporting community projects. When you click on an individual selection, let’s use Aguila de Osa Inn as an example, you’ll find information on the project that they support (an environmental program in local schools), and the supplies that they need (anything from book bags to glue sticks). All you have to do is pack them, and then when you arrive to the destination that you selected (Aguila de Osa Inn in this example), you simply drop off the supplies, and they deliver them to the project that you are supporting. How easy is that?

How are you selecting Accommodations and Tour Companies to partner with, and how are you connecting with them to find out what items best meet their needs?

In the beginning phases of our non-profit, we were literally scouring the internet for places that supported community projects. We would reach out and invite them to join in partnership with us. As Pack for a Purpose continued to grow, businesses now come to us. Accommodations and tour companies that are interested in partnering with Pack for a Purpose can learn about how to join on our website. We also find that hotels, for example, will see our partnership on competitors’ websites and find us that way, or guests will inquire with hotels if they work with Pack for a Purpose.

In order for accommodations or tour companies to be on our website, they must meet certain requirements which are listed on our website. We do not select which projects in a community are supported as we do not live in those communities. We promote the good work being done in those communities by accommodations and tour companies actively involved in those projects. We take accountability very seriously. After an applicant is welcomed to our website, they are required to report back to us three times per year with the weight of supplies that they’ve received. We do take it on good faith that they are delivering on their promise. It’s pretty incredible to see the results, and some of our participants go above and beyond for the folks who bring them supplies, even emailing photos to the travelers when the supplies have been delivered on their behalf.

Have you found that there are certain age groups and demographics that your mission resonates the most with?

We have found that the largest group of users are women ages forty to sixty five, who really have the economic wherewithal to travel and are newly retired or nearing retirement. We see that women are generally doing the packing and the planning, hence their larger representation in those working with us. There are many families who participate in Pack for a Purpose as well, as they seek to instill the value of giving back in their children, which we love.

Millennials are certainly a target audience for us, as we know how important experiences are to this age group and how much traveling is a priority.

Travelers who participate in Pack for a Purpose don’t need to register to do a good deed, so we don’t have an official way of tracking our contributing travelers. We did this intentionally, as we want to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute. We know about people’s experiences because they’ve shared their stories and photos with us over the years which we post on our website.

What does your outreach look like as far as educating potential users about what you’re doing, and how they can get involved?

We have a few different avenues to get the word out about what we’re doing at Pack for a Purpose. PR has been a big part of it, as we don’t have a budget for advertising. We’ve been featured everywhere from Caribbean Lifestyle Magazine to the South China Morning Post. Additionally, because every participant features our logo and links to our site from their website, people are finding us that way. But most frequently, and most importantly, travelers who have chosen to work with us are spreading the word to their friends and family.

We all know that one of the most important (and least loved) aspects of travel is the packing process. How do you recommend that travelers pack intentionally so that they can participate in Pack for a Purpose?

We’ve thought of that, too! There’s an entire page on our website dedicated to “How to Pack,” and we utilize Emadri’s curated packing list technology to make this process as effortless as possible. Not only does Emadri help you to factor in how to make room to pack the supplies that you’re donating, but Emadri helps you to pack for yourself, for your destination of choice. Partnering with Emadri to offer this service is our gift to our users. Not only does it help them towards their goal of contributing to Pack for a Purpose, but it streamlines their entire packing experience.

Would you be interested in leveraging Emadri’s data to learn more about your audience who is using Emadri, what their interests are, and why they are traveling?

This data that we get from Emadri will be very useful to us. Because our users do not need to register and create a profile to participate in Pack for a Purpose, having the data of people who have visited our website from Emadri’s website will help us to create a fuller picture of who is using Pack for a Purpose, and how we can continue to connect with and communicate with them.