Advent of Volunteer Tourism — New Form of Charitable Giving?

Robert J. (Bob) Reid, PhD

Arusha, Tanzania

There is a growing trend in destination weddings. People are clearly seeking opportunities to accentuate personal meaning with the important events of their lives. The manner in which people experience personal meaning seems to evolve from generation to generation. Since the 1960’s, subsequent generations have continuously questioned convention and tradition, perpetually redefining the values and activities of their lives. This evolving trend of integrating activities with personal meaning was recently observed within the context of philanthropy.

Recently, while engaged in an exciting global development initiative in Africa with a very special nonprofit I personally support [the United4Chance Center ( www.united4changecenter.org)], I had the opportunity to coincidentally meet a very special young American lady. See is in her 20’s and apparently uses her yearly vacations to travel to Africa for the express purpose of providing small micro loans (funded entirely out of her own pocket) and essential business consultation to poor women who are desperately seeking economic empowerment. I enjoyed discussing strategy with this amazing young woman, who is an accountant by profession. It was interesting to watch her struggle with how to effectively deploy very modest resources for consequential and enduring effect. Later, I met several other young ladies (from many countries) who were staying in a hostel while volunteering in local orphanages.

For some time, I have been contemplating about evolving changes in the practice of philanthropy, which seems an area in which generational influence is particularly significant. Mark Zuckerberg’s recent generous charitable pledge, which has not followed normal institutional philanthropic precedent in terms of form or strategy may point to a changing footprint of philanthropy, especially at such a large scale. His approach appears to embody the kind of free thinking and innovation employed in the development and launch of Facebook. Before Zuckerberg’s philanthropic engagement, the foundation world experienced other evolving approaches to grant-making such as venture philanthropy, mission-aligned investments, and more recently impact investing. New approaches to charitable engagement are also developing for people with more modest means such as crowd funding and retail donor-advised funds with very low minimum donation amounts.

Today, it seems that young people are looking for more than opportunities to send checks to their colleges or brand name charities. They are increasingly seeking greater engagement with beneficiaries of their giving and opportunities to add value beyond financial contributions. Many are volunteering their time and skills in an effort to enhance the effects of their charitable contributions.

The truth is that individual charitable giving as long been the biggest source of philanthropic resource in the United States. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, in 2016, 72% of all U.S. charitable contributions came from individuals ($282 Billion), 15% from foundations ($52 Billion), 8% from bequests ($30 Billion), and 5% from corporations ($19 Billion). Given the enormity of the aggregate effect of individual contributions, changes in donor behavior can be both highly opportunistic for, and disruptive to, resource-seeking charities.

My interactions with the remarkable young women in Africa and personal musings about how charitable giving is evolving prompted considerable thought about how value propositions for donors are changing. Individual donors are learning the power of engaged contributing — even with relatively small financial gifts, especially when paired with personal engagement. This kind of charitable giving seems to be evolving, at least for some, from passive to active engagement.

Consequently, there may be a considerable new opportunity for developing new forms of charitable engagement, which I choose to call “Volunteer Tourism”. Volunteer tourism is merely the ability to combine leisure time (e.g., vacations, sabbaticals, extended holidays) with highly engaged charitable activity. For many, the ability to offer their intellect, labor, and/or skill may be even more attractive than monetary contributions. The charitable effect may also prove greater.

So, what opportunities may this new form of donor-engagement represent for resource-seeking charities and/or leisure-oriented businesses with interests in social benefit? Perhaps charitable organizations can offer lodging-based opportunities for volunteer engagement in ways that are compelling for social minded travelers. Perhaps the resort/lodging industry might offer packages for volunteer opportunities (e.g., tutoring, medical aid, building projects, and/or mentoring) much like they already do for recreational purposes (e.g., ski packages, safaris, and interesting destination trips). This would seem to combine opportunities for personal meaning with destination travel.

No one can accurately predict how individual charitable giving or philanthropic innovation will evolve, but it would be exciting to see growing interest in genuine personal meaning resulting in expansion and deepening of human commitment for social benefit. Perhaps new fundraising and/or social business opportunities in the resort/lodging industry might unleash even more interest and resource in lessening of human suffering while offering guests opportunities for personal meaning.

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Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on October 16, 2017.

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