Voluntourism and The Rise of Customer Social Responsibility (CSR)

Ritz Carlton1 April 2013 marks the 5th anniversary of Give Back Getaways – the voluntourism program of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, LLC. Although many will view this as part of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement that began in the 1980s, what it really represents is a major breakthrough in the customer social responsibility movement – a very different type of CSR movement – that has emerged in the 21st Century.

“Customersourcing” through voluntourism and voluntourism-esque experiences, much like the crowdsourcing of Wikipedia and other content aggregators, engages customers in learning about and serving a common social responsibility objective, of course. Yet, by combining travel to and within the context of destinations and/or supply chains, companies are significantly deepening the level of exposure their customers have to different aspects of the companies themselves. Take, for example, Whole Journeys, a program set up by Whole Foods Market, to engage its customers with its supply chains in different communities around the world.

Questions arise as to whether customers, volunteers in essence, can make a contribution in addressing the challenges that destinations and communities face across the globe. They are, after all, volunteers – virtually untrained and “on vacation.” What has been, and continues to be, missed by those who are trying to measure the effectiveness, or more appropriately, the lack thereof, of customers stepping into these environments is how much more valuable these customersourcing experiences could be if they were better designed, better configured with the input of the communities and the organizations serving as liaisons.

Fast Company reported this past week that in the March 2013 issue of Methods in Ecology and Evolution that researchers discovered the value of volunteers collecting data; in fact, the authors made the following comment in the original article entitled “Comparing diversity data collected using a protocol designed for volunteers with results from a professional alternative“:

Our results provide evidence that less standardized survey protocols used by volunteer programs may give results that are broadly consistent with those based on methods used by professional scientists.”

[Source: “Comparing diversity data collected using a protocol designed for volunteers with results from a professional alternative,” Methods in Ecology and Evolution, March 2013, p. 8]

Rather than sensationalize the results of this study, it is simply worth noting that a specific protocol was designed for volunteers that allowed them to conduct their work in a manner that resulted in levels of accuracy and efficiency similar to that of professionals. There is nothing to suggest that customers could not also be placed in situations which would afford them the same opportunity. Customer social responsibility, therefore, can be improved by altering the manner in which they interface with the social responsibility challenge to be addressed.

Final Thoughts…

Customer social responsibility and customersourcing are in the early stages of their unfoldment. Voluntourism is at the forefront of this movement and represents a significant living laboratory to be studied as new such programs emerge, are evaluated, and eventually modified. With each voluntourism niche – be it dive voluntourism, coffee voluntourism, surf voluntourism, or luxury voluntourism, the base of socially responsible customers continues to grow. With a willingness to learn and share as we move along, this young CSR movement will evolve much more quickly and effectively than its predecessors. In the meantime, let’s continue to recognize the companies making an effort to engage their customers in socially responsible ways, remembering that pursuit of perfection begins with practice.

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