The urge to grow a business, to expand, to multiply our reach and capacity, seems inherently connected to an event which occurred some 14.7 billion years ago. But if business growth is tied only to more customers and more revenue, etc., we may indeed be missing a key ingredient: responsibility.
Researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University this week – Victoria Smith and Dr. Xavier Font – suggested, there is a possible inverse relationship between the amount of money charged for a volunteer travel experience and the level of responsibility exhibited online by a company or NGO running such an experience for travelers. According to their findings, an expensive volunteer travel experience will offer a low level of exhibited online responsibility; conversely, an inexpensive volunteer travel experience will offer a high level of exhibited online responsibility.
Initially, it seems that much attention related to the results of this study has focused on the following maxim: “profit-makers = irresponsible; and non-profit, existence earners = responsible.” What I would offer is another takeaway from this research which could be beneficial for all parties. In the terms of polarity management, I believe Smith and Font have uncovered one of what could be hundreds of polarities where voluntourism is concerned, in this case, responsibility on one side of the pole and profitability on the other. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Identifying The “Strategic Management Polarity”: Profitability AND Responsibility
In my opinion, Smith & Font have actually uncovered a polarity, which is good news because we have ways to manage polarities. But what is a polarity?
Barry Johnson, author of Polarity Management, suggests that we ask the following question in order to discover if something is a polarity: “Is this a question we can solve, or is this an ongoing polarity we need to manage?” When I take a look at what Smith & Font have placed before us, I think we definitely have a polarity to be managed. We are not going to “solve” the dilemma of profitability and responsibility. If we are not profitable, at least to some degree, then we do not exist. If we are not responsible to a defined degree, then we do not have a world in which voluntourism can exist. This is the polarity. And, we need to manage it on an ongoing basis.
In their book, Strategy Synthesis: Resolving Strategy Paradoxes To Create Competitive Advantage, Bob De Wit and Ron Meyer talk about the 10 “strategy tensions” (see above diagram from chapter 1, p.14). Take note of the final “strategy tension” – “Profitability AND Responsibility” – in their list. It is this polarity/tension which I think Smith & Font have brought to our collective attention through their study.
Managing The Profitability AND Responsibility Polarity
Voluntourism may very well be one of the most important expressions of human development in the 21st Century, in part because it is rife with polarities. The Profitability AND Responsibility Polarity which I think Smith & Font have alluded to in their findings is a great learning opportunity for us all. Our world is striving for integration, and profitability and responsibility is but one example of the polarities we will encounter along this journey. In order to manage polarities, and building on Barry Johnson’s work, we can benefit from a polarity map:
If we use a four-quadrant polarity map (see above), we can go through the exercise of identifying the “values” and the “fears” of each pole. In the case of “profitability,” we can already see at least one of the “fears” emerging as is demonstrated in the research findings of Smith & Font: “being out of touch with responsibility (leaning hard on profitability) can lead to a poor reflection of your company/NGO in the media & social media space.”
For now, I will not continue to go through the process of selecting “values” and “fears” for each pole, at least in the context of this post, I will leave this to readers to complete the exercise.
The main point of this post is to honor the research findings presented by Smith & Font in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism while emphasizing the learning that can come from them. Rather than focusing on merely the “fears” that could manifest in the media & social media sphere around voluntourism profitability, we could see this as a real opportunity to learn about managing a core polarity: Profitability AND Responsibility. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is that we are looking at voluntourism as something that needs to be solved, a problem in our world. More likely what is true is that voluntourism is a polarity to be managed.
Voluntary service and travel & tourism can co-exist. What we are struggling with is how to manage the polarities that arise as a result. We seem to be acutely aware of these polarities, but we see them as problems to be solved. Our sensibilities are heightened because we are integrating two things which we currently perceive should have nothing to do with one another: “frankly, voluntary service and travel & tourism should not have anything to do with one another,” is what we say to ourselves. I would argue, however, that they should.
We need a world that does not rely on philanthropic giving to support NGOs aiming to act responsibly in the world. These entities need to earn their way in the world. Nor do we need companies which are failing to act responsibly, yet are profit-making machines. Unconsciously, I believe, we have been seeking something to push this polarity into the foreground of our attention. This is what voluntourism is doing. We need companies and NGOs which know how to manage the Profitability AND Responsibility Paradox – never leaning too far one way or the other, paying attention to both sides of the paradox. Fortunately, Smith & Font have placed the importance of this polarity management directly in front of us.
We are left in a place of inquiry and the tension around the questions which are arising: Is voluntourism bad? harmful? Is voluntourism just about making money? Is voluntourism making a difference? Is voluntourism all about the voluntourists? Not about the community? I would suggest that these questions are arising primarily because we are doing a poor job of managing the polarities around voluntourism.
Let’s use the research findings of Smith & Font to jumpstart our efforts to address the polarities surrounding voluntourism. We may discover that voluntourism can indeed be beneficial to all if we move from focusing our intention and attention on solving problems to educating ourselves on the process of managing polarities.