Voluntourism 4.0: Extracting Maslow from Voluntourism

MaslowI spent last week in the United Kingdom speaking with the Team at Complete Coherence in Romsey, England, and interacting with academics and practitioners at the first of a six-part seminar series funded by the Economic & Social Research Council held at the University of Brighton. Although the venues were quite different, the two discussions centered around one basic theme: Reconceptualising international volunteering.

Ironically, it wasn’t until later in the week when I was having dinner with my “Little Brother” and his friend who has been exposed to development in Latin America, that the conversation reinforced an insight that has been percolating in the background of my mind for some time. In essence, we concluded, that one of the best ideas for reconceptualising voluntourism would be to eliminate all projects which focus on basic human needs. By eliminating Maslow’s bottom row of the pyramid, we also eliminate a host of maddening challenges for the voluntourism space. [There is no need to get into the “development business,” as Dr. Anna Mdee¬†(in her lecture at the University of Brighton seminar) pointed out the pitfalls of in its own right, and certainly not in the context of international volunteering and voluntourism.]

Moving Beyond Basic Needs…

The Voluntourism Space has spent the better part of a decade embroiled in the controversial, the debatable, the unskilled, the labor-replacing, the orphan-generating. Assuredly, some of this comes from a lack of understanding of the numerous projects and offerings around the world which have nothing to do with the bottom of the pyramid – assisting social entrepreneurs, refurbishing & reconstructing historic buildings, conducting environmental research – the list is endless!

If we simply move voluntourism beyond the reach of projects focused on meeting the basic needs of host communities, we can truly reconceptualise it. We can add dimensions that are rooted in the development of the individual. We can eliminate much of the sense of urgency around decoupling travel & tourism from voluntary service. And, everyone will be able to sleep better at night!

PrintThe Four Dimensions of Traveler Development – VolunTourism 4.0

Once we extract Maslow’s lowest tier of the pyramid from voluntourism, we can focus on the 4 dimensions which bring us more in line with the uppermost tier: Self-Actualization. These dimensions are present in the context of a VolunTourism experience (pre-, during-, and post-trip), it simply depends on to what degree each is acknowledged and then consciously integrated into the overall awareness of participants.

The four dimensions are broadly represented by: 1) The “Open Hand,” 2) The “Open Heart,” 3) The “Open Mind,” and 4) The “Open Self.” Let’s go through these briefly.

VolunTourism 1.0: The “Open Hand” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes “serving,” e.g., doing, performing, a task in an effort to be of support to the local destination. Quite often, this dimension is the most sought after aspect of the journey, as participants are eager to accomplish and leave a lasting, positive impression on the community. In addition, there is a great deal of “doing” involved in the preparation for a trip, engaging in the trip (just think of the travel alone to some of the more remote locations), and, of course, all that surrounds one’s returning to the home environment upon completion of a journey. The “Open Hand” can be experienced over “short-term” or “long-term” engagements and brings us into contact with the physiological aspects of our own being – our bodies and how they respond to the demands of VolunTourism.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I serve others.”

VolunTourism 2.0: The “Open Heart” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the interpersonal connections, i.e., “relating,” to others. The “others” are represented by members of the host community/destination and, of course, one’s fellow volunteers. This dimension brings into our awareness emotions and feelings regarding our responses to others.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I relate to others.”

VolunTourism 3.0: The “Open Mind” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the “being” of internal dialogue and discovery that occurs through the process of participating in such a journey. The catalyzing environment of the experience provides the necessary energy to dive within one’s own values, beliefs, judgements, prejudices, and preconceived notions of the world.

The Mantra for this dimension: “I explore my own being.”

VolunTourism 4.0: The “Open Self” — This dimension of an itinerary emphasizes the growth & development, or “becoming,” of the individual throughout the process of the entire footprint of the journey: pre-, during-, and post-trip. It will naturally unfold if from the initiation of even the first hint of a desire to participate in such a journey that an individual realizes there is more at work than merely going overseas to volunteer. These journeys are a metaphor for the unfolding of the individual. If consciously approached, the experience brings forth a new iteration of the individual, one which will prove of far more service to any and all whom s/he may meet.

The Mantra for this dimension: “The journey and I are one, continuous becoming.”

Final Thoughts…

One might argue that directing our service t0 the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid may lead us to self-actualization. However, the degree to which we can be effectual in addressing those needs has, at least thus far, proven elusive. Trillions of dollars in aid and billions of hours of service have netted us little advancement in overcoming the deficit. Could it be, by coordinating service beyond the lowest tier, we will be able to render greater service and far more meaningful development for all stakeholders?

The “Open Hand” has been the default dimension of service itineraries for decades. Introducing the significance of the other dimensions through a coordinated effort – providing participants with tools and practices to better prepare them to “Open Heart,” “Open Mind,” and “Open Self” – seems like a reasonable launch-point for reconceptualizing volunteering. It is anticipated that by doing so, we may see an overall increase in the sustainability of projects and the longevity of results for communities and participants alike.

Under this scenario, we can see the value of travel, of exploration in the context of a destination. Encountering different aspects of the destination will allow these other dimensions to open more freely, perhaps further than could otherwise occur simply through service.

It would appear that we have an important question to address: Can we free VolunTourism from Maslow’s lowest tier in order to explore its developmental potential for participants?

Can Communities Become an Integral Part of Voluntourism Marketing?

IJCHOne of the items that has continually served as a point of contention for the intersection of voluntary service and travel & tourism has been the absence of communities in the marketing of these experiences to would-be participants. Communities are almost hidden from the marketing of these experiences. There are likely at least two or three reasons behind this, but are they strong enough to continue to place communities as an after-thought?

Recent Research

In the most recent issue (2014, #4) of the International Journal of Communication and Health, authors Ben Wilkinson, Judith McCool and Genevieve Bois have presented their findings regarding voluntourism marketing in their article entitled “Voluntourism: an analysis of the online marketing of a fast-growing industry.” It bears review, particularly for those who are interested in developing a more community-integrated approach to existing trends in voluntourism marketing as an alternative to those which appear to relegate communities to an obscure position in the overall “pitching” of these experiences to potential voluntourists.

Wilkinson, et al., bring our attention to the participant-centric [read “egocentric” and “ethno-centric,” as opposed to “world-centric” (see discussion below)] patterns of marketing. The authors identify three main categories under which a subsection of themes is presented. The first of these is “Personal.” Within this category we find: 1) egoism, 2) altruism, 3) travel with a “purpose,” 4) organisational goal, and 5) destination. The second category is “Interpersonal.” The subsection of this category contains: 1) authentic experience, cultural immersion, cross-cultural understanding and global awareness, 2) encouraged by others, 3) enhancing relationships and seeking camaraderie. The third of these is “Voluntourist facilitators.” Captured within this category are: 1) security/safety, 2) project content, 3) price, 4) time, 5) location/accessibility, and 6) life cycle.

The authors provide examples of each of the themes so that readers can have a better sense of the language associated with them. They utilize examples from companies and NGOs so that a reader can easily visit the websites of these entities and hone in on the specific usage of language in order to interpret the experience.

Why Is Voluntourism Marketing Typically Void of Community-centric Language?

There are a couple of items that I think we can explore here. Let’s start with competition. If you are of a mindset that you are competing with other entities to attract would-be voluntourists to your program, then you are likely to be less revealing about your relationships and connections at the community level. This has been a trend within the realm of competitive business from the beginning. Given that many individuals are schooled in a similar system of business marketing, it is no surprise that relationships are held as sacred and secret. Otherwise, one’s competitors will come along and nurture a new relationship and the existing operation may be compromised, or worse yet, eliminated.

The second item we might explore is perspective. The leading entities in the voluntourism space have held a certain perspective about voluntourism, and, as it turns out, are marketing to audiences which hold a certain perspective. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. As we begin to unfold new developmental levels for human beings and begin to understand more about the complexity of what makes us human, we are seeing that there is a vast difference between those with an egocentric, ethnocentric or a world-centric view. (See graphic below.) Most business are built with an egocentric (me or mine) or ethnocentric (Us vs. Them) mentality, especially marketing & communications – it’s all about the brand, after all. Additionally, the audiences to whom they have traditionally marketed have primarily fallen into those two categories.

However, if you consider the levels of ego & consciousness development presented in the diagram below, you will see that we have introduced some new levels of development since the business world set forth the philosophic underpinnings of marketing & communications back in the late 50’s and early 60’s. The “world-centric view,” for example, does not come online until an individual has reached an ego-development level of at least an “Achiever.” If we consider that the individuals responsible for marketing voluntourism experiences are likely to fall into the category of “Expert” with some possibly having stretched into an “Achiever” space, it is very difficult to hold a World-centric view. In order to consider host communities AND would-be voluntourists in the context of marketing & communications, the individuals guiding the marketing and communications of voluntourism products & services essentially must have developed themselves to a point of holding a world-centric view. Notably, at least for the voluntourism space, this has not occurred unilaterally (look at the findings of Wilkinson, et al., to get a sense of this), although it may be occurring on a case-by-case basis.


SOURCE: Timeless Wisdom Project

Final Thoughts…

If we want to see a shift in voluntourism marketing & communications, we have to undergo a shift in the leadership capacity and levels of human development experienced by those who are leading the voluntourism industry. This is by no means an easy feat. Nevertheless, we do have tools and understanding being provided for us all to increase our awareness of ego & consciousness development. The work of Ken Wilber, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Terri O’Fallon, Bill Torbert and others across the globe are beginning to shed light on these important levels of consciousness and their implications in everything from business marketing & communications to art, law, medicine and even governance.

The point here is that we have a choice. Voluntourism marketing & communications need not remain an expression of an egocentric or ethno-centric view. Voluntourism can graduate to expressing itself in a manner that is aligned with a world-centric view, one that equally considers the entire collective of stakeholders interdependently cooperating to make voluntourism possible. Voluntourism appears to be an expression of wanting to move from an egocentric and/or ethnocentric view to a world-centric view. The people drawn to voluntourism are likely moving out of the “Red,” “Amber,” and early “Orange” stages depicted in the diagram above, into later stages of human development. This is encouraging and should be encouraging for all of us. What’s more, voluntourism may serve as a mechanism, a catalyst if you will, for supporting the ongoing development of all of the individuals interdependently connected by it. And, this is what should really excite us!

Voluntourism isn’t perfect by any means, and held as a panacea, it is even less so. Yet, there is something here worthy of our closer inspection. Voluntourism has transformation as an underlying element. It catalyzes. Is it assisting us in expanding our collective consciousness? This question deserves some real exploration and hopefully researchers can begin to uncover how, if at all, voluntourism is altering our individual and collective consciousness.