Voluntourism: A Journey Toward Intercultural Sensitivity?

IDR LogoOn 24 March 2015, the Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing posted an article online entitled “Volunteer Tourism and Intercultural Sensitivity: The Role of Interaction with Host Communities.” Co-authors Ksenia Kirillova, Xinran Lehto, and Liping Cai introduce us to the work of Dr. Milton J. Bennett at the Intercultural Development Research Institute and the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS).

Rather than dive into the results of the work of Kirillova, Lehto, and Cai, let’s take a closer look at the DMIS in order to better understand how such a model could guide the voluntourism sector toward crafting experiences that lead individuals along the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism – the six-step journey outlined by Milton Bennett.

The DMIS At A Glance

The DMIS consists of six steps, three of which are associated with Ethnocentrism, and three of which are associated with Ethnorelativism. The first three steps are: 1) Denial of Difference, 2) Defense Reversal, 3) Minimization; the final three steps are: 4) Acceptance, 5) Adaptation, and 6) Integration. From “Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory” comes a brief explanation of the DMIS [p.423]:

“The underlying assumption of the model is that as one’s experience of cultural difference becomes more complex and sophisticated, one’s potential competence in intercultural relations increases… The crux of the development of intercultural sensitivity is attaining the ability to construe (and thus to experience) cultural difference in more complex ways… The DMIS assumes that construing cultural difference can become an active part of one’s worldview, eventuating in an expanded understanding of one’s own and other cultures and an increased competence in intercultural relations….

Each change in worldview structure generates new and more sophisticated issues to be resolvedin intercultural encounters. The resolution of the relevant issues activates the emergence of the next orientation. Since issues may not be totally resolved, movement may be incomplete and one’s experience of difference diffused across more than one worldview. However, movement through the orientations is posited to be unidirectional, with only occasional ‘‘retreats.’’ In other words, people do not generally regress from more complex to less complex experiences of cultural difference.”

[Source: Hammer, Mitchell R., Bennett, Milton J., and Wiseman, Richard (2003). Measuring intercultural sensitivity: The intercultural development inventory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, p.421-443.]


The Six-Steps of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)

Ethnocentrism: Steps 1-3

Step 1: Denial of Difference

Denial of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only real one. Other cultures are either not discriminated at all, or they are construed in rather vague ways.” [p.424]

Step 2: Defense

Defense against cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only viable one. People at Defense have become adept at discriminating difference, so they experience cultural differences as more ‘‘real’’ than do people at Denial.”

“A variation on Defense is Reversal, where an adopted culture is experienced as superior to the culture of one’s primary socialization (‘‘going native,’’ or ‘‘passing’’). Reversal is like Defense in that it maintains a polarized, ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘them’’ worldview. It is unlike Defense in that it does not maintain the other culture as a threat.” [p.424]

Step 3: Minimization

Minimization of cultural difference is the state in which elements of one’s own cultural worldview are experienced as universal. The threat associated with cultural differences experienced in Defense is neutralized by subsuming the differences into familiar categories…People at Minimization expect similarities, and they may become insistent about correcting others’ behavior to match their expectations. Particularly for people of dominant cultures, Minimization tends to mask recognition of their own culture (ethnicity) and the institutional privilege it affords its members.” [p.424]

Ethnorelativism: Steps 4-6

Step 4: Acceptance

Acceptance of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. By discriminating differences among cultures (including one’s own), and by constructing a metalevel consciousness, people with this worldview are able to experience others as different from themselves, but equally human… Acceptance does not mean agreement—some cultural difference may be judged negatively—but the judgment is not ethnocentric in the sense of withholding equal humanity.” [p.425]

Step 5: Adaptation

Adaptation to cultural difference is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture. One’s worldview is expanded to include relevant constructs from other cultural worldviews. People at Adaptation can engage in empathy—the ability to take perspective or shift frame of reference vis-a-vis other cultures.” [p.425]

Step 6: Integration

Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. Here, people are dealing with issues related to their own ‘‘cultural marginality’’; they construe their identities at the margins of two or more cultures and central to none.” [p.425]

Final Thoughts…

Looking over these six steps, one cannot help but see some of the themes regarding the negative impacts of voluntourism. The issues described in blogs, tweets, and other social media, as well as articles by journalists and undercover reporters, nevertheless, seem to fall into the “Ethnocentrism” category. Reversal, an alternative to Defense, and Minimization appear regularly in the media and via social media.

Hammer, et al, conclude the section on the description of the DMIS with these words:

“In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.” [p.426]

What might make for an interesting exploration is to uncover whether voluntourism potentially serves as a bridge across the Ethnocentrism-Ethnorelativism divide. Many of the complaints logged against voluntourism appear to be generated from the position of “avoiding cultural difference.” What would voluntourism look like if it was developed from a place of “seeking cultural difference”? If the development of Acceptance, Adaptation, and Integration were aligned with these experiences, incorporated into the fabric of the pre-trip, during-trip, and post-trip elements thereof? What might we see from participants, from host communities, from all stakeholders if each stakeholder group held intercultural sensitivity with the same regard as the sustainability of the projects? Could we see a greater relevance for voluntourism in our 21st Century World?

Brokering Global Citizenship: Critique of the Language Surrounding Voluntourism

Global studies of childhood logoIn Volume 5, Issue 1, of Global Studies of Childhood, authors Margaret Zeddies and Zsuzsa Millei take us on a tour of United Planet’s website to exemplify the language of the voluntourism industry around the concept of “global citizenship.” The article entitled “‘It takes a global village’: Troubling discourses of global citizenship in United Planet’s voluntourism critiques the use of certain descriptive words & phrases and how these are likely to reinforce stereotypical power structures and relationships between the Global North and Global South. Here is the opening paragraph of the “Discussion” portion of the article to give you a flavor of the critique:

“Without generalizing our analysis of the website to other similar sites and organizations, we argue
that United Planet, by adopting dominant discourses of Global North childhoods and modernist
development discourses in relation to children and world economies, and by homogenizing and
depoliticizing communities, constructs particular “desired” relations and agendas for voluntourists.
Playing upon notions of the possibility of a transnational world and community, United Planet
attempts to present a particular worldview and trajectory to voluntourists looking to become global
citizens and partaking in social justice projects. By focusing on voluntourists’ individual relationships
with vulnerable children in need of development and a childhood like the one possible on the Global
North, United Planet attempts to position the voluntourist not as a new colonizer whose relations with
the children of the Global South are vested with particular power relations and global agendas, but
as a helpful “neighbor.” Depictions of voluntourists and children, however, are bound up with “the
cultural politics of images of Northern and Southern children and of the models of North-South
relations that underlie them” (Burman, 1994: 30). In fact, the website entrenches power relations
between Global North and South, rather than dismantling them. The concealment of power relations
happens particularly through visual and written representations that utilize paternalistic devices and
professing to be about equality (Manzo, 2008) while portraying and maintaining the Global South as
dependent.” [p.108]
united planetWhat To Do?
What would you do if you were United Planet?
Change the language of your website? Seek out other opinions? Shutter your operations? Ask a very simple question: Why Us?
Researchers and journalists have singled out voluntourism operators in reports, articles, and documentaries over the past decade-plus in ever-increasing numbers. Via “Cambodia’s Orphan Business,” for example, Projects Abroad was lambasted by Al Jazeera back in 2012. Most recently, there are questions swirling around a documentary which was meant to air on CBC because it may have portrayed Me to We in a less-than-stellar light.
Selling voluntourism is big business, a multi-multi-billion dollar business worldwide. Selling it requires language, language that motivates and compels individuals to participate. And, as the authors of this study point out, much of the language conveys a singular message: someone who is in a less powerful, more needful position, NEEDS “your” help AND by giving that help you will become a better person – “a global citizen,” no less.
Final Thoughts…
The authors suggest that global citizenship is a Global North construction and therefore runs parallel with colonizing. They write:
“…However, in this “geographical stretching-out of social relations” as Massey (1994: 147) describes it, to what extent does this transnational world “represent very much a western, colonizer’s view” (p. 147) and liberal notion of the agent as a separated individual from its nation and its histories or other social relations? In answer to this, the positioning of the voluntourist throughout the examples discussed below establishes a form of global governance in which the Global North is dominant but in a renewed form. United Planet’s “community” means a group composed of individual agents bound by similar interests or quest to make the world better. By emphasizing the hegemony of youths from the Global North as the main actors or citizens in the “community beyond borders,” the images foreground North America and Europe. Voluntourists’ responsibility to “better the world” this way is extended to the globe, while Global South children are denied the possibility and responsibility for action.” [p. 103]
Voluntourism becomes incredibly complex and undeniably provocative when critiqued in such ways. It raises many questions for those operating in the space. Is global citizenship only afforded to those who can, in essence, “afford” it? And is this global citizenship being extended to certain individuals at the “expense” of those who cannot meet that expense? Are we selling global citizenship, and, thus, perpetuating planetary inequality?
This study offers merely a hint of how academics and researchers are analyzing voluntourism. Yet, even amidst all of the research, we hear very little as to how voluntourism might be altered in order to address some of the issues being uncovered worldwide. Deconstructing the language of websites and social media to point out the flaws of voluntourism is as far as we seem to go at the present moment. Hopefully, researchers will start providing real advice to practitioners in order to assist them in delivering messages and programming that begin to eliminate inequality rather than exacerbate it!

Unpacking the CV Sales Pitch for Voluntourism

Journal of SociologyColleen McGloin, of the University of Wollongong, and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, have generated an online article for the Journal of Sociology entitled “Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education.” One of the co-authors is inspired to delve into the subject after hearing a young man offer his voluntourism recruitment spiel to students prior to a lecture. She paraphrases:

Hey guys, there’s a meeting today at lunchtime for those interested, and I’d love to see you all
there. We have some awesome packages available for you to travel and get some experience in
developing countries helping out with projects designed to make these communities stronger.
Not only will you be helping others less fortunate than you, but you can use the experience on
your CV as an example of working to help communities abroad.”

Later in the paper, the authors offer the following in response to some of the language shared above:

The power relations informing the discourse of voluntourism mimic and reinforce those responsible for global inequality and poverty in the first place. Colonial paternalism is predicated on the notion that there are ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and that this will always be the case, therefore one’s obligation as a privileged subject is to ‘help’ those less privileged. The certainty underpinning this view prevents volontourists ‘seeing’ or ‘engaging’ with the fact that poor people can, and do, resist their own oppression, and exercise agency when and where possible…

Dependency theory argues that development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same coin: wealth requires poverty. Voluntourism is part of a system of neoliberal development that requires inequality so that some may reap the beneficial effects of the market. Voluntourism is lauded as ‘a good thing’, and the point we make here is that it is difficult to speak outside of the discursive ‘logic’ of goodness that constitutes the ‘catechism of ethics’. Having better educated voluntourists will do nothing to effect structural change as voluntourism, as an activity, reinforces the paradigm of need without enabling agency by local communities.”

Broadening Perspective: Both-And Interpretation

Bayfield 1300

The Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race

If voluntourism is anything, it is constantly interpreted. The words of McGloin and Georgeou remind us that any time we narrow our perspective on voluntourism, our interpretation is sure to follow. Concentrate on vulnerable, “voice-less” populations, market-driven outfitters, and young students engaging in these experiences to pad their CV’s and you have the ingredients for dark interpretation. On the other hand, go to Bayfield, Wisconsin, in late January/early February and you could be staying in a B&B, supporting the local economy, having dinner with sled dog mushers, and volunteering during the day to help manage the dogs and sleds, or possibly be a timekeeper. If we only see voluntourism as represented in the first scenario, we forget entirely about the remarkable sled dog race in Bayfield, and the reality that voluntourists have been supporting this race for nearly a decade!

So which is it? Is voluntourism the hedonistic, self-serving, vulnerable-population-neglecting, “‘catechism of ethics'” described by McGloin and Georgeou? Or, is it the animal-fan-favorite, snow & ice-filled extraordinary adventure portrayed in a small town in Wisconsin?

Of course, it is both.

And… we need to cultivate an ever-deepening understanding of how to hold in our collective awareness the vast array of offerings, none of which fit neatly into a one-approach-equals-all!

Final Thoughts…

McGloin and Georgeou remind us that over-simplifying the voluntourism experience in the context of any destination is woefully uninformed, particularly when vulnerable populations and indigenous peoples are involved. What else can we take away from their article?

Certainly, the voluntourism sales pitch is not an accurate portrayal of the entire gamut of motivations which are expressed by individuals considering such a trip. Yes, they want to “make a difference.” Yes, they seek life experience and adventure which will translate into possibly a more vibrant CV. There are also a cluster of other reasons to say, “Yes,” to voluntourism. These involve camaraderie, living one’s values, and becoming more informed through cross-cultural interactions, just to name a few.

The authors also consider time frame and the relatively short duration of voluntourism experiences. This argument reverberates throughout the academic literature on voluntourism – suggesting that longer-term commitments are of greater value to all stakeholders. I think what we could be inspired to consider, following on the work of McGloin and Georgeou, is rather than the actual footprint of the journey – a mere week or two, in many cases – an elongation of the contextual footprint of the voluntourism experience. Could, for example, a participant, host community, and other stakeholders  benefit from expanding the lead-in and post-trip cycles? Could these periods include some of the experiential learning and development that naturally accrues from the trip itself? Could voluntourism experiences be crafted within a more robust learning and developmental cycle for the participants and the host community? What would this new iteration of elongated itinerary look like? How could each host community be on a similar journey of its own?

“Flourishing” – A Conscious Enhancement for Voluntourists?

RSUS_22_01_cover.inddDr. Alexandra Coghlan, in the Department of Tourism, Sport, and Hotel Management at Griffith University, has published numerous articles on volunteer tourism over the past decade. Her most recent offering, “Tourism and health: using positive psychology principles to maximize participants’ wellbeing outcomes – a design concept for charity challenge tourism,” is currently available for download from the Journal of Sustainable Tourism website. I highly recommend taking a closer look at the proposition that Dr. Coghlan puts forth. She writes [p.7]:

“This paper is based on the premise that it is both desirable and possible to integrate findings from the emerging science of positive psychology into the design of tourism experiences to improve their quality. Doing so extends the tourism and wellbeing literature beyond a description of wellbeing outcomes from tourism, and moves towards the deliberate experiential design of a tourism product to bring about human flourishing.”

She illustrates her vision with the following figure:

Tourism and health: using positive psychology principles to maxi

What does this tell us about voluntourism?

The Charity Challenge and Voluntourism

The charity challenge is closely aligned with voluntourism. In fact, some might consider it a form of voluntourism. What distinguishes charity challenges from what is most often considered voluntourism is that the voluntary service which is performed – traveling to a destination voluntarily to climb, hike, walk, bike, what have you, in an effort to raise funds for a cause – benefits communities outside of the destination. This distinction has raised numerous questions for host destinations, particularly those communities near such icons as Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya, as an example.

However, this is not what I wish to address in this post. Others have raised this question, most recently Nik Frey in this short piece for the Daily Nexus. No, for this post, I want to draw our attention to the premise that Dr. Coghlan puts forth, mainly that tourism products (in our case, voluntourism products), can be designed using the latest findings in a field such as positive psychology.

The Emerging Field of Developmental Leadership

Some of the most promising literature in the field of developmental leadership research has been introduced over the past several decades. Findings by Gardner, Graves, Cook-Greuter, Torbert, Wilber, and more recently, Scharmer, Laloux, Watkins, and numerous others have presented a very definitive picture of what we may do by designing experiences with a conscious awareness of enhancing what has been most commonly referred to over the last decade-plus as our awareness and perspective. Awareness and perspective have been described in the context of quadrants, lines, states, stages, and types by Wilber, and the Integral Theory that has ushered forth from these conceptual frameworks has moved across the globe rapidly through consultancies and publications.

A Confluence?

What has not been explored in the literature, at least to this point, however, is how this developmental leadership research and theory can be applied in the context of tourism products, or in our situation, in the context of voluntourism products. Coghlan’s premise may serve as a catalyst for academics to consider developmental leadership theory and its application in the design of voluntourism products, as the charity challenge certainly has an alignment with voluntourism and positive psychology similarly reflects the breakthroughs in developmental leadership theory.

Final Thoughts…

Coghlan’s piece represents a possible breakthrough in the exploration of the design of travel & tourism products – that we can consciously design travel & tourism products with the goal of wellbeing and “flourishing” at the heart of them.

Can we transfer this notion to voluntourism experiences?

Certainly, if we are developing ourselves as leaders and as human beings through uniquely designed “voluntourism” products, we are potentially benefiting the planet, not merely the destinations which may experience economic, and possibly social benefits as a result of voluntourists making their ways into host communities. If we can incorporate some of the concepts of developmental leadership theory and practical guidance that has emerged from those who have dedicated countless hours to researching how human beings develop and expand their awareness and perspective, we may introduce a new form of voluntourism that in effect will assist us in re-conceptualizing it (more on this in a future post).

For now, let us see if we can build on Coghlan’s thoughts of enhancing the wellbeing of humans, not as a mere byproduct of tourism, but as a consciously designed experiential approach to travel and voluntary service.

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.

The Future Of Voluntourism In Oceania

Journal of Travel ResearchFaith Ong, Leonie Lockstone-Binney, Brian King, and Karen Smith have produced an article for the Journal of Travel Research entitled “The Future of Volunteer Tourism in the Asia-Pacific Region: Alternative Prospects.” In the piece, the authors provide three options as to the probable outcomes for voluntourism in the Asia-Pacific Region by 2050. Tying in academic research regarding current and past trends in volunteer tourism, as well as the outlook for tourism and economic growth in the region, the authors provide scenarios that run the gamut: holding steady, advancing growth, and utter collapse – clearly, nothing was left to chance.

Looking 35 years into the future on volunteer tourism is not something that you see every day in the academic literature. In fact, the study represents a first of its kind. So, we may not want to become too enamored with the findings of the researchers as much as we may want to consider the implications of such a study. Thus, before we unveil what the researchers offer as their predictions, we have an important question: Why would researchers take the time to explore volunteer tourism this far into the future, particularly in this part of the world?

The Shift In Economic Power: From West To East

Of primary significance in the query put forth by the researchers is the growing strength of the economic power of the East. China and India are well on their way to being the number 1 and number 2 economies in the world. Growing middle classes have the purchasing power to make travel a reality for themselves. Education, too, is something that is vastly expanded across the populations, compared to what it once was. Lifestyles are improving for percentages of populations that may be similar to what they were during the industrial revolution in the West, however, a small percentage of nearly 3 billion people in the region is much larger than what it is for the 1 billion or so in the West. The resulting demographic changes with new wealth distribution can represent 3-times the number of individuals stepping into a new-found economic potential. And when leisure meets the middle class with that significant of a population set, we can see why researchers would be interested in exploring future predictions about how this advancing middle class will spend its income.

Social Responsibility: Does The Eastern Hemisphere Hold It With The Same Regard?

Perhaps this is THE question to ask. We know there is an economic shift in power. We know that Australia and New Zealand are small source markets compared to the 2 billion-plus residents between India and China. So, what we need to better understand is whether these two population/economic powerhouses can also muster a significant degree of social responsibility amongst the peoples.

Natural disasters and climate change, as the authors point out, will certainly drive reactive volunteer tourism. What we do not know is whether the cultural expressions of religion, for example, and the values of different population sets will generate a similar sense of social responsibility. Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all have elements of the value of service and of making contribution to the well-being of other sentient beings as part of their practices. As such, we may see, rather than an expansion of international volunteer tourism in the region, an expansion of domestic/culture-centric volunteer tourism. The latter of these could prove to be the most interesting – wealthy individuals of a given faith-practice supporting the impoverished of the same. Where as the former could represent a sense of national pride and collective investment in the well-being of the “state.” Such drivers are not so much connected to a sense of social responsibility as they are a direct product of cultural norms and values.

The Three Predictions

The authors outlined three scenarios. They are as follows:

  1. Stable and principled volunteer tourism – “The first scenario proposes that volunteer tourism continues substantially in its current form, following the established and predominantly Western-based paradigm.” [p.7]
  2. Volunteer tourism at the vanguard – “As the incidence of discerning travel outgrows more massified forms of tourism, the attractiveness of volunteer tourism will spread across the Asia-Pacific region encompassing the emerging middle classes of developing countries as well as established source markets.” [p.7]
  3. Volunteer tourism is discredited and superseded – Poorly operated volunteer tourism programs will gain the disfavor of the general public and volunteer tourism will be shunned by the masses; simultaneously, new approaches to “virtual” volunteering will emerge affording individuals a chance to serve remotely, non-intrusively, in the context of host communities.

Final Thoughts…

There is some very good news to consider when reviewing this study. First, the three scenarios outlined by the authors are all plausible and can be applied to other parts of the world. Second, the study certainly makes strong points about the likelihood of volunteer tourism being discredited if practitioners fail to do a better job of improving their activities with guidelines and mechanisms for considering and caring for all stakeholders. Given that this particular shortcoming of voluntourism is already finding its way into the media, we can only imagine that the years ahead will not see a silencing of the media if we fail to address it.

What the authors do not discuss here is whether voluntourism will simply become “the norm” for travel. Might we one day lose the defining characteristic of being of service as a point of separation from “mass tourism,” i.e., voluntary service becomes so integrated into travel that we do not consider volunteering as distinction therefrom? I would sincerely hope that by 2050 we would be much closer to this integration than we are today. In fact, we may discover that it is quite necessary in the years ahead.

Far from perfect, voluntourism still intrigues us. We see something of value here – the foundational values of voluntourism are worthy of exploration. Yet again, a group of academics is diving into this subject and this should cause us to pause momentarily, to recognize that voluntourism is a significant contributor to our planet. We simply need to put forth the effort to improve it. 35 years of improvement lies ahead of us before 2050 – are we ready to embrace the opportunity?

20 Million U.S. Voluntourists by 2020?

NBCNewsHenry Harteveldt is a name you don’t forget. I remember the first time I read his name associated with a report on voluntourism from Forrester Research back in 2007. Entitled “Go Away And Do Good: Voluntourism the Noble Niche,” Harteveldt found that approximately 3.5 million Americans, or roughly 3% of the U.S. leisure travel market were, to use the words in the report, “voluntourists.”

Fast forward to 2014, and a recent article from NBC News.com – “Travelers Inspired to Do Good While Seeing the World” – and Harteveldt’s latest research suggests that the percentage has almost tripled! Six years, triple the percentage of voluntourists. Here is what Tracy Mohn inked in her article for NBCNews.com:

An online survey of 5,000 U.S. leisure travelers conducted in the first quarter of 2014 by Harteveldt’s firm, not yet released, indicated that nearly 9 percent said they engaged in some volunteer community service work while on a trip within the past 12 months.

Back in January 2012, I was asked by Kulturaustausch Magazine to estimate the size of the worldwide market for voluntourism, which I placed at 10 million for the year 2011. This latest research from Harteveldt suggests that the U.S. market alone could be between 10 and 15 million. With the UK, Australia, Canada, the EU, Brazil, India, and Southeast Asia serving as both homes and incubators of voluntourists around the world, the number of voluntourists could easily reach 25 – 30 million by the end of this decade. At the rate of growth in the US, an average of more than 1 million additional voluntourists per year since 2007, if I am reading Harteveldt’s findings correctly, the US alone could easily reach 20 million voluntourists by 2020.

What Does This Mean For The Global Travel Market?

If the U.S. travel audience crosses the 10% mark for voluntourism, this could radically change how the world does travel. Of course, China represents the world’s largest travel audience, and voluntourism has yet to substantially move into that market the way it has in the U.S. and elsewhere; but, we could see a shift even in the Chinese market if the U.S. crosses that all-important 10% mark. [And, here we are, one year prior to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals, it may be time for the United Nations to take note of this global travel movement in a manner that steps beyond just including it in a report about global volunteering.]

Undoubtedly, the travel industry pays attention to market research. If 10% of your U.S. travel audience wants to volunteer, what do you think we will see more of in a given destination? And if the majority of that audience is the coveted 18-30 year old, female demographic, as our research on voluntourists suggests, how much more compelling do you think it will be for destination marketing organizations to collaborate with the travel industry, non-profits/NGOs, the public sector, and host communities, to identify projects which can be addressed by a passionate group of travelers?

What Does This Mean For NGOs?

NGOs and community-based organizations may not have had to deal with market forces like these previously in our collective human history. There is a surge of humanity that wants to contribute, is going to contribute. This freight train of enthusiasm is picking up the steam of a consciousness that seeks to address our global challenges, whilst simultaneously enhancing personal capacity to grow, develop, and awaken to what may be possible.

NGOs are struggling with this because they have been accustomed to a compartmentalized mentality. A “philanthropist” has been someone who works five-to-six days a week and then contributes a portion of what they earn to the good works of the world around them. Today’s “voluntourist,” however, is interested in integrating her/his “philanthropy” with her/his “leisure” with her/his “values” with her/his “life practice” – everything is becoming seamless. These individuals want to be seven-day a week, integrated beings; they do not seek to be one person when they are at work, another person when they are at play, and another person when they are in between those two major elements of their lives.

NGOs will need to adapt. And this adaptation may very well be the most important contribution that voluntourism can make in our world today.

What Does This Mean For Host Communities?

The unheard voices of host communities will need to be heard as voluntourism continues to expand globally. If communities do not want voluntourists, they will need to speak up. If they do, they will need to say what they need and how they wish for voluntourists to contribute and interact with host communities. Host communities must reserve the right to say “NO!” and the right to say how voluntourists may engage with communities. This will not be easy.

Host communities can gradually move into receiving voluntourists. Having an agreed to approach, once they have determined that they indeed wish to host voluntourists, will be invaluable. And, if they do not like what they are experiencing, they need to have an exit strategy built into their programs. Thus, evaluation of voluntourism will be an essential element to their autonomy and their ability to modify voluntourism accordingly.

Final Thoughts…

20 million U.S. voluntourists by 2020 – who would have thought that such a number would even be a consideration? And, yet, here we are with some data that makes such a number more than realistic. The U.S. is by far the leading market for voluntourism in the world today. Every year more and more Americans are venturing across the globe in hopes of seeing it, interacting with it, engaging with it, contributing to it, and experiencing personal growth and development as a result. However, the U.S. is not alone in this.

The UK, the EU, Australia, Canada, and other countries are putting billions and billions (of dollars, euros, and pounds) into moving citizens around the planet to contribute, in some small way, to the well-being of others, while personally expanding one’s own awareness of the world.

True, from an “outsider’s” perspective, voluntourism looks incredibly clumsy. It looks like ants running away from the anthill, or bees flying away from the hive. But that is because we have often considered ourselves citizens of one country, one nation. In the world of today, we must change our perspective to realize we are citizens of a planet. Voluntourism is painful to observe, most especially if we observe it from an ethnocentric perspective. If we begin to look at it from a world-centric point of view, I think we can begin to forgive ourselves for looking like such klutzes, tripping over ourselves, re-doing the same work a zillion times or more.

With a million-plus Americans joining the voluntourist ranks each year, it seems like as good a time as any to stop, breathe, and take a few moments to just let that sink in. Including the rest of the world’s population, this means that well over a million new souls are venturing out into the world with the intent of benefiting and being benefited. If I can only find the negative downsides to that, I have not stretched my imagination sufficiently. As a planet, we should be thrilled by this. We should be marveling at how our species is evolving, morphing, adapting to the changes which are occurring within and around us. With the compassion and wisdom of the ages, we may very well be able to channel this intention by skillful means into something that genuinely serves us all.

Fresh (Mis)Perceptions On Voluntourism

Edward Snowden TED Talk

Edward Snowden at TED 2014, Vancouver, Canada

I spent the past week in the San Francisco Bay Area – San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond, California – certainly a lovely part of the world. Cynthia LaGrou, founder of Compathos Foundation, and I took advantage of this backdrop to discuss voluntourism in its current iteration and what our respective roles may be in birthing a new iteration thereof.

During one of our conversations, she received a text message notifying her that Edward Snowden was being interviewed at TED 2014 in Vancouver. Notably, I was intrigued. The man who made the United States rethink its internet surveillance approach was giving his thoughts on himself, how he is viewed and perceived across the planet. Of course, it didn’t take much to think about the perceptions of voluntourism around the globe and how voluntourism is both hero and villain, with myriad opinions on its blessings and curses.

Perhaps coincidentally, the academic literature has recently published a piece on the perceptions of voluntourism by host communities and voluntourists. And, as you might imagine, the findings demonstrate that host communities perceive voluntourism very differently than voluntourists. How exactly do these perceptions differ?

Contrasting Perceptions of Voluntourism

Tourism and Hospitality ResearchThere is much to be learned about the differing perceptions of voluntourism. Via social media, we are bombarded by the mixed messages about voluntourism coming from the perspective of voluntourists, NGOs, and the travel & tourism sector. Rarely, however, do we actually hear from host communities. Fortunately, a recent study by Haley Wright, published in the journal Tourism and Hospitality Research, indicates just how different the perceptions of host communities and voluntourists are. In Ms. Wright’s article entitled “Volunteer tourism and its (mis) perceptions: A comparative analysis of tourist/host perceptions,” three themes are discussed based on the perceptions of tourists and hosts:

  1. Perceived educational benefit of volunteer tourism
  2. Tourists living or working in the host community: Selfish or selfless perceptions?, and
  3. Possible contribution to community development: The unknown problems of volunteer tourism

The second item in this list provides a salient learning point for those who are looking with a closer lens at voluntourism in an attempt to consider all of the perceptions and perspectives that are taken by the various stakeholders. Ms Wright offers [p.6]:

Examined literature and prospective tourist perceptions prove that altruism is perceived to be a dominant, and important motive. However, host’s perceptions provide a different view, whereby tourist motivations are not based around ‘giving something back’, but around learning, travelling and meeting people. This indicates that the way volunteer tourism is perceived by the tourists may not be accurate, again raising concerns of false advertising and ethics and emphasising misperceptions of the sector.

When reading these words, it is relatively easy to see how individuals such as Pippa Biddle, the latest voluntourist to take a poke at her own altruistic intentions versus outcomes, would be “let down” by a given experience if she, too, had similar perceptions to those expounded by the potential voluntourists quoted in Ms. Wright’s study. If one goes into an experience with perceptions of altruism, selfless activity, etc, and, quite contrarily, experiences virtually the opposite of that, it is far more likely that an individual would use words condemning the very activity in which they had participated. Also, if there were additional hidden motives, such as the desire to be perceived by friends and family and others as “altruistic” or “selfless,” the magnitude of the reality earthquake which would shatter those possible perceptions would have an even greater “negative” impact on the voluntourist – shattered perceptions, shattered ego, shattered reality.

What Can We Learn From Host Community Perceptions of Volunteer Tourism?

Host communities seem to hold perceptions of voluntourism that are, how shall we say, more in alignment with the reality of the situation. They see voluntourism as “give-and-take.” They see voluntourists as givers and takers. For whatever reason, voluntourists just cannot look at themselves in such a way. They are emphatic in their collective belief that they are “volunteers” and “not tourists.” They want to be seen as altruists, do-gooders, etc. Host communities could do much to educate voluntourists on the reality of who and what they are – “Volunteering is not enough for them, they need other things in their life and they like to go on holiday too.” [p.8]

But hosts are not without their own challenges around perceptions, particularly those which are held in reference to celebrities and voluntourism, according to Ms. Wright [p.9]:

Respondents associating volunteer tourism with celebrities shared some common identifying factors. They were all aged below 25, with no previous volunteer experience. Their perceptions are likely to be based around televised or internet publicity. One reason could be that young people are often more celebrity conscious than older people. However, there was no apparent difference between views of potential tourists and hosts regarding celebrities, perhaps as a result of the global nature of celebritism, thus overcoming the geographic and development differences between tourists and hosts and providing them with similar perceptions of volunteer tourism.

This speaks to us about just how complex voluntourism is, especially as it pertains to perceptions.

Final Thoughts…

There is so much emphasis in our world today around doing good, but very little emphasis about integrated lifestyles and approaches. Life is either this or that, one or the other. You are either a giver or a taker, a servant or a parasite. If you are not a contributor, you are the problem. No wonder potential voluntourists want to see themselves in the greatest light possible.

On the other hand, when a host community sees you as you are – both giver and taker – and you portray yourself, or hold yourself as only a giver, can you imagine how the host community might feel about you, as a voluntourist? Put yourself in their shoes. You want to be a saint, perceived as a saint, but you do not act like a saint. You clearly are getting something out of the experience. When you do not admit this, you appear as someone who cannot be trusted, or worse.

My suggestion is that you be a voluntourist. Embrace the fact that you give and you take, and that you are motivated by things which you cannot even see in yourself. You will gain from these experiences and you are a tourist, otherwise, why would you venture to a far-off land to volunteer?

Perceive yourself as a blended expression of traveler and volunteer. Integrating these aspects of yourself may bring you to a momentous realization that voluntourism can be far more beneficial to you and host communities than you could possibly imagine, if and only if, you meet the perceptions of host communities who truly see you as a mixture of traveler and volunteer. It is not easy. The ego in all of us wants to be perceived in the best possible way. If you really want to give, I suggest that you “give” your ego a serious shove to the side, humble yourself, and embrace the notion that you are not one or the other – you are both traveler and volunteer. And, having both of these aspects within you, you may discover that you are able to perform each of them in a far better way.

Why Voluntourism Is Failing In The Developing World

Journal of Policy Research in Tourism Leisure & EventsOn 28 February 2014, the Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure & Events published an online article entitled “Volunteer tourism policy in Thailand.” Authors Mary Mostafanezhad and Nick Kontogeorgopoulos summarize their paper with these words:

“In this paper, we argue how short-term volunteering in Thailand might be able, under the right circumstances, to generate learning benefits for both volunteers and hosts. However, we maintain that the increasing involvement of conventional tourism firms and the Thai state threatens to compromise the potential benefits of volunteer tourism.”

Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos go on to recommend four elements of good practice that might lead to positive results for host communities and volunteers alike. They are (p. 2-3):

  1. Develop linguistic competence within the ‘host’ community,
  2. Facilitate cultural learning among volunteer tourists
  3. Require that volunteers attend mandatory orientations with a focus on cultural and linguistic competence
  4. Inform host community members about the intentions and backgrounds of the volunteer tourists

[Source: Mostafanezhad, M., and Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2014). Volunteer tourism policy in Thailand. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure & Events, p. 1-5]

The authors conclude their piece with these words (p. 5):

“It is likely that volunteer opportunities will increasingly serve as one of many possible tour activities offered by established mass tourism operators in Thailand. With the marketing support of the TAT, we argue that it is increasingly imperative that established and responsible volunteer tourism organizations continue to offer an alternative to the more problematic forms of volunteer tourism that may be on the horizon in Thailand.”

A Dramatic Shift In Thailand: From Tsunami-led Voluntourism to the “Little Big Project”

As some of you may be new to volunteer tourism and voluntourism, let me take you back for a moment to the time between July 2007 and December 2008 when a young woman by the name of Helen Todd, then a student at Emerson College (now CEO of Sociality Squared), spent nearly 18 months gathering information regarding the potential of voluntourism in Thailand. During that period, Ms. Todd conducted interviews in Thailand with key stakeholders – Mrs. Varnapruk, then brand manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and Shane K. Beary, founder of Track of the Tiger. She also volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park for a week, met 20 volunteers from various destinations around the world, and spoke with staff and directors at the facility. As a final component to this time in Thailand, she wrote a paper entitled “The Exploration of Including Voluntourism in Thailand’s Destination Marketing Efforts.”

Ms. Todd speaks candidly about her interview with Ms. Varnapruk of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the concerns the country had in 2007 regarding the perception of visitors around voluntourism – in a post-tsunami setting would Thailand be perceived as a broken destination like New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? Yet, it was difficult at that time not to take into consideration the importance of voluntourism as a new travel niche. Wavering back and forth between the negative perceptions and the potential of voluntourism, Ms Varnapruk was inclined to look to the United States as a model. Ms. Todd writes (p. 32-33):

“Since voluntourism in its nature is new to the tourism industry, TAT seems to be asking what voluntourism encompasses and how it should be approached from a governmental and destination marketing organization standpoint.  The TAT is looking to the United States as a model and reference for voluntourism.  More than this, TAT is hoping to work with companies and organizations in the United States to promote voluntourism in Thailand.  Mrs. Varnapruk seems to like the idea of letting American tour operators handle the organization of recruiting and sending volunteers to Thailand over having the industry be managed within the country.  Mrs. Varnapruk agrees with the notion of mixing holidays with volunteering but also makes a distinction that people can help by kinds (volunteering) or by donations.”

[Source: Todd, H. (2007). The Exploration of Including Voluntourism in Thailand’s Destination Marketing Efforts. Emerson College, MH 697, Summer I & II, 2007, Professor Anderson, (p. 1-50)]

Roughly six years after this interview, the TAT launched the “Little Big Project” (2013) to promote voluntourism in Thailand. No more does there seem to be a fear of association with a natural disaster or the negative implications of being a destination which needs assistance. TAT is moving voluntourism forward, along with a host of invested companies and entities from outside of Thailand, which raises the points of concern voiced by Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos in their paper. Is TAT doing so responsibly, with emphasis on good practice and benefits for host communities? Are outside NGOs and tourism companies taking advantage of their skills and marketing savvy, thus funneling money out of Thailand, rather than leaving those funds in the destination where they belong?

Why Voluntourism Is Failing In The Developing World

There are several points that can be raised by comparing and contrasting Helen Todd’s 18-month inquiry into the potential of voluntourism in Thailand and the work of Mostafanezhad & Kontogeorgopoulos (Mostafanezhad, then Conran, spent nine months conducting ethnographic research in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and interviewed 42 volunteer tourists between October 2008 and June 2009 as part of her research). The following points speak specifically to why voluntourism is failing in the developing world:

  • First point: Voluntourism is seen as a form of tourism which can be replicated based on a model coming from, say, in this case, the United States. We know that simply will not work. Every destination has to consider the cultural implications of voluntourism for its culture and its people. Is it even appropriate? Can local residents identify with the concept? Have they, themselves, ever volunteered and traveled in other parts of the world? (Doubtful) And, how can voluntourism maintain reciprocity and destination integrity? These questions are rarely explored.
  • Second point: Voluntourism must be owned by the host destination, local communities, and local organizations. To date, voluntourism in the developing world has been primarily owned by outside organizations – be it NGOs or companies. Again, we know that such models do not work. Most of the money that can accrue to local communities through voluntourism will “leak” out of the community into the hands of foreigners. What’s more, there is no exit strategy for outside NGOs and companies, no plan for transitioning operations to local ownership. Why is voluntourism being held as a business model like other businesses in the world? Shouldn’t voluntourism operations have the goal of becoming locally-owned & operated? How much economic and social good can remain in host communities if the ownership is not there? Not much.
  • Third point: Thailand does not have the same kind of volunteer-based infrastructure that a developed destination might have. Voluntourism requires a culture around volunteering, of course, but it also requires a volunteer infrastructure that is coordinated by NGOs and local communities which have experience in working with many different types of volunteers – managing their temperaments, cultural, socio-economic, and gender-based needs & idiosyncracies, etc. And, logically, organizations & communities need regular training and education on exactly how to manage these. (To my knowledge there are no existing educational materials on voluntourism in the Thai language being circulated and offered through universities, colleges, or technical educational facilities in Thailand.) Is TAT going to provide such training? The Thai government? Outside NGOs or companies? Universities & Colleges? Likely not.
  • Final point: No data is being collected by locals. Even in this post, I am referencing researchers who are not Thai people. They are outsiders. Who among the Thai people are focused on gathering data on voluntourists: Where they come from? Why they come? What they hope to accomplish? What motivates them? Who among the Thai people are collecting information from host communities: Is voluntourism working? Is it harming communities? Is it taking away local jobs? Is it creating new ones? I know of no one.

Final Thoughts…

ShaoLan Hsueh, Founder of Chineasy

ShaoLan Hsueh, Founder of Chineasy

There are so many reasons why voluntourism is failing in the developing world. We treat it like any other form of tourism and we expect to get different results – how is such a thing possible? Researchers go in, conduct interviews, draw some conclusions, publish their data, and yet the myopia and ignorance continue because the results likely never make it back to the host communities. Instead, they are couched in language that is utterly incomprehensible, unless you have a PhD in English, and published in journals where only the educated have access to them. Again, not good.

Voluntourism had a real chance to make it in the developing world, but it appears that no one was able to see its true potential. Sadly, this is why we have so many blog posts, tweets, and articles being published about why it is so bad. Voluntourism is so bad because we are so lazy, so collectively set in our habits and conformist approaches to everything that we have, invariably, taken something with great potential and solidly stifled it, yet again, by our desire to repeat, rather than create; to compete, rather than cooperate; to debate, rather than evolve.

Imagine what host communities could do with voluntourism if all of the wisdom and insight we have gained over the past nearly 20 years of researching it could be shared with the developing world, in a manner that could be easily absorbed based on a strategy like that of ShaoLan Hsueh, for example, who developed “Chineasy.” But, we have yet to don a new era of thinking in such ways about voluntourism. For now, therefore, voluntourism will continue to be relegated to the land of failure in the developing world and that is more than sad, much, much more so.

VolunTourism: Addressing The Responsibility-Profitability Paradox

RSUS_22_01_cover.inddThe 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.

Strategy Synthesis: Resolving Strategy Paradoxes to Create Compe

Source: De Wit, Bob, and Meyer, Ron (2010) Strategy Synthesis: Resolving Strategy Paradoxes To Create Competitive Advantage. Cengage Learning EMEA, p. 14

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:

Polarity_Map Responsibility Profitability

Profitability-Responsibility 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.

Final Thoughts…

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.