“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.

“CareBnB”: Voluntourism 2015 and Beyond – Part 1

CareBnBAs we enter the 15th year of the 2nd Millennium A.D., we are seeing some emerging patterns across the globe. Two of these patterns – the sharing economy and the voluntourism sector – will begin to more fully integrate in the year ahead, in part because we ALL must begin to integrate our sustainability, our responsibility, our thinking, our actions, and our values more wholly and completely, or else! What will this look like exactly?

The Emergence of a Modified, More Advanced “CareBnB”

Doctors without Borders developed “Carebnb.io” to address Ebola in West Africa and launched the site in Fall 2014. However imaginative and clever the site may have been at the time, it hasn’t even come close to realizing what is waiting to emerge in this space.

Think of AirBnB merging with LinkedIn, with Doctors without Borders (and every other skilled-workers-moving-about-the-planet-to-volunteer provider), with WWOOF and with the Travel Sector. The conflation of these various approaches will introduce something we have yet to see, at least on a broad scale. What will this consist of?

Individuals will create profiles based on their combined “care” AND “travel” resumes that will be developed through the insights of LinkedIn, AirBnB,  and Doctors without Borders (and similar providers). The Travel Sector will assist individuals in maximizing their purchasing power and mitigating their currency exchange risk through assisting them in booking travel through the most cost-effective methods. The catalog of opportunities and the membership approach of WWOOF will assist CareBnB in meeting its financial obligations and sustainably supporting itself over time.

There will be three different Care-Seeking/Care-Fulfilling audiences for the future iteration of “CareBnB.” The first potential audience will be those seeking to care for a space/have a space cared for. The second potential audience will be those seeking to care for Pets/Animals and those seeking to have their Pets/Animals cared for (of course, this could be coupled with the first audience, but not all members of the first audience may have pets/animals). The final potential audience, and likely the most imaginative of all, will be those seeking to care for people and those seeking to have people cared for.

It is the latter of these that we will concentrate on for this particular post.

Why exactly?

Health Care Pressures

The economic pressures coupled with the desire for caring of those with illness will continue to move from hospitalization, in the West, to home care. Families will be caring for loved ones, and loved ones will want to be at home, rather than the sterile, depersonalized environments of many of the current facilities offered – those which must cater to governmental regulations and countless other rigorous protocols in order to even operate.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor StatisticsEmployment Projections 2012 – 2022,” home-based healthcare represents 2 out of the top 3 projected leading workforce increases during the decade with an estimated 1 million additional individuals filling the job titles of “personal care aides” and “home health aides” (with “less than high school” education being required to fill the positions). Some families will bypass these aides altogether, while some will solely use aide workers; others may initiate a combined approach – family members and care aides working side-by-side; still others will initiate a family & friends approach – volunteering, if you will, to care for loved ones. And, as you might have guessed, there will be another version – visitors stepping into the caregiving mix.

Social Media

Social media has opened our lives to others to inspect, to share and invest in. It has brought the sharing economy into existence because we can check on one another from long distances, without requiring the “face-to-face” or “handshake” that has traditionally brokered arrangements with others. We have more ways than ever before to conduct educated assessments of each other, to speak to one another over the internet, to email, and text. This proliferation of connectivity and greater transparency enlivens the potential for

Integration of Service & Travel

The growth of the voluntourism sector has raised our awareness to the notion that individuals truly are willing to integrate their travel and their desire to serve. What’s more, we have come to realize that this integration need not be for extended periods of time. In fact, most individuals want to do so for periods of days and weeks, rather than months or year(s).

How Will This Start?

Introducing the “Care-for-People Resume” will expand on these long-standing models of exchange – “a visitor can stay in the space if they agree to care for it and/or the animals in it.” The People-Care model will take more time to develop. The early-adopters will likely be those who are accustomed to being cared for – say high-functioning quadriplegics, as an example, and those who receive regular care via multiple caregivers. Inviting a nurse from Austria to stay with you in Arizona could serve as an extraordinary encounter for both individuals. What’s more, the individual for whom the nurse may currently be supporting in Austria, may converse with the individual with whom the nurse might stay with during his/her trip to Arizona.

Some early adopters may be former caregivers themselves, or world travelers, or those with experience in hosting visitors – exchange students, for example. The list will increase as the willingness to explore increases.

Final Thoughts…

The door has been opened to this new approach of volunteering and travel intersecting with the sharing economy. A more robust version of “CareBnB” is emerging even as we speak. It is happening in slightly varied ways around the world – Aids Hospice volunteers for example, staying with local host families. Eventually it will become even more integrated.

With the push for more unique approaches to care, and the growing demand in the Western world for the need for human care in the household space, possibilities for creativity and “new technologies” are ready for our adoption and continued evolution.

Fortunately, 2015 offers yet another reason to expand the experiment in collective human care through travel and service – “CareBnB” indeed!

Can We Move Voluntourism Beyond Scale’s Reach?

logo-100-slimMichael Hobbes wrote a compelling piece for New Republic recently entitled “Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development.” Hobbes takes us down the proverbial memory lane of some of the development community’s most recent disasters – projects that appeared quite promising in local contexts and were then multiplied through the grand notion of “scale” – the economic lingo for a more significant return on investment, lower percentage of overhead costs, and the primary goal of alleviating suffering in the most efficient ways.  The article delivers some names that we are familiar with – Jeffrey Sachs, as an example – and a failed attempt in Dertu, Kenya – the Millennium Villages Project.

The complexities regarding scale and our grand efforts at “do-gooding” in international and even local settings is captured well in the following example from the United States. Hobbes writes:

My favorite example of unintended consequences comes, weirdly enough, from the United States. In a speech to a criminology conference, Nancy G. Guerra, the director of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Delaware, described a project where she held workshops with inner-city Latina teenagers, trying to prevent them from joining gangs. The program worked in that none of the girls committed any violence within six months of the workshops. But by the end of that time, they were all, each and every one, pregnant.

“That behavior was serving a need for them,” she says in her speech. “It made them feel powerful, it made them feel important, it gave them a sense of identity. … When that ended, [they] needed another kind of meaning in their lives.”

The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict.

“Complex Adaptive Systems” and Voluntourism

The sheer complexity of the localized expressions of societal challenges is referred to by Hobbes, in the above example. as the shift from gang-involvement to pregnancy. It is a potent story. In each and every setting and community it will be different. There will be a trade-off of some kind. We are seeing this in Cambodia and elsewhere with the influx of willing volunteers and donors coming into places like Siem Reap and the subsequent multiplication of orphanages. It isn’t that voluntourists are bad. It isn’t that Cambodian orphanage proliferation is horrific. The complexity of the situation produces an outcome that is necessarily unwanted.

Around the world, in different settings, we can see that in some situations the insertion of volunteers, particularly on a large-scale basis, leads to many more challenges than it does positive, impact-filled outcomes. Orphanages and large-scale voluntourism, it would appear, do not mix – Cambodia, South Africa, and Nepal are proving this to us. Just like the failed efforts of Sachs in Dertu, voluntourism in these locations is producing more, not less, orphanages. So what can we do about this?

“Dreaming Voluntourism A Little Smaller”

Hobbes concludes his remarks with these words:

PlayPump International, the charity I started with, doesn’t exist anymore. The pumps, however, are still being installed by Roundabout Water Solutions, an NGO that markets them as a “niche solution” that should only be installed at primary schools in poor rural areas. Four years ago, the same evaluations that so harshly criticized the rapid expansion of the project also acknowledged that, in some villages, under the right circumstances, they were fabulously helpful.

In 2010, “Frontline” interviewed the director of PlayPump about its failures, and he said, “It might have been a bit ambitious, but hey, you gotta dream big. Everyone’s always said it’s such a great idea.”

And it was. But maybe when the next great idea comes along, we should all dream a little smaller.

One of the original principles of my work with voluntourism was the simple conviction that any human being, regardless of age, talent, skill or net worth, who travels to a destination can, unequivocally, render service to that destination. This may have sounded to some like a grandiose dream; however, as it pertains to scale, it is, in my opinion, in alignment with what Hobbes is sharing with us – dreaming smaller.

The uniqueness of an individual’s potential contribution to a given destination in many ways is more readily introduced on a small scale. Where we may have faltered with voluntourism, therefore, is the manner to which we have attempted to scale it. Companies and NGOs and social entrepreneurs have stepped in with the business models of scaled activity in order to run multinational headquarters and satellite offices. We have taken the individual capacity of rendering service and handed that independently-guided initiative into the hands of those whom we think are likely to know better – the Jeffrey Sachs’ of the world, if you will. This is not to suggest that there is a lack of wisdom in consulting with those who know communities and have had relationships with them for decades. Perhaps, instead, we can take a first step of  holding discussion with these operations rather than simply giving them all of the power, and our power, to distribute as they see fit.

Final Thoughts…

Voluntourism gives us a chance to dream smaller; we need not see it, nor operate it, as a large-scale venture. In fact, I would argue that our capacity to engage voluntourists on a smaller scale is more readily available to us than ever before. Advances in technology and communications offer us an unprecedented means of interacting with host destinations well before we arrive, affording us an opportunity to explore what we may bring to a community and to focus our intention and attention on showing up with that offering. These offerings can be minutely simple, as simple as taking an hour to pick up trash along a hiking trail or in a neighborhood. The smallest of gestures may indeed prove to be the most vibrant and ultimately the most meaningful.

Of course, the convenience of scale makes it entirely attractive. If we realize that a one-size-fits-all approach can prove detrimental to destinations, however, we can become more selective, more informed, and more wise in our decisions of what to do and where to go. Most likely, we will discover that scaled and non-scaled approaches to voluntourism will result in a wholly more beneficial series of outcomes for host communities across the globe. Dreaming smaller, we may find a greater response from host communities and travelers alike, and subsequently better results for all.

Can NGOs, companies, and social entrepreneurs, as well as host communities, universities, and voluntourists, collaborate and cooperate to move voluntourism beyond scale’s reach and “dream smaller”? This is a question of great significance moving forward.

Voluntourism and Confidence in Our Social Impact

2014-social-change-impact-report-1Walden University recently released its 2014 Social Change Impact Report. Citizens from eight countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Jordan, Mexico, and the United States), more than 9,000 individuals in all, were interviewed. The results of this study prove insightful for those in the voluntourism sector. Two items from the survey are particularly noteworthy: 1) Emphasis on Long-term change versus Immediate change, and 2) Perception of Our Influence on Systemic Change.

Emphasis on Long-Term Versus Immediate Change

According to the Press Release from Walden University regarding some of the results of the survey, “An average of 73% of adults who have ever engaged in positive social change say it is extremely or very important that a person’s involvement with positive social change today contributes to long-term changes that will improve people’s lives in the future. In contrast, an average of 61% of adults say it is extremely or very important to contribute to immediate changes that improve people’s lives now.”

In the context of voluntourism, this raises a number of questions. Why, for example, would so many individuals be drawn to orphanages to assist in the “immediate” care of children? Could it be that these individuals have previously not “engaged in positive social change”? Are there certain items that require immediate intervention? Does the amount of time one can dedicate have bearing on the sense of immediacy, i.e., if someone can dedicate more time to addressing a particular challenge does that, in fact, influence her/his sense of immediate change versus long-term change?

These are questions which could be explored more fully, of course. And it should be noted that the survey does not suggest that immediate change is unimportant to adults. So, we can infer that short-term voluntourism experiences, even if the results of those engagements with host communities prove to be immediate, would not necessarily be egregious errors in the eyes of 6 out of 10 adults.

Perception of Our Influence on Systemic Change

2014-social-change-impact-report-4Now, this is where the 2014 Social Change Impact Report truly gets interesting. Take a look at Figure 2 (right) from the survey. Note that in each country a drop occurs, in some cases quite a significant one, between 2013 and 2014 under the heading: “In the future, more people in my country will be involved in positive social change activities than are involved today.” This mirrors the responses under the column headed with “Engaging in positive social change is a waste of time.”

In fact the report shares the following [page #3]:

However, an area where people believe they are having less of an impact is on systemic changes. Fewer than half of adults (40%, on average) feel they are having a major or moderate impact on changing social structures and systems…

Adults in Germany (17%), U.S. (22%), Canada (23%) and China (26%) are the least likely to feel they are having this level of impact on changing social structures and systems. In fact, four in 10 adults in these countries feel they are having no impact in this area (U.S.: 44%; Canada: 41%; China: 40%; Germany: 38%).”

Germany, Canada, and the U.S. are major leaders in sending volunteers into the world. China is more likely to engage in domestic voluntourism, yet this may change in the future.

Questions: If we believe we cannot change social structures and systems, then is voluntourism likely to continue to increase in the years ahead? Is voluntourism the anti-establishment expression of delivering change outside of the systems which currently operate, say, for example the system of aid & development run by Mega-NGOs, multilateral financial institutions, and governments?

Final Thoughts…

The data from the 2014 Social Change Impact Report provides a thoughtful commentary on what may be motivating individuals to travel and volunteer across the planet. To suggest that any “one thing” is “the” motivation is far from the truth. The Report, however, does give us some things to consider, including some important questions.

For example, how many individuals who represent potential voluntourists are, in fact, individuals who feel that they have no impact on changing social structures and systems? Are these same individuals equally inclined to believe they can generate positive social change impact? Do we brim with confidence in our own capacity because we have so little faith in the capacity of our governments and other existing systems to change and, therefore, introduce positive social change impact?

Further study and research is undeniably important to improve our understanding of social change impact. This, in turn, will help to inform our approaches to voluntourism and volunteering abroad, particularly when we consider them to be harmful. If voluntourists believe they are capable of generating positive social change, and have a significant degree of confidence in there capacity to do so, then guiding them to address systemic change may take some tremendous coaxing. Nullifying their belief by telling them they are wrong is not going to change their behavior. They are confident, remember?

Changing the systems into which they deliver their energy and commitment would appear to be a far better course of action. Are we ready for such a shift?

What Does the 2014 U.S. Election Tell Us About Voluntourism?

Elections 2014

From Matthieu Gallard on Twitter via @ElectProject https://twitter.com/mathieugallard/status/530021844280430592/photo/1

On 4 November 2014, U.S. adults shared at least part of the country’s collective philosophy, and perhaps a philosophy that is projected out into the world: the U.S. Government is BROKEN, and changing it is seemingly a hopeless proposition!

Estimates put the turnout for the 2014 elections at the lowest level since 1942. Of course there is a great deal of speculation as to why roughly 16% of the U.S. adult, eligible voting population actually voted; however, the underwhelming turnout represents a vote in and of itself – quite possibly a lack of confidence in the government to actually accomplish anything of real, lasting, sustainable value.

And, if U.S. citizens have this view of their own government, what do you imagine is their opinion of, say, a government in a developing nation in Africa, Asia or Latin America? Could it be that some citizens of other nations may be equally disillusioned with their respective governments? If this is so, would such disillusionment motivate individuals to go to other parts of the world with the thought of serving populations which in their mind must be the victims of an even more dysfunctional public sector?

Faith in Government, or Lack Thereof, Is It Really Just a Developmental Issue?

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez spoke with Jeremy Hobson of Here & Now on 7 November regarding the recent jobs report from the U.S. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Hobson: Why do you think that voters listed the economy as their top concern and that they punished the Democrats and the Obama Administration for the lack of progress in the economy?

Perez: Well, Jeremy, I’m not a pundit so, I’m the Labor Secretary, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to extrapolate from trends. But, I do know this: the voters who voted sent a very clear message that they want Congress and the President to get things done. The voters who didn’t vote, and we had the lowest turnout in this election since 1942, and those voters were puttin’ their hands up sayin’ Washington’s broken, it’s futile for me to go out and vote. And, we need to listen to both sets of stakeholders and come together to get things done.

One might argue that the situation in Washington, DC, is not unlike it is in other parts of the world. What we have in the context of the U.S. Government is a developmental issue. It may be far easier to spot a developmental issue in a “developing” country – poverty, infrastructure & systemic failure, etc., yet the need for development is no less necessary in a “developed” country. Because these developmental processes appear as radically different, however, we are unable to see the parallels, the relevance, and the interpenetration of these processes across socio-economic, cultural, and geographic divides, in part due to the fact that it is often the “developed” world which sets the standards for developing.

Crafting a new container for our collective perception of development may help us to see the current situation with a broader perspective. Hopelessness in one system may be the current motivation for us to express hopefulness in changing another – one that is perceived to be less complex and more easily approachable. Interestingly, if individuals from a “developed” country, such as the U.S., are stepping into the world with the notion of assisting in the development of the underdeveloped, what would we say if these individuals turn out to be the ones who experience developmental change themselves?

Is Voluntourism A Symptom, A Cause, an Answer – All of the Above, None of the Above, A Combination, Something Else Entirely?!?

Voluntourism is an extraordinarily complex expression of countless cross-currents of thoughts, values, projections, ideals, opinions, and, quite possibly a need to at least feel as though an answer is possible, a change is within reach, something can be done to alleviate suffering and discomfort – “somewhere, anywhere, even if I can’t do something about it in my own community.”

The most recent video from Studentenes og Akademikernes Internasjonale Hjelpfond (SAIH) offers one interpretation of the developmental conundrum…

Were that it was as easy to shoot a video as it is to wrap our minds around what is truly happening in the context of voluntourism, eh?

The Norwegian Team of SAIH has certainly delivered a provocative, simplistic expression of voluntourism – one that we can more easily denigrate as all-seeing pluralists. And, perhaps, this is where we should leave voluntourism: another demonstration of our failed attempts at development. No one would blame us if we did.

On the other hand, might we come to discover that there is another developmental process at work here? Is it possible that voluntourism is an attempt, albeit extremely primitive, at uncovering a new approach to development? One whereby host communities can essentially participate in the developmental unfoldment of their fellow human beings?

 Final Thoughts…

The disorienting dilemma that is voluntourism offers us a unique opportunity to explore development in new ways. Eventually, we may see that voluntourism is helping all of us to expand our collective development – moving us through our current stage to a greater level of global understanding and awareness. We cannot see the object of that transition, of course, because we are still in the midst of it. When the subject of our angst becomes the object of our growth and development, the shift will have occurred.

For now, we will need our angst, our spoofs, our critiques, our cynicism, our hopelessness, and so much more to propel us on our spiraling journey to the next iteration of our collective selves. With voluntourism, it appears that we will not suffer from a lack of any of these nor the propulsion associated therewith.

What we become on the other side of this transition… well, that, my friends, I do believe, is something worthy of the wait.

Voluntourism as a Microcosm of a VUCA World

Volatility… Uncertainty… Complexity… Ambiguity… VUCA. From the U.S. Military to the ranks of the business world, VUCA has found a following amongst those who are focused on leadership development and the many leaders who are contending with guiding entities across this planet in decade 2.0 of the 21st Century. What may surprise some of the consultants, educators, and CEOs who are busily engaging with VUCA is that Voluntourism represents a microcosmic VUCA environment. Each of these challenges are inevitably dealt with by any of the stakeholders associated with voluntourism, especially those individuals who decide to embark on a journey to a foreign land to render service. Inevitably, any stakeholder will be confronted with these elements, either singularly, or more likely, in combination; there appears to be no escape.

A Closer Inspection of VUCA

Any review of business literature over the past several years will result in at least one discovery: the increasing use of the term “VUCA.” Academics, consultants, C-suite executives and business writers have adopted a military term to represent the business & leadership environment of the day. Global climate change, economic crises, geopolitical turmoil, just to name a few, point to the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) nature of the planet and everything on it.

So what do these terms mean?

The consensus on each of these terms is conveniently summarized across numerous publications; however, the following video from Foton Labs provides an excellent introduction:

Volatility refers to change being constant.

Uncertainty refers to the inability to know everything fully.

Complexity refers to inter-connectivity and interdependence and the absence of non-linear interactions.

Ambiguity refers to the quality of an event or object to be open to more than one interpretation.

Voluntourism – A VUCA Environment

Speak to someone who has been on a voluntourism trip or has hosted voluntourists in a local community and you will likely hear one of the VUCA terms. Uncertainty may top many lists, for if voluntourism experiences are consistently anything, they are demonstrations of an inability to know everything fully. The best-laid plans can be abruptly dissolved as a result of the volatile nature of political instability, natural disasters, failed delivery of supplies, or the inevitable missed flight or bus connection. Combine a few cultures from around the world, bring them into the context of another culture, and  we start to see the ambiguity, for their are numerous interpretations for the issues which any destination and its residents are confronting. And, these issues are nothing short of complex, yet complexity extends into the recognition of the interdependence and inter-connectivity of those engaged in a voluntourism experience – residents and fellow voluntourists alike.

The voluntourism experience is indeed a space for all participants to encounter a VUCA environment. Can this help us view voluntourism differently? To see it beyond merely a well-intentioned gesture to make good in the world?

Expanding Our Vision of Voluntourism by Addressing VUCA

Voluntourism appears to be measured by a traditional view of inputs and outcomes – skilled inputs, labor, experience, etc., infused into a community over an extended period of time, generates beneficial, meaningful, sustainable outputs. Looking at the VUCA nature of voluntourism can present us with an opportunity to reconsider our expectations of voluntourism. Instead of desired outcomes, we may want to have a “desired vision” for voluntourism that recognizes the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of it. What would this vision look like?

Multiple Intelligences

Multiple Intelligences, based on the work of Howard Gardner

To date, as but one example, we have conflated voluntourism with aid & development work, expecting voluntourism to deliver on the same level as long-term development projects. It is true that some voluntourism programs are supporting the longevity of cultural treasures like Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail through conservation & maintenance efforts, but this is more of the exception than the rule. A vision of voluntourism as a substitute for aid & development work demonstrates a lack of vision; essentially, we need to envision another future for voluntourism.

We have not explored other forms of development which could potentially be catalyzed by voluntourism, the development of the multiple intelligences of local residents and voluntourists, for example. To me, this is promising.

Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking work on Multiple Intelligences gives us something to think about in the context of voluntourism experiences. He wrote in the introduction to Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (2011):

Taken together, the work on multiple intelligences and the work on the constraints of the mind yield a view of the human being significantly different from the one generally subscribed to a generation ago. In the heyday of the psychometric and behaviorist eras, it was generally believed that intelligence was a single entity that was inherited; and that human beings – initially a blank slate – could be trained to learn anything, provided that it was presented in an appropriate way. Nowadays an increasing number of researchers believe precisely the opposite; that there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth; and that it is unexpectedly difficult to teach things that go against early ‘naive’ theories or that challenge the natural lines of force within an intelligence and its matching domains.

SOURCE: Gardner, H. (2011) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

These words should inspire us to look at voluntourists and local residents very differently. For those who have frowned upon the naive teen or twenty-something heading out into the world to be of service, what we might consider is that we have done a poor job of finding the strong intelligence(s) of these individuals and therefore aligned them with projects that can truly benefit from those strengths. And, with this in mind, it seems that local residents could become similarly aware of their strengths and be more inclined to share those with visitors, making service truly reciprocal.

Final Thoughts…

It would appear that we have allowed the VUCA world to muddy the voluntourism space in terms of our view of its potential. Our vision of voluntourism has been shaped by our previous approaches to a linear world — No wonder we have been struggling with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of voluntourism!

By incorporating a greater awareness of VUCA and by exploring service in terms of, as an example, strengthening intelligences across cultures and individuals, we can begin to shape a new vision for voluntourism, one that is more aligned with its real potential.

This will take some time. What will be the first steps? What will we encounter along the way? There are many, many questions yet to be revealed. At least we can be certain of one thing: VUCA will have its influence, indeed.



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.

Returning from VolunTourism Sabbatical

spatuletail hummingbirdIn February 2014, I took a step back from VolunTourism.org to spend more time exploring human development, and therefore my own, through the Generating Transformative Change in Human Systems (GTC) course offered by Pacific Integral (http://www.pacificintegral.com/new/homepages/generating-transformative-change-gtc/) and to support my friend Kabir Kadre and his daughter, Jett Quintanar, in co-creating a multi-destination voluntourism experience for her in Latin America (http://www.destinationvoices.org).

Jett left for Peru on 30 August 2014 in order to begin work on a book with local residents and young people to support conservation of the Spatuletail Hummingbird in Choctamal, Peru. She will have other stops along the way, and in February 2015 she will return to San Diego, CA, to embark on a different journey – one with her father, mother, and possibly half-brother, as they explore family dynamics together. Her “Gap Year,” if you will, is proving to be an 18-month journey through the world and into herself, as she prepares to start university in the Fall of 2015.

Both the GTC course and the Destination Voices project have afforded me not only time away from VolunTourism.org but also time to expand and broaden my awareness – to see VolunTourism with new eyes and from different perspectives. It has also given me a chance to explore voluntourism with people who come from very different walks of life – therapists, doctors, educators, business professionals & strategists, and others. This exposure has assisted me in further understanding the voluntourism landscape and what the future likely holds.


Through my GTC cohort, I was introduced to Dr. Alan Watkins, co-creator of Complete Coherence (http://www.complete-coherence.com/) out of the UK, and one of his Team members, Alan Littlefield. Dr. Watkins has recently published Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership – an insightful look at Enlightened Leadership and the steps that can be incorporated into one’s life in order to approach an enlightened way of being in the world. Let me reiterate that: a way of being — so that when we do something in the world, the doing is done in an entirely different manner.

What sets this book apart from others you might read on leadership and professional development?

I have to say one of the first things that struck me was how Dr. Watkins opens the discussion around the importance of physiology. Brilliant Leadership begins with a body that is fit for performance. This does not mean that an individual need acquire the fitness level of an olympian; what this translates into is a body that is harmonized (in coherence) with its optimum level of performance potential. And, for each of us, this will be different, of course. Dr. Watkins writes:

What we do depends on what we think, what we think depends on emotion and what we feel and what we feel depends on the physiological data signals that are occurring inside our body 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Therefore improved performance is a cumulative process that starts with greater mastery over the first internal “line of development” – physiology and includes the vertical development of another seven internal and external lines of development namely, emotion, cognitive, maturity, values (internal), behaviour, networks, impact (external).” SOURCE: Chapter Summaries – Chapter One: The Great Performance Myth (http://coherence-book.com/chapter-summaries/)

Coherence, therefore, is a set of life-practices which embrace leadership development across a host of lines of development and ask the practitioner to look beyond IQ (intelligence), to integrate EQ (emotional intelligence) and ESQ (emotional social intelligence) as well.

Coherence & Voluntourism

Though my eyes have passed over the words of this book but once, I am eagerly awaiting future such opportunities. Dr. Watkins has crafted a compelling set of references to new discoveries in human physiology as well as breakthroughs in individual (human) & collective (team) development and even that of organizations (Holacracy®). As dark as the writings on voluntourism have been over the past six months (alas, I have not been completely on Sabbatical), the hope that Coherence has infused in me is proving deeply inspirational. To think that Coherence techniques and practices could steadily filter into the vast array of voluntourism stakeholders across this planet has left me on the verge of giddy, to say the least.

I have held for quite some time the notion that voluntourism is an expression of human development and something that can indeed, when harmonized (now we can borrow Dr. Watkins term “in coherence“), set us on a course toward a brighter collective future, one with far less suffering. Dr. Watkins and his Team are every bit as interested in alleviating suffering. Bringing Coherence and Brilliant Leadership to the voluntourism space appears to be a further step in birthing such a world.

If voluntourism becomes not so much the thing done or the thing accomplished but the thing set in motion, the catalyzing agency of multiple expressions of humanity coalescing around a common purpose (improvement of a current condition, whatever that may be), then applying Coherence in such a context may very well prove to support the delivery of service that is far beyond what we could have ever imagined.

Final Thoughts…

Voluntourism appears to represent a step in humanity’s collective unfoldment, an adaptation to address our present conditions. Just as we do not sack the human race because of all that is “wrong” with us, it is equally uninformed to simply sack voluntourism for all of its controversial elements. With Coherence, perhaps, we will be able to uncover the essence of what is really at work: “Is humanity simply growing up and waking up?”

Dr. Watkins introduces us to practices, approaches, and insights that can, for example, assist us in appreciating others and “hearing” the arguments and positions of others, whilst providing them with the invaluable feedback of being understood. He brings to our attention that the change we seek in the world, e.g., voluntourism-generated change in the human and/or environmental condition, starts with our own physiological coherence. Who would have thought to explore our own physiology as the foundation of creating a world with less suffering?

Coherence emphasizes that “how” we develop ourselves has a tremendous impact on how voluntourism, as an example, shows up in the world. Thus, we can change voluntourism by simply bringing ourselves into coherence. And, I must admit, there is something extremely appealing about that.

Voluntourism As A Step Towards An Interdependent World?

Go GlobalAt present, we seem determined to unravel the integration of voluntary service and travel & tourism because it is causing too much harm in the world. But, is this really the case? Is voluntourism really creating harm in the world – immeasurable, irreparable harm?

Go Global’s Linked In Group for UW-Madison, posted a piece that caught my attention. Instead of pointing fingers at voluntourism, Mark Lilleleht, Online Presence Adviser, International Institute at the university asked questions, some good ones at that.

What do you think? Are there ways of “saving” the voluntourism industry so that it does more to serve the communities the organizations work in than the tourists? Is it more a question of “bad actors” than systemic flaws with the model? Is the very premise of the piece — that short-term volunteer opportunities coordinated by outside organizations are problematic — simply wrong?”

My Thoughts…

Thanks for asking these important questions. The questions, I think, give us much more room to explore the underlying issues and challenges of integrating travel & tourism and voluntary service, as well as the numerous stakeholders who are necessarily connected to the very complex web that functions as the canvas upon which we are currently weaving all of these elements.

When we move immediately to judgment, criticism, and, in some cases, vitriol, as it pertains to voluntourism, we really do miss the elaborate system that is at work here.

Voluntourism is not a cancer, nor is it a cure. It seems, at present, to be a symbol of the complexity of our world at this moment. We want to be of service. We do not want to perpetuate imperialism. We do not want to create dependency, yet we want to live in an interdependent world. We do not want to profit at the expense of the well-being of others and the environment, yet we need to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves in a world in which all three of these are becoming more and more expensive to realize.

So, we are confronted with the dilemma of how to integrate these. How to honor our values, whilst earning enough of a living to sustain ourselves in this world. We want to develop life practices that are in keeping with our values, are demonstrative of our values, because this will draw to us the “good karma” we seek, and the “good people” with whom we hope to interact.

But this is not the case for “everyone.” Some people want to earn “more” than is necessary, because it is their privilege to do so. When we find fault with this, we start running into problems. We can only set examples.

What might be helpful is to explore how we can begin to develop exemplary models of integrating voluntary service and travel & tourism. What does this look like? Can we learn from it? Can we benefit humanity by experimenting with it? Can host communities find a voice in such exchanges, where services are shared mutually and reciprocally?

I have been studying voluntourism for a long time. I still do not fully apprehend what is at work here. But, I think there is something significantly dynamic at work here. Voluntourism is on the cusp of our human integration experiment. We know that we cannot live in a world of independent nations and independent cultures and independent religions, and so forth, such an approach is unsustainable. We are destined to live in an interdependent world. This means that business must mix with pleasure must mix with community & environmental well-being, must mix with cultures & values, and on and on.

Somehow or another voluntourism has found itself at the forefront of this experimentation process, in part because it is a blending of two of the most impact-filled expressions of our humanity: 1) movement/travel, and 2) service – both of which seem to be essential elements for the unfoldment of each human being and our planet as a whole. We travel/move about this world to learn, explore, better understand our surroundings, to visit loved ones, other cultures, etc. We serve as an expression of gratitude for what we receive – sunshine, oxygen, food, shelter, life itself. Integrating these two essential components seems like a next step in our collective evolution.

The question, of course, is: how do we do this in a manner that honors all while recognizing just how truly essential this is to our very existence as a species, and the next iteration thereof? Certainly, we could argue the validity of such a point, but I am not so sure that it will get us anywhere.

Voluntourism has birthed on this planet for a reason, a significant reason. Getting to the heart of that reason is an important step for us. Rather than condemn voluntourism, let’s spend some time understanding why it is here – not as an answer to our problems, but as an expression of how we might become a more integrated and interdependent world.

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?