“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.

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.