Bold Voluntourism Move by Carnival: Will Critics Sink Its Fathom Bid?

Fathom LogoCruise Lines have been toying with voluntourism for nearly a decade now. I first covered this story back in 2007 when I interviewed Jeff Krida, head of Cruise West at the time, who was responsible for launching the line’s voluntourism program. Sweet, a travel company catering to Lesbians, had a six-year run (filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in the US in 2014) with voluntourism cruises starting in New Orleans with ports of call in Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; and Roatan, Honduras. Crystal Cruises launched their voluntourism program – “You Care, We Care” – just around the turn of the most recent decade, and has continued to build on this with each passing year – adding volunteer shore excursions at different destinations. And now, the latest entry on the list, Carnival Corp.

According to the press release on this, Tara Russell will be heading up this truly bold voluntourism move by Carnival. It will not be an easy task.

Enduring the Criticism

The social media vitriol will be difficult to ignore. Academics & students, NGO practitioners, aid & development workers, and a host of others will take swipes at Carnival, as they have at just about every effort the travel & tourism industry has made to integrate volunteering into their product and service offerings. Since Ian Birrell landed his punches against the tourism sector with the anti-orphanage voluntourism piece in The Observer back in 2010, the condescending, withering tones of the better-informed have been directed towards the travel & tourism field, any for-profit company really, advancing into the helping business. The barrage has been incessant, unwavering, and filled with good intentions gone to Hell.

How well Ms. Russell and Carnival handle this pressure will go a long way into telling us to what degree this is a true social investment for the brand.

Unlike the Ritz Carlton Hotel Company, LLC, which launched its voluntourism program – Give Back Getaways – prior to the 2008 Global Economic Meltdown – April 2008 to be exact, Carnival is a latecomer to the world voluntourism stage. Seven years later, Give Back Getaways is still a corporate cultural expression of its Community Footprints social responsibility effort. The company has not deviated from this. Carnival, on the other hand, is stepping into a very different environment, one that features great skepticism regarding the outcomes and impacts of short-term voluntary service. Will we see Fathom seven years from now, despite the criticism the company will endure?

Will Cruisers Pay?

And, of course, there is the bigger question: Will clients pay to volunteer on a cruise?

Most cruise-based voluntourism programs have engaged travelers in free, half-day and day-long volunteer activities in different destinations. Instead of participating in other shore excursions, cruise passengers have elected to volunteer in numerous roles – refurbishing schools, construction, environmental projects – the list is long and varied. Payments, however, have been minimal. Individuals have most often paid money in the form of donations to support projects into the future. The scheme being used by Carnival’s Fathom looks to be quite different, perhaps taking some inputs from Mercy Ships, among others, which have engaged volunteers in longer-term, at-sea experiences.

These trips will not be free. They will be an estimated $230 per day/per person. In our research at, we found the price point for voluntourism to be somewhere between $100 – $150USD per day/per person, all-inclusive. Of course, this is an average, and not necessarily representative of higher-end travelers willingness to pay. But, this price tag could cut out the Millennials who are the audience most likely to participate in voluntourism according to the latest research from Chase.

Final Thoughts…The Importance of Transparency

In the 15 years I have covered voluntourism, I have seen many programs launched by the travel industry. Often, these programs are put forth in response to market-driven forces – consumers, after all, want to give back. It is a rare few which are put forth as a socially responsible integration with holistic sustainability objectives established at the C-Suite level.

If this is indeed the latter, then Carnival may be onto something. It will be an endurance contest in the beginning – Ms. Russell and the Carnival Team will be front-loaded with skeptics. The good news is that Carnival has a number of ways to approach skeptics as the days, weeks, and months progress.


From the very beginning, Carnival can track the social impact footprint of their efforts. These results can be published for all to review. They can follow this with testimonials from the host communities and from participants alike. They can be utterly and completely transparent from the start – how many jobs are they creating for local residents? What socio-economic outcomes stay within the communities? Does, for example, a greater percentage of their revenues find its way into the host communities, as compared to those generated by other product & service offerings in other markets?

Reporting of results will be what consumers and critics and host communities will want to see. Is Carnival ready to share these details with the planet? It may be the only way Carnival can ensure that the company and its clients truly make a difference.

The Race To Avoid Haiti In Nepal

room to readI have been watching social media and journalists over the past couple of weeks clamoring to warn the Planet to avoid another Haiti in Nepal. The humanity in me that has the privilege to observe and speculate as to what is happening to the people on the ground there is like a claustrophobic cataclysm, churning with the compulsion of compassion and not knowing. “Nepal does not allow volunteers into its borders without the proper paperwork,” I say to myself. “How on earth will they be able to handle the onrush of individuals seeking to quell the tide of not knowing, the compulsion of compassion, the inextricably inherent call within each and every human (which can be, and often is, ignored) that cannot witness the suffering of another and sit idly by?”

As a collective humanity, we are poorly equipped to bundle the emotional outpouring from our individual beings. We fear, on some level, becoming desensitized, dissociative, and utterly numb to the suffering of others. Yet, with each passing natural disaster, being asked again and again to sit idly by and leave the work to be done in the hands of professionals, are we not running the risk of realizing our worst fears?

Is There A Plan?

One of the first people who came to mind following this disaster was John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, and founder of Room to Read. I then thought of Dr. Hari Bansh Jha, an Economics professor known for his deep interest in the intersection of spiritualism and Economics, and with whom I have corresponded over the years about voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of Social Tours, one of the first company’s I ever wrote about regarding their unique approach to voluntourism in Nepal. I thought of all of the Nepalese individuals who have contacted me over the years, and what this might mean to them. I thought of all of the voluntourists who have been to Nepal and what they might be experiencing during these days and weeks following.

As it is, Nepal is made for voluntourism. This is a fact. It may not be a fact that many people like. Orphanage voluntourism in Nepal has received negative reviews from Western media. And, although volunteers are required to have the proper paperwork to volunteer in the country, oftentimes these regulations are circumnavigated, or utterly ignored.

So, we know voluntourists will go to Nepal. The question is, what are we going to do to assist them in the process? And what will it take for the United Nations to come up with a global plan to respond to natural disasters that incorporates voluntourism?!?

Integrating Voluntourism Into Disaster Response

In the years that have followed the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia, we have had many natural disasters throughout the world. The death tolls may vary, the damage, too; what does not seem to vary, however, is the growing interest to do more than send money. More and more people want to do more and more to help with their own two hands and feet and with whatever skills and passion and mental capacity they can infuse into the situation. Yet, all too often, we spend more energy convincing these individuals that what they have to offer is meaningless and should be limited to whatever they can give financially. We are grossly underestimating what contributions may be made by these individuals by dismissing them so blithely.

For more than a decade, I have been consistently questioning our collective inability to birth a conceptual framework for integrating voluntourism into the recovery of destinations. The socio-economic impact of voluntourism can be extraordinarily beneficial for destinations. This does not mean that we begin the voluntourism train running to Nepal immediately – of course not! What it means is that we can begin to assess the situation on the ground and utilize our growing capabilities around GPS mapping,  and video, audio, and photographic technology, to determine where voluntourism groups could initially be deployed.

Final Thoughts…

The desire to respond to natural disasters will not disappear as humanity moves forward. We need a plan to harness this energy.

Just as Tesla has given us a solar-powered battery to power our homes, so, too, should we be able to develop a systematic process to harness the growing energy for assisting ourselves in the aftermath of disasters. Money is NOT the only answer. Humanity is what is most needed in these disaster zones. Recovery is inextricably linked to our humanity. I have seen and heard this in New Orleans, for example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s get busy designing our own power source that harnesses the human energy that wants to soften the blow of natural disasters for the residents impacted thereby. We cannot keep falling back on old arguments and old paradigms for why it needs to be done the way it has always been done, and by competent professionals alone. At some point, we can’t keep relying on the old electric grid, as Elon Musk has pointed out. We need to create change, be fierce in our discovery and R&D phases.

Let’s avoid another Haiti in Nepal by crafting a plan that truly harnesses the power of voluntourism. There are enough interested parties to do so. We have the creative capacity to make it so.

U.S. National Parks 100th! — How Will It Change Voluntourism Forever?

25 August 2016.

If you haven’t done so already, mark your calendars for the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. National Parks.

In the meantime, the lead up to the Centennial may prove to be one of the most significant milestones in the ongoing evolution of Voluntourism. If there was ever a time for the “Developed World” to show humanity that Voluntourism is more than just a sport for Northerners going South, then this may be that moment.

I would wager that pretty much every large multinational corporation and hospitality & tourism company will be aligning itself with the U.S. National Parks Centennial Celebration – – demonstrating its own form of corporate social responsibility. Billions of dollars in cash and in-kind (e.g., volunteering) contributions will likely be earmarked over the next 16 – 18 months for brands and their employees to share in all that the U.S. National Parks represent – the environment, recreation, memories, iconic scenery – and so much, MUCH, more!

We will see an unprecedented wave of volunteering reverberating throughout the United States as people from all over the world will be drawn to do their part to pitch-in and infuse these heritage sites with maintenance, renovations, and even new structures and trails, as well as leave a legacy for the next 100 years’ worth of visitors. Voluntour groups with their commemorative Centennial t-shirts will be heading to National Parks in swarms, generating selfies with historic structures, trees, cacti, geysers, mudpots, mountains, bisons, and bears that will make the orphan voluntourism selfies on Tinder envious beyond measure.

Voluntourism critics will be hard-pressed to wrangle support for ending anything related to voluntourism in U.S. National Parks. And, when all is said and done, we should have an abundance of contributions for voluntourism (and voluntourists) #worthyofimitation.

Lest we get carried away here, let’s take a moment to explore how this Centennial could shift the global perception of voluntourism. There are really three central points that come to mind when we consider the implications. First, Voluntourism will have a new geography – the Global North. Second, Voluntourism will be aligned with the environment, nature, preservation, and legacy. And third, Voluntourism may have a significant chance to quantify its socio-economic contribution to communities.

Voluntourism in the Global North

One of the great voluntourism myths of the past decade has been that voluntourists move from the North to the South only. It simply isn’t true. Probably the most comprehensive study on voluntourism was conducted by the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics back in 2008. The findings revealed that of the approximately 4.7 million Americans who volunteered more than 120 miles from their home in 2007, roughly 3.7 million of them did so domestically – a mere 1.056 million did so internationally. So 3 out of every 4 American voluntourists didn’t show up in orphanages in Cambodia or South Africa or Nepal, or anywhere else in the world. They showed up in places like New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and, as you might have guessed, in U.S. National Parks.

In the next 18 months, the U.S. National Parks will give us a chance to remind our planet once more that voluntourism is as much (if not more so) a Global North-North phenomenon as it is a Global North-South phenomenon. Undoubtedly, this will not be an easy myth to dismiss. Nonetheless, this may be the best opportunity, sans the gravity of a natural disaster, to ever present itself for those who see real value in Global North voluntourism.

Voluntourism Aligned with the Environment, Nature, Preservation, and Legacy

Voluntourism in the U.S. National Parks is another chance to do some myth-busting, with a shift from the global perception that voluntourists are orphanage-bound and child-assistance-centric in their motivations. In all of our research over the past decade, we have found that more voluntourists are interested in supporting the environment than any other cause or issue. Certainly, one would think this would have some sex-appeal, given the state of the world’s natural habitats, global climate change, and the rise of environmental disasters. Yet, it seems to go unnoticed in social media and in the media in general.

Having the U.S. National Parks as a major focus for voluntourism over the next 18 months will give bloggers and journalists, tweeters and likers, Mashers and Redditors a chance to shine some light on Mother Nature, U.S. history, and some really amazing stories about some significantly beautiful expressions of what humanity can do when it puts its mind to preservation and the establishment of legacies for future generations.

Socio-Economic Impact of Voluntourism?

This third item requires a question mark. Why, you may ask? The only way that we will be able to know to what extent voluntourism really is a socio-economic contributor is by measuring it. The U.S. National Parks, along with all of the stakeholders that move voluntourists in and out of National Parks over the next 18 months, and voluntourists themselves, will need to measure the socio-economic footprint of all voluntourists. Besides just some general demographic information, we want to know answers to some really important questions:

  1. Where do voluntourists go?
  2. What do voluntourists do when they get to these parks?
  3. How long do voluntourists stay?
  4. How many jobs are created as a result of their presence in the Parks and surrounding communities?
  5. Do voluntourists volunteer in places other than the Parks, i.e., do they volunteer in a nearby community as well?
  6. How much does a typical voluntourist spend?
  7. Do voluntourists volunteer and tour?
  8. How many voluntourists design their own experiences and how many utilize the services of a coordinating entity?
  9. What impacts are felt as a result of their presence (positive & negative)?
  10. Are there notable distinctions between voluntourists and regular tourists?

And, of course, there are many more rich questions which can and ought to be explored. The BIG question, obviously, is this: “Will the stakeholders, including the U.S. National Parks, take the time to set up a mechanism for measuring the influx of voluntourists and all that accompanies their influx?”

Final Thoughts…

The Centennial Celebration of the U.S. National Parks really can change the way we attend to voluntourism across our planet. The chance to measure, to prod, to poke, to inspect, to dissect voluntourism, and to engage numerous stakeholders in the process, is beyond unprecedented!

Most U.S. National Parks, for example, will have cellular telephone service which provides us the option to use GPS location, instant messaging, blogging, and social media in real-time to garner a broad-spectrum snapshot of what is happening in the context of voluntary service and travel. With 401 U.S. National Parks to choose from, voluntourists will be able to adjust their movements, especially, if we keep a running tabulation of which Parks are receiving more support. We can, in essence, develop a comprehensive, fully-aware system of voluntourism that can literally learn from itself. Running tabulations of service and expenditure can be shared across the entire gamut of individuals, families, corporations, nature clubs, social networks – anyone interested in voluntourism in U.S. National Parks –  and the global community at large.

The effort must be comprehensive, it must have the support of stakeholders – ALL stakeholders, and it must have the collective vision of a planet interested in seeing what voluntourism can do when we do it consciously, seamlessly, with a sincere interest to unleash its potential!


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?

“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 “” 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?