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Footloose philanthropy

As Burma gradually emerged from isolation after decades of military dictatorship, it found itself inundated with well-intentioned visitors hoping to do some good. “It was under a massive assault – in a positive way – of philanthropists wanting to come and check it out,” explains Glen Galaich chief executive of US organisation The Philanthropy Workshop West (TPW West). “The Global Fund for Women had been there the week before us, Partners in Asia was coming the week after, the Women’s Donors Network, I think, had already been there, and I’d been finding out about other little pop-in groups for a while, so it was very heavy foot traffic like I’ve never seen before.”

Galaich writes a standard letter to each non-governmental organisation (NGO) TPW West plans to visit in their destination advising them not to pitch too aggressively to its members. Being presented with a room full of high net worth individuals who are on the hunt for projects to support can seem like a golden opportunity to NGO leaders, he explains. If they get too carried away and suddenly demand a million dollars from each visitor, TPW West members tend to get spooked and back away. However this desire to help can cause tensions with locals. After sending this suggestion to one beleaguered NGO leader in Burma, Galaich was told in no certain terms where to go. “This guy writes back and says, ‘I’m deeply offended, this is all about learning, you people keep coming to us with all of your requests on how we should talk to you, we’re done with you and we’re done with [TPW West] specifically.’”

TPW West members are very wealthy people, usually with their own foundations, who undertake a year of intense philanthropic training with the organisation to make their giving more effective. Visiting a developing or conflict-stricken country (last year the annual field trip was to the West Bank, Palestine) is a supplement to this training so students can put some of the principles they learned in the classroom – such as social entrepreneurship, contextual analysis and advocacy – into practice. These students are one example of an emerging trend in international charity: the travel philanthropist – a wealthy individual travelling to a destination with the specific intention of giving financial support.

Combining the pleasure of a holiday with some feel-good charity sounds like a powerful endorphin kick, but a travel philanthropist’s feelings of altruism may not match the actual benefit for their chosen organisation. “Someone thinking they can go to a foreign country, meet a couple of groups and improve their lives substantially is an audacious concept,” Galaich says. Effective philanthropy is usually a slow process that tackles the cause rather than the symptom of poverty – TPW West’s site visits are focussed on educating students about international giving strategies, rather than delivering one-off volunteer projects.

To help exorcise some of the ghosts of colonialism from philanthropy travel, Philanthropy Indaba – a New York-based company that devises trips for organisations around the world – has re-dubbed the volunteering opportunities available to its clients the “learning service”. So instead of wealthy westerners arriving to “help” the underprivileged in their destination, this new label makes it clear that it is in fact usually the volunteers themselves who are deriving the most advantage from the activity by learning more about the people they are trying to support.

But to call it a holiday would be unfair. Philanthropy Indaba has taken education-focused millionaires to witness young children pick through rubbish dumps of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 35 degree Celsius heat, on the hunt for scraps of metal they can recycle. Other trips have included a visit to Rajasthan, India, where illiterate and semi-literate women from poor agricultural communities were taught the fundamentals of solar engineering, helping them bring clean, cheap power to their villages. And this year, the organisation went to Turkey to see projects supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

And while dealing with hoards of philanthropy tourists proved too much for the Burmese organisation, there are NGOs that say they have something to gain from the practice. Stacey Perlman, spokeswoman for sexual health and family planning charity Pathfinder International, says donors are often reassured following a philanthropy tourism trip that the cheques they are signing are making a difference. “We have seen some of our long-term donors increase their giving after these trips just from seeing the work that we do. In other ways it has just kept people continually engaged, so it might not be a huge increase in giving but they are still consistently involved.”

Philanthropy Indaba founder Maryann Fernandez says that learning about local politics and culture in an unfamiliar geographical area can be “tremendously helpful” for understanding the variables that might impact the effectiveness of a charitable programme. “Some people are like, ‘water, let’s drill a well, it’s easy’, but it’s not as easy as that, and a lot of it dove tails around sanitation and other health concerns, so the broader issue is showing them the variety of approaches around water.” She admits, however, that a site visit can be something of a culture shock for clients. “You can imagine, you bring people to a slum in Nairobi and they’ve never been to one before you get ‘Oh my gosh, how do these people get to work?’ Or, ‘Why are their houses so small?’”

Dominique Callimanopulos, founder of Elevate Destinations, says the logistics of taking a group of wealthy individuals to various corners of the earth can take anywhere between 250 to 300 hours to organise before anyone even sets foot on the ground. More and more international non-profits approach her every year so they can reap the benefits of philanthropy travel. Guests pay for the cost of their trip, plus a percentage to Elevate, meaning the NGO itself doesn’t incur any expenses. It has local guides in every country: “It works really nicely as differentiation of labour for each trip, so you don’t have the development director of the organisation having to look for someone’s toothbrush or fuss about their room.”

Almost all guests on an Elevate trip have been long-term, committed donors to the projects they set out to visit, however, the US-based company still has to deal with people who have lived a life of privilege. It has to cater to some “high maintenance guests” – as Callimanopulos tactfully puts it – who are not necessarily prepared to experience the realities of their host nation completely raw. “These are high-end, ultra-high net worth individuals who expect everything to go like clockwork. It’s more like a travelling event in a way than just a tour, so it demands a lot of event management – menus for dinners are all set and we’re coordinating the speakers. There’s a lot of stuff to do in the field.” These expectations could make one question the motives of certain travel philanthropists. Callimanopulos insists the majority are very clued-up about the countries and causes they support, but having money means they are just used to having life run smoothly.

The dangers involved and the fact that the organisers have to pay close attention to security can help to make travellers realise that these issues are much bigger than them or their money. Often Philanthropy Indaba takes guests off the beaten track away from touristy areas. Kidnapping is always a risk for wealthy people, but this risk is heightened in developing countries where the rule of law might not be as strong. Fernandez actively bans guests from social media when she feels this is necessary. “No Facebook, no Twitter, nothing – off social media while we are there,” she says, “Mainly because you don’t want people to inadvertently say ‘Oh we’re here and we’re going there’.”

The primary focus of an Elevate trip is the NGO in question, but leisure activities are still very important. “You always need to include enough time for people to decompress from what they are seeing,” Callimanopulos says. A guest on a Pathfinder International trip, for example, could spend the day talking to sex workers who are making use of one of the charity’s sexual health clinics. Hearing the realities of their daily existence, as well as their life stories that led them there can be harrowing. Spending a few hours wandering around a local market or landmark can relieve some of this tension.

Canadian tourist Ann Mann, who went with her husband and three daughters to the Masai Mara in Kenya through luxury travel agency Abercrombie & Kent, said a visit to the Talek Primary School was one of the most memorable and meaningful aspects of their trip. “Some of those girls were there to stop them being sold for marriage at 10, 11 or 12 years of age.” She said it was particularly relevant to her considering her own girls were the same age at the time. She was especially moved by the ambition of the students, with one girl telling her she wanted to become a neurologist. The Mann family ended up donating a library to the school.

Abercrombie & Kent is primarily a luxury travel company, but it provides philanthropic add-ons for families booking a holiday through them. Critics could argue that charitable trips added on to a holiday would only provide short-term benefits for recipients, but by channelling its efforts via a foundation, established by the company three decades ago, the company benefits the destinations it visits.

Mann explains that philanthropy has always been important to her family, but that it was something they had always done on a small scale. Abercrombie & Kent’s philanthropy tourism model, via its foundation Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy, identified a need that the family could meet within the time frame of their holiday, making a difference to the recipient without creating a dependency. Other customers have also made substantial donations. For example, two visitors to their Zambian school meals programme donated $80,000 and $100,000 respectively after a brief visit – enough to feed 600 school children for the next five years.

According to Callimanopulos, the various models of travel philanthropy have been emerging for a little over a decade. Besides helping to energise donors she thinks it’s partially driven by the need for greater transparency in the third sector. Travel philanthropy has turned ground visits, already a feature of most foundations’ due diligence process, into an event in themselves that can educate and inspire philanthropists, strengthen existing relationships between donors and NGOs and help forge new ones. And, Callimanopulos says, it’s much more engaging than a fundraising dinner.

Dr Marina Novelli, professor of sustainable tourism at the University of Brighton, thinks the parable of “voluntourism” should be kept in mind. The idea of sending individuals with particular skills to volunteer in developing countries started in the 1980s. It proved so popular it ballooned into a commercial tourism product in its own right, now worth an estimated $1.6 billion annually, according to the Journal of Sustainable Tourism. Every year armies of westerners, usually young and usually white, now descend on countries in Africa and Asia and tour operators often end up manufacturing work for these volunteers to do. While it allows the participant to beef up their résumés – or add a feel-good photo to their Facebook profile – it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re making any meaningful difference to the local community. “There are schools in Africa that are painted every two weeks,” says Novelli. Philanthropy travel is an equally marketable idea, and all the commentators in this piece are for-profit companies. Novelli’s advice to those considering philanthropy tourism is take care to avoid commodifying the people they want to help. “I don’t want to say it’s all bad,” she says, “but invest in projects that are linked to local needs, and that can be long term.”  


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