What’s better, a nonprofit volunteer vacation or a for profit volunteer vacation? Without a doubt one of the biggest problems in “voluntourism” today is the rise of numerous smaller, fly by night for profit volunteer vacations that are taking advantage of the growing demand for impact travel. Many of the worst horror stories involve travel companies that market trips to help but lack ties to reputable nonprofits overseas.
But it would be wrong to conclude for-profit is better than nonprofit. It’s more a question of how the structure of the organization advances or harms the impact of the volunteering. Sometimes nonprofit status can help because of the increased transparency and accountability involved in countries with good laws and regulations like the USA. In other countries with few development NGOs, “nonprofits” like orphanages have been linked to the worst kind of financial abuses that also put children in danger, like this ABC story: The Dark Side of Orphanage 'Voluntourism' in Nepal. BeachCorps personally knows of an orphanage in the Dominican Republic where the director was soliciting multiple donations of food and then selling the extra food to pad his/her paycheck. (Note: this is NOT an orphanage associated with any great nonprofits like the Charles Decker Foundation, which does amazing work helping kids who otherwise would fall through the cracks).
Some great organizations with a strong nonprofit leaning have chosen for-profits as partners in service and impact travel. Americorps Alums is the only national network that connects the nearly one million alumni of all AmeriCorps programs who have served since 1994. Americorps Alums has a partnership with the for-profit volunteer vacation Discover Corps when they just as easily could have chosen a reputable nonprofit volunteer vacations like Cross-Cultural Solutions or Global Brigades.
Show Me the Money!
One of the most important examples of a great private (i.e. “for-profit”) volunteer vacation firm is Pepy Tours, led by impact travel Ted Talk expert and practitioner Daniela Papi. Papi and Pepy Tours advocate and practice what few other volunteer vacation firms do in practice: separating the vacation from the donation to a worthy cause. Most volunteer vacations bury a small donation to the cause in the overall price they charge you, but if you ask them how much of your money actually went to the cause, they either can’t tell you or won’t tell you because it's so little. Separating the vacation costs from the donation helps increase transparency and accountability so that any part of the experience can be improved and monitored. Pepi co-founded Learning Info, where you can find the outstanding guide on volunteer vacations called the “The Volunteer Charter.” They also do excellent informational videos like Learning Service: Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement.
Think about it: if a vacation firm is 100% nonprofit, then one of two things are true. One possibility is that the nonprofit firm handles or helps with all your logistics AND it also tries to set up not just your volunteer work, but your volunteer cause and its long-term results. Which means the nonprofit is trying to do vastly different things at once. That’s not easy. The other possibility is that the nonprofit is setting up or helping on all your travel AND it is connecting you to other nonprofit causes. In that case, it is a nonprofit with an inherent conflict of interest with the nonprofits it is supporting, since both nonprofits need direct donation support from volunteers and others to exist.
So in the end, it matters less whether your firm is for-profit or nonprofit. It matters more whether your firm gives you a great experience and, more important, actually makes the world a better place. And often that means combining the best qualities of a for-profit company (agility, innovation and customer service) with the best qualities of a nonprofit (integrity, social impact, long-term focus). It often means teamwork between for-profits and nonprofits! If you can do that, you’ve got the best situation of all!
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The BeachCorps Beach Bum!
The BeachCorps Beach Bum loves great vacations and great volunteer work!