By Caliopy Glaros, Founder of Philanthropy without Borders
Donor travel is a thriving and important subset of impact tourism. While it can be argued that all donor trips are considered impact trips, not all impact trips are considered donor trips. The nuance lies in the distinction between travelers who donate and donors who travel. All impact trips involve travelers who donate (whether that be time, talent, or treasure), as that is inherent in the very definition of impact tourism. These travelers often select a destination based on recreational appeal, travel independently, or join tours that are open to the general public, and may be compelled to make a separate financial gift or engage in a volunteer experience to give back to the places that gifted them with memorable experiences. These are travelers who have been turned into donors through the course of their journey.
Donor travel, however, seeks the involvement of individuals who are already donors and aims to turn them into travelers. These individuals have given, or are expected to give, to the nonprofits that have arranged their tours. The purpose of donor travel is not purely recreational but also to engage more deeply with the organization and its mission. Many of these trips are invitation-only to the nonprofit’s donors or members; while some may be open to the general public, the nonprofit is certain to recruit heavily from within their membership base. These tours are almost always arranged by the nonprofit themselves, as you will see in the American Jewish World Service case study; by tour operators who specialize in donor travel, represented in the case study provided by Elevate Destinations; or in collaboration with a tour company that both coordinates logistics and markets the tours to its customers, such as you will read about in the case study of the partnership between World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures.
While donors may continue to champion an organization and its mission without ever attending a donor trip, these tours have the power to radically transform these individuals and inspire increased investment. The effectiveness of these tours lies in the unparalleled power of personal experience to educate and activate. As philosopher Hubert Dreyfus tells us, “There is nothing more effective for learning new things than the physical discomfort of being out of your element” (Dreyfus, 2011). By taking donors out of their homes and putting them into new environments, nonprofits help them to experience what the American Jewish World Service calls “productive discomfort,” which can lead to deeper understanding and radical transformation. While donor trips are led by universities, museums, and symphonies, nonprofits that conduct their mission-critical work in areas around the world (international NGOs and environmental conservation organizations being just two examples) are also at an incredible advantage in donor travel, for not only do their donors benefit from the “productive discomfort” of being in a new environment but they also have the incredible opportunity to actually see how the nonprofit conducts its work and the dramatic results it has achieved. As American Jewish World Service says, “No reports, newsletters, or events can truly convey the challenges that human rights defenders and activists face and traveling to their communities to meet them where they live and work is an immeasurably powerful and transformative cross-cultural exchange.”
The decision to offer a donor trip must lie with the nonprofit, as they will be the entity tasked with recruiting and stand to benefit the most from a successful venture. The very first step in planning a donor trip is to determine the main objective of the initiative. Will it be to educate board members, raise critical funds for a new project, or steward new philanthropic prospects? While many outcomes can be achieved through a single trip, it is imperative to have one guiding objective that determines the course of everything to follow: who will lead the trip, what kind of educational experiences will be offered, and most importantly, what kind of travelers will be recruited?
As with all successful tour offerings, the answer to Who will travel? is not Everyone. Donor Trips are not an appropriate form of engagement for every single donor or member, so determining who is ideal for a trip is the second step a nonprofit needs to take, and it is one that is critically informed by the trip’s objective. If a nonprofit is seeking to raise significant funds beyond registration revenue, best practices show that they should limit invitation to their board members and principal donors who are giving at levels necessary to achieve those financial goals. Donor travel could also be used to recruit and qualify new prospective donors, but because fundraising is a process of relationship-building, there will likely need to be more cultivation steps beyond the donor trip, and thus an organization should not expect to receive transformtional gifts from new donors immediately after a trip concludes. Methods of recruiting for donor trips vary broadly across organizations but are always directly tied to the trip’s objective. In the case study presented by World Wildlife Fund, you will find that they implement trips both at a very exclusive level (invitation only to high-net-worth donors) to advance philanthropy, as well as a more accessible level, offering over 700 trips to their 1.2 million members (revenue comes in primarily through registration). Other organizations, such as American Jewish World Service, set a minimum giving amount donors must meet to quality for an invitation on a trip. The exact attributes an organization uses to determine which donors should be invited on a trip is less important than the thought process and strategy behind how those attributes have been decided.
After filling a trip with the right donors, the next and third important step is to prepare them for the experience. Three kinds of preparation are essential: philanthropic, social, and cultural. If there is an expectation for donors to increase their giving or give at a certain level after the trip, that expectation must be made clear in advance of the trip. Good philanthropic stewardship requires that we never surprise our donors with an ask that they are unprepared to meet. Organizations must be up-front about the giving expectations and work closely with colleagues in fundraising to determine what communications are appropriate depending on the donor.
Social preparation is also key, to put people at ease and get them excited about traveling with the group. For trips where the travelers may not know one another, it is important to make introductions before the trip. Because dynamics are so important on these trips, organizations should do their best to ensure donors travel well together and that there is harmony and synergy within the group. Small tasks such as creating and exchange bio sheets through email or hosting a group orientation over video conferencing go a long way to enhancing group relations. These important steps help to break the social ice before the really trip begins.
Lastly, cross-cultural preparation is essential to ensure donors have accurate expectations and can adjust their behaviors with relative comfort and authenticity. It is a mistake to assume that well-traveled individuals possess a natural talent for discerning cultural differences and adapting accordingly. Donor Trips often involve access do sites off the beaten path and to communities unaccustomed to foreign tourists. These trips necessitate a sensitivity and awareness that a typical tourist vacation does not, so organizations must take care to prepare travelers for the realities they will face at the destination. Cross-cultural preparation should focus on increasing awareness of cultural differences as well as helping donors adjust their behaviors and expectations.
This is also the time for the organization to share their media policy with donors. The media policy describes what photography is allowed and how images and media can be shared online. It should be direct, specific, reflective of the destination cultural norms, and drafted in accordance with the organization’s guidelines on ethical photography and representation. While the media policy may seem a mere formality, it is an essential tool that provides trip leaders with clarity and authority to guide behavior around photography and storytelling and educates donors on the organization’s principles around equity and inclusion. Offer this vital tool before the trip to set accurate expectations and align intentions.
One of the most difficult aspects of planning and executing a donor trip is achieving the right balance between recreation and education. While a donor’s main purpose on a donor trip is to immerse themselves in the work of the nonprofit, an itinerary too jam-packed with educational elements will be emotionally and physically exhausting. It is important that there are opportunities for recreational activities, for reflection and dialogue, and for general downtime. Here it is important to distinguish between the recreational and the educational: recreational opportunities aim to delight the traveler, while education experiences aim to instill empathy and inspire action. Achieving this involves a reimagining of the typical tour.
Because most readers likely will be familiar with the elements of a recreational experience, this section aims to clarify an educational experience, which is undoubtably the most critical part of the donor trip itinerary. When donors come in contact with the people and communities who have been impacted by their giving, it is essential that these encounters serve not only to prove contextual knowledge but also to enhance the donors’ understanding of those people’s perspectives—in other words, enhance donor empathy. Rather than the popular misinterpretation of “feeling what another person feels,” empathy is actually defined as “the ability to understand another’s perspective” (Oxford Learner's Dictionaries, 2019). How organizations achieve that understanding through an educational experience is by making it interactive. Donors should not be offered only the role of passive observer, as they would be watching a movie or listening to a lecture. Empathy is not a tool that can be learned by passively acquiring new knowledge. It must be activated through engagement. Instead of structuring tours with long lectures, organizations should consider how the experience could be transformed into an activity, whereby donors learn by doing. During this activity, instead of expecting donors to ask questions of the guide, guides should ask questions of the donors. After the activity, having donors put into words their own interpretations of the experience helps them make their own meaning and inspires action (Ham, 2013).
Operational partners are critical when determining the design of educational experiences and overall logistical implementation. If the nonprofit is conducting mission-related work at the trip destination, it is imperative that their local staff and partners be involved. While these people are essential to the design of the educational experience offered to donors, they can become easily overburdened if they are expected to manage all the logistical components of a trip. This is where specialized tour companies can provide great value to donor trips by managing all the logistics and coordinating the recreational elements of a donor trip. Technical experts are also frequently invited to accompany donors on a trip. Such expertise could be found in a university’s faculty, a nonprofit’s senior-ranking program officer, a scholar, an engineer, a researcher, an activist, or others who possess a depth of knowledge about the work and whose presence serves to interpret the scene and contextualize the experience for donors. Lastly, many donor trips also involve the participation of a fundraising staff member, such as a major gifts officer or a vice president of development, who is tasked with stewarding relationships with the donors on the trip. Whether or not a fundraising staff member attends a donor trip is determined by the trip’s objective and the makeup on the donors on the trip.
While operational partners (local program staff and tour operators) play a vital role in the ability of a nonprofit to effectively execute a donor trip, the most important voice in implementation has yet to be named: that of the local community. The people at the destination, some of whom may have been impacted by the work of the nonprofit and the philanthropic support of its donors, hold the most valuable perspective on how the trip should be conducted, and their wishes should be held above all others, even the donors. Failure to listen to the local community about how they want to be engaged is both unethical in theory and harmful in practice. CREST has gone to great lengths to document the harms caused by encounters that serve the needs and interests of travelers over that of local communities, but for the purpose of this chapter, a few examples will be described. Short-term visits to orphanages have been shown to cause harm to children’s social development by subjecting them to a revolving door of people who enter and exit their lives seemingly inexplicably (Al Jazeera, 2019). Groups of well-intentioned travelers eager to meet with survivors of sexual violence, human trafficking, and domestic abuse would find such encounters to be impossible in their home countries, where survivors’ identities are protected by law for their safety and dignity.
The concern for the dignity and well-being of local communities is well-documented in all three donor travel case studies. American Jewish World Service says they “strongly consider the impact and possible outcomes of a group of Westerners parachuting into their communities for a few hours or half a day.” More explicitly, such possible outcomes could include re-traumatization of survivors, dependency on handouts, extraction of valuable resources, and disruption of community life. These are no small matters to contend with. For foreigners unfamiliar with the local environment, it is impossible to assess the risk of such outcomes. This is why all three case study contributors stressed the importance of working closely with local partners (who may live at the destination and share identities with those in the local community) and bringing donors only to sites where local people have expressly given their consent. The local community plays a critical role in determining things such as the types of rituals donors are shown, who donors can interview, and how donors are to conduct themselves on-site. As World Wildlife Fund explains, “The communities around natural areas are the stakeholders. They serve to gain the most and lose the most, depending on how the tourism industry works within their region.” Successful engagement of donors means that nonprofits cannot ascribe to the Golden Rule, treat others the way we want to be treated, but that they ought to do as sociologist Milton Bennett suggests in his coinage of the Platinum Rule: treat others the way they want to be treated (Bennett, 1979). Admittedly, it is hard to know how others want to be treated unless they tell us. So, this is why nonprofits and tour companies rely heavily on their local staff and partners to properly liaise with the community and ensure their voices and perspectives are informing the trip design and implementation.
Even after donors return home, the work of leveraging the trip continues. Many nonprofits fail to realize that what they do after the trip is almost as critical as what they do before the trip and what they do during the trip. Failure to follow up promptly can result in lost opportunity, not just in terms of revenue but also relationship. Follow-up must be timely, specific, and actionable. Delayed follow-up ensures that donors will feel unimportant and a low priority compared to the organization’s other initiatives. Vague follow-up ensures that donors will not understand the message or make an inaccurate conclusion. Inactionable follow-up, such as sharing information without any explicit request to reply or to donate, ensures donors will take no action.
Typical forms of follow-up include, but are not limited to, thanking donors and acknowledging their past contributions, asking for increased support, surveying them about the trip, and exchanging resources (photos, quotes, stories). Other ways of continuing to engage donors could be asking them to host house parties to share their trip experience with friends and family, attend trip reunions with their group (if most of the travelers are in the same geographic area), speak at the nonprofit’s galas or other events, and help to recruit future travelers from their networks. In order to experience the lasting effects of a donor trip, nonprofits should continue to steward and engage travelers with multiple offerings and invitations. The trip itself may plant the seeds for transformative results, but those seeds must continue to be watered after the trip so that they will grow.
Another popular way to leverage a donor trip is to use the collateral (photos, videos, quotes, testimonials, and stories) acquired on the trip to spread awareness about the organization’s mission, raise funds in future campaigns, and market the travel program to other donors or audiences. With an effective media policy in place, cross-cultural preparation, and a good working relationship with local guides and partners who can serve as cultural liaisons, the organization should be in a good position to assess what kinds of stories are suitable to share with broader audiences. Over the past several decades, there has been an industry-wide movement to transform nonprofit storytelling from messages of guilt and pity to those of resilience and agency. Just as the voices of local people shape a media policy, trip preparation, educational content, and experience design, these same voices must be centered in the stories the nonprofit tells about them.
This can be a hard balance to strike, particularly in donor travel. While nonprofits may center the voices of the local community in their fundraising campaigns, travel stories are, by nature, self-centering, since the protagonist of the story is the traveler. Donors will naturally want to share their travel stories and should feel encouraged to do so. However, the nonprofit will want to ensure that they are not promoting their own experiences at the expense of the local people’s dignity. Posting identifying photographs of children online without parental permission is a crime in many countries. Posting photographs of a village or community that depicts garbage and dilapidation makes its residents feel ashamed. Telling other people’s stories or sharing identifying details without their consent are abuses of trust.
Organizations need to encourage donors to share their travel stories while being mindful of the trust the local community has placed in them. Just as they prepared the donors before the trip to be respectful and mindful, they can continue to have conversations with donors about ethical storytelling and representation and weave this into an organizational commitment to equity and inclusion. By continuing to engage donors on these topics, the nonprofit is helping them embody these principles in their own lives and further serve as ambassadors for the nonprofit.
The amazing success stories you will read in the following case studies are not exceptions—Donor trips really do have the power to change lives and catalyze incredible financial support for an organization. In just one example, World Wildlife Fund has reported incredible results of its travel program, including a 35-times increase to average lifetime giving and a 19-times increase in average gift size; those donors who travel with the organization are 37 times more likely to have $1,000,000 gift capacity and are 21 times more likely to make a planned gift (Sano, 2019). Other nonprofits report similar results: that their donor travel programs lead to dramatic increases in annual contribution following a trip, as well as increased engagement through activities such as volunteering, joining the board or a committee, and making a planned gift.
There are many factors that suggest donor travel will only continue to grow. Travel industry trends of the past two decades show consistent growth despite recessions, terrorist incidents, and pandemics (WTTC, 2020). While the 2020 outbreak of COVID-19 will undoubtably affect the sector in the long term, the motivations that inspire people to travel and to give are not so easily quelled. Trends in philanthropic giving in the U.S. show that while the number of people giving to charity is decreasing, wealthier donors are giving more and more (GivingUSA, 2019). Therefore, stewardship of these principal donors will become more and more critical as mass-market fundraising struggles to acquire and retain supporters. Donors Trips are the ultimate way of engaging these principal donors and will continue to play a critical role in the fundraising plans of many successful organizations.
Another trend that suggests growth in donor travel is, ironically, the increasing digitization of fundraising. While almost all forms of donor engagement have moved online, from social media campaigns to virtual events, offering donor trips is a differentiator for an organization’s fundraising program and provides a coveted opportunity for human connection amid a crowded and noisy virtual space. “These journeys are personal,” as Elevate Destinations writes. “Everything that goes into them matters. There is no substitute for witnessing and connecting with an issue or topic in a personalized way.”
Travel is a powerful force for transformation, both in people and for the places they live and visit. “You cannot love and protect something you don’t know,” says Karl Egloff of World Wildlife Fund. So, it is important that we provide donors opportunities to enhance what they know about themselves, about this world, and about the people of it. Even—and especially—in uncertain times, people’s love for life, for nature, and for their fellow humankind persists. Their desire to protect and affect positive change in the world persists. As we enter a new era for travel and philanthropy, donor trips will continue to be one of the most powerful tools we have to harness the passion of our supporters and connect people with the change they want to see in the world.
Caliopy Glaros is the founder of Philanthropy without Borders, a consultancy that provides strategic guidance to nonprofits and travel operators on philanthropic travel. She specializes in helping mission-driven organizations craft strategies for their travel programs, raise money from travelers through ongoing stewardship, and curate experiences that build empathy and intercultural competence in their guests. In addition to her extensive research, writing, and speaking, she provides group training, individual coaching, and project consulting on mass market communications, one-on-one stewardship, events, site-visits, tours, and travel programs. Caliopy has an academic background in Anthropology and Adult Learning, is a certified trainer in Intercultural Communication, and is the Inclusion-Diversity-Equity-Access (IDEA) Chair of the Oregon and SW Washington Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Al Jazeera. (September 15, 2019). “Cambodia's Orphan Business: The Dark Side of Voluntourism”. https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/rewind/2019/09/cambodia-orphan-business-dark-side-voluntourism-190912110400225.html
Milton J. Bennett. (1979). “Overcoming the Golden Rule: Sympathy and Empathy.” Annals of the International Communication Association, 3(1), 407–422.
Hubert L. Dreyfus. (2008). “On the Internet.” Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group: New York.
Sam H. Ham. (2013). “Interpretation: making a difference on purpose.” Fulcrum Publishing.
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