American Jewish World Service is the leading Jewish organization working to fight poverty and pursue justice in the Global South. Through philanthropy and advocacy, we respond to the most pressing issues of our time—from disasters, genocide, and hunger, to the persecution of women and minorities worldwide. Through our grants, AJWS provides financial support to over 450 local advocacy organizations in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean that are working to end poverty and advance the rights of some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world. With Jewish values and a global reach, AJWS is making a difference in millions of lives and building a more just and equitable world.
When and why did you begin your donor travel program?
In 1994, AJWS launched an international volunteer program, and over 20 years placed hundreds of volunteers with grassroots community organizations in the Global South, becoming a leader in the field of international volunteer programming. In 2014, as the result of a robust strategic planning process, AJWS made the decision to phase out of volunteer programs to concentrate its funding to the people who need it most – our grantee partners in the developing world and U.S. based advocacy efforts for global justice.
Currently, AJWS offers two opportunities for people to travel with us to the countries where we work to see the impact of their support:
Study Tours: Each trip offers a unique opportunity for major investors to witness firsthand how their philanthropic support to AJWS makes a serious impact on the lives of disenfranchised communities in the Global South. Throughout each journey, travelers learn about the cultural, historical, and societal issues faced by human rights defenders in an immersive and meaningful way, while connecting with a likeminded community of global citizens. We offer two types of Study Tours – trips that are open to any current and prospective donor who has the capacity to support AJWS at the $25,000 + annual level, and concierge trips, which are private and curated for our top tier of donors based on their particular interests and availability. Study Tour participants pay a program fee-for-service to join a Study Tour.
Global Justice Fellowship (GJF): The GJF is a selective six-month program designed to inspire, educate, and train American rabbis to become activist leaders in support of global justice. Each fellowship includes a seven-day educational trip to a country where AJWS works, followed by the opportunity to advocate for policy change in Washington, DC. Participants experience the power of grassroots efforts to overcome injustice and then use their moral authority to impact national decision-makers and inspire their own communities to take action for social justice.
Please provide brief examples of some of your most impactful projects.
Out of the 450+ local organizations supported annually by AJWS, we will only visit about 15-25 in a year. Some of the most impactful grantee partner visits include:
Visiting the Azad Foundation’s Women on Wheels program: The program trains women in India to be drivers, helping them break into a profitable, traditionally all-male profession and gain more control over their lives. On our last trip to India, we had Azad drivers for each donor’s transfer from the airport to the hotel. It was amazing for the donors to be driven by an Azad driver, and then visit their training center and learn more about the impact the program has on the lives of the women and their families.
Visiting the indigenous Ogiek community in the Mau Forest: Ogiek Peoples Development Program (OPDP) works to defend the Ogiek people who have been forcefully removed from their century-old home in the Mau Forest by international development projects – taking away their livelihoods and cultural epicenter and degrading the land, wildlife, and ecosystem. In 2017, after years of pressure and advocacy, OPDP won a landmark case against the Kenyan government which recognized the Mau Forest as the Ogiek’s ancestral home, conserved the land and natural resources, and paid reparations to those who were evicted.
Planning & Vetting Process
What are the guiding principles you employ to establish an impactful and respectful donor travel trip?
Our north star for the Study Tour program is to create an immersive and transformative experience for our donors while making sure that we’re engaging with our local partners in an ethical way. We strongly consider the impact and possible negative outcomes of a group of Westerners parachuting into their communities for a few hours or half a day.
On the first night of each Study Tour, we facilitate an opening session about ethical community engagement. We start with understanding and unpacking why each of our travelers have chosen to join the trip, we move into AJWS’s mission, and then we develop a set of group guidelines, based on AJWS’s five core values, for how our group will show up in the communities we visit throughout the week.
We challenge our travelers to consider how they can be the most ethical travelers during their time in the country. What are ways that we can commit, as a group, to engaging with our partners and their communities in a respectful way? Some examples include: looking at the person speaking, not the person translating; not taking someone’s photo while they are sharing an emotional story; stepping back and creating space for others to speak and ask questions; and respecting the expertise of the locals in the room.
We also talk a lot about productive discomfort – that growing and learning takes place when people are slightly out of their comfort zones, but not so much so that they cannot process new information and experiences in a safe and productive way. We make sure that all of the logistics related to the trip are smooth and that their basic needs are met, so they can really focus on connecting with the people and communities they are there to meet.
How do you select projects to be visited during your donor trips?
AJWS provides grants to over 450 organizations in 19 countries in the Global South. We have staff in each of our 19 countries, and a robust Programs Division which is responsible for identifying our local partners based on their strategic alignment with our mission.
The Study Tour program prioritizes safety of our grantee partners and travelers first and foremost. When mapping out our calendar of trips for the next few years, we work closely with our Programs colleagues to identify places that are safe for travelers, where our grantee partners can accommodate a group of up to 30 people (staff and travelers), where the tourist industry offers appropriate accommodations, and where our work is established and tells a story.Once a country has been identified as a trip location, the Study Tour team partners with our Programs colleagues and in-country staff to put together an itinerary that showcases the arch of AJWS’s impact in the country.
Unfortunately, there are a number of countries that have never had a Study Tour, because they are not safe enough, and certain countries that get a Study Tour ever year. We recognize this imbalance, and this is one of the reasons that we strongly discourage our Study Tour travelers from making restricted gifts to the partners or region they visited.
Is training provided to staff involved in your donor trips to ensure the information about your programs is communicated in a sensitive and respectful manner? If so, what are key components of this training?
AJWS has strived to build a culture of philanthropy amongst the staff – meaning that each member of the staff, regardless of their formal role, understands how they contribute to fundraising, and donors are embraced as a critical part of our mission. To that end, many of our Programs colleagues and international staff have been guided and supported to speak about their work, and the work of our grantee partners, to a donor audience. As our Programs colleagues are the experts and hold the relationships with our grantee partners, we defer to them to represent the impact of AJWS’s work on each trip.
And because the Study Tour program is our most successful fundraising program, many staff are involved in the planning and staffing of each trip. We do a lot of prep and training to make sure they understand the goals and their responsibilities to both our donors and our grantee partners.
How are funds raised from travelers?
The Study Tour program is open to current and prospective donors who make an annual five figure gift to AJWS. Our travelers understand that participating in a Study Tour comes along with the non-binding expectation that they will increase their support to AJWS after witnessing how their philanthropy makes an impact on the lives of the people who they meet in the field. The Study Tour program is one of many touchpoints available to our current donors so that they can engage more deeply with our work.
How do you solicit donations?
After a Study Tour wraps up, a fundraising and engagement strategy is developed for each traveler. This strategy includes engaging them more deeply in our work through events, strategic communication, and stewardship by one of our Development staff. They continue to be engaged as both an individual and part of their trip cohort.
Are donations tax deductible?
All donations to AJWS are tax deductible. The Study Tour is a fee for service, and no part of the program fee for participation is tax deductible.
Do travelers on your donor trips visit the project sites of fund recipients? Why or why not?
The core component of the Study Tour program is visits with our grantee partners. On a standard trip, our travelers will visit about five partners. These visits are a mix of meeting urban organizations in their offices and traveling out into a rural area to meet with organizations working in communities.
Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? Why or why not?
There is no volunteer component on Study Tours. As a human rights organization, our grantee partners are working to build movements for change and we believe that the greatest impact our supporters can have is providing financial support to local activists, organizations and collectives that need resources in order to make their visions a reality.
How is the donor trip promoted or marketed to travelers?
Because the Study Tour are open to current and prospective supporters who make a five- figure annual gift, there is information about the program on our website, but we primarily market and recruit from a certain segment of our donor list. We have a very targeted approach to our recruitment that includes a series of email blasts, a designed postcard, individual outreach from our relationship managers and President & CEO, and word of mouth from Study Tour alumni.
What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?
We provide each traveler a virtual orientation packet that contains background information on the country, AJWS’s history/impact/work in the country, an overview of each grantee partner they will meet, a recommended reading/watching/listening list, a packing list, a travel guide and more. We also hold a virtual orientation 3-4 weeks prior to the trip so they can get a sense of what to expect.
We also do an orientation the first morning of each trip, where they learn more about AJWS’s work, the context of human rights in the country, and more from local staff.
How do you ensure that your values and approach align with those of the community supported?
Because we have local staff in each of the countries where we have partners, we have a direct line of communication to our partners. We totally follow their lead in terms of how the visits are structured and organized. Everything from considering what location is best for hosting a large group of Westerners, to how to showcase their work, to how we use interpreters and photography is discussed and decided in partnership with our grantees and local staff. We do have a standard formula for our visits that has worked well over time, but if our partners want to change it up we honor their vision.
Why do you feel your donor travel program has been so successful?
I think the Study Tour program is so successful because every single aspect of the donors’ experience is so thoroughly thought through; not a minute of the week-long trip is unthought of or unplanned for.
We are trained to expect the unexpected and have plans B, C, and D in place. We make sure that all the logistics and planning runs smoothly so that our donors can really immerse themselves in the work they are there to see and in meeting and connecting with the activists and communities they support. Everyone who travels with us knows that they will be very taken care of during the trip, and that there will be different modalities for learning, growing, and experiencing.
We also give our travelers the opportunity to meet and connect with people they would never meet if they didn’t travel with AJWS. We give them the chance to see a country from the perspective of local people who are on the front lines of fighting for change.
What challenges has your company/organization faced in developing a successful program?
One of the challenges we face is striking the right balance between immersive grantee partner visits, time for formal reflection and group learning, and touring. Our travelers each come on a Study Tour with their own individual learning and engagement style, and we really try to meet people where they are. It can be challenging to meet the needs of people who have been long time supporters and really know our work, people who have traveled with us before, and people who are brand new to AJWS.
We’ve also had some challenges with figuring out how to offer the right amount of support to our grantee partners during the Study Tour planning process, without verging on dictating how they should showcase their work. We really want each visit with a grantee partner to be authentic and engaging, which is quite different from how they would prepare for a visit from a funder checking in on their programmatic process.
Why do you feel it is important for donors to see/engage with a community project in the field?
The only way for our donors to understand the impact of their support to AJWS is to see it firsthand. 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.
Each trip is, of course, meaningful for our donors. And, it means so much to our grantee partners that people travel from very far to hear their stories and offer support in person.
What would your advice be to another organization/company that is hoping to establish a successful donor travel program?
Figure out the “skeleton” of your program – one that works for your travelers and your local communities – and recreate it each time. A donor travel program requires so much time and effort to plan, and it takes so much pressure off the planners if you have a formula that you follow for each trip, rather than reinventing the wheel each time.
For more information contact: Neely Grobani, email@example.com