Elevate Destinations was founded and operates as a social enterprise: philanthropy and positive social and environmental impact are key to our mission. We believe that the act of travel is sacred. It has the power to transform lives and landscapes. Our goal is to use that power in the most positive way imaginable. Since Elevate’s beginning in 2005, we have scouted out in-country partners whose services, products and missions align with the Elevate ethos. We seek local partners and accommodations that are similarly driven to elicit social and environmental impact through travel. Each customized journey we curate is designed with accommodation options that are locally managed and staffed, are environmentally sustainable, and are safe. In doing so, we facilitate opportunities for global community engagement that go beyond most touristic experiences. We have always aligned with values that make a positive difference in the world. We pride ourselves on designing a unique trip for each client, based on our extensive research, partner, and country expertise. We have won numerous awards – most recently the Best Eco-Luxury Travel Company, Northeast USA by Lux Magazine in 2020, a 2019 Finalist in AFAR Media’s Travelers’ Choice Awards, and the Hearts of Travel Tourism Cares “Industry Innovator” Award in 2018 and Gold award World’s Most Responsible Travel Company 2016.

When and why did you begin your impact tourism program?

Elevate Destinations was founded as an impact travel company in 2005 by Dominique Callimanopulos, a pioneer in the field of donor travel. Our very first trip was a trip for a nonprofit to bring their donors to visit their work in Kenya. The inspiration for this business model came from Dominique’s vision of travel as a way to give back to destinations around the world by creating a vehicle for sustainable and responsible travel. Our work allows organizations to bring donors and investors into the field in a safe and secure manner and to showcase the work they are doing on the ground all while aligning with sustainable development goals.

Since then, we have run over 350 donor trips all over the world for NGOs, nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises, namely in developing countries and emerging economies. We pride ourselves in our unique ability to run smooth, thoughtful experiences in places that are traditionally considered challenging to navigate.

What are the guiding principles you employ to establish an impactful and respectful donor travel trip?

We work in partnership and at the request of the organization’s staff working and living in communities around the world. We are sought out to create these journeys because of our exemplary track record and our mutually shared values of examining our value chain from an environment and human rights perspective. The global nonprofits and foundations we work with put the needs of their beneficiaries and communities at the forefront of their sensitive work and their journey is an extension of these values. We never impose ourselves on communities and would never run a donor trip without an invitation and permission to be there. Because we work closely with the experts on the ground and in the communities, we keep their vision, directive and plans as the priority. We are there in service of their goals and mission, they are not in service of ours.

The impact of travel on the global economy and environment is profound. With that in mind, we want to be sure that we are traveling as responsibly as possible. For us, this means educating our guides and ground teams about human trafficking, purchasing carbon offsets to counterbalance the emissions incurred by every journey, and researching the ownership of lodges and businesses we patronize – knowing that people of power in the developing world are often invested in the travel and hotel industry, and we want to be sure that money spent is re-invested into the local economy and community members who are doing good.

Please provide brief examples of some of your most impactful projects.

Through our partnership with Dining for Women (DFW), we run 3-4 international learning journeys each year for their supporters. Through member education and engagement, as well as the power of collective giving, Dining for Women provides grants to grassroots organizations that empower women and girls and promote gender equality all over the world. DFW chooses projects to support that contribute to their goal of helping women and girls in the developing world achieve their potential, gain equality in their countries and cultures, and overcome economic limitations, and social bias.

Leveraging our expertise in travel and DFW’s partnerships with their grantees, we identify destinations for their journeys by reviewing lists of DFW grantees from the past 4-5 years. We then shortlist destinations based on varying factors including the number and strength of relationship with grantees, the marketability and draw of the destination, the ease and safety of travel to and around the country, the availability of opportunities to experience, and logistical feasibility.

Regardless of the touring included in the journey – be it a safari or stay at a world-class eco-lodge – travelers on DFW journeys always report that their favorite part of the experience was the site visits and opportunities to connect with local communities and take deep dives into the work of their grantees. These trips facilitate experiences that travelers could never have on their own. Many DFW supporters also share that they feel more connected with DFW’s grantees and the bigger global movements that their efforts support.

One traveler said, “Living with the girls for a week was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had, and I have been on other donor trips… The home visits and stopping at the schools was so impactful.” Guatemala, 2020.

Has your impact tourism program helped, hurt, or had no impact on your business?

Our entire business is based on impact tourism. It is baked into the model – it is not a side dish. We have grown exponentially since our founding 15 years ago. In addition to providing Donor Travel services, we also offer Corporate Responsibility Travel, Political Will Journeys, Charity Challenges, Learning Journeys, as well as Private Travel services for individuals and families who want to travel in a sustainable and responsible manner. We will only work with organizations who have a mission around positive social or environmental impacts. Our focus on ethical and sustainable travel has only had a positive impact on our business, because like-minded organizations can trust that they are reinforcing their values by working with us.

Vetting Process

How do you select projects to be visited during your donor trips?

Our clients typically have their projects selected ahead of contacting us. Oftentimes, we will be thought partners for organizations thinking through some options for projects to visit. We will help them think through some factors around both marketability and feasibility – such as safety, types of activities available, difficulty to travel to or within the area, level of accommodations available, and buy-in from the local community members. We have worked with nonprofits and foundations addressing all kinds of global issues such as conservation, access to water, health care, social justice, female empowerment, poverty alleviation, and more around the world. Once we develop a relationship with an organization in a certain country, with the community’s permission, we may send our private travel clients to visit their sites as well. Through this method, not only are we bringing current donors closer into the fold of the organization, but we are also expanding their visibility to new potential supporters.

Is training provided to staff involved in your donor trips in order to ensure the information about your programs are communicated in a sensitive and respectful manner? If so, what are key components of this training?

We have a Guideline for Guides training module which helps local guides understand how to operate a donor trip. All of our current staff in the office come from the space of philanthropy, international development, or educational travel. We never do our work in isolation and have a tremendous amount of collaboration from our clients who help guide the language and sensitivity around certain subject matter. We ask the organization to provide additional guidelines around photography, dress code, and appropriate questions to ask to help guide visitors even more directly. Over the years, we have developed our own expertise and are now offering workshops to other organizations on how to design these trips effectively with ethics and equality front of mind.

Visitor Engagement

Do travelers on your donor trips visit the project sites of fund recipients? Why or why not?

Many times, they do visit areas that have been funded. We design all our itineraries to align with the request of our clients and community anchors who have deep knowledge of a local area. We find that most organizations want to showcase their impact on the ground in order to help develop a deeper connection to their work in their donors or board members. However, others are galvanizing donors to invest in potential opportunities and are taking a different approach to their trip. Visiting one site over the other has a lot to do with feasibility and appropriateness of bringing visitors to that location. We don’t make that judgement call; our local clients and local communities do. We help guide them with a practical understanding of what is logistically feasible and the pros and cons of certain decisions and what layers of potential permission they need to seek: tribal, local authorities, political approval, etc… Some trips are kept quite short and truly revolve around site visits, while others integrate more touring and cultural experiences to help build context of the destination for the travelers or encourage group bonding. All these decisions are carefully thought out based on the goal of the trip.

Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? Why or why not?

We offer a few voluntourism opportunities through our Private Travel side of the business. We are very careful about selecting these kinds of opportunities to make sure that the volunteers will actually be providing benefit to the project or organization. We prioritize opportunities to learn before opportunities to volunteer, and particularly love community-based tourism activities. For travelers who want to do something hands-on, we will identify opportunities for them to learn how to make or do something from a local community member at a cost – simultaneously teaching the traveler a new skill and stimulating the local economy.

We often have travelers ask us about bringing materials to donate and we always suggest that they purchase goods locally, instead of bringing them from home, in order to support the local economy of the country they are visiting and reduce their carbon footprint. Further, we think giving always needs to be done in partnership with a local nonprofit’s directive. We encourage people to avoid distributing goods to individuals – especially children – and instead provide them directly to an organization who is much better equipped to assess the needs of the community. We believe that any and all giving should be done on a needs-based approach – with the needs identified by the local organizations themselves.

What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?

Donor trips are educational at their core, and we try to weave educational opportunities into itineraries whenever possible to help round out the learning and expose travelers to new elements about local culture, music, food, or environment.

To help travelers better prepare for their journeys, we create and distribute a detailed Destination Guide for each country we run trips to. These guides contain information around language, customs, appropriate dress, food, weather, local currency, etc. We know we are living in the age of information-overload, so we try to balance being both comprehensive and concise. We also offer to host Traveler’s Calls in advance of departure to help run through the itinerary and set expectations for the journey ahead.

What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?

Educational opportunities: Junior Marine Biology Program, citizen science research dives with partner NGOs and Deep Blue Divers dive center, afternoon activities and evening presentations in the ice cream parlor on various marine topics with MUI, and a sustainability channel on the villa TV.

Community Perspectives

How do you ensure that your values and approach align with those of the community supported? How are you ensuring that your projects meet the most relevant needs of the community?

We only run trips that are requested by the community and organization living and working there. They determine the content, the programming, the messaging, and the experience the travelers will have. We are there to help with the implementation and best practices, but we don’t impose our presence. Our goal, from a logistical standpoint, is to take the heavy lifting off of the local staff of organizations. We believe that their time is best spent focusing on programmatic work, the people and places they support, and effectively delivering on their mission – not coordinating transportation, lodging, and other minute yet important details. If we’ve done our job well, local staff and community members should not feel burdened by the visit.

Lessons Learned

Has there ever been a time when adjustments to your approach or project have needed to be made as a result of community partner feedback? Please explain how you were able to adapt.

We love feedback. We thrive on it. Because we have implemented a full circle of evaluation on our trips, we have improved in both practical ways and in ethical ways. Part of how we have improved is re-designing the role of the local guide. There can be tension if a guide is stepping into a context in their own country that they either know little about or have their own misgivings or stereotypes about. Other times, a guide may struggle in stepping back from content-delivery and focusing only on logistics, while the local NGO staff takes the lead on content and context. We have created vetting criteria for guides, interview them, and then train them appropriately for the program they are embarking on. This has made a huge difference in the quality of the journey for our clients.

Why do you feel your donor travel program has been so successful?

We specialize in this genre of travel and we care deeply about the outcomes for these journeys. Our staff is of the same background as our clients and we understand what they need, what they are trying to achieve, and we know how to achieve their goals through collaboration. We have experienced so much that we are now able to lead our clients with very diverse and challenging needs on how to manage these trips. Our experience in this space allows us to run trips for our clients that are logistically flawless, and this frees up the space and time for their staff to focus on their mission, their program work, and building relationships with their donors. Lifting the weight of complicated logistics, while prioritizing our shared values, keeps clients coming back to Elevate.

Equally important is the weight we give all the intangible aspects of donor trip planning, such as equity, power dynamics, and designing space and time for reflection. These ethical and mindful aspects of travel which are a central part of our ethos, can easily get lost among the myriad of threads of donor travel programs, but when thoughtfully woven in, they lead to a more meaningful experience. They are often challenging to navigate and integrate into programming, which is why we help our clients find touch points throughout a journey that enhances their goals and add value to their returns from a trip. For example, preparing travelers and beneficiaries that the trip is a learning journey for both communities, and finding ways to break down barriers, allowing for mutually meaningful connections. We encourage organizations to facilitate interactive activities where both communities engage on a more human level, rather than as a donor-beneficiary relationship. These intangible aspects of travel are undeniably important to deepen the organization’s mission and movement.

Why do you feel it is important for donors to see/engage with a community project in the field?

Someone’s philanthropy is an extension of themselves, their values, and belief systems. These journeys are personal. Everything that goes into them matters. There is no substitute for witnessing and connecting with an issue or topic in-person in a personalized way. These trips are opportunities for discovery, building knowledge, deepening connection, and meaningful reflection. Those are the ingredients for transformation.

What would your advice be to a nonprofit that is hoping to establish a successful donor travel program?

Start now. All successful donor trips are an extension of a larger fundraising strategy. You need to understand which element of your organization’s fundraising strategy your trip represents. Is it about: cultivation, illustrating impact, expressing potential or scale, inviting your donors to join a movement, building ambassadors or board members for your work? How you plan the trip will depend on your goal. To justify the time and effort into your journeys, you need to capture the impact of a trip with behavioral and financial metrics. You should capture these metrics across a timeline that makes sense for your organization both in a short term and long-term projection.

To develop an impactful international donor travel program is a juggling act. It is invigorating and impactful, while at the same time challenging, as you must serve as a liaison between diverse stakeholders. Building bridges between cultures and industries across borders, time zones, languages, and a spectrum of personalities, meaning that important information can often get lost in translation. Learning how to clearly and effectively communicate across contexts is a major part of developing a successful donor travel program and it is important to not underestimate the amount of time and bandwidth that goes into this.

You will need to establish the right partners to work with that address safety, liability, and logistics. We encourage all organizations to map out your stakeholders involved in a trip to know who is responsible for which part of the programming and process. Once you have clarity on who is responsible for what, you can start digging into which sites are feasible to achieve your goals. Oftentimes, exploring feasibility and managing other programmatic elements happens concurrently. Therefore, you need to be diligent about updating changes in stakeholder’s responsibilities as the program evolves.

Your content and educational work is the heart of your journey and spending time thinking through how you design a journey that builds knowledge, challenges assumptions, and breaks down barriers is worth deeply diving into. You might want to work with a consultant or a professional facilitator to advise you through this. Some travel companies, like ours, do this for organizations or we help source experts that are more closely aligned with an organization’s unique needs if it is out of our traditional scope. It is worth an upfront investment in time to develop your content and programming thoughtfully. You can’t expect people to just show up and be changed. Change happens as people resolve preconceptions and misunderstandings to find new truths. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components are part of discovery on these journeys and deserve thoughtful intention.

We encourage and invite organizations to join one of our workshops on various topics that support organizations addressing the intangible aspects of trip planning such as: power dynamics, developing meaningful debriefs, post trip follow-up strategies, and designing content that leads to individual discovery. These topics are too rich to unpack in a meaningful way in this summary, but they can make the difference in seeing long lasting results from these journeys.

Additional Information

For more information contact: Katherine Redington, katherine@elevatedestinations.com

Websites: www.elevatedestinations.com; Events, https://elevatedestinations.com/events/

This Impact Tourism Handbook was made possible by generous financial support from Elevate Destinations, Hilton, Holbrook Travel, and Overseas Adventure Travel.