Established in 1978, Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) (www.oattravel.com) is part of Boston-based Grand Circle Corporation’s family of travel companies, which also include Grand Circle Cruise Line and Grand Circle Travel. In 1992, owners Alan and Harriet Lewis established the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation to support communities in which Grand Circle works and travels, including some 300 humanitarian, cultural, and educational endeavors worldwide—among them, 100 schools, in 50 countries. The Foundation is an entity of the Lewis Family Foundation, which has pledged or donated more than $200 million since 1981.
When and why did you begin your impact tourism program?
In 1992, Alan and Harriet Lewis established Grand Circle Foundation as a means of giving back to the communities being visited on Grand Circle Corporation’s trips. Today GCF supports education, clean water, leadership training, conservation efforts and the preservation of cultural treasures and traditions.
To be welcomed into another culture is an incredible gift—one that the Lewises received time and time again in their own travels. They believe that by reaching out and connecting with communities around the world, we learn to appreciate firsthand not only our diversity, but our commonality — and the understanding we gain can be life-changing.
Please provide brief examples of some of your most impactful projects.
Water, Sanitation, Hygiene (W.A.S.H.) – Access to safe water, adequate sanitation, and proper hygiene education, can reduce illness and death, and also affect poverty reduction and socio-economic development. The W.A.S.H. initiative ensures that all schools and communities we visit have an adequate supply of clean water and toilets that meet or exceed local standards. To date, 90 percent of schools and 70 percent of villages have reached this goal.
Since 2015, as part of this initiative, Grand Circle Foundation has funded $787,000 toward 102 water projects including wells, water tanks, and water filters, impacting 17,000 people.
Education: Projects range from basic necessities like pencils and books to building a secondary school in Kenya. We provide access to clean water; build and renovate toilets; renovate and build classrooms; fund scholarships and uniforms; provide books and desks; computers, laptops, photocopiers and access to technology; supplement teacher salaries and supply administrative supplies; playgrounds; sun shades in the Andes; musical instruments and costumes to help preserve local cultures.
Relief: We have funded more than $1.3M for relief, including $570,603 to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; $173,926 to Japan in 2011 after the earthquake/tsunami; $488,577 to Nepal after the 2015 Earthquake; and smaller amounts to Cuba, Chile, Germany, and other countries. A group of associates traveled to Nepal on a community service trip in 2017 to follow up on the donations made in 2015.
Has your impact tourism program helped, hurt, or had no impact on your business?
For its efforts, the Foundation has received Travel + Leisure magazine’s 2013 and 2010 Global Vision Award, the Tanzania Tourist Board’s Humanitarian Award, and more than a dozen other citations and awards from tourism associations around the world. Alan Lewis has been honored with the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy’s Excellence Award for CEO innovation and leadership and Ernst & Young’s New England Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
How do you select projects?
Our regional offices around the world identify sites and then work with school/community leadership to determine projects. When assessing how we can help the people, schools and communities we visit, we always ask for the wisdom of local leadership and the involvement of the community to ensure we are providing what is needed.
Regional offices select the individual sites based on criteria such as:
- The school/village must be able to be visited on a Grand Circle Travel or Overseas Adventure Travel tour
- The school/village must be led by a strong leader, willing to work with GCF to complete the project
- The school/village must be supported by a strong community willing to work with the principal or leader of the school
- The Regional General Manager must meet with the leader of the school/site and determine if the project is worthy and if the leader and community will be able to manage the project.
What is the structure to ensure ongoing accountability?
Regional associates work directly with school and community leadership to oversee the implementation of projects, submitting photos and receipts upon completion.
How are your employees and your company involved in the projects?
Our regional associates work with leaders of schools and communities to identify needs and projects. Regional associates manage funds and follow up to ensure that the projects reflect initial agreements.
In the last 26 years, the Grand Circle Foundation’s Community Service Team, led by Grand Circle associates, has donated more than 100,000 hours of service to local non-profits. More than 90 percent of associates participate each year in over 75 events around the globe.
What have been staff reactions?
Our associates have shared very positive feedback regarding the company’s impact tourism initiatives, such as:
“We got a lot of experiences and memories that we will never forget. Some of them are missing their parents, some are thanking to us, and some have ambitions for their future. We are proud that our activity today is a part of helping change people’s lives for the community who are in need.” – Frankie Nyi Nyi Naing, Country Manager, GCC Burma
“Great job team and GCF please continue making good karmas to support our community education and the world like this. Many thanks OAT.” – Toui, Local Guide
“The very remarkable support to Laos community ever. I as a country boy too so I believe the education is so needed for their young generation. Please keep it up GCF. Thanks from my hearts.” – Khamsouk, Local Guide
How are funds raised from travelers?
Travelers know that 100% of their gifts go toward the project of their choice, with no administration fees, as Alan and Harriet Lewis fund all operating expenses.
How do you solicit donations?
Our monthly newsletter contains information regarding GCF projects. Travelers receive a GCF pamphlet along with their trip materials prior to departure. In addition, trip leaders share information with travelers in-country prior to GCF site visits.
Are donations tax deductible?
Yes, 100% tax deductible. GCF is a 501c3.
How are funds distributed?
Funds are wired either to the school directly or to the regional office overseeing the project.
To date, how much has been raised?
On average, 10,000 people donate $1M annually. However, in conjunction with the Lewis Family Foundation, $200M has been pledged or donated since 1981.
Do project funds go into a separate account or to a foundation to ensure transparency and separation from business revenue? If not, what is your process to ensure financial accountability of donated funds?
Funds are disbursed either to the school directly or to the regional office overseeing the project. Our regional offices are required to submit photos of completed projects along with receipts for all expenses.
Do you offer opportunities for voluntourism and/or material donations? Why or why not?
Our travelers often purchase items while on a trip to be donated to a school or community, including school supplies, food and even goats! In Tanzania, travelers visit the ceramic water factory and purchase water filters which are then donated to local villagers while on the trip, or delivered to schools at a later date. We do not offer voluntourism opportunities.
How is the impact tourism promoted or marketed to guests?
Our travelers receive a pamphlet about Grand Circle Foundation along with their trip materials. Overseas Adventure Travel itineraries include details about our A Day in the Life experience, which frequently involves visiting a local school.The travelers may observe a class in progress and then interact with children for an English lesson, helping read story books. Interaction is determined based on the age group being visited. If the children are very young (i.e., kindergarten or first grade age) interaction may be only as a group – singing a song, asking questions as translated by the trip leader.
What type of educational opportunities and/or materials do you give to travelers?
Travelers learn about Grand Circle Foundation and projects it supports through the website and their trip materials.
Overseas Adventure Travel trips provide cultural immersion opportunities to travelers. In Tanzania, travelers visit the water filter factory and deliver filters. All travelers receive a monthly newsletter highlighting Grand Circle Foundation projects.
How do you ensure that your values and approach align with the community supported?
When assessing how we can help the people, schools and communities we visit, we always ask for the wisdom of local leadership and the involvement of the community to ensure we are providing what is needed.Our regional associates work with leaders of schools and communities to identify needs and projects. We engaged in continous feedback from local leadership and the community.
Has there ever been a time when adjustments to your approach or project have needed to be made as a result of community feedback? Please explain how you were able to adapt.
In Indonesia, we were funding the installation of pipes and motorized pumps to bring water from a reservoir to a village. The village chief and elders decided to cancel the project because they believed that the holy spirits dwelling in the sacred spring only approved the project to be as far as the completion of the water reservoir. A village elder suggested that the reason might have been because the holy spirits want the local people to make the efforts to collect the water from the reservoir to appreciate how precious the water is. If the water were pumped through the pipeline, it would be too easy for the people to obtain and there was a fear that the water might be wasted.
To adapt the project plan, the funds for the piping to be brought down to the village were redirected towards a water storage tank instead that would be utilized by both the school and the village. The area receives about 7 months of rain annually so the rainwater would be diverted into the storage tanks for dry season usage.
Community Partner Perspectives: Sarah Adams, Community Sustainability and Evaluation Trainer, Children in the Wilderness (partner in Zimbabwe)
Project was to train an initial group of eight women in Jabulani, Zimbabwe to recycle and repurpose paper meant for the landfill into something new.
A green village is in the process of being established in Jabulani, a community located 20 kilometres from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The aim of this initiative is to bring together people who are interested in establishing income-generating projects that are environmentally friendly, thus helping reduce waste that goes to landfill. Papermaking is one of the projects that has just been established here, and recently, eight women began their training with the Mapepa Culture Fund on how to use the equipment. With much enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect of recycling old paper into something new, the training is a huge success so far. The idea is that these women will go on to teach other members of the community so that skills are developed among a wider section of the community.
This project will enable paper waste to be recycled and repurposed, instead of ending up in landfill. It will also be sustainable, as there will always be a constant supply of paper waste from the surrounding community and Victoria Falls. Recycled paper has many uses, such as making new exercise books for the schools, but also the creation of bespoke cards or writing paper: something that is highly attractive to overseas visitors as something small to take home with them as souvenirs.
Income-generating groups also have significant positive effects for communities. Skill development, community empowerment and collaboration, and the income generated within these groups allows the members to pay their children’s school fees – a significant issue in Zimbabwe – as well as increase overall household income and reduce solid waste.
The community members involved with this project are highly motivated and have taken ownership of their group.