Travelers’ Philanthropy: A Growing Trend in Development Assistance

Thursday, July 2, 2009

By Michael Seltzer
Partner, Philanthropic Services, Rabin Strategic Partners
Philanthropic Advisor and Trustee, EMPower

Grantmakers don’t need to check their values at the airport gate…as a matter of fact, don’t leave home without them!

When we travel, we have the opportunity to leave the best of ourselves behind wherever we go. Today’s traveling grantmakers can choose to minimize their carbon footprint and contribute with time, talent, and treasure to enhance destination communities. That was the core message at a June 16th Philanthropy New York members briefing on the new emerging phenomenon of travelers’ philanthropy.

For foundation and corporate donors, philanthropy need not solely be a desk job. Both work and leisure travel (whether it is within the five boroughs of New York City or around the globe) can provide an opportunity to “travel the talk.”

More than ever before, civic-minded travelers are volunteering and giving financial and material contributions to support schools and medical clinics, to create local livelihoods, and to restore cultural sites and natural settings.

When I directed Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel (BEST) in 1998 after my service as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, I witnessed firsthand the stories of the generosity of individual travelers, such as Dr. Jerold and Dorothy Beeve. They traveled on holiday to the Turtle Island Resort in the Yasawa island chain in Fiji. On their first visit there, Dr. Beeve, an ophthalmologist, discovered that men and women were losing their eyesight in as early as their 30s, due to the absence of medical facilities and personnel who could perform standard cataract surgery.

The experience led the Beeves to make a life-altering decision. First, they spent $42,000 of their own money to create a clinic on Turtle Island outfitted with microscopes, a sterilizer, and other equipment. Then, they decided to voluntarily staff the clinic for two weeks a year. That commitment has extended for over twelve years, and at times up to 20 other healthcare personnel have joined them. Since 1991, the clinic has screened more than 40,000 people and donated close to 20,000 used eyeglasses—and thousands of Fijians have regained their sight.

Is this an isolated incident or an emerging noteworthy development in grassroots philanthropy? And how is this trend of import to foundations and corporations?

An impressive array of leading travel scholars, journalists, and practitioners, including Dr. Martha Honey and Stanford University Anthropology Professor William H. Durham, the co-directors of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), addressed both of these questions. They recounted exciting examples in Kenya, Costa Rica, Tanzania, and other nations. Sven Lindblad, the founder of the company that bears his name, described how his customers are now making a difference in places like the Galapagos Islands through their individual charitable gifts. In the Galapagos, passengers on Lindblad Expeditions’ ship, the SS Polaris, contribute more than $250,000 each year to preserve the world’s most unique biosystem and increase the livelihoods of local residents.

Nik Charov described how the 60,000-plus annual patrons of the New Leaf Restaurant & Bar, located on the grounds of Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan and operated by the New York Restoration Project, are actually travel philanthropists—the restaurant’s profits support the continuing restoration of 4 public parks and 55 community gardens in low-income neighborhoods across the city. Kevin Doyle, Senior Editor of Condé Nast Traveller, also noted how tourism can serve as a spur to sustainable development.

A variety of factors make travelers’ philanthropy a noteworthy trend for private foundations and corporations:

  • Donors that are interested in a wide range of projects—from the community and economic development of New York City’s neighborhoods to the preservation of coral reefs in the Caribbean to better livelihoods for communities in the Global South—can leverage more resources to augment their grant dollars.
  • Travelers’ philanthropy provides an opportunity to advance development efforts that originate on the local level and have a greater likelihood of making a lasting difference in poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation.
  • Human talent can be engaged and mobilized (in ways that hadn’t been previously envisioned) to transform low-income communities—with the least external infusion of charitable or investment dollars.
  • Grantmakers can themselves become responsible travelers when their trustees and staff conduct site visits, attend meetings and conferences, and personally evaluate their supported efforts. Even in places where and on occasions when mass transit is not readily available, we can, for instance, travel by train rather than plane to popular meeting destinations like Washington, DC or rent energy-efficient vehicles from companies like Zipcar.
  • For corporations that are searching for new ways to contribute to the communities where they operate, travelers’ philanthropy provides a ripe opportunity. For example, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Credit Suisse employees have volunteered at two of the neighborhood organizations supported by its grantee EMpower.

Foundations and corporations supporting fields as diverse as environmental conservation, civic engagement and volunteerism, asset-building in low-income communities, women’s empowerment, historic preservation, access to healthcare and quality education, and cultural diversity can enlarge their programmatic impact through investments in travelers’ philanthropy.

Who knew that travel was a way for grantmakers to make such a difference?!?

For more information about travelers’ philanthropy, please see the collected resources from Philanthropy New York’s June 16th members briefing, as well as the following:

In addition to having served as Philanthropy New York’s third President, Michael Seltzer founded and directed Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel (BEST), an initiative of the Conference Board in association with the World Travel and Tourism Council. BEST’s core strategy was to demonstrate how tourism-related companies can effectively advance the well-being of destinations worldwide. Currently, Mr. Seltzer is a Partner at Rabin Strategic Partners, where he is responsible for the firm’s philanthropic services practice.

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