After months in Africa this past spring, which was a tough trip for me, I spent summer on a hiatus from A Little Adrift and instead headed to the beach with my nieces and nephews, hiked a bit in the Pacific Northwest, spoke at convention in Atlanta, dinner-ed with friends in Florida, and lost myself in the streets of New York City. It was a needed break. But now, as hurricane season approaches Florida, the patter of raindrops and cool breezes send me back to my computer. And so, as I finish editing my 6,000+ photos from Africa, I’d like to share the what, why, and how about Grassroots Volunteering, a project I’ve mentioned a few times on A Little Adrift but somehow never formally shared.
I beta-launched Grassroots Volunteering in 2011, three years into my travels, and the site grew slowly in the background since then. As I traveled and learned more about the humanitarian and volunteering industries, the site’s mission solidified to give travelers the tools to connect with local causes and communities all over the world. My trip to Africa expanded my understanding of the effects—both positive and negative—that travelers have on the places they visit and further shifted the way GV supports travelers wanting to be of service on the road.
GV grew into the community we have today because of the people who believed in the idea in the early days, as well as the early adopters using the site on their round the world trips. So before I delve into the specifics of what it is, why it’s important, and how I could use your help, a sincere and heartfelt thanks to those who have helped shape Grassroots Volunteering.
- Bridgid and Brian, a husband and wife duo who built and coded the first iteration of the site; they created a dynamic, flexible site designed to grow with the GV community.
- Hannah Loaring, the designer who transformed A Little Adrift last summer, donated her skills and created the beautiful, hand-painted logo you see on the GV site today.
- National Geographic Traveler, they believed in the site before I was even confident GV was ready for a full launch into the world; they helped grow the community wider and deeper than I could have imagined.
Why is Grassroots Tourism Important?
The global travel and tourism industry is one of largest job creators in the world. This massive industry has the potential to become an equalizer and the greatest redistribution of wealth from developed economies to developing economies as tourists from all over the world put their money directly into local hands rather into the teeming bank accounts of multinational corporations. And yet, this is largely not happening, and is particularly not happening in the countries with the most need. The United Nations Environmental Programme notes that:
Of each US$ 100 spent on a vacation tour by a tourist from a developed country, only around US$ 5 actually stays in a developing-country destination’s economy.
As much as 95% of the money generated by an international trip is not serving the destination, people, or communities you pass through. Much of this comes from the effects of packaged tours and cruises, but travelers at every level often gravitate toward slick marketing and recognizable names when traveling, which are often signs of foreign influence. I saw so many signs of this trend in Africa; the safari companies with the largest marketing budgets receive the bulk of international money, even though small local operators offer boutique experiences just as likely to deliver an incredible trip to the Serengeti.
The alternative to this trend is deceptively simple: let’s shift the conversation to leaving leave more money inside the countries you visit.
It’s not a panacea, but it’s one more step in the right direction. And riding alongside this idea of grassroots level travel is the voluntourism industry, which is seeing astronomical year-on-year growth. Packaged voluntourism experiences have similar fault-lines to packaged travel—in most cases they miss the point of lasting economic impact. GV’s mission is to decommodify the volunteering industry and offer local organizations a platform to share their long-term volunteering opportunities.
My piece on the National Geographic blog provides more details on this idea shifting tourism dollars to local-level businesses as one effective part of the solution for addressing poverty.
What Exactly is GV?
Grassroots Volunteering is a dual database of independent, long-term volunteer opportunities and community-based social enterprises. These two databases form a core knowledge-base from which travelers can pull grassroots travel experiences that fit the needs of their next trip. The volunteering database displays more traditional forms of long-term international volunteering, while the social enterprise database supplements traditional travel—you use your time in a new city to patronize restaurants and organizations with an underlying social mission.
Social Enterprise Database
Not every (not even most) vacations are a good-fit for volunteering overseas, for that reason, the concept of supporting social enterprises is one I am particularly passionate about. Social enterprises are for-profit businesses operating to help address local social issues, usually through skills training and capacity-building, and are often funded by tourism dollars.
GV’s geo-located social enterprise database supports a sustainable tourism model that helps travelers engage in thoughtful, purposeful travel that expands perceptions and immerses them within the community. Travelers also leave their tourism dollars directly with the local communities and people; they give support and aid by exchanging their tourism dollars for locals services and experiences.
Independent Volunteering Database
Over the years, I have shifted and refined GV’s volunteering database to better support organizations relying on long-term skilled volunteers or interns. That being said, there are trips and projects in need of short-term help as well, and so GV’s volunteer database includes a mix of hand-vetted volunteer projects all over the world.
These projects are generally low-cost and take out the middle-man, which means it’s ideal for more confident travelers willing to research their destination and travel without some of the facilitation inherent in the massive voluntourism companies. Though vetted, anyone contacting a volunteer project should ask lots of questions and ensure their trip is a good-fit for what the organizations and communities need from their volunteers.
How Does GV Find Projects?
I funded Grassroots Volunteering myself, and the database is forever free for travelers. Like A Little Adrift, GV is ad-free and organizations cannot pay to be listed. Instead, organizations are hand-vetted before being added to the site. Members of the GV community regularly email me with their successes and the joys they found in supporting one of the listed organizations. Emails like:
“I used your site to support an organization in Guatemala, I’m in Ecuador now and here’s a local organization I found doing good work and in need of support.”
That is the heart of the GV database. One recommendation opened a traveler up to looking at communities in a new light. This network of travelers has vetted projects on-the-ground and added their discoveries into the database, expanding GV’s reach. But there’s more work to be done and I alone cannot map the world.
The GV Ambassadors program launched early this year, and in June seven GV Ambassadors committed to mapping the world as they travel. Ideal Ambassadors are expats and long-term travelers keen to volunteer their time to expand the database to better serve travelers walking the path after them. This is the single most important way to expand GV’s impact and ability to help a range of travelers connect to social causes and communities on their travels.
If you’re interested, I would love your help as a GV Ambassador mapping the world.
How Can You Help?
NatGeo Traveler‘s feature last year gave the project wings sooner than expected and spurred the sites most rapid growth to date. To continue growing, this is a call to arms for all readers who believe in the site’s mission and in the ability for the choices each of us make as we travel to catalyze positive change.
If you like the project, the mission, or even just like me enough to support something I am working on, here are a few ways I could use your help:
- Use the site on your next trip. Though still growing, our database of social enterprises span the globe. Join GV on Facebook, Twitter, or via Email.
- Help map the world. If you’re a frequent traveler, expat or planning a round-the-world tripper, dedicate a tiny part of your time to find and vet projects for all the travelers coming after you. There are now seven ambassadors mapping regions of the world, join them.
- Spread the word. Help this project and mission spread far and wide. Mention the site to any friends planning their vacation, share GV on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Heck, I’ll even take good vibes. :)
Right now, GV is small but mighty. As more GV Ambassadors join, we are on target to expand manifold by next summer and truly become a hub of businesses and organizations all over the world in need of tourism and travel support. I believe in GV’s ability to shift perspectives and encourage a new wave of travelers setting off on their adventures to focus on supporting ethical and sustainable approaches to tourism.
Thank you for your help!