Archive | May, 2016

Time has come to re-think Travel Philanthropy

Leadership of mainstream tourism has long promoted travel as a force for good. The objective was threefold:

  1. for tourism to be taken seriously and inbound investment encouraged by politicians, policy makers, leading economic institutions, investors and economic development decision makers;
  2. to attract more subsidies, tax breaks and funds for marketing; and
  3. to reduce taxes and restrictions affecting the free movement of people.

The arguments were mostly economic (income, jobs, foreign exchange and taxes) but not necessarily complete. Dr. Rebecca Hawkins’ discussion Measuring What Matters In Tourism is more generous in her summation of the tourism promise. Discussion of the wide range of costs associated with this economic activity has been left largely to academics, consultants, NGOs, journalists, bloggers and film makers. Attempts by third parties to insist that mainstream tourism contain or reduce the costs, pay for externalities (emissions, pollution, congestion) and increase net benefit to host communities have generally been resisted or even framed as anti growth. The task of filling the yawning gap between cost and benefit has been relegated to philanthropy, the “third sector” and government.

Such a stance went unquestioned when society shared an understanding of how the world and the economy works – namely that “the planet is a material object replete with resources (including people) available for those with the capital to exploit for the purpose of maximizing their shareholders’ wealth.”   In my experience, the vast majority of tourism “operators” regardless of the size of operation, have, until recently, subscribed to the position so clearly promulgated by the Nobel prize wining economist Milton Friedman who, as early as 1969, wrote:

Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for shareholders as possible.


Philanthropy in Tourism 2001-2015

traveler's philanthropy handbook


The term Traveler’s Philanthropy emerged from the responsible/sustainable travel movement. Michael Seltzer coined the term in 2001 in a series of meetings convened by what is now CREST, the Centre for Responsible Travel. Since then, two major publications, The Travel Philanthropy Handbook published by CREST in 2011 and Advances in Travel Philanthropy, a report prepared for the WTM World Responsible Tourism Day in 2009 by Harold Goodwin & Lucy McCombes confirm that tourism has applied the original approach to philanthropy by positioning it as outside normal business; involving donations of time, money and resources by the privileged to the poor.

…Traveler’s Philanthropy is tourism businesses and travelers making concrete contributions of “time, talent, or treasure‟ to local projects that is beyond what is generated through normal tourism business transactions. Michael Seltzer, 2001
Travel Philanthropy refers to the donating of money, in-kind resources (office equipment, flights and accommodation) or time (mentoring or volunteering) occasioned or facilitated by travel. Harold Goodwin & Lucy McCombes, 2009

In short, both reports define that philanthropy is an act of charity, of giving from a privileged donor (the tourist) to a less privileged recipient, possibly (but not necessarily) enabled, encouraged and sometimes matched by the host enterprise (business).

The context in which the first definition of Traveler’s Philanthropy was presented has changed dramatically. The definition pre-dated the diffusion of mobile phones and social media, the full impact of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, widespread awareness of climate change, the spread of globalization, recognition of wealth disparity as an economic and social risk, distrust of business, the rise and maturation of Corporate Social Responsibility, the demand for greater transparency and a growing rejection of the point of view expressed by Milton Friedman.

Furthermore, Travel Philanthropy was introduced when the very first members of the Millennial Generation were just entering post secondary education or taking a gap year before doing so and their youngest counterparts were barely four years old. In response to this demographic surge, Educational-youth travel, Millennial Travel, and Voluntourism literally “ took off like a rocket”. According to the World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation.

the youth, student and educational travel market now accounts for over 20% of all international arrivals (equals to 207 million arrivals and US$194 billion in 2012 and is expected to grow to 300 million arrivals by 2020 when it will represent US$320 billion in market value.

Young people throughout the world increasingly see participating in international travel as both a right and a rite of passage and as essential preparation for participation in a globalized economy with multi-ethnic work forces. If travel experience embellishes a resume, then time spent volunteering looks even better.


While “voluntourism,” the subset of the youth market that can be identified as specifically “philanthropic,” is relatively small (see graph ) it has stimulated huge controversy and has attracted considerable media coverage. The mainstream industry (tourism operators and destinations) simply weren’t prepared for the demand by a sub segment of the youth market to want to “give back” nor for the immediate appearance of tour operators willing to “exploit” this fledgling and totally unregulated market.


youth travel market

Areas Needing a Re-think

The controversy does, however, point to an urgent need to understand why this aspect of travel philanthropy has, in many cases, done more harm than good, so that we can start to deliver real net benefit in the future. For that to happen, regulations or restrictions won’t be enough – we need a complete re-think:

  1. Acknowledge that the mainstream industrial model of tourism currently relies on an imbalance of economic power based on the notion of separation between origin and destination, guest and host, investor with capital and a resource to be exploited. Where philanthropy is concerned, the power play is between donor and recipient – volunteers feel good by being seen to do good to or donate to another in “need.” Travel philanthropy like most CSR practices is a “bolt on” activity “outside normal business transactions” that provides a “feel good” outcome but does little to redress the imbalance of power, and may well accentuate it by upholding “business as usual.”
  2. Recognize that mainstream tourism is currently an extractive industry. By promising so many benefits (jobs, income, foreign exchange and, in some cases, even peace) but failing to count or mitigate the costs (over use of resources, degradation of culture and environment; poor wages) and assuming that profits can and should accrue to those with capital over those offering labour, tourism has been able to exploit places and people without their full assent.
  3. Stop using CSR and philanthropic practices  to justify ignoring some of the structural and systemic flaws of the current system. A tourism economy can only be considered a community success if the social impact – in terms of community wellbeing, welfare and the net benefit improves in concert with growth. A far better philanthropic outcome will only occur when success is re-defined from the growth of enterprises and volume of visitors to enhanced qualitative social, environmental and personal development. A new definition will necessitate the development of new metrics. See Dr. Hawkins post on this subject here.
  4. Allow and empower destination communities to shape the scale, scope and type of tourism they wish to support. Much is made of the human right to travel and turn up on another’s door step unannounced or without adequate preparation for the consequences, yet very little is said of the right of a destination community to say either “No thanks” or to try to shape the kind of visitation that ensues. Similarly while youth are encouraged to travel to see the world from a different perspective, many of its economic leaders and mainstream media within and outside tourism continue to insist that there is no alternative to business as usual.

    Travel Philanthropy is currently demand driven; oriented to the needs of the donor/volunteer; and is not need directed

    The infrastructure of the visitor economy comprises enterprises and destinations focused more or less exclusively on demand generation and the capacity for destination development, capacity building, community engagement, forming linkages between sub sectors, mitigating negative impacts and anticipating external shocks is seriously under-developed.

  5. Adjust to the fundamental changes taking place in values and attitudes regarding the role of business. Many leading businesses, which are not only the most innovative but also the most profitable, are finding ways to embed sustainability and philanthropy into their DNA by aligning their business purpose with the challenge of solving societal and biophysical challenges. For example, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) is a coalition of CEOs united in the belief that societal improvement is an essential measure of business performance. Founded in 1999, CECP has grown to a movement of more than 150 CEOs of the world’s largest companies across all industries whose combined gross revenues exceed $7 trillion annually. CECP’s CEO has this to say:

    The corporate world has undergone a profound and exciting transformation in recent years. As we have moved from the industrial era to the information age, missions and markets have come into new alignment. Never since the dawn of capitalism have purpose and profit been in greater sync for so many companies.

    It’s not that members of the C-suite have suddenly discovered altruism. Rather, today’s instantaneous, transparent, and hyper-connected exchange of data has spawned a new reality. In a world where all stakeholders—customers, neighbors, regulators, and shareholders—can see inside the enterprise, leaders in the corporate sector have committed to an enlightened self-interest in societal investment.

    Conceiving and executing a “giving” strategy need not entail a zero-sum construct that opposes “making money.” Indeed, when corporate societal investment harmonizes with a company’s business strategy, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

In one of the CECP publications, Business at its Best: Driving Sustainable Value Creation co-written with Accenture, the authors observe:

a business at its best is a company that has overcome the traditional strategic and operational divisions between advancing the performance of the enterprise and promoting the wellbeing of citizens and communities. It’s a company that recognizes an opportunity to 
play a positive role in addressing fundamental societal issues—seeing those issues not merely as problems to be addressed through charity alone, but instead as the seeds of innovation and growth.

CECP is one of many different initiatives within the business community that includes Sustainable Brands, Plan B, Conscious Capitalism, Business as an Agent of World Benefit, Economics for the Common Good, The Next System Project, Inclusive Capitalism. and Blueprint for a Better Business (UK) that are united by a common focus –to find ways in which business can generate profits by creating products and services that address fundamental societal needs. A handful (less than 10) major tourism companies are currently involved in these initiatives.

But it is not big business that is likely to make the difference in tourism although it can send strong signals to the marketplace for others to follow. Tourism is comprised mostly (95-99%) of place-based small to medium sized enterprises and change will most effectively take place from the bottom up as these players assume greater control over their own destiny and as different organizational structures, such as social enterprises, cooperatives and not-for-profits, which can deliver benefits throughout a community, are encouraged to flourish.

We know that many travelers want to help. Tourism Cares recently commissioned Phocuswright to scope the Philanthropic Profile of the American Traveler:

  • 55% of all travelers have given back to a leisure destination, either with their time (volunteer work) or through cash or in-kind donations.
  • Nearly half of all travelers attach a very high degree of importance to having their travel spend and donations make a positive difference to local communities in their vacation locations.

We are also witnessing the rise of social impact investing. The Chairman of the UK Government’s Social Impact Investment Taskforce, Sir Richard Cohen, stated in the opening words of the report Impact Investment: The Invisible Heart of Markets:

The world is on the brink of
a revolution in how we solve society’s toughest problems. The force capable of driving this revolution is ‘social impact investing’, which harnesses entrepreneurship, innovation and capital to power social improvement.

Impact investment is growing fast. The amount invested by the 125 leading impact investors is forecast to grow by nearly 20% this year, according to the latest study by the Global Impact Investment Network (GIIN) and JP Morgan. Given that $45 trillion are in mainstream investment funds that have publicly committed to incorporate environmental, social and governance factors into their investment decisions, it would only need a small fraction of this money to start moving into impact investment for it to expand rapidly along the growth path to the mainstream previously taken by venture capital and private equity.

The serious question that now needs addressing is – how do we ensure that this huge demand to “do good, ” “give back” and invest for a social as well as a financial return, truly meets the needs of the host communities in the places they visit. The tourism industry has known for over a decade just how little money spent in a destination has really trickled down – A UNEP sponsored web page (un-dated) estimated that only 5 cents in every dollar spent by a visitor staying in an all inclusive resort, for example, stays in the destination to be shared by the host community. Surely a real philanthropic achievement will occur when we have collectively found a way to improve significantly on that simple measure?



The workshop is now full but contact me ( with the headline Measuring What Matters and I’ll make sure you get a copy of the report following the work.


Travel + Social Good: It All Starts with WHY?

travel +social good banner

On Wednesday of this week I set off for New York to join 150 people committed to figuring out how to make responsible tourism go mainstream at the  Travel + Social Good 2016 Summit.

I’m encouraged because it won’t be a talkfest but a re-design workathon. I am particularly pumped up because I’ll be in the company of other Crazy Ones, like members of the Green Program, willing to listen as much as to speak and willing to look at the challenges facing us as both humans and as tourism professionals from many different perspectives.

crazy ones

I am also hopeful that before we rush into “the how,” we’ll acknowledge the critical importance of addressing two critical “why” questions:

  • Why is the mainstream model of tourism – as a collective economic phenomenon practiced for the past 60 + years– becoming so unsustainable?
  • What is the true purpose of a responsible, regenerative alternative?

But I am also a little fearful that out of a desire to be seen to be effective, fast moving, and action-oriented, we’ll confuse design with problem solving/fixing – as an exercise in re-engineering (albeit with a subtler, softer language) based on a belief we can stay in control of our future.

Even though our daily experience of global digital connectivity may have helped us (as both individuals and communities) to see ourselves as self organizing agents in a huge networked system of living systems, we still tend to apply industrial, mechanical tools to address today’s challenges.

For example, a persistent reductionist habit is evident in the way we segment responsible from sustainable, geo from eco, pro poor from community-based and continue to focus on issues as if they were disconnected from one another e.g., women’s rights, biodiversity, animal cruelty, human trafficking, carbon emissions, peace and security.

Answering the questions posed above (in italics) will necessitate our digging deep into root causes and both identifying and questioning the assumptions, values and beliefs that underpin and shape our behaviour.

esinstein quote for blog

While it has become fashionable to repeat the words in the graphic attributed to Albert Einstein, living that truth is very difficult. It requires a level of deep inner reflection and outer observation that very few time-pressed executives and leaders, who know they are judged on actions not thoughts, feel able to take.


When I repeatedly say, “tourism is not an industry but a living human system” most people nod their heads in agreement. Some tell me that they’ve studied systems theory and are familiar with its concepts. To which I say, “Great, but how do we live it?” Not only is that much harder to do but until we wear a systems set of lenses every day, we’ll fail to see how best to act.

Two words, which are appearing with increasing frequency in the business literature are purpose and regeneration, might trigger productive thought as to how live consciously within a system.

At our best, humans are “meaning seeking beings.” Those of us whose survival needs have been met are asking deeper questions – Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my contribution to making the world a better place? Many of our customers are, in fact, travelling on a quest for answers. These are questions that apply to all aspects of our life, including economies.

People cogently asking the question “What’s an economy for? include Kate Raworth (Doughnut Economics) and Christian Felber, founder of Economy for the Common Good; along with the members of Conscious Capitalism; Business as an Agent for World Benefit; the Next System Project, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and B-Corp certified companies – to name merely a few of a growing host of individuals actively contributing to redesigning the economy.

Posing this question is crucial because as systems theorists and practitioners will tell us – you can’t direct a system, you can only disturb it. And the most effective way of disturbing a system is to change its purpose.

The late Donella Meadows – one of the most articulate and early proponents of a systems perspective has this to say in response to the question, if you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?

Systems thinking requires a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled but they can be redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit form them. We can’t impose our will upon a system, we can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. We can’t control systems but we can dance with them!


Hopefully at the Summit, we’ll start with an inquiry into the purpose of tourism and hospitality. Readers of my blog will know it’s one of my favourite questions and most popular topics ( see Why should these graduates work for you?)

  • Is tourism simply about maximizing shareholder profit or enabling all its stakeholders to flourish?
  • Is the purpose of a destination and the agencies responsible for it simply to attract more visitors (to grow in volume) or to ensure this activity generates greater net benefit (measured both quantitatively and qualitatively) for all stakeholders?
  • What – especially from a systems point of view – does a successful, flourishing destination look and feel like?
  • Can tourism fulfill a higher purpose and genuinely contribute to making the world a better place and how?

Which leads me to the next word grabbing more business attention: Regenerative.
Another great contemporary writer thinker, Marjorie Kelley, having conducted a through analysis of which financial institutions continued to serve their communities through a period of financial collapse observed in her book Owning Our Future:

You don’t start with the corporation and ask how to redesign it.

You start with life, with human life of the planet and ask…

How do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?

To which I would answer, you can’t do that without changing your mindset and shifting your focus away from mechanics and engineering to living systems and evolution. I am in agreement with another economist turned philosopher-change agent, David Korten whose plain speaking in Change the Story: Change the Future drives the point home:

The only valid purpose of an economy is to serve life. To align the human economy with this purpose, we must learn to live as nature lives, organises as nature organises, and learn as nature learns, guided by a reality-based, life centred, intellectually-sound economics.

It’s because life evolves and is not static that we can never restore something to its original condition nor can we ever succeed in conserving what we have today for future generations. (I was in magical mystical Bali in 1973 – there’s no way a visitors can have that experience today). But what we can do is restore a system’s capacity to continuously self organize and evolve into ever higher levels of complexity, beauty, order, resilience and adaptability.

It’s because of this more accurate understanding of LIFE, that the word sustainability has not succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of the majority.

In A Living Systems Approach to Design, Bill Reed, cofounder of Regenesis starts his presentation with:

Regeneration is about framing restoration as a whole – engaging the earth’s systems, the biotic systems, AND the people of each unique place in a continuous dialogue of restoration and evolutionary development – a healing or “wholeing.”

Regeneration involves inspiration – an act of breathing new life into a person, into an enterprise, a community, a place, an association and a guest!

Finally and this is the point most pertinent to tourism – we can do regeneration best at a community level because first and foremost it involves expressing and celebrating the forms of life that reflect the uniqueness of the place in which life evolves. As we grow in awareness of who we are and why we are here as humans, we are literally re-membering (piecing back together) the whole system of life in each unique place instead of the fragments we have been taught to specialize in. Indigenous people, allowed to live on the land true to the customs and traditions that emerged from it, have never forgotten this living systems knowledge. Our indigenous brothers and systems can help all of us become indigenous again and learn to be living expressions of a place we in tourism call a destination.

Finally to inspire and encourage let me a share a great example presented by the efforts of residents on Inishboffin to ensure their visitor economy flourishes through responsible, community-driven tourism development. My dear friend Mary Mulvey of  Eco Tourism Ireland who inspired and supported the community and, in my opinion, did an amazing job. It’s one example of thousands emerging from the grassroots.

So for all these reasons, I am very excited and inspired by the prospect such great company at the end of this week and exploring how tourism fulfill its true potential as a force for good.

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