Adventure Philanthropy…what the heck is that?

Paul von Zielbauer, a New York Times reporter and Iraq war correspondent, launched Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy,, in 2008 to give more people the chance to explore the world and do good things along the way. I asked him to write a blurb about Adventure Philanthropy and the creation of Road Monkey.

I hear the question more and more nowadays. “What’s Roadmonkey?” When I started Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy Inc. last year, I didn’t have a prepared answer, just an idea to combine ass-kicking adventures and meaningful volunteer work into a new, integrated kind of foreign travel experience. I didn’t know if anyone would think it was a good idea, or if anyone would go with me.

A year or so later, as I write this aboard a 767 flying to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, to meet nine other Roadmonkey expedition members, I have better answers to that question. Roadmonkey means pushing our physical and cultural comfort zones to experience new corners of the planet in an interactive way, and completing a sustainable, custom-made project while we’re there. It means digging below the tourist surface, and getting sweaty and a little dirty in the process. Roadmonkey, in other words, is small-group travel for people who don’t like traveling in groups.

What we practice is the art of “planned serendipity.” That’s what adventure philanthropy is all about.

* * *                              * * *                              * * *

As a reporter for The New York Times, I’ve covered the Iraq war from Baghdad, the American military justice system from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the New York City jail system from Rikers Island. Newspaper reporters are paid (not that well, by the way) to reveal problems that others will hopefully solve. I launched Roadmonkey last year to solve some of the problems I was reporting and writing about, and find some high adventure along the way.

We launched our first adventure philanthropy expedition last November, in Vietnam, a country I first experienced in 1993, when most Westerners were still assumed to be Russian and almost no one north of the former DMZ spoke English. For 9 days, our Roadmonkey crew – four women and seven men, from Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Madrid – cycled through the stunning hills and valleys of northwest Vietnam, near the Chinese and Lao borders, through monsoon rains, cotton-thick mountain fog and past rushing chocolate-colored mountain rivers. (see attached photo)

“It literally takes your breath away,” said one guy in our group, an L.A.-based producer named Philip Ruddy, after bombing down a particularly gorgeous stretch of mountain road.

After covering about 300 miles on bikes, we spent four days building a playground for orphans at a remote facility west of Hanoi. (see attached photo) We used money Roadmonkey raised with its non-profit partner in Vietnam, the Worldwide Orphans Foundation,

Watching the kids jump and play on that playground was extraordinarily gratifying, and that feeling is also what Roadmonkey want to be about on each expedition we lead.

I think we’re have a good start in Tanzania now. For six days, we’ll climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, all 19,345 feet, arriving at dawn on June 26. Then, after an 8-hour “buffalo bus” ride from Moshi, at the base of the mountain, to Dar es Salaam, on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast, we’ll go to work building a clean-water system and painting classrooms at a small school for about 100 children, one-third of whom have been orphaned by East Africa’s AIDS epidemic.

This November, Roadmonkey heads back to Vietnam, this time to cycling through the central highlands for a week, then build a small farm at a boarding school for ethnic minority kids, with our non-profit partner there, the East Meets West Foundation, The farm will grow vegetables and fruit that will be sold at market to help more kids pay tuition and get a solid education in one of Vietnam’s poorest regions.

Next year, Roadmonkey pioneers adventure philanthropy in two new places: Peru and Nicaragua, where the adventure will involve surfing (lessons) and river kayaking through the Peruvian Amazon, on our way to building more playgrounds and more clean-water systems for villages that now drink contaminated well water.

So now when someone asks me, “What is Roadmonkey?” I give them a much better answer.

American International Volunteering Time Valued at $3.5 Billion

Paul Joss sent me this press release that the BBC put out in conjunction with the Hudson Institute – interesting figures below, what do you make of them? $3.5 Billion in volunteering time!

American International Volunteering Time Valued at $3.5 Billion

WASHINGTON—Based on an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Population Survey’s (CPS) annual volunteering supplement and Independent Sector’s annual calculation of volunteering time, Americans contributed an estimated $3.5 billion in volunteer time to the developing world in 2007, according to the recently released Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances published annually by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity (CGP).

This year’s Index reports that in 2007 more than one million Americans traveled abroad to volunteer, contributing $2.7 billion in volunteer time. Additionally, 341,000 volunteers contributed their time to international organizations in the U.S. amounting to $780 million.

“This recent data from the Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances reinforces what we are seeing and what we’re working for,” says Paul Joss, Managing Director of the Building Bridges Coalition, a consortium of 210 member organizations working to increase the number, quality and positive impacts of international volunteer efforts.  “As more people volunteer their time towards global causes, the size and impact of this force for good becomes enormous.  There are so many well-run programs that opportunities for international volunteering exist for nearly anyone who is interested.”

Americans are finding many different ways to contribute their time and energies to worthwhile causes overseas.  Many Americans volunteer through international volunteer organizations and faith-based mission agencies that connect volunteers with grassroots organizations in the developing world and manage all of the necessary trip logistics.  Students are taking service-oriented alternative spring break trips and volunteering during summer break. Corporate America is also involved.  According to a recent survey of 43 Fortune 500 CEOs by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), 42 percent of respondents had at least one International Corporate Volunteering (ICV) program.

The Index is the sole comprehensive guide to the sources and magnitude of private philanthropy from U.S. foundations, corporations, private and voluntary organizations (PVOs), volunteers, colleges and universities, and religious congregations to the developing world. This year’s Index finds that these sources contributed a total of $36.9 billion in 2007, over one and one-half times U.S. government aid for the same period.

For more information about the Building Bridges Coalition efforts to increase international volunteering, visit  To view the new Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances, visit Hudson Institute’s CGP on the Web at

# # #

Hudson Institute is a nonpartisan policy research organization dedicated to innovative research and analysis that promotes global security, prosperity, and freedom.

The Building Bridges coalition is a consortium of leading international volunteering organizations, corporations, colleges & universities and government agencies working collaboratively to double the number of people volunteering overseas by 2010.  The Building Bridges Coalition is a project of the Brookings Institution’s Initiative on International Volunteering & Service.

Volunteer Vacations: Save the Sea Turtles, Save the World?

Awesome article just out from Julie at, I took her on this FAM back in the day to Gandoca – really interesting perspective and honest look at voluntourism.

On her last volunteer vacation to Costa Rica, Julie Manis was tested to her limits while helping to save the Leatherback sea turtles. Here, she explores how would-be voluntourists can thoroughly vet a program before signing away their vacation time.

“That’s crazy.”

This was my friend’s response when I told him about a recent trip to Costa Rica, where I’d spent my vacation trying to help save endangered Leatherback sea turtles.

He got right to the point: “So wait a minute. People pay their way there. They work for free. And they also pay for the privilege?”

Trying to explain voluntourism to a pragmatic person isn’t easy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand the desire to help. Everyone is aware that the world is full of hunger and hurt, and that our planet itself is in dire need of care.

The truth is, local volunteerism is at an all-time high. recently reported that they’ve made more than 4 million referrals to people who have visited the site looking for ways help out in their community.

Even President Obama is encouraging American citizens to engage in volunteer service. Free work is the new donation. But Americans shouldn’t confuse volunteer trips with charity, at least as far as taxes are concerned. According to IRS publication 526, travel costs can be deducted only if there is no “significant element of personal pleasure, recreation or vacation in the travel.”

But paying to work? And working during your vacation time? Some would say that smacks of workaholism. Of course, you’re not doing your own work, you’re in an interesting setting, and—given the right project—you have the opportunity to change, if not the world, at least a tiny part of it.

Those who have ever considered becoming a voluntourist, have probably shared some of my friend’s concerns. “How are you sure they even know what they’re doing?” and, “All this money you’re paying—where does it go?”

Actually, it’s hard to know who’s doing what. The first thing to realize when looking for the right volunteer trip is the over-abundance of possibilities.

Google a country and the word “volunteer,” or even a specific interest, and you’ll be overwhelmed with hits. Does a fancy Web site with all the bells and whistles mean the charity has its act more together? Does a plain Web page mean it’s more sincere, giving more of the proceeds directly to the project? Both are silly ways to evaluate an organization, but it’s hard not to be swayed by a poignant photo.

Read the full article here:

Voluntourism – Just for WASPs???

Interesting article I found on the Suburban Struggle blog – what do you think, is voluntourism just for WASPs??

“Like unpaid internships, WASPs can be held responsible for keeping the voluntourism industry alive and well.  WASPs love nothing better than getting in touch with their philanthropic side by travelling to a developing country and volunteering at a local school, AIDS clinic, or grassroots NGO.  Voluntourism, like the unpaid internship, allows WASPs to combine quasi-legitimate work with a vacation.  In addition to boosting their resume, they get to travel to an exotic place and add more stamps to their passport.

Voluntourism is so attractive to young WASPs because of its “real” factor.  Unlike their parents, who are more likely to give to the poor via charity balls and auctions, the younger generation likes to get down and dirty.  Well, not really that dirty.  If they have the time and internet connection to post pictures of themselves playing with African children on facebook, it is safe to assume that they are doing pretty well over there.  At least better than the local population that they are helping.  Nevertheless, voluntourism does force WASPs out of their comfort zone and asks them to interact with people who are different, which is a startling experience for most white people, and so we suppose that they deserve some credit.

Voluntourism also helps with the WASP with their street cred, which they are sorely lacking.  Most WASPs hail from quiet suburbs such as the one featured in the movie “Pleasantville.”  They are desperate to travel to other countries so that they can prove that they are not that white and have some awareness of the world around them.  Therefore, the more dangerous the place, the better the cred.  Going to Rwanda, for example, is considered soooo cool because there was, as you may have heard, a genocide there not too long ago.  In fact, voluntourism occurs all the over the world, but anywhere in Africa is pretty much considered the trump card of street cred.

Neither of the two authors of this blog have had the opportunity to partake in any voluntourism yet (you better believe we are looking into it), but three summers ago I worked (volunteered) in the office of an organization that ran voluntourism trips.  One of my responsibilities was photocopying and filing applications – 98% of them were from white people with university degrees.  Based on this sampling, we have strong evidence to suggest that voluntourism really is a WASP phenomenon.”

Faceless NGOs and Voluntourism

Sarah Van Auken who runs the Volunteer Global blog recently wrote a post called ‘Faceless NGOs’ and it struck on something I’ve believed for a long time. On most voluntourism operator sites the projects/NGOs are talked about but never named and their stories are never fully told. What has this community accomplished as a result of volunteers, what do they have to say, is there a picture of them, what are their development goals?

I understand that there is a hesitance to give NGO names as travelers could go direct, but why not tell their story more on your site? It’s one of the main things travelers ask for when comparing trips.

“Something I’ve noticed while researching international volunteer opportunities is the surprising number of groups who give little to no information about their in-country partners.

I see all too often something like, “Our group works with an organization/NGO in your host community to acheive our common goal of sustainable development/education/child care/etc.” With NO mention of who that NGO or small group is, whether they have a site you can visit, whether it’s run by locals, or what.

My first reaction when coming across groups like these has been to remove them from my website. I see this more often with larger placement groups that serve as a sort of travel agent, rather than volunteer organization. It’s easy to weed these ones out…but I’m concerned that even the small groups who work in one or two communities still have a hard time listing who they work with.

At the very least, could they at least say the name of the NGO? I can see the concern here, as the umbrella groups have a business to run…however, I feel it’s insulting to the NGO to be completely faceless on its “partner” organization’s website, handbook, etc.”

Int’l Volunteer Service – A Smart Way to Build Bridges

The Brookings Institution has released a new policy brief written by three long-standing BBC leaders and champions of international service: David Caprara, Kevin Quigley and Lex Rieffel. It is entitled “International Volunteer Service: A Smart Way to Build Bridges” and is a great paper that discusses different models of multilateral international service.

You can download the full paper here

Voluntourism – Right or Wrong?

Interesting press release from Planeterra – what do you think of their best practices??

Voluntourism – it’s been a hot item in articles, tweets and blogs lately. We define it as travel experiences that provide the opportunity to contribute to local community projects and development initiatives with some time off to visit the highlights of that particular destination or country.

This kind of travel creates opportunities for greater interaction with local communities, so it’s essential that we consider the impacts these trips can have to ensure there are benefits for local people and their environments.

Our friends in the media need to be as concerned as we are because the health and welfare of communities and cultures can be at risk when purposes and good intentions go awry.

Planeterra Foundation, ( the global non-profit dedicated to sustainable community development through travel, challenges you to look closely at the following questions and insofar as possible, share our concerns – which we are sure you will be yours as well – with your audiences.

  • When is my need to “do good” potentially a selfish act on my part?
  • Am I helping or hindering by taking time and resources away from the community and project managers just so I have a “feel good” project to work on?
  • Are valuable time, effort and resources being wasted and misappropriated just to prepare for and accommodate a voluntourist?
  • Can I really make a contribution in a lasting, significant way in the short time I’m there?
  • What is the optimum duration for a meaningful voluntourism stay?
  • Is the project just a “front” for fundraising or attempt to generate exposure, creating contrived situations for my benefit and not really the benefit of the community?

Here’s how we at Planeterra think the growing voluntourism industry needs to address these concerns:

  • Programs must be set up to engage the voluntourist in task-specific scenarios so people can see the tangible results of their contributions.
  • Voluntourism programs are ideally no shorter than five days and optimally 14 days.
  • It’s vital to have a designated tour leader or guide who helps facilitate the volunteer experience so that project staff aren’t taken away from running their regular programs.
  • Designated projects are ongoing and sustainable; they are not simply there just to ‘entertain’ travelers. This being said, many of the activities would be taking place without travelers present, but it is because of the voluntourists that these tasks are able to be completed.
  • It’s important for voluntourists to have realistic expectations; while they won’t change the world by volunteering for a few days, they will open themselves up to learn more about a local community that can be shared with others when returning home.
  • There’s an overall need in the voluntourism travel sector to shift the focus toward sustainability. This enables projects to be taken over eventually by a community, thus minimizing dependence on outside help.
  • Everyone needs to recognize that the end game is total community control and quite possibly the disappearance and solution of issues and conditions that brought the original need for the project – and voluntourists — in the first place.

Here at Planeterra, where there is a need, we recognize it, and we act quickly to meet it. Whatever the voluntour project Planeterra has the insight, agility and technical and financial wherewithal to successfully see it through. Our goal is to empower local people and communities to strengthen their well being while promoting long-term, environmentally responsible growth.

Please call or email if you would like more thinking along these lines.

Richard G. Edwards

Director, Planeterra Foundation