Call for Entries: 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey

Alrighty, friends—we’re ready to start the 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey!

You can view the previous one here (opens in a new tab as a PDF), or on our Voluntourism Research page.

With this report, we want to continue our research to see if the field has expanded, shrunk, changed…well, you get the idea. Your participation in this survey will give us an accurate pulse of the industry within the United States, and will help us as we move forward with research, best practices, and more.

All participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced—for free, and for all to see.

There are two ways to participate: wait until Alexia or I call and harass you, or just send me an email ( with your answers. We’d much prefer an email, as this will help us keep a record of your responses—from you directly—so that nothing gets lost in the mix, and so that we’re both completely on the same page about what you’ve reported.

Also let me know if you’d be willing to send the volunteer survey out among your networks, and I will send you a survey that is branded for your organization.

Criteria to qualify as an operator in this survey:

  • Have a U.S. office
  • Send U.S. volunteers abroad
  • Not faith-based in any way
  • Volunteers must pay for their placement
  • Travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component)

Questions for operators that meet the above criteria:

  • To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  • What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  • How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  • Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  • What is your return rate for volunteers?

Optional, if you have time:

  • Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  • Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  • Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To be included in the report, we ask that you get back to us via email by Friday, April 26. (Update: we’ve heard from those of you who’d like to send your answers along still–please send your surveys ASAP to and we’ll include you in the report!)

Thanks very much—we’re looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

On Client Feedback: Guest Post from Ken Jones of Maximo Nivel

“Feed me…,” not just the words of a hungry child, but the daily demand of any small study abroad or service-learning organization. Or, [maybe] more famously, from the 1980s movie Short Circuit, “Innnpuuut, innnpuuut…” Anyone who runs their own business knows it’s consistently responding to feedback that ensures the organization delivers a great experience for its volunteers and students.Maximo Nivel Logo

The primary means of getting feedback is through client surveys. But feedback is of little use if 1) answer choices aren’t clear, and 2) response rates are low. Thankfully, you’ll find many experts giving advice about:

1) Unipolar versus bipolar response types.
2) What type of rating levels should be used?
3) Should negative responses be listed first?
4) Exactly how should questions be worded?
5) How long should a survey be?

My post here is not an end-all guide for creating the perfect client survey, but the simple, straightforward “survey powered by squirrel” approach we use and have developed over 10 years in business.


Our system is based around physical feedback cards. These are filled out on the volunteer’s last day of their program. We regularly achieve collection rates in excess of 90% of participants, and we do this by requiring our teams to collect a minimum of 90% in order to qualify for team bonuses. A 90+% collection rate helps ensure the results reflect a wide view of our program.

When we miss a volunteer on their last day, we email an electronic feedback form. In our experience though, the physical cards get a far higher response rate and volunteers give us more useful information on them. E-surveys are likely less effective because of crowded email boxes, effective spam filters, and emails are just too easily set aside (and never returned to).
Physical feedback cards also have immediacy—the volunteer’s feelings about the program are upfront and fresh in their mind; it’s not a week or two after the volunteer’s experience.


Our survey fits on a 5 x 7 card. There are 10 key points on which we ask volunteers to rate us. This means when a volunteer looks at our card, it’s something that immediately looks easy to complete and is not time consuming. Volunteers rate us on four areas: Orientation, Accommodation, Volunteer Project, and Our Organization (e.g. Client Service and Facilities).


Most performance review systems use four level, five level , and seven level rating scales. For example:

Always Exceeded Expectations / Frequently Exceeded Expectations / Sometimes Exceeded Expectations / Met Expectations / Sometimes Didn’t Meet Expectations / Frequently Didn’t Meet Expectations / Never Met Expectations

Five level and seven level rating scales are most common and I’m told the most accurate. Be careful, because the experts say 0-10 rating scales reduce reliability and validity. The argument for more options in rating levels is that when there are more answers to choose from, the volunteer has more options to better reflect how they feel, and the survey provides improved granularity for analysis.

The problem with these systems is that I’m never sure what to make of them. Does a 7 out of 10 equate to 70%, so that’s a “C” or “Satisfactory” or is it actually a stronger rating, because it’s above the mid-point (5/10)? Also, what’s the difference between “Okay” / “Satisfactory” / “Fair” / “Acceptable?” And, should these ratings be considered any “good?” Aren’t these just nicer ways of saying “needs improvement?”

To keep things simple and straightforward, we use only three rating levels: “Excellent,” “Good,” and “Needs Improvement.” We look at the volunteer experience in these terms: “Did we exceed, meet, or not meet the volunteer’s expectations?” Three rating levels keeps it super simple!


On the back of our feedback card, we ask our volunteers to give us additional comments. Approximately 70% take the extra minute or two to leave us additional thoughts. These free text answers provide valuable insight into volunteer satisfaction. However, they need to be analyzed and comments need to be categorized for tracking.

We read every single one of them, and we react. If a team member could have been friendlier, this is brought to their attention; if a team member is mentioned by name in a really positive way they’re told and congratulated; if a host family is criticized, we hold a meeting with the family, and so on.

BE REAL—Read, Evaluate, Act, Learn

Most importantly, we track our feedback statistics. These are discussed in weekly team meetings and action points are identified. If there is something very serious, the card is immediately brought to the Executive Director’s desk!

We insist that teams track their results week by week. If feedback statistics are put off until the end of the month, the gathering and reporting becomes too large a task. Also, by looking at statistics week to week, our teams can react more immediately and they’re not “surprised” at the end of the month with lower than expected results.

Finally, volunteers are happy to leave feedback, but they’re even happier when we’ve acted on their feedback. When we identify tough or critical comments we respond to the volunteer. We never respond defensively, though we do take the time to provide things like price breakdowns, answers about our business relationships, our plans for improving a particular project, etc.

In the end, client feedback is an incredibly effective business tool, but it can easily become over complicated. Read up on what the experts have to say and experiment and adapt your process as you go along. Above all, keep it simple and look for ways to drive collection rates as high as you can—this maximizes your input.

Learn more about Maximo Nivel at

Does Your Organization Follow Any Specific Set of Voluntourism Guidelines?

Every few months, a new announcement—or at least discussion—about volunteer travel guidelines flies by my inbox.

Proposals of watchdog groups, new ethical and practical standards, and even research reports find their way onto voluntourism discussion boards like clockwork.

A few we’ve seen in just the past few years:

As many of us know already, there have been rumblings for years about creating a voluntourism umbrella group that would serve to unite providers and neutral parties alike—one that could attempt to pull together the scattered research and varied sets of guidelines set out by the many parties involved or interested in the voluntourism industry. At least from the discussion boards I frequent, I haven’t seen much conversation about this idea actually taking off—but would love to hear feedback from others about whether it’s happening, or whether you think it will or will not happen.

And so with all of that said, my question to you is this: as a volunteer abroad operator, do you adhere to any specific set of guidelines put out by researchers or other providers? From simple guides, to more complex ones, to membership and evaluation groups, have you actively set forth efforts to adhere to any particular set of standards?

And if so, where are you in the process? What have you found to be the most challenging part of following those standards, and what do you do to continually monitor and evaluate them?

Voluntourism Effective Practice Guidelines Published

A great piece of work by the good folks at PEPY Ride and Karina Kloos, what are your thoughts on the guidelines? How can they be improved?

Read the whole version here:

Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices

Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices is designed for tour operators who are looking to or already incorporating volunteer projects into their trips. Additionally, we hope it will also serve development organizations, volunteer tourism participants and community members in helping to identify and engage in great volunteer projects. We gathered research, input and experience from many people working in the areas of voluntourism, development, and traveler’s philanthropy to create this guideline and are grateful for those who have contributed their input. This is a working, living resource, meaning that we are continually seeking feedback in the form of opinions, experiences, lessons learned and anecdotes relating to the outlined effective practices, and responses to the design and content of this guideline. Through our collective efforts, we hope to minimize potentially damaging consequences of volunteer tourism and maximize the good intentions of everyone involved.


1. Responsibly identify partner organizations

This section is intended to help tour operators identify volunteer project partners (NGO, nonprofit, social venture). For tour operators organizing and offering their own volunteer projects directly to participants, the same indicators and questions apply with regard to the projects and host community relations.

Locally Run Community Programs

  • Are project leaders based locally?
  • Are project leaders working in close collaboration with the local community?
  • Are project leaders familiar with the region: local businesses, organizations, government officials; customs, traditions, and laws?

Community Buy-In

  • Was the volunteer project/ community interaction designed in consultation with the community based on community interests and needs?
  • Does the project have the ongoing support and involvement of the community?

Long-Term Program Sustainability

  • Does the partner organization have a stable relationship with the community?
  • Can the partner organization be relied upon throughout the planning and implementation of the project involved?
  • Is the project geared toward building capacity within the community to manage its own long-term development?
  • Was the volunteer project/ community interaction designed to further progress on a larger goal, which existed before volunteers arrive and will continue after they leave?

Corruption Mitigation

  • Has the partner organization developed relationships with community members?
  • Has the partner organization set up a monitoring and evaluation system, which involves checks and balances as well as outsider input and assessment?
  • Does the partner organization have a deep understanding of local customs and laws?
  • Do project leaders speak the local language?
  • If there are select beneficiaries (certain members or families within a community, or one community rather then another) of the program, is the selection criteria transparent?

Documentation and Reporting Structures

  • Can the partner organization demonstrate reliable documentation, measurement and reporting about their organizational operations?
  • Is the partner organization legally registered in the areas in which they work?
  • Are they actively measuring and reporting the short- and long-term effects of their projects?
  • Are the financial reports of the organization transparent, both annual and project-specific reports?
  • Is the partner organization willing to openly discuss the use of the program budget?

Ethos and Ethical Alignment

  • Do you share the social, environmental, and development values of the partnering organization?
  • Do you have a similar philosophical approach towards community development, and ecological / heritage preservation?
  • Do you share the same project goals?
  • Is there clear discussion and understanding of any cultural or organizational differences?
  • Have you consulted references from your own sources (not only sources provided by the partner), to better understand perceptions and impacts of the partnering organization?

2. Build relationships based on collaborative project management and assessment with the partner organization

The impact volunteer tourism trips have on the volunteers and host communities will depend largely on the partnership between the organization and tour operator. Miscommunication, misunderstandings and any problems that exist could potentially undermine the efforts of everyone involved and so it is important to think of how best to manage the communication and responsibilities of the organizers.

Project Monitoring and Assessment

  • Are there communication channels in place for any project updates or changes?
  • Are there monitoring structures in place to evaluate volunteer impact and the capacity to make any necessary adjustments?

Project Follow Through

  • Are there clear expectations of how long the tour operator will provide volunteer support and how that aligns with the expected duration of the project needs?
  • Are there built-in protections in the volunteer projects design against unpredictable fluctuations in the number of volunteer participants? (how might a decline in tourism affect the outcome of the project?)

Volunteer Planning

  • Is it clear who is responsible for providing to volunteers any necessary pre-trip information regarding the issues the volunteer project addresses, the volunteer project itself the partner organization and the host community?
  • Is the partner organization provided with information about volunteers?
  • Is it clear who is responsible for any follow up information or activities with volunteers?

Memorandum of Understanding

  • Have you developed a clear understanding of responsibilities and expectations for both organizations?
  • Do you have in place structures for continual assessment and re-evaluation of partnership relations, project goals, volunteer experiences and community impact?
  • Do you have documentation of all agreements?

3. Ensure beneficial relationship for partner organization and host community

With increasing interest in volunteer tourism, there are increasing demands on tour companies to incorporate volunteer projects in their tours. Tour operators “and volunteers “ should keep in mind how their efforts are actually contributing to the needs of the recipient organization and community.

Volunteer Contribution

  • Do volunteers provide valuable services to the organization and community? (Some questions to consider: Do volunteers provide locally unavailable skilled labor? Do volunteers provide services that would otherwise be costly for partner organizations? Are volunteers taking the place of local jobs?)
  • Does volunteer participation in the project contribute negatively to the local environment?
  • Is volunteer participation culturally appropriate?
  • Will the volunteer be employed in a position, which will create dependence or create a void when the volunteer leaves? Alternatively, will their position build the capacity of local people and programs to better sustain themselves once the volunteer is gone?  (For example, is the volunteer teaching English directly to children? Or teaching teachers how to improve their English thereby providing capacity building to the teachers?)

Financial Contribution

  • Might the financial contribution be more effective than volunteers?
  • Are the financial costs of hosting volunteers considered?
  • Would a financial contribution help to sustain ongoing project needs?
  • Would a financial contribution potentially create any dependencies?


4. Design projects based on local needs and input as well as volunteer sustainability

Again, the increasing demands on tour companies to incorporate volunteer projects in their tours can potentially lead to poorly designed projects that cater to volunteers’ interests rather than – and sometimes at the expense of – the needs of the host organization and community. This section is intended to help ensure that projects are designed on a needs basis.

Project Planning and Design

  • Is a representative from the partner organization and/or community involved in all steps of the volunteer project planning and implementation?
  • Is the community directly contributing to the project in any way?  Did beneficiaries have to earn these contributions in some way?
  • Does the short-term project contribute to the long-term goals and needs of the organization and community?
  • Are volunteer projects adaptable? ie: if project timelines or community needs change, can the volunteer project be altered to meet the new demands?
  • Are projects adaptable to changing tourism trends? ie: might  the project discontinue if tourism declines in that area?

Volunteer Contributions

  • Are volunteers’ skills appropriately matched to the projects’ needs and activities?
  • Are there valuable tasks accessible for non-technical or “unskilled” volunteers, especially if the trip is being solicited to unskilled volunteers?


  • Does planning allow for flexibility if/when the project needs change?
  • Would the timing of the volunteer project potentially keep the progress of the project or other related project on hold?
  • If the trip is designed to be repeated, is there time allowed for potential changes to the volunteer interaction based on the assessment of previous volunteer projects?

Read the whole version here:

Best Practices for Content Optimization

Time for another round of SEO tips from the fine folks at SEOMoz…

Is it possible that in all the years we’ve been writing at SEOmoz, there’s never been a solid walkthrough on the basics of content optimization? Let’s fix that up.

First off, by content, I don’t mean keyword usage or keyword optimization. I’m talking about how the presentation and architecture of the text, image and multimedia content on a page can be optimized for search engines. The peculiar part is that many of these recommendations are second-order effects. Having the right formatting or display won’t necessarily boost your rankings directly, but through it, you’re more likely to earn links, get clicks and eventually benefit in search rankings. If you regularly practice the techniques below, you’ll not only earn better consideration from the engines, but from the human activities on the web that influence their algorithms.

Content Structure

Because SEO has become such a holistic part of website improvement, it’s no surprise that content formatting – the presentation, style and layout choices you select for your content – are a part of the process. Choosing sans serif fonts like Arial and Helvetica are wise choices for the web; Verdana in particular has received high praise from usability/readability experts.

Font choice is accompanied in importance by sizing & contrast issues. Type smaller than 10pt is typically very challenging to parse and in all cases, relative font sizes are recommended so users can employ browser options to increase/decrease if necessary. Contrast – the color difference between the background and text is also critical – legibility usually drops for anything that isn’t black (or very dark) on a white background.

Content length is another critical piece of the optimization puzzle that’s mistakenly placed in the “keyword density” or “unique content” buckets of SEO. In fact, content length can have a big role to play in whether your material is easy to consume and easy to share. Lengthy pieces often don’t fare particularly well on the web, while short form and easily-digestible content often has more success. Sadly, splitting long pieces into multiple segments frequently backfires, as abandonment increases while link-attraction falls – the only benefit is page views per visit (which is why so many CPM-monetized sites employ this tactic).

Last but not least in content structure optimization is the display of the material. Beautiful, simplistic, easy-to-use and consumable layouts garner far more readership and links than poorly designed content wedged between ad blocks that threaten to overtake the page. I’d recommend checking out The Golden Ratio in Web Design from NetTuts, which has some great illustrations and advice on laying out web content on the page.

Read the full article:

Save the Date: Feb 4 – BBC Voluntourism Meeting in DC

The Building Bridges Coalition is holding a voluntourism meeting in DC on February 4th. The details haven’t been finalized yet but I’ll let you know when I know. It seems like quite a few providers from all areas of voluntourism will be attending and it could be a great way to meet new folks and learn from each other.

That’s all I know so far, but if you’re interested: save the date!

Best Practices from Sustainable Travel International

Happy New Year!

The following Sustainable Travel Standards summary from Sustainable Travel International is designed to help travel providers make responsible choices when planning their programs and engaging in their offerings:

Sustainable Travel International Logo

Sustainable Travel Standards

Research Alternatives, learn about the places you intend to offer programming, and ensure that you support tourism that is not harmful to the environment or well being of local people.

Educate your Clients and provide them with opportunities to make meaningful connections with local people. Encourage them to walk or use public transport whenever feasible.

Be Culturally Sensitive. Respect the values, customs and beliefs of the local people you visit. Foster a greater understanding of their culture and their environmental issues.

Generate Economic Benefits. Buy locally produced goods, become a patron of locally owned businesses, and enhance the well being of host communities.

Be Environmentally Friendly. Conserve natural resources when traveling just as you do at home and in your offices. Offset your carbon emissions from airline and land travel.

Make Positive Contributions to the conservation and preservation of natural and cultural heritage and to the maintenance of the world’s biodiversity.

Any questions or comments feel free to contact Ted Martens at STI.