Robin Richman answers questions about adventures in doing good.
How do I know which trip is best for me?
To determine the best option, you need to take a hard look at your values, comfort level and objectives. We use an assessment tool with all our clients to match the right trip to their needs. You can do a self-assessment that will help you get the answers you need. Here are some key questions: What is motivating you and what you want to get out of it? What do you want to accomplish and how do you want to accomplish it? What level of comfort do you require? How adventuresome are you? What are the key causes you are interested in? How physically active do you want to be? What health restrictions do you need to consider?
Our assessment tool includes all members who are traveling together. This is very important when planning a group trip because you want everyone to be excited about participating.
Is there one type of trip or project that has been more successful than others?
This is a difficult question because it depends on how you define success. Success might be defined by a specific accomplishment such as building a house or help a group of mothers start small cottage enterprises to make sure their children have healthier lives. But as someone who plans these trips for families and foundations, I think success can also be measured by a deepened connection with those you travel with and meet. Mixing philanthropy with vacations is one of the most effective ways I have seen of forging stronger bonds because everyone is working together toward a common goal that will benefit someone else.
Should I take the kids?
We are passionate advocates of multi-generational vacations, particularly when combining philanthropy with a pleasure trip. Busy parents get to spend valuable vacation time with their kids while giving back to the community. The trip provides opportunities for meaningful conversations about important personal and social issues. Kids don’t often see a parent’s generosity when they write a check to a foundation, but on a vacation where they can witness their parents in action, parents have the opportunity to pass on key values to their children, such as global citizenship and responsibility, compassion and kindness. Travel and learning about another culture is a great teacher about the world and engaging in a team project that makes a difference in people’s lives is a wonderful confidence builder. Philanthropic travel makes us grateful for what we have, especially if working with orphans, impoverished communities or the sick. There’s nothing like volunteering to put our own problems into perspective.
How do I make it a meaningful experience for my family?
Too often the focus is only on the trip itself. Family activities during the pre-trip such as researching the location, learning about the customs, creating a blog, buying host gifts, or studying an issue or cause together will make the experience much richer. Post-trip activities such as corresponding with pen pals, establishing a fund for an on-going project that you became involved with while you were there, or sharing the experience with others to raise awareness of the issues you encountered will make the purpose of the volunteer vacation more clear and meaningful
Your children may not completely understand what they will be doing, so it is important to talk to them especially if they are very sensitive. Cultural differences also require preparations — for the sake of your own family, as well as the people you’ll be working with and helping. Read the kids stories about the place you’ll be visiting. Look at maps with them. If you’re going to a place where a foreign language is spoken, teach them how to say things like “hello,” “thank you,” and “please” in that language. Before beginning the vacation, explain to your children what may happen, how they’re expected to behave and why the service is important. Once you get started, be patient with their efforts and let them know how they’re making a difference.
What is the biggest challenge you see people facing on volunteer vacations?
Some people have a difficult time getting out of their comfort zone. Volunteer vacations will expand your thinking, skills and heart. But, they also require that you understand that you are on an adventure and need to manage expectations and not make assumptions. A different culture means different food, standards and attitudes. Sometimes people have a hard time remembering they are not in the United States. Efficiency in the developing world is much to be desired and I see people tense up when they are waiting in long lines or to be served in a restaurant. I try and remind them to relax and take in the sights, sounds and understanding of this culture.
Part of this issue can be alleviated by a proper needs assessment and by asking the right questions – both by you and by the person planning the trip.
What type of questions should I ask?
Make sure you know what you are receiving from the outfitter/organization such as transportation, hotels, food, so that you can plan for what is not covered. What are extras or options? Check on the specific amenities such as air conditioning, fans, bedding, private bed and bath,
Find out if this is an escorted trip with someone accompanying you throughout or are you on your own. Focus questions about things that are important to you. This dialogue is critical in planning the trip. For example, if you get car sick, a long jeep ride off road to a village may be ok for one day, but find out how many hours you will spend in a van. In places like Africa, you can be traveling 4-5 hours to each activity.
Ask the company how they monitor safety and how they handle emergencies. If you do not feel safe, you will not have a good experience. Key safety criteria are related to the location, accommodations, food and transport.
Also get as much information as you can about the culture and expectations of the community. For example, women walking in shorts are not appropriate in some communities while it is perfectly fine in others.
If I don’t want to be part of a structured trip, is it possible to just make arrangements once we are there, like bringing supplies to a school or orphanage?
It’s possible because a tour guide or a hotel can probably make arrangements for you. However, we would highly discourage it because sometimes the good intentions can be more harmful than good. The organizations that make these arrangements have prepared the community and have set expectations for them. In some of the areas where we work, we can’t go into an orphanage unless we will be there at least a week and have a specific job to do because the children have a hard time with people coming and going in their lives. A visit to a school can be disruptive to the day’s lesson, unless the teacher has planned it into the curriculum.