On a donor visit to Vietnam with her mom, Sandra Joyce gave some of her favorite stuffed animals to a girl whose home she and her mom helped build (Courtesy Pam Joyce)
Good works are Carol Ann Bass's job. But even when the minister gets time off, she likes to give money to a charity—and then catch a plane to see how her dollars are being spent. "Sitting on a beach just doesn't do it for me," says Carol, 53.
She isn't alone. Charity-affiliated donor trips are the latest trend in volunteer vacations. "Many Americans made international contributions for the first time after the tsunami hit Asia in 2004," says Stacy Palmer, editor of "The Chronicle of Philanthropy". "To keep that interest alive, nonprofits made it much easier for people to go abroad and see their money being put to good use." Here are 10 key questions to ask before you follow your own charitable contributions overseas.
1. Who offers these trips, and how do I find them?
Many charities and churches organize donor trips, allowing you to travel alone or join a group. To ensure that an organization is legitimate, go to guidestar.org or charitynavigator.org; both Web sites give financial information for nonprofits operating abroad. Before signing up, ask for references so you can talk to former donor travelers. One highly rated charity, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, leads walking tours (about 10 miles per day) to donor-supported clinics in South Africa, Swaziland, and Tanzania. A few safari operators, such as Micato Safaris and Thomson Safaris, have also started to add donor visits to their itineraries. On roughly 40 percent of its Tanzanian safaris, Thomson offers side trips to schools; before you leave for Africa, you can donate to the nonprofit Friends of Tanzanian Schools.
2. Do I have to give a certain amount of money to qualify?
Most organizations have minimum-donation requirements for travel, which can be less than $1,000. The Elizabeth Glaser Foundation, for example, allows people to use its AIDS Walk Africa as a fund-raiser. Each donor traveler has to raise $15,000 ($25,000 for a team of two).
3. Can anyone go?
On a recent Elizabeth Glaser walk, participants included young couples, retirees, and an HIV-positive teenager who spoke with infected African teens along the way. While visiting Vietnam on vacation in 2005, Pam Joyce, 45, and her daughter Sandra, 14, were inspired to raise money for the hundreds of street children they saw. Pam did some research and found Global Community Service Foundation, which has a program for Danang orphans. Pam and Sandra raised $3,000—enough to build a home for a single mother and her daughter. A year later, they returned to Vietnam on a monthlong donor trip to paint the house and meet its new tenants. During the official presentation of the home, Sandra added her own touch. "She gave some of her beloved stuffed animals to the girl," Pam says.
4. Is it better to travel on your own or with a group?
Think of it as the difference between CliffsNotes and reading the book. If you want a comprehensive understanding of an organization, a group trip is best, because you'll spend an extended period with staff and clients, and you'll have guides and translators. To just build a brief visit into your vacation plans instead, call the charity for a convenient time, directions, and the paperwork you'll need to access the site. An organization's opposition to a visit should be considered a red flag. "Any reluctance should be a tip-off that something fishy may be going on," Palmer says. "It could just be that it's an understaffed organization, but you should question it, regardless."
5. How much do guided donor trips cost?
International donor trips average about $3,000 to $6,000, which covers lodging, meals, guides, and in-country travel. Not included: airfare, entry and exit taxes, and immunizations, which can cost as much as $600. The $1,000 trip fee for an Elizabeth Glaser walk, for example, pays for six nights of lodging, all meals, and transportation within Tanzania.
6. What can I expect to do on a typical trip?
On most donor trips, you'll get insider access. At a hospital, you'll meet doctors and patients and tour the facilities. If it's a building project, you'll get to speak to staff and recipients. Expect to travel a lot, often on bumpy roads, to reach the sites. Many organizers include tourist sights—the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat—for a break from what can be an intense experience.
7. Can I also find these trips within the U.S.?
A handful of organizations offer domestic trips. Aside from its international expeditions, the Earthwatch Institute lets donors participate in conservation projects in the U.S. if they give at least $400. The Humane Society has trips to places such as Yellowstone National Park, where the organization is working to protect a herd of endangered buffalo.
8. How should I prepare?
Kari Hammett-Caster of Unitus, a nonprofit that organizes donor trips to India, advises people to familiarize themselves with the region's politics and cultural norms, including appropriate attire. "Recipients will often wear their best clothes to greet donors," she says. "It's a good idea to put on something nicer than jeans." And be ready to answer lots of questions—some of them personal. Carol has been asked about her kids, how many motorbikes she owns, and about the U.S. government. "Just remember to answer with a smile," she says.
9. What if I want to give more money when I'm there?
"We encourage people to make the biggest difference they can with their dollars," Hammett-Caster says. "Our donations aren't a handout, they're a hand up. Giving money randomly defeats the purpose." If you're hoping to make additional contributions on-site, notify organizers ahead of time, because charities usually have specific needs. Global Community Service Foundation founder Marcia Selva just sent a group of doctors to Myanmar who wanted to donate extra cash in honor of a friend's birthday. "We had finished building a clinic there, and they needed beds," Selva says. "I got in touch with our people on the ground, and the doctors were able to present the beds in person to the clinic."
10. Is the trip tax-deductible?
You can't claim a deduction for travel expenses. And donations made on-site are tax-deductible only for charities approved by the Internal Revenue Service (for a list, go to irs.gov) that can provide you with a statement confirming that no goods or services were provided in return for the contribution. However, most foreign charities don't qualify for the IRS program, so your best bet is to donate to a charity in the U.S. that sponsors international projects.