Until last year, Tom Glassanos, a 52-year-old Bay Area entrepreneur, had engaged in philanthropy largely through donations to charitable causes. It was an e-mail from his 17-year-old son, which included a link to a Web site called Cross-Cultural Solutions, that began to change his perspective.
The site described volunteer opportunities in 15 different countries, and Glassanos was intrigued by the idea of volunteering while on vacation. His son's timing was opportune as Glassanos' private electronic billing company, Xign, had just been acquired by JPMorgan Chase. Glassanos was then free to travel with his wife and son to Rabat, Morocco, where they spent one month holding different volunteer positions during the week and exploring the North African country on the weekends.
No one is tracking the number of American executives trading in a five-star European vacation for a few weeks of volunteering abroad, but the trend has gained traction as business leaders like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have drawn attention to the power of philanthropy in resource-poor nations. Executives and professionals have increasingly looked to volunteer travel for career enhancement, personal fulfillment and improved cultural literacy.
"It's as much a way for a volunteer's life to be touched by others," says Glassanos of his experience teaching Moroccan women computer and business skills. "It gave me an opportunity to explore the world and what was important to them."
Feel-good travel trends
Volunteer travel is not a new phenomenon; Cross-Cultural Solutions began operating international volunteer programs in 1995 and, of course, programs like the Peace Corps and the U.K. Volunteer Service Overseas have promoted foreign volunteering for decades.
The travel industry, however, is recognizing a growing interest in vacations that combine aid work with weekend sightseeing or cultural immersion. Last year, CheapTickets and United Way partnered to create an online search tool that combines domestic volunteer listings and travel options.
A Travelocity survey of 1,017 people in late 2007 found that 17.7 percent of respondents had previously taken a vacation with a volunteer or philanthropic component. Of those, trips with a focus on conservation, education and health care were the most popular.
Why and how to go
Most "voluntourists" prefer philanthropic traveling to traditional vacations, and executives are no different. Executives frequently hope the experience will further define their career, according to Dava Antoniotti, director of program enrollment for CCS.
"A lot of people are used to the daily grind, and they're questioning the direction of altruism in their careers," says Antoniotti. She notes that executives often find trips more fulfilling than just donating money, and that some take their families as well.
With several companies sponsoring volunteer trips, there are numerous opportunities to incorporate one's professional or personal interests. The international volunteer company i-to-i features programs like coaching soccer in Tanzania or teaching English in China. uVolunteer sends travelers to Ecuador to assist people indigenous to the Amazon rainforest with community development, while media and graphic design professionals work on editorial projects in Bolivia.
John Wood, a former Microsoft executive, traveled to Nepal in 1998 with no intention to do philanthropic work. But an encounter with a school district resource officer who decried the area's lack of educational resources changed Wood's mind. The next year, he formed Room to Read, a nonprofit that has built schools and libraries in Southeast Asia and South Africa.
"The cliché now is prosperity with a purpose," says Wood, "and at that point I didn't know what the purpose was." Now, Wood's organization offers trips for volunteers, including employees of Accenture and PepsiCo, which both support Room to Read, to visit the schools.
Antoniotti says that a number of businesses have approached CCS inquiring about extending volunteer travel trips to their staff. CCS partners currently include Salesforce, The Cartoon Network and AIO Group.
"They're encouraging staff members to [travel] because we live in a global community," says Antoniotti. "They need a level of cultural competence, working with a team across language barriers. It's also a great benefit."
Pricing varies widely based on the destination and the services provided by the organization, which can be as basic as sharing a home with a host family to living in a home owned by the company and staffed with locals. Packages often don't include the price of airfare, either.
And before deciding on a program, Charlotte Hindle, author of "Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World," says it's important to consider the ethical implications of volunteer travel.
"Make sure you're not taking a job from a local person," she says. "People see volunteering with rose-tinted glasses and think [they're] going to really contribute. That's not necessarily the case."