On 24 November, cnngo.com
ran an article by Richard Stupart entitled "Voluntourism does more harm than good
." The tag line read, "Orphan-huggers create a market for orphans; well-builders take work from locals; and other things ethical travelers should know."
I'm going to approach Mr. Stupart's article from two perspectives:
- He's right.
- But the focus really should be on "The result has been a boom in tour companies offering voluntourism opportunities in a wide range of destinations, catering to all levels of commitment."
I have noticed that everyone is cashing in on Voluntourism (including the press) and I wish some great writer out there would do an article on the damage THAT causes. Bugger the "goodie-two-shoes" articles. Those people are just there and will insert themselves into a situation abroad and at home because they simply have nothing else to do. Resorts, cruise lines and hotels offer 2-3 hour voluntourism projects and call it sustainable tourism.
Mr. Stupart sums it up nicely and as accurately as I've ever seen it put. "There can be no easy decisions when attempting to weigh up how to volunteer, or whether to volunteer at all. Nevertheless, there is a world of difference between ill-considered decisions taken for the purpose of stroking a traveler's ego, and subjective decisions to volunteer after properly considering as much of the moral and practical detail of your engagement as possible."
For quite sometime, GeoVisions has provided a document, "Where Does My Money Go"
in answer to that exact question by some of our volunteers. And on many of our program pages, we actually provide a list of items that get paid with a volunteer's money. This activity came with trying to be "all things transparent."
How wonderful would it be if all of the responsible voluntourism providers (really, there are a few) wrote their own document explaining why volunteers participate on their projects and precisely (measured objectively) what good comes from it.
- How will your work be more beneficial than sending money?
- If you and your friends invested money in a project abroad (after doing research and interviewing project directors), would that be more sustainable?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, how much of wanting to go abroad is all about your ego? Or that you had horrible parents?
- Why aren't you voluntouring in your own country?
- Why are you taking a tax deduction on volunteering abroad? Why aren't you spending money in your own country, and giving up the tax deduction to pay your fair share?
- How much research did you do about where you're going and why you should even be there?
Those are questions we have been asking ourselves here at GeoVisions over the last year. And what are the answers?
When we answered these questions we closed 50 of our voluntourism projects. We have only a few now and most of them are hands-on medical for people going into or already in the medical field. We have a last few remaining "long tails" and most will be fading away over the course of 2012.
But GeoVisions is in business, right? So what are we doing instead?
Glad you asked. We invented programs that focus on cultural exchange first. Then, if you want, you can do some volunteering like teaching a family conversational English or helping kids with their homework. Something that first of all exchanges two cultures, something that then focuses on communicating with one another. And finally, something that allows for a little local volunteering and sharing.
Of course our most innovative programs were copied.
Last year I even saw 8 volunteer abroad senders providing the same program in India, all sending to the same receiver. All of the programs were packaged differently, all charging different prices. Never let it be said that some of my friendly competitors have but one brain shared between them all.
2 years ago GeoVisions could market our programs with two online search engines (we refuse to participate with Google Ad Words). Now we have a minimum of four additional search engines for volunteer and teach abroad. There are a multitude of online review sites…mini TripAdvisor sites trying to ratchet up online traffic and therefore dollars.
GeoVisions has double the competition we did from 2009. Double the senders, and probably more than double the receivers.
There are operators who start their Google Ads with, "Volunteer Abroad For $160" and "Volunteer Abroad - $180. American volunteers wanted for affordable volunteer trips abroad!"
When we all cash in, we ethically bankrupt ourselves.
When you look for ways to make money from an industry rather than looking for ways to serve that industry, you add to the problem. What am I writing? You ARE the problem.
When you use price to round up self-serving volunteers to attend flim-flam projects, you add to the problem. When you copy programs and other people's ideas, you add to the problem. When you don't belong to global organizations focused on building best practices, you add to the problem.
I have heard a few of my competitors say, "More volunteer abroad senders? Great, that means more volunteers out in the world." To that I reply, "Hogwash." The industry is watered-down because of those who have piled on and thought this might be an easy way to prey on well-meaning people and cash in. And on this, I am being very kind.
I continue to read publicly that "Voluntourism will likely always remain a compromised industry." Mr. Stupart even wrote that last week.
I do think it is interesting to note, as I end this post, that Save The Children does not allow volunteers on their projects. That is to say they do not allow you to call up, and explain that you want to go volunteer in Ethiopia on one of their end child hunger projects. You can volunteer in their Westport, CT or Washington, DC offices in marketing, finance and social media. But you're not allowed on a Save the Children project as a volunteer.
I hope, if you're reading this, you are not asking yourself, "why"?
I'm sitting here at my desk this Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving and just opened up iTunes and chose some holiday music. I know, a little early but it just felt good to me.
I'm thankful for our volunteers and teachers who ventured overseas this year to make a huge difference in people's lives. They gave their time, they gave their money and they made sure they left their communities and schools better than they found them.
Our company and business model runs on a strong overseas partner network. I'm thankful to all 54 of our overseas partners. It has been one challenge after another in 2011 and you have demonstrated your patience by hanging in there with us. And I'm thankful that you are so open-minded. We sure came up with some very creative programming ideas in 2011, which you embraced with a smile and operated flawlessly.
2011 has seen the number of voluntourism sending organizations double. Everybody and their brother thinks they can do this from home and that it's easy. Cruise lines offer 2 hours of volunteer projects and call themselves "sustainable" and resorts and hotels sprinkle in a few hours of volunteering like I would spices on my food--and they call that voluntourism. I'm thankful for our competitors who copied some of our programs. My friend and business partner, Kevin Morgan, constantly reminds me that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
I, however, "like" the Facebook Page Imitation Is NOT The Most Sincere Form Of Flattery...It's Just ANNOYING
! To our competitors who copy our programs and think you can do them better and cheaper…I invite you to "like" that Facebook page. But thank you for showing me our program ideas are great.
I'm thankful for our staff. We have it right. It has never felt so good and comfy around here. These are dedicated men and women who live, eat and breathe taking care of our volunteers, teachers and overseas partners. They check their emails on their days off. They make overseas calls from home when necessary. They have some of the best ideas I've ever heard and I've done this work since 1975.
I'm going to name a few people I'm particularly thankful for being in my life personally and professionally. I'll leave some people out by mistake, and I'll piss off a few others. Happy Thanksgiving to you all anyway.
My two business partners, Kevin Morgan
and James Miller. I would not be sitting here with so many blessings if it were not for the two of you. I cannot imagine better partners. And together, when we get into one room, we have 115 years of combined experience in International Cultural Exchange. That is powerful and you can't imagine the problems that can be solved with that much rich experience focused on the issue at hand.
Working with family has its ups and downs and it is especially hard on the staff because they have no idea who to go to when they get frustrated. I'm thankful that my daughter, Alexandra, was able to take us to the next level of how we use social media. My son, Christopher, has been with us since day-one and you can't imagine what a wonderful feeling that is.
Few spouses can live together for many years. And I have one who has not only found a way to live with me, but work with me as well. I am so difficult. I want everything done my way, and everything done right, and I second guess everyone's decisions except mine. And "I want it yesterday."
So I'm thankful that I have a spouse who can live with me and work with me and who can take all of my negatives and turn them into positives…unselfishly. She's content to stand in the shade. We share our office, our ideas, our hopes and dreams. She puts all these wonderful programs together by taking my ideas and bringing them to life. We would have evaporated into thin air if it were not for Rebecca.Voluntourism.org
popped on to my radar in 2008. I flew out to San Diego to meet Dave Clemmons. In the last 3 years we have spent quality time together, and I'm very thankful for you, Dave. You have shown me the light, and you make certain that light never goes out. You don't even allow it to flicker. You walk your talk and that's an incredible example for the rest of us. Thank you for spending a year in Jordan and in an area of the world that is so important to be in right now. The work we plan to do together next year is so exciting for me, because even at my old age you continue to show me I can learn.
There are a lot of "vendors" that help us so much. Mitch over at GoOverseas
has been incredibly helpful and lots of fun to talk to. Gregory Hubbs at TransitionsAbroad
has brought our listings there to life and is a huge tribute to the incredible work his father did in this field. But amongst them all, Troy Pedden and Crispina Reynera at GoAbroad.com
have demonstrated so much patience and in particular, Troy has shown me "the heart"
of business ethics and in all honesty, they rise above anyone else's I know.
When are we friends with our competitors? How many of our competitors can we sit down with and have a few beers and talk for hours? Go for bicycle rides in California? I'm very thankful for two of my competitors who are now two of my very close friends. They are no longer my competitors. We simply share the same interests. I'm talking about Randy Sykes, the President of ISV Student Volunteers
and Jean-Marc Alberola, the President of Bridge
. And while I'm at it, I'm adding in here Alexia Nestora, the owner of Lasso Communications and who runs the Voluntourismgal Blog
. Before that, Alexia was the President of i-to-i North America. When GeoVisions decided to offer volunteer and teach abroad programs these three people more than anyone else opened their companies, their minds and mostly their hearts to show me the very best way to provide volunteer programs responsibly. I cannot imagine my life without the 3 of you in it.
Where do I pick up my statue? Oh…this is my Thanksgiving post.
Normally I'm ranting in my posts about online reviews and cruise lines and resorts jumping on the band wagon and deluding themselves and their customers that they are really making a difference in the world. So this personal post is a huge departure from the norm of what you would see here. For those of you who wonder if I have a heart…see? I do. For those of you who prefer my rants…stay tuned next week.
In the meantime, if you celebrate Thanksgiving, Happy Thanksgiving
. If you don't, have a great week and weekend and I trust we'll see you back here next week.
Walk and Talk!
We almost went with Half and Half...the new program is half family tutor and some child care duties. Plus, participants are paid €40 each week ($55 US). Half and Half seemed exactly right and that name was suggestion by Amanda who wrote a convincing comment on yesterday's Blog post when we asked for name suggestions.
Later in the day someone suggested Walk and Talk (Tutor and Childcare in Spain). The name put a little step (pun intended) in the program and so we settled on it. Many thanks to Amanda who had a really great idea.
This program is a response to so many people who are struggling to go abroad and make a difference and to help people. Not only does the continuing down economy make it more and more difficult to afford international travel, but it has become harder to take 1, 2 or even 3 months and go away.
With Conversation Corps Spain, we have lowered the fee from now through April by $370 if you go 3 months. 3 months in Spain for under $1,000. Can you believe it? Still, it is hard for people to find that money and that time.
Walk and Talk goes one step further. Participants will earn €40 each week ($55 US) to help with spending money or to help offset airfare. Over 12 weeks, if you stay 3 months, you can earn $660. Plus you have a private room and 3 meals a day.
How much childcare is there, besides the tutoring? You are asked to babysit 2 nights per month while the parents go out and take a breather. And you are asked to be home when the children get home from school, or perhaps walk them home from school, make them a snack, etc. We have made certain no domestic chores are allowed, other than the usual helping to set and clear the table, keep your room tidy...the typical chores you would assist with in any family.
We hope you enjoy the new program. Thanks also for the name ideas we received on our Facebook Page. Some of you are very creative.
So what do you think? Is Walk and Talk a good program idea? Does earning a little spending money each week make sense? Does it make a difference?
We're adding a new program to the Conversation Corps line up. And GeoVisions needs your help.
The program consists of 15 hours a week of speaking conversational English with a family in Spain. Our flagship program: Conversation Corps. Add 10 hours a week of babysitting, which includes walking the kids to school, being there when they get home, and keeping the kids 2 nights a month while mom and Dad go out. Kind of an elementary Au Pair, without any of the domestic duties.
What should we name it? It isn't Au Pair and it isn't our traditional Conversation Corps program.
Oh! I forgot. It pays 40 Euro ($65 US) per week. Not enough to retire on, but over 8 weeks you could pocket $520 which could pay for most of your airfare. Or your spending money. Or a nice weekend in Barcelona.
Do you have any ideas we could bounce around to name this newest program?
Talk about irony. While I was writing this 3rd Blog post about online reviews I received an email about a brand new volunteer abroad online review site. Online reviews must be the fastest growing online business in the world. The new site will be called Volunteer Voice and soon you can find them at volunteervoice.org. All this industry needs is another online volunteer abroad program review site. I didn't provide a link, because the site is not live right now.
So...moving on to the point of this post. If you take an hour and go to 3 or 4 of the current online review sites and take time to read reviews, you will clearly see that some of the reviews are fake. While there are no studies on exactly how many online reviews are faked, it’s clearly happening. Companies hire out review writers to flood popular services like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google Places, and company pages on Facebook with glowing reviews. Others hire people to leave bad reviews for their competitors. How can you tell which reviews might be fake? And why does GeoVisions think this is important to Blog about?
You can't stop fake reviews. You CAN take a stand against the online review sites publishing them and having no system in place to verify that the reviewer is indeed a former volunteer with that organization. And that is what we intend to do. We are not going to do business with people who have no verification process in place. Will this impact our bottom line? Yep, it will. But if you don't have integrity, you really don't have a sustainable business, do you? And we think fake reviews hurt good businesses. Hit an organization with enough fake, negative reviews and you can put them out of business. Flood the review site with fake positive reviews about your own organization and you are doing a disservice to the public. You're lying.
But the key is most consumers have no clue this is happening, and most consumers believe what they read. That is why it is so important for the online review site to put verification services in place. If you don't, you're passively encouraging fake reviews to mislead consumers.
Given our use of social media these days, someone needs to tell me how anyone can trust a review from someone you know nothing about?
My New Best Friends
This photo is copyrighted by The NY Times. In the photo, from left, Claire Cardie, Myle Ott and Jeff Hancock are among the Cornell University researchers studying fake reviews.
These researchers from Cornell recently published a paper about creating a computer algorithm for detecting fake reviewers. They were instantly approached by a dozen companies, including Amazon, Hilton, TripAdvisor and several specialist travel sites, all of which have a strong interest in limiting the spread of bogus reviews.
The researchers have developed an algorithm to distinguish fake from real, which worked about 90 percent of the time.
Also, research shows that humans are 5 times more likely to remember (and therefore write about) our negative experiences rather than focussing on promoting the good ones. This leaves good organizations in a pretty poor state. They need people to see at least 5 times more positive reviews than negative, yet we are psychologically programmed to be five times more likely to leave negative reviews than positive ones. Is it really surprising, therefore, that business owners have had to resort to dishonestly writing their own good reviews as a way to try to even up the balance?
What do the comments on a review site actually mean if you know nothing about the person leaving them? If an 18-year old college student says she paid too much for her program to go work with orphans in Cambodia and you're 50 years old and you're going to China and teach English, do you really care that the student thought the program was too pricy? The fact is, if you don’t know even a little about the person leaving the comment, then how do you know if it is relevant for you?
Ms. Parker is a professional reviewer. She wrote hundreds of fake reviews for companies in order to create a buzz. While the companies didn't require her to write lies or tell her exactly what to write, if the review wasn't five star, they didn't pay the typical $10 to $20 fee. And Ms. Parker is only one of thousands of people, who, everyday write fake reviews.
"Each of us was tasked with writing and posting a five-star review in order to create the appearance of having many satisfied customers. Having too many five-star reviews is a surefire clue that something is amiss."
"When I was paid to produce a review, I was usually given a deadline of 48 hours for completion. The same held true for the other reviewers assigned to the same project. This meant that what we reviewed would have anywhere from 10 to 50 or more reviews posted within a 48-hour period. If you find a bunch of reviews posted around the same date/time, be wary."
Other Ways To Spot A Fake Review
Look at the language of the review: does the reviewer use the actual company name? If they repeatedly say “GeoVisions” [insert your company name here] when they could just say volunteer abroad, they could be trying to game the search engines.
If numerous users all left reviews around the same time, and there hasn’t been much activity since, they could all be the same person or company leaving reviews under different names.
Steer clear of user reviews that read like a sales ad.
User reviews are a valuable tool that you can use to gauge whether a program will work for you. The main thing to remember when reading them is to trust your instinct. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, no matter what the reviews say.
Ignore reviews that focus on details rather than value.
Be skeptical of totally positive reviews. While there are hardcore fans of certain programs, most of us don’t have an incentive to write glowing reviews just because a organization does what we expected (and paid for) it to do. Rather, people usually write reviews to vent their frustration against a company, warn people against problems, or assess pros and cons.
Watch out for super-negative reviews too. In addition to praising their own products, fakers will also knock competitors’ programs, especially their terms and conditions. Simple claims of “the program cost too much,” “I'm leaving this as a warning,” or “beware!!!!” are empty adjectives.
So in sum
Look for ratings a couple notches below perfect, with some details that don’t sound like copy-paste work. Pay attention to reviewer names and their history, and Google anything suspicious. Follow that advice, and you have a good idea who to trust.
We finish up our posts on online review sites by going to four of them. We'll give our own review of each and show you a few things about each one you didn't know. Our reviews won't be fake, we will leave our name and contact info, and they will be tough. And no, we won't remove them.
If you have time, check out our first two posts in this series on volunteer abroad online review sites:
Volunteer Abroad Organizations And Those Online Reviews
Did You Volunteer Abroad? Are You Sure?