GeoVisions Blog

Is Voluntourism Really A Compromised Industry?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Nov 29, 2011
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:
  1. He's right.
  2. 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."
cashing in on voluntourismI 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?

two people communicatingGlad 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.

holding the world in your hands

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"?

Tags: Responsible Travel, Volunteer Locally, Why Do I Have To Pay To Volunteer, Tax Deductions, Volunteering Abroad, Volunteer/Work Abroad Industry Updates, Randy LeGrant

Tax Deductibility and Voluntourism – It Should Go...For Now!

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Tue, Oct 13, 2009

Yesterday I reposted from various Blog sites on deducting your voluntourism program from your taxes.  The question was, "Tax Deductibility and Voluntourism-Should It Stay Or Should It Go." Today I'm making a case against tax deductibility and voluntourism in my own Blog.  It Should Go.  At least for now.

I don't want to rant, so I'm providing you 2 sources with independent links to use to evaluate on your own where you are volunteering and how you are spending your money.  Because if anyone is telling you that you can deduct the program fees or your trip because you're volunteering, they are leading you down the wrong path and setting you up for an unhappy financial outcome, should you be audited by the IRS.

I went to several non-profit web sites to see how this is handled.  I found this quote from one website: “100% of the payments towards the program fee are deductible for federal income tax purposes.”  Another one has this on their home page: "All your program costs are tax deductible**"

What I want to do now is give our readers some actionable and independent tips.  Here you go:

1. PLEASE if you don’t do anything Publication 526 from the IRSelse, download IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions at http://www.irs.gov. That is your guide because if and when you are audited, and this deduction comes up, the IRS will follow, to the letter, this publication and will assume you have read it. Keep in mind the expenses must be directly related to the volunteers’ work, and incurred only because of that work. The expenses can’t be personal, for family, or for living items or activities such as meals. Volunteers must keep reliable written records of the expenses. Most importantly, The volunteer cannot gain significant personal pleasure, recreation, or vacation from the travel.  And there are total hours you must be working, etc.  Without good records and receipts, you'll pay the money back.

Download Form 9902. Next do your homework. Download Form 990 for each non-profit volunteer program provider you have an interest in. Any non-profit who takes your money should display a link to their Form 990 which tells you how much money they make, how much money they spend, who is on the Board and their relationship to one another along with other interesting tid bits required by the IRS. If you pay any money to any non-profit and you have not read their Form 990 you have thrown your money out on the street.

Because some non-profits will not want you to see their Form 990, they won't make it available on their website.  So here is a link you can use.  Click on this link below and type in the name of the organization you want to volunteer with and download their most recent Form 990.  Their expenses are there, salaries, benefits, what they spend on programs abroad, Board Members and any compensation, etc.  Look at their income (your money) and then total up what they spend on the projects.  Then ask them where the rest of the money went.  They are a public charity afterall.  Find them all right here:

Foundation Center Form 990 Finder

Here at GeoVisions we think it’s distasteful to deduct your trip.  At a time when our Government is Trillions of dollars in debt, and with rising unemployment, asking the Government to pay for your trip abroad is unthinkable.

For anyone to spend their hard-earned money and their precious time volunteering to make life better for someone else and then at the end of the calendar year hold their hand out to our government and expect the government to reimburse them for volunteering is unbelievable to me. It is the height of hypocrisy and the very definition of narcissism. To think that much of yourself that you offer to volunteer and then expect money back from the government because of your offer to volunteer is simply an act that reverses the very definition of volunteering.

If I donate $500 to your charity and then deduct that $500 on my taxes, I didn’t donate to you. I loaned you $500 until the government repays me. How is that volunteering or donating? It isn’t. You’re not a volunteer. You’re working because you’re getting paid. Not there on the spot. But you’re deducting what you paid “to volunteer” and you’re getting a financial consideration from Uncle Sam. You got paid. You didn’t volunteer. Even on my most generous day you put yourself out on loan.

In the end, GeoVisions made a conscious choice to be a for-profit company and not a 501 c 3 charity. We certainly had a choice. We provide great opportunities for people. And for host communities. And I am so proud of each and every volunteer that comes through our doors. THEY CANNOT DEDUCT A DIME. They are truly volunteering their money, their time and their talents. They are the true heroes that make the world a better place.

Tags: Why Do I Have To Pay To Volunteer, Tax Deductions

Tax Deductibility and Voluntourism – Should it Stay or Should it Go?

Posted by Randy LeGrant on Mon, Oct 12, 2009

Industry watch person and consultant, Alexia Nestora of Lasso Communications posted a blog post by Journey Etc. last week about declaring a tax deduction for a volunteer vacation.

Especially now, with the economy still bad and unemployment still rising, it is a valid debate.  I hope you'll join in.  I want to thank Alexia for putting up the original post from Journey Etc. on her own site and for keeping the debate alive.  And thanks to Michele Gran for making certain Global Volunteers is the model 501(c)(3) and posting not only IRS Guidelines but for having a strong policy and ethic on how hard you actually have to work to honestly and legally declare a deduction for volunteering abroad.  I wish the others were like Global Volunteers.

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From Voluntourism Gal: Notes on the Voluntourism Industry

The debate has always been around, should volunteer vacations be tax deductible? Does the mere word ‘vacation’ being used in marketing take away from the level of service that volunteers do in country? Or is the deduction in fact a marketing tool?

Journey Etc wrote an article on this topic addressed at travelers, what do you think about it? Let’s start the debate again.

##

Voluntourism – A Vacation with Tax Benefits

You probably know that business travelers can often deduct all or a portion of their travel, even if they are having some fun. But did you know that  you can also get a tax benefit from your vacation? You can  if you are willing to do a bit of work as a volunteer with a non-profit organization.

“Voluntourism” is becoming a popular option for travelers that want to make the most of their vacation.  By volunteering with a non-profit organization a person can travel to almost any global destination, experience the  culture of an area in a whole new way, and have a sense of purpose and of doing good with their vacation time.   And then to top it  off, some or all of their vacation expenses can be deducted on their income tax returns.

To get the tax deduction on your US  Return you must volunteer with a US non-profit corporation.  Habitat for Humanity is one organization that has volunteer opportunities both local and abroad. You could also contact an organization that specializes in voluntourism such as  Cross Cultural Solutions in New York or Global Volunteers which is based out of Minnesota.

There are a number of factors that determine if you can deduct some or all of your travel expenses.  In general the amount deductible will depend upon how much time you spend doing strictly volunteer activities, versus how much time you spend doing strictly vacation activities.

Whatever your skills or talents, there is a volunteer opportunity for you. You can help children and adults with their English. You can provide medical services, or you could help build a home.  You can work, with children, seniors, teens and adults.

When working with a volunteer agency expect to pay your own airfare, plus a program fee that will generally include lodging and meals.   Prepare to be flexible and open to new experiences. Do not expect classy hotels and fine dining.  To save money volunteers are often housed with local families or budget hotels and eat the local food.

If you want a vacation with a purpose, one where you get to really know the local people and culture, and one that comes with a tax benefit, consider voluntourism.  You’ll be glad you did!

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Michele Gran Says:

October 4th, 2009 at 3:23 am


Thanks so much for the mention! I’d like to make one important correction to your article regarding tax deductions for U.S. taxpayers.

In fact, the IRS has very strict requirements for volunteers to average 8 hours per day on the volunteer work project, and that any “tourism” added to the service program may void the tax deduction. (That’s why we eschew the term “voluntourism”) For over 25 years, Global Volunteers has adhered to these requirements, and offers only full-day work projects, while advising that any “add-on” travel will require an opinion by a tax attorney regarding the tax deduction.

Our volunteers have never been challenged by the IRS on this policy. You can read our guidelines here: http://www.globalvolunteers.org/faqs/faq9.asp

Thanks again for your interest in this important way to give while you learn about another culture!

Tags: Why Do I Have To Pay To Volunteer, Tax Deductions