Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Profiteering and altruism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on September 4, 2010


The Staying for Tea blog has provided an interesting taxonomy of so-called “poverty tourism”, of which voluntourism was cited as one example.   I left a comment in response to it in which I alluded to some differences between for-profit and non-profit voluntourism operators.  This led a representative of a for-profit voluntourism operator (Geovisions) to come into the discussion to defend the fact that his organization engages in a for-profit business model that lines its pockets through the altruism of others.

In so doing, he offered what struck me as a set of talking points formulated to justify what Geovisions does.  He claimed, for example, there is no meaningful difference between a for-profit and a non-profit outfit, other than a minor technicality of what tax status each claims.  This strikes me disingenuous.  The government establishes distinctive sets of guidelines governing how each type of organization can function and what it can do with the money it makes.  These differences stem from the fact that the primary purpose of a for-profit business is to make money, while the primary purpose of a non-profit organization is to provide a community service.  To support those distinct kinds of functions, what each is allowed to do is delineated.  A non-profit organization in particular cannot distribute its profits back to the owners.   (A summary of the distinction between for-profit and non-profit enterprises can be found here.) So to assert that that there is no meaningful difference between a non-profit and a for-profit voluntourism operator sounds more like a sales pitch than an accurate description of what is going on. I can’t really blame any corporate representative of a for-profit tourism company for doing this sort of thing;  the company’s job is to make money, after all, and salesmanship and advertising include making claims that will induce people to spend their hard earned dollar on that company’s products.   The fact remains that his organization has a financial interest in convincing people who are understandably skeptical about giving their free time and energy to an organization that profits financially from what is freely give to it.  So claiming that there is no real difference between a for-profit and a non-profit voluntourism operator can be seen as a kind of sales strategy.

Most of us do understand the difference between donating money to a charity and donating money to a business.  I donate my clothes to Goodwill, but I don’t generally donate them my local for-profit local clothing store.  Geovisions and other organizations that are in the business of selling a product for profit understand this.   Hence the “there’s no difference between us and them” sales pitch.  Although, that being said, my analogy with Goodwill does provide for an interesting example outside of the voluntourism industry, and it shows that profiteering off of altruism is not restricted to voluntourism.  I recently ran across an article that discussed a for-profit business called UsAgain that takes donated clothes and sells them at a low cost in developing countries.  That being said, I will give UsAgain credit–they say right up front on their web page that they are a “for profit enterprise”.  This is not something I have seen stated so clearly on the home page of any voluntourism operator web page I have looked into.

For example, when I go to the Geovisions web site and click on the “About Us” link, I do not see anything that indicates that they are a for-profit enterprise.   Maybe it says so somewhere and I just missed it.  In any case, the Geovisions representative claimed in the blog discussion that I cited above that none of their customers actually cares about that; this therefore served as a justification for not needing to go out of their way to publicize this fact.  I can’t speak for how many people care about it; I can only speak for myself.  I do care.  Which is why I spend a fair amount of time researching organizations before I volunteer with them.

He did raise a valid point by mentioning that just because an organization is a non-profit, that is no guarantee that it is ethical or well-run.  This is certainly true.  That is why, for me, learning whether an organization is a non-profit or not is just a starting point.  The next step for me is to do further research, through Guide Star or Charity Navigator or other resources at my disposal.   Research into not just voluntourism operators but charities in general can be disheartening at times.  Some non-profits pay their CEOs obscenely high salaries.   The CEO of CARE–which of course is not a voluntourism operator, but the example is still egregious enough–makes a salary, or at least did the last time I checked, of about $400,000 a year. That is not something I would ever choose to contribute my charity dollar to.

Of course, everyone has to make their own decisions in this area.  If someone really doesn’t have a problem with volunteering their time and money through a for-profit voluntourism operator, then they should by all means do so.  But this is something I choose not to do.

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4 Responses to “Profiteering and altruism”

  1. GeoVisions’ primary business is bringing in thousands of college students from 35 countries each year during their school break to work and live in the U.S. This is a program of the U.S. State Department, and some of us run our businesses in such a way that the U.S. State Department “designates” us for this J-1 Visa program. The students get social security numbers, bank accounts, and they work and live here in the U.S. during their summer break. We are regulated heavily by the U.S. State Department, and to obtain our designation we also are screened by the FBI and we work constantly with The Office of Homeland Security and Embassies all over the world. It is extremely difficult to be designated, and your company has to be “pristine” to get that kind of designation. THAT is Geovisions’ primary business.

    Now I mention this to you, because part of the regulations require “reciprocity.” That is in this case, the State Department wants to see us send people out of the U.S. as well if they are going to designate us to bring people here.

    To do this ethically, we set up GeoVisions International, a non-profit Vermont incorporated “public benefit” company. A few years ago, we did make mention of this fact. And in the end, it served only to placate and ultimately confuse. And after surveying our volunteers who had participated on the projects and also those who were about to go we learned something very valuable. They could have cared less. And so it made better sense for the consumer to be GeoVisions. It is why you see us as .org. Our volunteers, and perhaps we are unique in this, care more that we are designated by the State Department and we are regulated and audited annually. We also do not participate in “poverty” tourism. 75% of our programs are “conversation” and language programs. We look for people who want to be a conversation partner.

    What we tell people is simply this: If you want to volunteer with a public charity, please do. We recommend downloading the Form 990. Take a look at where they get their funds, and how they spend the funds. If you can’t find the Form 990 download link, go to Guide Star and find them there. Then make your own decision about which Charity you want to donate your time and money.

    In the end, it is the consumer who will decide. No matter if you are for or non profit, the consumer will either have a rewarding experience and tell others or she will not and tell others. Going to volunteer abroad with a non-profit will be important or it will not.

    You: A non-profit organization in particular cannot distribute its profits back to the owners.
    Me: Sure it can. It can do so every payday. And it can hire the founder’s spouse, and brother, and cousin. It can own property and then sell it to the founder with “Board” approval.

    You: The fact remains that his organization has a financial interest in convincing people who are understandably skeptical about giving their free time and energy to an organization that profits financially from what is freely give to it.
    Me: Not one of our volunteers is skeptical about our motives. We are very clear. We wouldn’t stay in business otherwise. What we find interesting, however, is if you Google “voluntourism” you will find 3 of the 6 paid ads (pay per click) are from non-profit organizations. The same ones who hate the term. And one of them, this morning at least, advertises, “1 Wk Tax-Deductible Vacations Help communities & the environment.” THAT is disingenuous. GeoVisions spends $0 at Google.

    In the end, I think I want to link to your Blog. I’m going to put the link to your Blog on the GeoVisions Blog. I think people coming to our site should read it. You may be surprised to know that I actually like your Blog and I wish it attracted more comments. In time, I’m sure it will. And you offer a different point of view. But what I especially like is that you have volunteered abroad and so you come to the conversation with a lot of experience. In one of your posts you actually named for profit organizations you have a problem with. I like that too. So I’m going to point people in your direction. And perhaps the “Staying For Tea” Blog too, although my sense is that he is more “aid” and/or “development” oriented as as we know, Voluntourism has no place there.

    I hope I don’t have to come back and comment more. I’m busy with a real job. But I did want to take a few minutes to comment on your post since you did call us out. I noticed when I read your post about for-profit voluntourism companies (I think it was in June?) no one commented. That’s a shame. They should.

    • Larry,

      Aaron at Staying for Tea here. Just a quick clarification about my interest and experience with volunteering. I spent nearly 5 years as a volunteer in Bolivia and am on the Board of The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship (www.kristafoundation.org), which focuses on equipping medium-term volunteers before they go, supporting them in “the field”, and helping them through the re-entry process of reflecting on how the experience can inform their lives going forward. I also am the founding editor of The Global Citizen: a journal for young adults engaging the world through service (i.e. young volunteers). I’ve lead groups of college volunteers abroad and once even hosted a group of young volunteers in my village in rural Bolivia.

      So, yes, while my studies and paying job are in the humanitarian/int’l development sector, I also engage with the world of volunteerism. I also appreciated the time you put in to responding on my blog post, and for what its worth, the two poverty tourism taxonomy posts have had about 850 readers so far and continue to be popular on the daily stats, so your voice is being heard by a fair number of readers.

  2. Randy, thank you for clarifying the primary purpose of your company. I will say that you are devoting a lot of energy to writing in a blog that gets maybe half a dozen views a week–on a good week. I understand that you have a vested financial interest in claiming that there is no difference between non-profits and for-profit businesses other than a mere technicality, which is why you are engaging in such a verbose and spirited defense of what your company does. I stand by my decision to only do my voluntourism with non-profits.

  3. That’s fine, Mike. I’ve linked to your Blog and also Staying For Tea over on our Blog. And keep it up…it’s really good content and you’ll be at a half dozen views per HOUR sooner than you think. I appreciate you approving all of my comments.

    Best wishes.

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