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.