Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Voluntourism = volunteer + tourist. Ironically the word itself seems to reflect the western or developed world’s voracious appetite to do it all and do it all at once. From all accounts the voluntourism market is a growth market and with that growth more organizations – both for profit and not for profit – are flocking to offer as exotic a destination and experience as possible so that westerners can `compete’ with their friends and family for the best `What did you do on your most recent vacation’ response at their next social gathering. Now as I read that… I do hear the cynicism coming through…
A few years ago my daughter and I read an article that differentiated between travel and tourism. Travel was the intentional way of visiting another place with a heart and mind open to exploration, risk, and getting off the beaten track. Tourism was about travelling to another country to experience my own culture in a setting that protected me from the culture of the country I was in. We decided that we wanted to be travelers. When I find myself in a conversation where someone will say ‘we are going to insert name of exotic developing country but we won’t leave the resort because it just isn’t safe’ – I think to myself `oh this person is a tourist’. I begin to wonder then about the consequences when we ‘commodify’ tourism to meet the market demands of the latest consumer trend and when we project our tourist perspective onto the communities we are visiting.
So let’s start with the position that voluntourism is a good thing. At its best voluntourism is connecting people to their global context, challenging world views, and uncovering deeper altruistic motivations to `make a difference’ when they return. But is it possible to overdo a good thing? I think it is both possible and probable. With any service or commodity that becomes `in’, the market can become saturated, the uniqueness of the experience can become commonplace, and in the search for the leading edge of trendiness people begin to look for something new to distinguish their services from what has become ordinary. In that search, ethical boundaries can become stretched and the focus can become too much on the `experience’ and less on what we, collectively, are actually trying to achieve for social and environmental good.
The question about voluntourism and whether or not it can work now has become much more complex in my mind. As I started to think about the question `can volunteerism work?’ I began to generate a series of questions to help me examine the issues from a variety of perspectives. Consider the following:
What is voluntourism?
What would voluntourism that works look like?
What would voluntourism that is not working look like?
Who is voluntourism intended to work for?
Who, in fact, is voluntourism really for?
How would we know if voluntourism is working?
Why do we want voluntourism to work?
What are the intersections between voluntourism and relief work or development work and what are the implications of the intersection points? (We are hearing many stories of individuals flocking to Haiti to lend a hand. There is an understandable desire to be doing something rather than just hearing about the devastating effects of the recent earthquake. Is this type of experience now going to become part of the voluntourism opportunities and is this a good thing…what are the consequences of inexperienced people entering into a disaster area? I suspect that in some situations they may be putting added strain on an already strained infrastructure)
Perhaps the starting point for considering the question of `can voluntourism work?’ is `Who are the stakeholders for whom volunteerism needs to work? Off the top four stakeholder groups come to mind:
Voluntourism Organizations – these are the organizations that make the connections between the person who is looking for the voluntourism experience and the host site. Within this group there are sub groups of stakeholders that can be differentiated primarily by their motivations for providing the services. Generally these subgroups would be: non-profits organizations motivated by a well intended desire to connect western resources and influence with important issues ranging from human rights, social justice, health and education, and environmental; philanthropic organizations with access to significant resources and that carry an issue specific focus; for profit organizations motivated by issues that are similar to the non profits; for profit organizations motivated by a love of travel and a genuine desire to share the experience; and for profits who have seen the trend and believe there exists a market to occupy.
Host communities/ countries – the places that we visit are significant stakeholders in voluntourism. With some agencies there is a commitment to the community or local issue that transcends the visits by voluntourists. What does `voluntourism working’ mean to the individuals and communities that are touched by tourist volunteers? Of all the stakeholders they may carry the highest risk when voluntourism does not work
Voluntourists – as stakeholders they pay the money and receive the experience. Does their measure of `did that experience work for me’ skew the delicate balance of a positive outcome for all stakeholder groups because the voice of the voluntourist may be the loudest for the organizations who are making or receiving money from the voluntourism marketplace.
Other agencies working in a community/ country – When voluntourism has a positive outcome for the local community, the respect and influence for all agencies in a community or country can benefit. However, if voluntourism has a negative impact on a community it may be the other agencies that experience the collateral damage to their own reputations.
From your perspective in the field of voluntourism – What is the outcome that you would like to see? What is the primary purpose of voluntourism? What is the outcome for each of the stakeholder groups? What other stakeholders need to be considered? What are the unintended consequences that we will be hearing about in a few years as the impact of voluntourism becomes clearer?
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Learning is a basic human function. We are primed to learn from our first precious minutes of existence. While babies are interacting with and learning about their environment they are creating new connections and pathways between nerve cells both within their brains, and between their brains and bodies. While physical growth and change is easily observed and measured, cognitive and psychosocial change and development is a little harder to determine as clearly.
The kind of learning that has the greatest impact on adult learners (and therefore the greatest possibility for transformation) is the kind of learning that takes place when an adult is fully immersed in the learning experience. When the individual’s heart, mind and body are fully engaged in the experience powerful and often transformational change occurs. Barbara K. Given in her book, “Teaching to the Brain’s Natural Learning Systems”, identifies five major systems: emotional, social, cognitive, physical, and reflective. The Greeks had a word that describes learning of this magnitude...metamorphoo. It is learning that literally renews the mind.
Most traditional training events fall far short of the five natural learning modalities. Warren Bennis addresses this in his seminal work, “On Becoming a Leader”. Bennis suggests that leadership cannot be learned in a weekend training seminar...”I’ve come to think of that one as the microwave theory: pop in Mr. or Ms. Average and out pops McLeader in sixty seconds.” Our most powerful learning experiences in life typically take place in a total immersion environment when all five of the natural learning modalities are present and we are able to gather information from ourselves, our colleagues/friends, and our environment.
Erik Erikson described a pivotal stage in adult psychosocial development as generativity vs. stagnation. A hallmark of this stage in adulthood is the growing desire to contribute to society and to guide the coming generations. Erikson postulates that as we work toward the betterment of society a sense of accomplishment and generativity results. Researchers claim that this stage of psychosocial development is actually the intersection of society and the human life cycle. Erikson’s theory teaches us that when this desire for generativity is stifled a kind of stagnation permeates our lives with a growing sense of alienation and disenfranchisement. It would seem that ongoing adult learning and development is as critical to our world as the glorious wonderment of our children’s first years.
Where do you turn for your generative conversations and experiences? Do you think there’s more to life than paying the power bill? Are you interested in thinking deeply about the developing world and developing communities and your place within it? If so, maybe an immersion experience is just what you’re looking for. Sure beats stagnation...
This blog was written by Christine Bonney, Managing Partner, The Acacia Group
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
We’ve all done it….asked the question at a social event…”What do you do?”- But how often do we ask “Why do you do that?”
In the rush to get on the social responsibility bandwagon, corporations may be happy to tout the –what they do answer without much real understanding of the why.
Whether on an individual or corporate level this “why” - speaks to a simple values clarification model I learned years ago. In order for something to be considered a value it has to be; chosen freely, from alternatives, prized and honored, and finally – acted upon. Often, someone who can answer the “why” comes from a deep based value system.
If a company’s response to the “why” question cannot stretch beyond –“because our customers expect it” or the more generic “because it is the right thing to do” – chances are they have not adopted the value of CSR as a strategic priority.
In a great discussion paper on the value of International Corporate Volunteer Programs FSG – Social Impact Advisors suggested that companies that “get it” will ask… What strategic benefit is the company accruing and how effective have employees been at adding value to society? and as such, will focus on counting both the outputs and outcomes of their efforts. The outputs are to be used for the CSR report, brand marketing and other public relations processes. They can count the number of hours volunteered, the number of meals served at a food program or the number of dollars raised for a cause.
The outcomes are more challenging – but can be focused on enhanced employee morale, engagement, recruitment and new skill acquisition or, even as The Acacia Group proposes, new leadership skills. The FSG paper provides a model that distinguishes between the generic traditional volunteer efforts, programs that are strategically aligned to assist development in the value chain or to be high-impact skills based service that leverage corporate resources. The point here is that the corporation needs to consider in advance what they wish to achieve for themselves and how they will contribute to a better society. This requires strategic thinking and longer term planning and measurement that could occur over years of engagement.
The buzz of whether CSR is a PR shell game and has a short life or is a true strategic business imperative- can be addressed by these value based decisions. If a company does not choose their CSR activities wisely, does not contemplate the value, does not allocate the resources to support the activity, and does not act upon them consistently or over time –the initiative will fail. The volunteers will feel their efforts are shallow, the executive will be tainted by the failure and will be less likely to sponsor the next CSR project and the NGO will be wary about the next “great idea”. Frankly – those organizations who want to just “test the waters” of CSR and only skim the surface without understanding their “why” are better off staying out of the water.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
The importance of
cultural global awareness in business today…
Because of the level of connectivity that we live with today, even the smallest decision that we make can ripple outward and have an unseen impact on people and the environment elsewhere in the world. Chaos theory calls this the butterfly effect or the observation that small actions (or changes in initial conditions) can influence a chain of events leading to large scale changes in outcomes.
Organizations today, whether they are local or global, have somewhere in their value chain a connection to some other place in the world. Regardless of what the business produces or provides in services – whether it be cell phones or fresh produce – it is likely that some element of the product came from a developing country. Therefore decisions made by the leaders, managers and employees within the organization have impact and the impact may not always be readily visible or for that matter positive.
The mental image I hold in my mind to remind myself of the need to think of the connection between my decisions and their impact on the world is, oddly enough, a tomato. Let me explain. A little over three years ago I began a relationship with some people in Mexico through which I was invited to help out in a migrant worker camp. The people living in the camp were hired to pick tomatoes in one of the nearby fields for a large multinational company. Prior to this experience I had not spent a lot of time thinking about where the tomatoes in my food came from or of the intricate network that linked me to my friends in Mexico. Now when I see a tomato I think of Yareli and her sisters and brothers who for a time lived in the migrant worker camp, and the impact of migrant work on her and her family. On the positive side there is the income that comes for the family from the work in the fields. However on the other side of that coin is the transitory nature of the work that causes families to move from camp to camp and decreases the odds that Yareli will have access to education or the opportunity to finish basic schooling. As well there is the increased risk of abuse for this young girl who stays in the camp while her mother goes out to the fields and of course the access to drugs and alcohol that become a normalized part of camp life.
I find that I can easily become overwhelmed by the social and environmental issues in our world today. However I do know that the cumulative effect of applying simple rules can change the design and outcomes of a system. System theory tells us that when the people in a system consistently apply simple rules to their actions, that the patterns and outcome of the system can be changed – that is why so much emphasis in organizations lately has been placed on developing and articulating values. So why is global awareness important in business today? It is simply because decision making in organizations, regardless of the size or niche of the organizations can change the life of Yareli for better or for worse. When the leader in an organization pauses to be curious about the broader impact of their decisions – for example what values do I look for in the company that we source our tomatoes from – the impact for individual, families, and communities can be significant? Global awareness leads to curiosity – and curiosity can lead to improved education access for Yareli because someone thought to ask about the impact of migratory agriculture on the education of the migrant worker’s children.
This post was written by Penny Lane, Managing Partner at The Acacia Group - responsible for International Relations and Community Development
It is getting to be a challenge to keep up with the various news pieces relating to CSR that are breaking almost on a daily basis. As an example today alone, CSL, Australia’s largest pharma corp. releases its CSR report, The Body Shop just announced over £ 1 m to prevent sex trafficking, and Robert Polman the President of a little company called Unilever decries those corporations who are only after short term profits and focus too much on shareholders at the expense of customers. Such vigorous discussion is great news and suggests that CSR is getting a stronger foothold as a core element within the board room.
Despite this, there is still a healthy debate about the merits of CSR and the role of corporations in contributing to social and environmental issues. The cynicism is based in part on the notion that CSR is just PR and is shallow and only designed to increase shareholder value with minimal interface on the social and environmental issues that matter…with that in mind and with Robert Polman of Unilever acting as an example of effective contemporary leadership here are five tips for creating a CSR strategy with teeth.
1. Do something that is tied to your business – use your personal and corporate strengths and interests. This leverages the unique skill sets within your organization which creates buy-in from your employees and also assists branding the CSR initiative as something that may be unique to your organization. Witness the “Soft Hands Kind Heart” campaign from The Body Shop. This is different than just writing a check or a one off contribution of volunteer time that can be forgotten.
2. Make it part of the overarching corporate strategy – effective corporations find a way to have lateral thinking that cut across administrative silos. An effective CSR strategy is truly enterprise wide and involves the entire production and administrative value chain.
3. Engage your leaders in it – to paraphrase James Carville (and Fast Company) it’s about the people stupid! In order to get leaders to buy in to the need for social and environmental awareness and service impacts they must understand the value. Yes, this will be an economic and cognitive impact – but without the emotional understanding the effort will ring shallow. There must be a way forward that allows leaders to embrace the process and become champions of the agenda.
4. Create an internal and external scorecard – Be prepared to commit resources to measuring the impact of this – externally in terms of value to the NGO or community and also internally as to how those leaders you have engaged are actually performing and tying their socially responsibility objectives with their personal performance objectives and those of the corporation.
5. Revisit – Readjust- Reinvest – Since this is a long-term strategic focus that uses your best people (and then strengthens their commitment to stay longer) – you will want to keep this alive. Accordingly, you will need to reexamine your interests in this area and ensure that this aspect of the business grows and is kept fresh…
These are bold and big steps….Are these the ones you would use? Are there other truisms that fit for CSR?
This is the 1st in a series of blogs for this week that focus on the core business areas of The Acacia Group, CSR, engaging leadership and learning, and community development.
Friday, April 2, 2010
This is the third and final instalment focusing on lessons learned in the small town of Nebaj, Guatemala that pertain to global issues of CSR, Leadership and Community Development – the three core elements of The Acacia Group.
The Acacia Group’s value proposition is to engage leaders in a cross cultural experience that will expand their knowledge of themselves and others and thereby influence and enhance their leadership styles and their global awareness. David G. Thomas and Kerr Inkson in their book “Cultural Intelligence” define this capacity as “...understanding the fundamentals of intercultural interaction, developing a mindful approach to intercultural interactions, and finally building adaptive skills and a repertoire of behaviours so that one is effective in different intercultural situations”. Even more importantly it is to build nimble learners who can observe and understand cultural meanings and who use that understanding as a basis for collective action. Capacities that we believe are equally important at home.
One of the Acacia Group’s host communities is Nebaj Guatemala. Nebaj is in the north central region of Guatemala and is populated by the Ixil. The Ixil are Mayan and their culture predates the Spanish influence in Central America. The economy is agriculturally based and, as you can probably imagine, their culture is quite different from our North American reality. Geert Hofstede a researcher who conducted a well known study in the early 80’s looked at over 50 countries across four dimensions. These dimensions were power distance, individualism, masculinity, and uncertainty avoidance. Let’s just look at one of the dimensions...individualism. Canada’s score for individualism on this survey was 80 out of 100. Guatemala’s was 6 out of 100 (the lowest score of all 50 countries). What does this mean? An individualistic culture such as Canada is more likely to be concerned about the consequences of an action on the individual, rather than others. They engage in activities that are conducted on their own or in small groups such as families. Decisions are made according to the judgement of the individual. In a highly collectivistic culture such as Guatemala people primarily view themselves as members of groups and collectives. They are concerned about the impact of their actions on the group and decisions are made in a collective or consultative way. James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster, Avatar, portrays this individual/collectivist clash vividly. Whether you found the plot line to be profoundly moving or just plain cheesy...one thing is clear, the American’s were determined to mine the resource rich Pandora for the monetary gain of individuals, while the Na’vi were equally determined to preserve their culture and belief system. The clash was “titanic” if you’ll pardon the pun...
The Acacia Group believes that rather than the either/or proposition illustrated by Avatar there is a both/and solution that is greater than what either group could achieve on their own. There are multiple opportunities to be explored in both paradigms...the individualist and the collectivist. It isn’t that one is better or worse than the other, it is that they are different. And because they are different we need to learn to be mindful and respectful, to pay attention, and to learn. Learning, itself, increases our capacity to acquire and productively apply new knowledge and skills. Our cross cultural leadership experience begins with a carefully crafted learning plan because we believe that the transformational learning that happens in communities like Nebaj enables leaders to make wise choices about the world around them. It is this kind of learning that is a sustainable, renewable, lifelong process for people and the organizations and communities they serve. Dr. Nancy J. Adler, Professor of International Management at McGill University suggests that, “There is no time in history when the need for cross-cultural skills has been more critical, cultural intelligence, therefore, could not be more relevant. Not only does it help leaders understand the world’s people better, it coaches all of us on how to live and work more effectively in a world economy that no longer recognizes nor understands borders.”
This post was written by Christine Bonney - Managing Partner at The Acacia Group, focused on developing and coaching effective leaders