Overview

Introduction & History (Read more / read less.)

The Volunteers Without Borders Foundation evolved from a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Initiative founded in 2004 by Track of the Tiger, in collaboration with the Ban Mae Lai village community, Chiang Mai. The project established a nature trail along a length of the Mae Lai stream that ascends from 1000 to 1600m over and around some 17 waterfalls and through the community forest.

Grant funding for construction materials and labour was provided by the PATA Foundation, and was subsidised by donations/labour from school clients under their community service requirement.

Track of the Tiger covered some labour costs, and the development of a nature trail guide book, plus overheads, marketing and booking costs. The project won the SKAL Ecotourism Award for 2006.

The beneficiaries:

  • Track of the Tiger benefited by establishing a platform for experiential learning programmes for its client markets - International school, corporate team building and special interest travel.
  • The village community benefited from the construction work, trail entry fees, employment opportunities for guides and service staff at Pang Soong Lodge, and better access to and protection for their traditional community forest.
  • Donors and volunteers benefit by having 100% of their Community Service donor funding and hands on effort go directly to the project they were working on, and not to cover marketing and overheads etc. Their input builds an opportunity for the village to generate sustainable revenue - and more.

To build on that success the model transitioned from CSR Initiative to registered non-profit foundation status to ensure a clear separation of profit and non-profit operations. To that end, Track of the Tiger & The Maekok River Village Resort continued their symbiotic relationship with VWB, covering all overhead, admin and marketing costs, ensuring that 95% of funding contributed by volunteers went directly to the Community Service (CS) projects they worked on.

The Maekok River Village Resort & Student Centre, used the community service component of its experiential education programmes to attract donor funding and labour from its visiting schools clients. Over a few short years they completed 150 projects injecting US$ 850'000.- (teaching English, building classrooms, water systems, toilets, a special needs school wing), into the schools of the Amphur Mae Ai, area. Their efforts were recently honoured with an award by the Thai Ministry of Education.

The Board of Directors for VWB, chaired by the MD of Track of the Tiger, draw no salaries, expenses or remuneration for their services. They reason that their companies benefit from providing the accommodation, meals and services for those undertaking VWB's CS/CSR projects, which in many cases are also used as platforms for delivery of their experiential learning programmes.

In an environment where the well established non-profits are under increasing scrutiny for the exhorbitant salaries, remuneration packages and expense entitlements of their directors and senior management, the flow of much needed funding and hands on help to those in need is under threat. The control of funding lies firmly in the hands of the donor/volunteer, who can and must police the non-profit sector by demanding transparency and accountability from the organisations that seek their support. 

With the advent of the internet, and symbiotic operating models like the one outlined above, non-profits can now be locally operated and reduce the percentage of donor funding spent on overheads to an absolute minimum, and provide potential donors/volunteers with (a) an audited summary of annual accounts that state clarly where donor funding is spent. (b) an assessment of what long term their contribution to the projects will accomplish.

 

Volunteering - The Conundrum (Read more / read less.)

After years of watching the rapid and sometimes questionable practices employed in the voluntourism industry, we realised that much of the good will, funding, and positive impact of the volunteer's efforts were being diluted by poor project selection and predatory practices.

In many cases, projects appear selected to provide the best 'feel good' factor for the volunteer, and the highest commissions for the placement agency/operator, with little attention being paid to maximising the potential long term benefits of the volunteer's input. Without industry oversight the onus is on the individual volunteer to ask the right questions. They should consider:

  1. The benefit of the English language teaching programme they sign up for.  What benefit does a child derive from being given number of English language lessons the content and quality of which is often tailored to the volunteer's capabilities than by the student's needs? What real value is there if the assistance given is only short term, or is intermittent, and is not part of an integrated set of solutions put in place to allow the student and his or her family take full advantage as the opportunity given?
     
  2. Whether they have all the facts in the elephant conservation debate. Should they be paying arguably exorbitant fees to enrich a commercial operation sometimes disguised as a non-profit to bathe and feed elephants? Or should they research/listen with an open mind, to the arguments put forward by (a) pro-animals rights groups (b) pro-indigenous rights groups (c) Those who support solutions that would have the greatest long term impact on elephant conservation?
     
  3. Whether they should stay away from orphanages altogether to stop abuse - Should their assistance be directed to (a) funding salaries for qualified long term local staff (not unqualified foreign volunteers) to look after the children, (b) building infrastructure and equipment, and providing access to education for the genuine orphans, (c) building sustainable agriculture options / playgrounds etc., that would benefit the orphans and can be implemented transparently?

In short, the very people and causes that volunteers seek to help are put at risk by volunteers who fail to research the options carefully or conduct the due diligence needed, and as a result may do more harm than good.

 

The Problems (Read more / read less)

The phrase overtourism is widely used in tourism today, and refers to the negative impacts of high volume tourism on destinations, the local people, their lifestyle cultures and the environment. The experts are offering many solutions, based primarily at reducing tourist numbers and increasing prices - thus reducing visitors but retaining revenues.

Whilst this may address the overtourism problem in the short term, it does little to address the impact of a decline in custom on those providers (hotels, guest houses, restaurants, vendors etc), established to meet the market as it was. They will be locked in a race to the bottom - where room rates, service standard and guest quality drop, crime increases, and the destination goes into decline.

Fortunately, the more progressive local businesses and tourism representative bodies are realising that the only way to survive is to broaden the base and ensuring the sustainability of the tourism product, by placing greater emphasis on the real USP's of the destination (culture, customs, lifestyle, environment.) They know that in offering unique rather than contrived travel experiences, and by maintaining product quality, they will attract a better and more sustainable market.

The challenge is that most of the products and services that appeal to the desired market, are not suited to mass tourism, nor can they offer the high commissions that the traditional tourism industry business model demands. 

Whilst there are many good suggestions proposed for addressing the various problems (over tourism, equality, skills development, marketing etc.,) there has not, until now, been an integrated set of solutions that addresses all of the problems.

 

The Solutions (Read more / read less)

Tourism provides a great opportunity for us to address inequality worldwide, but without the introduction of an alternative business model that levels the playing field for micro and small, locally owned tourism businesses - the long promised potential of tourism to create employment and equitable opportunity will never be fulfilled. 

To deliver on the promise, we need a set of collaborative strategies and integrated solutions.

RTA - Responsible Travel Alliance 

The RTA business model, a colloboration with Volunteers Without Borders, is a social enterprise driven online search and booking platform, designed to level the playing field for micro and small/medium tourism businesses, by offering non-commission-based alternative to the traditional commission-based supply system that so disadvantages them.

The Development of RTA Tourist Routes

 

The RTA is developing a network of tourist routes radiating out from, and between tourist destinations, starting with Chiang Mai, Thailand. They link previously little visited and potential new attractions/activities, (unique and rewarding travel experiences) that showcase the customs, culture and lifestyles of the areas they pass through. They expand tourism  beyond the confines of the developed tourist enclaves, reduces the negative impacts without a reduction in guest numbers, and spread the benefits of tourism more equitably.


The Development of Local Economies

Whilst the RTA Tourist Routes will help provide revenue for individual businesses and/or communities, the real challenge lies in providing local people with the skills, employment and opportunity, to establish and run those businesses, and the second revenue streams that reduce their reliance on tourism revenue alone. This is where Volunteers Without Borders comes in.

As the typical RTA guest is a responsible traveller, we know that they prefer to use the local services (accommodation, activities, food etc.), and organic or non-chemically contaminated food is high on their list of priorities. VWB's mission is therefore to provide education in 3 areas:

  1. Basic English language - suitable for use in rural tourism.
  2. Small Construction Project Support - for schools in rural areas (water systems, toilet blocks, intelligent playgrounds and more.)
  3. Small Scale Sustainable Agriculture - to provide the much needed second revenue streams to supplement income, finance self improvement, and increase the appeal of the area to visitors. To use agroforestry to grow crops within the forest - without cutting it down - combining that with nature trails - giving it greater value to the villagers than logging and hunting could do.
  4. Local Tourism Business Development - to collaborate with RTA Local Agents in providing the local businesses with basic skills to run a profitable, responsibly operated business with the highest service standard possible.
  5. Animal & Environmental Conservation Issues - Elephants - we believe the issue of elephant conservation is a complex one. We advocate that those who are interested in it attend a talk we facilitate, given by Richard Lair, a well recognised expert before deciding how best to support the conservation of these wonderful animals.  (See: CS & CSR Projects.) Forests & Watercourses  - As you will  see from our proposed agroforestry & nature trails projects, we favour solutions that provide adequate incentive those who live in or next to the forests, with good reason to protect them. (See: CS & CSR Projects.)

By spreading the tourist attractions beyond the confines of the tourist destination or enclave into the rural areas, we reduce the negative impacts of, and extend the longevity of its appeal.
 
It reverses the migration of rural workers from their communities to the poverty of slums in or around the city. The negative impact of this exodus on the individual workers, on the very old and very young left behind, and on the fabric of their traditional cultures is devastating.
 
The system can easily be supplemented by a well run, cost effective supply chain that brings the second revenue stream product into the main destination, for the benefit of both citizens and rural folk, of the type of visitor they would like to attract.

Collaboration with VWB - by and between Universities/ Private Sector Partners/Donors & Sponsors

High quality opportunities for work experience are few and far between. Most interns or those on work placement are not given the training or responsibility they had hoped for, function as low level assistants, and as a result are often turned off pursuing a career in the field they were 'placed' in.

 

The collaboration between Track of the Tiger, The Sanpatong Experiential Education Centre, The Maekok River Village Resort, and Volunteers Without Borders offers much more in terms of work variety and responsibility than ican generally be found elsewhere.

 

We believe that by packaging the work experience we offer, we can provide an attractive and valuable opportunity through which the student may gain the work place skills he or she needs. He or she can also report back to their corporate or institutional sponsor, with high quality materials that will have enormous CSR value. It will also help reduce the learning curve between the student leaving university, and entering the workplace.

 

More detail can be found on the CS & CSR Project Menu.

 

Collaboration - Who Does What (Read more / read less)

The following stakeholder groups all have important roles to play in the process.

Stakeholder Group

Roles and Responsibilities

The Volunteers Without Borders Foundation.

  • Provides a range of projects and assistance to local communities aimed at developing skills, employment and opportunity in Local Economies. 

(See: CS & CSR Project Menu.)

Track of the Tiger T.R.D.

  • Provides transparently priced supporting services for those working on VWB projects - (accommodation, meals, transport, training, supervision.)
  • Covers VWBs Admin/Overhead and Promotional costs as part of its own CSR programme.
  • Uses VWB Projects as a platform on which to deliver customised corporate team building, CS/educational (for visiting schools), Community Service/special interest programmes for RTA Ambassadors. The clients donate funds/materials/labour direct to the VWB projects used.
  • Uses RTA as a low cost online platform to provide market access and booking services connecting Local Visitor Based Economies with the responsible tourism market.

Individual & Small Groups of Volunteers

  • Pay Track of the Tiger T.R.D. for the transparently priced support services.
  • Pay a donation towards the costs of a specific project (transparently stated - and generally covering materials/local labour assistance - from breaking ground to completion.) 

Customised Programmes- Projects can be selected by the volunteer group from a menu. Additional activities (adventure, special interest etc.) can be added to provide a more rounded programme.
  

Fixed Departure Programmes- Projects are pre-designated.

Corporate & Institutional Sponsors

  • Are invited to fund longer term VWB Volunteers with specific skill sets, (teachers - to run our Saturday School project) and (experts/interns - to assist in the development of business models, online profiles, best practices, second revenue streams and more for new RTA Business Partners.
     
  • Are invited to fund individual projects ( primarily infrastructure in local schools) the work on which is undertaken by individual volunteers and visiting schools.

Note* All volunteer work on sponsored projects will include the generation of promotional materials (stories, photography, video) to be submitted to the sponsor for use in CSR activities.

Development Partners

 

  • Universities, Colleges may collaborate with VWB by sending study groups, interns, post graduate students to work with VWB on RTA assignments (identifying, developing business models for, and building online profiles for new RTA Business Partners.)
     
  • They may offer scholarships to their students to study our business model and its impact.

Note* The menu of activities offered to clients taking a customised RTA Tourist Route programmes include VWB volunteer projects - typically short duration (2-3hr) installation of knock-down style playground equipment/mushroom houses/greenhouses - in rural schools along the route.

Rural Schools / Community Members

  • Wishing to benefit from VWB volunteer/corporate funded programmes must commit to (a) training to ensure best use of projects established. (b) compliance with a post installation reporting programme that allows donors to track the ongoing benefits of their support.

Local Government

  • Is invited to collaborate on the Local Economy development initiative, and is integral to ensuring its success.

RTA Business Partners

  • RTA Business Partners (accommodation, restaurants, activity centres) along any of the many RTA tourist routes to be developed, with the facilities to host Saturday schools/training workshops etc., are invited to express interest in doing so.

   
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