6 Questions to Ask Before Planning a Philanthropic Trip – Part 1

“6 Questions to Ask Before Going on a Philanthropic Trip”

PART 1: Your Philanthropy

Going on a trip where there is an opportunity to give back is gaining popularity. A variety of organizations are putting together “philanthropic travel” opportunities, including tour companies that were previously focused on just the travel experience. As most of the press on this topic has come from the travel industry, I was surprised that the interviews and articles often failed to ask some critical questions important to many philanthropists. This is an opportunity to pose some thoughtful questions from the philanthropy side to help people make the most of their journey.

Defining a philanthropic journey. While all gestures of generosity such as the giving of time and skills as well as money are of great value, for the purpose of this article, we will be defining a philanthropic journey as one that involves a donation or intention to donate money.

I am also defining a philanthropic journey as one that starts with the intent to visit a project(s) and explore critical issues on the ground, and devotes part of a longer holiday or the entire trip towards that goal. A philanthropic journey is an intensive, focused learning experience on all dimensions of giving. It stimulates a participants needs for uniting the needs of the heart, the head and the hands.

After discussing this with a variety of industry colleagues and philanthropists, I have consolidated these thoughts in 6 substantive questions. This is not meant to be a be-all, end-all list but rather a place to start a more substantive conversation – raise the bar, so to speak – about what can and should be provided to individuals who are interested in making a positive impact with their philanthropy.


Look inward first. Before planning this type of journey, people should look inward first – to their values, philanthropy and the type of commitment they are looking to make. Whether you are giving serious thought to expanding your philanthropy to a different region of the world or area of interest, looking to engage and train other members of your family in the grant-making process, or interested in identifying and evaluating a variety of organizations within a specific interest area, these are all examples of scenarios where a philanthropic trip planned with a knowledgeable consultant can be of tremendous benefit.

This is especially true of individuals and families who have a greater level of complexity in their philanthropy because of the significant assets they have either set aside or intend to commit to their philanthropy throughout their lives. Typically, this means that there is a stronger focus on due diligence and sometimes more personal engagement.

In talking with Timothy Karsten, who is active in his family’s foundation, he comments that along with the “bigger checks,” he invests more of himself because it is a long-term relationship. He adds that “Giving family members the opportunity to travel and see organizations in-the-field, not only enriches them, but fuels their giving because of the opportunity to select partners to walk through life with.” I think he put that beautifully, and I believe it speaks to philanthropists’ desire to find projects and organizations that they are truly passionate about and can be part of their legacy.

Do you have a guiding philosophy or mission statement that directs or influences your philanthropy?
Steve Toben, Executive Director of the Flora Family Foundation, where the family has taken nine trips in the last ten years, shares that “the design [of the trip] grows out of our strategy,” meaning that their mission for funding best-in-class, innovative social service models drives the kind of programs/organizations they want to visit.

Whether or not you know the amount of resources (time, knowledge, networks and finance) you are willing to contribute, given the right organization, of course, there should be a seriousness of intent, especially because of the time invested not only by the donor but for the organizations and other experts you’ll meet on the ground. Not-for-profits invest in such visits resources that they often need to run their day to day activities. And to be respectful of that, individuals/families should look upon a trip like this, as an expression of their serious concern of the critical issues on the ground.


What are your reasons for exploring a philanthropic trip now? Are you looking to augment what you are doing in your philanthropy? Are you interested in gaining exposure to new projects or have a deeper learning experience about a specific issue? Here are two main reasons why people choose to go out into the field:

  • Better understand the dynamics on the ground. In geographic areas where you may not be as familiar with things like local politics and culture, it’s tremendously helpful to visit the field and gain an understanding of the variables that may impact the effectiveness of a program. This is especially so with international grant-making.
  • Opportunity to identify and vet organizations. Many are striving for that “perfect fit” or as Michael Alberg-Seberich from Active Philanthropy put it, donors are looking for “an organization that serves the cause that they are committed to in a highly efficient way but whose leadership also relates to them on a personal, emotional side.”
    Steve Toben, Executive Director, Flora Family Foundation, adds that because the family is interested in making grants to different regions of the world and the foundation does not have a field presence, these trips serve as essential site visits for potential grantees.


A few thoughts to consider:

  • Who is involved in your philanthropic decision-making? Are other family members, trustees involved?
  • If you are thinking of bringing children, are the location(s), content and activities planned age-appropriate?
  • Do you have a foundation executive or advisor who can bring expertise to your on the ground discussions?

~ by Maryann Fernandez on December 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “6 Questions to Ask Before Planning a Philanthropic Trip – Part 1”

  1. I appreciate that there are 3 more parts on the way and I might be jumping the gun, but at all times we must remember that the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the donor. It is right that the donor benefits from their actions but not at the expense of the recipient.

    Michael Alberg-Seberich from Active Philanthropy’s suggests that donors are looking for “an organization that serves the cause that they are committed to in a highly efficient way but whose leadership also relates to them on a personal, emotional side.”
    I would suggest that effective is better than efficient. Efficient perhaps suggests a degree of speed and ruthlessness. When working in other cultures one ought never go too fast. Language, culture, systems of communication, systems of respect will make things inefficient to our eyes, but skip them at your own cost.
    This highlights something so important that it needs highlighting. Cultural differences must be recognised and respected. Any philanthropic giving must be given as human to human and not from a position of superiority.
    I look forward to part 2 with eager anticipation

  2. I agree, Julian. I just put similar thoughts up here: http://lessonsilearned.org/2010/01/why-adventure-companies-and-others-fail-or-cause-harm-with-voluntourism/

    Maryann, I will be in the US for the Geotourism Conference in DC and will be in NY for a few days. I would love to cross paths and talk more about all of this!

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