When you want to do good for the communities you visit, it’s not easy to know the best way to serve people in those destinations. It helps that GoPhilantropic asked these questions early on and that the organization is founded on the knowledge that while tourism is a powerful vehicle, it can have both positive and negative impacts on local communities.
Founded in 2007, GoPhilanthropic Travel is a for-profit social enterprise with custom-built philanthropic trips in which people learn about, visit, and directly support the work of NGOs while traveling. The GoPhilanthropic Foundation is a nonprofit that identifies and collaborates with those NGOs. GoPhilanthropic Travel’s trips to visit partner programs in person in India, Guatemala, Nepal, and Southeast Asia are a central educational component to its mission.
Trips are focused on NGO visits with some destination highlights, and many of the journeys include walking tours of cities and villages, but sportier activities are offered as optional activities or extensions. Groups are small (ranging from 5 to 12, including guides) so they’re not intrusive to the people and projects they visit. Travelers could learn about the important challenges facing women, young girls, and underprivileged children in India, or the connection between poverty and human trafficking in Southeast Asia. Not all travelers are donors, and there is no pressure to give before, during, or after a trip. GoPhilanthropic Travel donates $250 per traveler to the Foundation through its corporate social responsibility program.
The GoPhilanthropic Foundation discovers NGOs with grassroots ingenuity and resourcefulness that are focused on education, healthcare, and human rights, and couples small to mid-size grants ($5,000–$20,000) with opportunities to reinforce ideas and assets within those organizations. From there, GoPhilanthropic facilitates local, regional, and global networking and workshop opportunities.
One of the most powerful catalysts in educating travelers and donors is giving them the chance to hear for themselves how community development has the greatest impact when people lead their own way. The deeper connection to the world, through understanding and experiencing the challenges that these groups face, gives travelers the opportunity to become active members of the global community.
“Something really important happens when you come and see for yourself, and you begin to learn the importance of our shared responsibility in caring for the world,” says Lydia Dean, founder of GoPhilanthropic Travel. “We see ourselves as a vehicle, a way that people can take steps on that journey to actually give back to the world and really be a part of it.”
The challenge of making real change
Dean embarked on a volunteer trip in 2005 to an orphanage in India and came home questioning whether her work had been beneficial. “It was a deeply moving experience, but also very disturbing,” she says. “I left feeling that I was naïve to think I could go and make a change in the lives of children who had been abandoned and had all sorts of traumatic history. But despite that, I wanted to unpack my experience and create something different based in a learning experience for the traveler, knowing that the doing piece is probably a bit more complex. It motivated me to create a system that works.”
In 2007, Dean launched GoPhilanthropic Travel. “After three years, we realized that we needed to develop a nonprofit side to put some robust systems around the vetting of the organizations, watching the money, and making sure the programs were getting support for things within their priority list,” she says. In 2011, she cofounded the GoPhilanthropic Foundation with Linda DeWolf and Tracey Morrell. “Now, our main source of work is the GoPhilanthropic Foundation, which works in eight different countries with more than 40 partner programs that deal with health, education, and human rights,” Dean says. “The travel component comes in as an education piece.”
How GoPhilanthropic gives back: It’s more than travel
GoPhilanthropic Foundation’s vision—to create a network of partnerships fostering a shared responsibility in solving global issues—relies on a vast community of donors that has raised more than $3 million in the past 10 years. Traveling to visit a program has been one of the most productive sources of funding, and many travelers become loyal longtime donors. In 2019–2020 alone, the foundation provided grants to 24 partners, supporting efforts to deliver education, healthcare, and human rights at the grassroots level.
On top of that work, with the pandemic reaching all partner countries by April 2020, the need for emergency funds became apparent. The foundation launched a Rapid Response Fund (RRF) that same month and sent 40 RRF grants to partners, approving most within 24 to 48 hours of receiving the request. The biggest demand was for support of basic needs, primarily food and hygiene kits. In India, Avani—an NGO focused on the protection and promotion of women and child rights—provided 3,200 food kits to waste-picker families where a pandemic lockdown affected daily wage laborers. In Guatemala, Aula Mágica—an NGO that provides access to high-quality, early childhood education—donated food parcels for 80 families after identifying those facilitators and students who were most in need of support in remote villages affected by shortages and lack of transportation.
“There’s a lot to be done in shifting the savior mentality, not shaming it,” says Dean. “Something we don’t talk about enough in philanthropy is our own self-understanding about where we are in life. Our own work on ourselves is probably as important as our desire to want to give back to the world. Sometimes just taking a moment and asking yourself questions like ‘Am I skilled to do this work?’, ‘Have I done my research?’, and ‘Am I a whole person right now?’ can help guide you to a place where you can contribute in a way that will be beneficial to both yourself and to whatever program you’ve chosen.”
Once travelers understand the context around a global issue, that people are survivors and contributors and not merely victims, they realize that they can be part of the system to change things. It’s a fundamental shift in yourself and the realization that it takes more than a one-time donation to make things better, but a longer-term investment in our humanity.
“Instead of seeing the categories of people that we’ve created in our lives, travelers feel connections beyond them,” says Dean. “And that, to me, is what it’s about. The actions and the impact from this shift in how you see others as equal and important has a lifelong impact.”