Seattle organization wants to take tourism out of ‘voluntourism’

Mark Horoszowski describes the Seattle-based organization he’s co-founded, MovingWorlds, as a combination of the Peace Corps and an online dating site.

mark HThe idea is to match folks with valuable expertise with volunteer projects in poor communities to fill a specific ‘talent gap’ impeding local efforts to improve lives.

It’s not ‘voluntourism,’ emphasized Horoszowski. MovingWorlds, an organization he co-founded with Derk Norde, a Dutch entrepreneur based in Colombia, is about ‘experteering,’ he said.

Experteering?

“There is a big difference between applying your skills for social good to help solve real challenges versus engaging in manual work for a feeling of giving back,” Horoszowski says in a post on the site in which he explains how they make the distinction. “At Moving Worlds, we support hundreds of organizations around the world looking for support in specific skill areas and consistently see the need for skilled volunteers.”

But it still seemed a little unclear, this distinction between Experteering and Voluntourism.

“Organizations come to us, post a project (need) and we screen it,” Horoszowski said. While he thinks travel and tourism alone can be valuable to anyone seeking to learn more about the world, he said their organization seeks to distinguish between what many mean (usually derogatively) by the term voluntourism and what they are intending to foster by matching talented volunteers with specific needs.

To begin with, Horoszowski says, many organizations charge volunteers for the entire cost of their trip – implying that they aren’t really needed and often establishing a relationship with the target community that can even have negative impacts (displacing local workers, for example).

Moving Worlds, he said, does charge people membership fees; but this is just to pay for their work matching up talented people with organizations who are already willing to cover the costs if the volunteer agrees to come help out. They offer three tiers of membership, $99, $249 and $999 – fully refundable if they don’t find a match (unlike most dating sites?).

This year, MovingWorlds expects to send out about 300 ‘experteers’ to various global corners of need. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated million-and-a-half voluntourists running around out there, but Horoszowski and Norde hope their approach will eventually predominate.

Horoszowski and Norde stumbled on to their ‘experteer’ strategy several years ago as social entrepreneurs – as newbie to the social enterprise movement (another kind of terminology that’s popular but still a bit fuzzy; generally meant as using business solutions to cure social ills).

Horoszowski, coming from the world of health care marketing, became interested in the whole notion of social enterprise, began searching for some way to plug into this innovative approach to fight poverty and inequity. He traveled and, by his own admission, wrote a ‘crappy blog’ about his exploits and peripatetic education. In Argentina, he ran into Norde, who had come to the same place but from the more traditional world of aid and development.

Norde and Horoszowski shared the perspective that what many of these poor communities needed was not so much outsiders coming in to do the work or even just financial support (like microfinance loans). What they may need first is, say, accounting services or a better understanding of marketing, or market analyses.

At the same time, there are clearly many American students, retirees or talented people who want to take a sabbatical – whether a week or a year – and do something good rather than just drink Mai Tais on the beach. Most voluntourism programs already have their own agenda or projects and expect people to simply sign up (and often pay) to do the work, Horoszowski said.

Many people volunteer internationally to go help poor communities simply because they want to give back, he said, because of their personal beliefs or simply because they want to experience a new kind of ‘cultural immersion.’

MovingWorlds, he said, is different because its approach recognizes that many volunteer to work overseas for specific professional development reasons – to expand their knowledge and to become more marketable in a globalized world, whether aiming to work in the traditional development field or not.

Their approach also differs, Horosowski said, because it is the poor community (or local organizations working in that community) that decides what kind of person and expertise they invite to come and assist – as opposed to the more traditional, somewhat patronizing, approach of Western organizations deciding what’s needed and how to go about addressing the need.

“People (who volunteer) often have a very specific request for where they want to go and when, and what specific skills they have to offer,” Horoszowski said. Membership with MovingWorlds provides the volunteer with a personal account manager and ‘custom opportunity sourcing’ – basically a team working specifically to get you placed where you want to go, when, and for what. And for the ‘premium’ level membership, priced at $999 (because then it doesn’t look like a grand?), you also get a personal travel manager.

MovingWorlds also provides its experteers with independent impact assessment largely determined by the local organization. Given the increasingly globalized world and the growth of the international development field, Horoszowski said he thinks he and Norde have created something that adds value on a number of fronts – providing poor communities with a service that helps them find the best people for their needs while also giving talented Westerners the opportunity for a ‘catalytic learning experience.’

Whether or not the term ‘experteer’ ever catches on is another question.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • To avoid the “Voluntourist’s Dilemma,” never create work beyond volunteer skills! One way is to design trips that include simple work like painting but will also hire skilled labor. In addition, programs should never be “painting the same wall for the 10th time” to give volunteers a sense of accomplishment. Volunteers should do what the cause needs, not what gratifies the egos of voluntourists! We need to redefine volunteer “work” to include simple, meaningful fun engagement, especially if volunteers are also contributing financially to the cause.