Traveling Philanthropy

Last fall, the Community Foundation helped sponsor TBeX, a travel blogger conference brought to the Finger Lakes. As a sponsor, we hosted a “pre-bex tour” centered around philanthropy: “Voluntourism and finding meaningful giving as you travel. I remember when one of our participants, Michael, from @bemused backpacker, asked me how a typical traveler would find an experience like the one we created for them. I told him, “you simply look up the Community Foundation in the area you are visiting and email them.”

“Not everyone has heard of a Community Foundation,” he told me.

“Oh, that’s right. Hmm...then I don’t know,” was the best response I had for him at that time. After spending time in Montana, I have a much better answer now.

CFxChange was born from the idea of creating our own professional development training. Sara and I would travel to a different community to see how their local issues impact their decision making and how, as a community, they carry out their  own philanthropy. A week-long professional development that we get to plan from scratch? Where we can fill every minute with what we want to learn about and what interests us? Sign us up! It sounded awesome. But also quite overwhelming…

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Soon enough, Sara and I were headed to Montana where we set up a training with our software company and would meet with two Community Foundations. Whitefish then Bozeman were the perfect communities to visit for the first CFxChange! But what else? That was 2.5 days. What do we do with the rest of our time? So we both started with Google.

“Volunteer opportunities in Bozeman, Montana” 

“Volunteering in Bozeman”

“Bozeman volunteers”

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This led to some great volunteering opportunities; we would spend one morning at the Flathead Food Bank and one afternoon with a local food access program, Farm Hands. But what else is out there? Food insecurity is clearly a national issue, but we know it isn’t the only one. So both of us thought about where we live and the smaller nonprofits in our area that are focused on our localized issues. Nonprofits put on events to showcase local talents, fundraise, and celebrate their accomplishments. Surely, in other areas nonprofits are doing the same. How do we find those events? There are directories of nonprofits in chambers of commerce. Local libraries usually have calendars of events on their websites. We could also look at the street map of where we’re headed and see what offices are around. Our search methods changed and that’s when the floodgates opened.

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Here’s what we found. A nonprofit art gallery two blocks from our hotel hosting “Art on the Rocks” where we could make candles and sip on local ciders (um, yes please!) There is a maker space at a Science Center in Montana, too. On Wednesday, there would be a sci-fi trivia night at a brewery that benefits the local library (Katie’s dad would LOVE that.) Downtown Bozeman has an outdoor sculpture park, how cool! Also, there is a “Bike Kitchen” that takes drop in volunteers to help with bike repairs and sort bike parts! But what REALLY got us: Katie found an event to help fundraise for the local land trust and ALL WE HAD TO DO WAS HIKE AND ENJOY THEIR TRAILS. (hiking philanthropy?! SWOON.) Suddenly, we didn’t have enough time in our schedule. Not only that, but these are activities that match our interests and help support things we both care about. Both of us do things like that anyway in our travels, so why wouldn’t we do it while supporting a local nonprofit?!

So, Bemused Backpacker, we have a better answer for your question about meaningful voluntourism. If you’re traveling, make sure to check out the nonprofits there. “Voluntourism” doesn’t always take on the traditional meaning of “volunteering.”  You can give back to the community you visit by going to a museum, appreciating local work, and supporting nonprofits at fundraisers or events. Most of these events aren’t only for locals, but it is always good to check with the nonprofit leaders anyway and lends itself to a great conversation.

Yes, it might seem awkward; both of us sent a few emails that read, “This might sound strange, but we’re out-of-towners , from a small town, thousands of miles from yours, and we found your event online, can we participate?” We weren’t sure what responses we’d get because that IS strange. But, what we found, is that not only are nonprofits extremely welcoming to random people from small towns thousands of miles from theirs, they also LOVE travelers looking to help support their mission.

The limited time we spent alongside the employees and other volunteers at the nonprofits were more valuable than anything we could have found in a travel magazine. These are the people who are on the ground doing what we love and were able to give us such a unique perspective on the places we visited. A huge lesson learned from planning this trip is that when we travel, the tourism industry is what makes a place so special for visitors, but it is the work of the nonprofits that make a place sparkle for everyone.