Study and Research
INITIAL THOUGHTS & REFLECTIONS ON THE VOLUNTOURIST SURVEY
Nancy McGehee, Virginia Tech University
David Clemmons, VolunTourism.org
For this issue of the Research Forum section of The VolunTourist, our research ”guest” is our very own David Clemmons. He is introducing a research project that you will be hearing more about in the coming days: an online survey of folks interested in participating in voluntourism. David and I are currently wading through this very interesting data, but we wanted to share with you a bit of background as well as a few “teasers” in terms of the responses we received.
Over the years, there has been a singular and challenging thought when it comes to VolunTourism: “What should be done to better support individuals who have a transformative experience during a VolunTourism trip?”
This line of thinking has led down many paths. There has been a review of books and online articles on transformational learning, including some of the foundational concepts presented by Jack Mezirow. Dr. Patricia Cranton, Visiting Professor at Penn State University, Harrisburg, has shared her expertise on “disorienting dilemmas” and answered the “3’Qs” in Volume 2 Issue 2 of The VolunTourist. Conversations with individuals like Greg Tehven, Co-Founder of Students Today Leaders Forever, have stressed the importance of keeping folks in the learning zone. He has phrased it this way, “As VolunTourism Practitioners, we do not want to introduce VolunTourists to a situation that over-stimulates, i.e., puts them in the danger zone, nor under-stimulates, i.e., leaves them in the comfort zone.”
In July 2006, Dr. Terri O’Fallon, Principal of Pacific Integral, Andy Morikawa, Executive Director of The Community Foundation of the New River Valley, Dr. Susan Cannon, Associate of Kore Leadership and the Arlington Institute, and Elisa Sabatini, Executive Director of Los Niños, Inc., convened for two days to discuss VolunTourism and its transformative nature. They provided additional commentary and expertise based upon their wealth of knowledge and experience in such areas as Spiral Dynamics, Human Systems, Corporate Leadership, and Capacity – intriguing!
Inspired by these insights and additional reading, a formula was designed to measure the “transformation potential” of a given VolunTourism adventure. It was envisionedl that it could be used to predetermine what VolunTourism Trips might best be suited for individuals while honoring the unique nature of their personalities, desires, and life experience.
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In August 2006, Dr. Nancy McGehee, Associate Professor of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Virginia Tech University, was contacted. As a member of the VolunTourism.org Advisory Council and Director of Research for The VolunTourist quarterly newsletter, Dr. McGehee has been an invaluable resource in better understanding VolunTourism research over the years. She was asked to come to San Diego to discuss an “equation” which was being formulated in order to quantitatively predict the transformative nature of a VolunTourism trip. In early November, she was able to set aside some time for a visit.
She was initially presented a series of remarks and hypotheses on what contributed to the degree to which a VolunTourism trip would potentially catalyze transformation within participating VolunTourists. It was explained that through interviews with numerous VolunTourists and VolunTourism Operators, reviews of case studies, books, and articles, and reflection upon personal experiences, eight primary elements had been identified. It was believed that these elements would have an impact on the overall perceptions of a VolunTourist during, or after, a VolunTourism experience, and, therefore, would initiate a change within the individual. These were, in no special order: Environment, Interaction, Intensity, Motivations, Expectations, Willingness/Personal Effort, Personal Preferences, and Previous Life Experience.
Dr. McGehee’s suggestion was to break the process into a series of steps. The first step would be to compile a series of questions, to be offered via a survey, which would assist in determining what elements, if any, within each of these categories would prove statistically valid. A working list of questions had been developed already and these were modified and others added during her stay. She proposed to have one of her classes “pilot” the survey once it had been finalized; then it could be introduced to potential VolunTourists through VolunTourism.org.
After much correspondence, many iterations and revisions, discussions with other VolunTourism.org Advisory Council members, and assistance from Virginia Tech graduate students, the initial survey questions were posted in November 2007 via Survey Monkey. Shortly thereafter, Dr. McGehee asked nearly 400 students participating in her online course, HTM 2454 Introduction to Tourism Management, to take the survey. After reviewing these responses and making additional revisions the survey was launched on VolunTourism.org. Its availability was also promoted through various voluntourism-related travels and contacts with the popular press. When the survey was closed on June 10, 2008, roughly 1500 individuals had begun the survey and nearly 1100 had completed it. The sheer number of respondents, as you can imagine, was surprising, considering that the survey takes about 20 minutes from start to finish. We are indeed grateful to all those respondents!
The VolunTourist Survey Focus
In order to capture as much information as possible from the respondents, a variety of areas were addressed, including:
- Environmental Preferences for a voluntourism experience– What are the geographic preferences for Voluntourism experiences? Africa, Arctic/Antarctica, Asia, Australia/Pan-Pacific, Caribbean, Central America, Europe, North America, South America?
- Interaction – What level and types of interaction do individuals want with local residents, with fellow voluntourists, or with the destination?
- Intensity – What are acceptable physical and mental intensity levels for a voluntourism experience?
- Motivations – What are the respondent’s motives for participation in a voluntourism experience?
- Expectations – What services, for example, are expected from voluntourism Operators?
- Willingness/Personal Effort – How willing are voluntourists to actively prepare, participate, and reflect on a voluntourism experience?
- Other Trip Preferences – What social issues would they like to address?
- Previous Life Experience – What type and level of past leisure travel excursions and volunteer participation have respondents experienced? Do they actively volunteer at home?
Dr. McGehee's Initial Thoughts
- When asked about their motives for their interest in voluntourism, learning, exploring, and experiencing something new rank high on the respondent’s lists. In tourism research, these are typically referred to as “pull” factors – something is pulling you toward the activity or destination. Conversely, respondents do not seem as interested in escaping daily stresses, being away from daily routine, or other “push” factors – the idea that the stresses or mundanity of your day-to-day life is pushing you toward an activity or destination. Deeper analysis is required, but this does look interesting. Respondents also mentioned that they are interested in making sure that the experience includes service to others and involves cultural immersion, while they were less concerned with fulfilling requirements for school or work, or other more self-centered motives such as learning a specific skill or language.
- Those who responded to the survey are fairly travel-savvy. Most have traveled internationally, and have traveled to destinations where they did not speak the native language. They are motivated to participate in pre-trip activities such as language immersion, pre-trip briefings, and reviewing reading materials, videos, or online materials in order to be prepared. Related to that, they have strong expectations for their voluntourism providers. For example, they want detailed itineraries, a list of medical recommendations, and lists of cultural “do’s and don’t’s” to come from their providers.
- Respondents seem to want an experience that is fairly compartmentalized – a section of the experience that focuses on the volunteering followed by a section that focuses on travel and culture. Surprisingly, respondents wanted full days of volunteering (no slackers here!) and relaxation and rest were not high priorities. This may come from inexperience, or this may come from just being really fired up about voluntourism – we will let you know what the data tell us!
- Regardless of whether they are at work volunteering or at play afterward, respondents fully expect to have many opportunities for contact with local residents. For example, there seems to be a strong group of “foodies” represented amongst the respondents– they want to enjoy local cuisine before, during, and after volunteering, in a local restaurant or similar venue, surrounded by local residents and culture.
David Clemmons' Initial Thoughts
- The vast majority of respondents do not volunteer or volunteer less than five hours per week. How this will compare to the expectation that they will be volunteering six to eight hours per day and their capacity to serve at a functioning level will remain intact during that time should be very interesting and worth following.
- Roughly 150 persons completed the survey each month once it was posted on VolunTourism.org. This was very unexpected given the length of time of the survey (estimated 20 minutes) and considering that it was an opt-in survey with no incentive or gift to participate other than the suggestion from VolunTourism.org to start with the survey to better understand this type of travel.
- Most respondents were undecided as to whether they will take a voluntourism trip in 2008. This will be something worth exploring in the future. It raises a question regarding at what point during their decision-making process respondents were taking the survey. Or is there a correlation to having to select participation within a given time frame, i.e. before the year 2009?
Respondent Comments To Sections Of The Survey
Motivations For A Voluntourism Experience:
- "I want to feel the experience of different places, cultures, and mindsets. I believe that an experience like this will allow me to step outside myself and my comfort zone, knowing that I’m making, however small, an impact of positivism on this vast world. To immerse myself in cultures and places I could only read about, and hopefully give someone or something the insight I’m sure they will be giving me in turn. I want to put my heart and soul into something I believe in, and make a change!"
- "My children are older, I have completed my schooling and I'm looking to give back in life."
- " I want to make a difference in people's lives without becoming depressed about the situation."
- "I want my children to learn to help others and the enviroment so the world is a better place."
- "My future husband and i want to experience a vacation while helping others, and learning about their lifestyles as well as different species"
The VolunTourist Survey Focus
1) Environmental Preferences for a voluntourism experience– What are the geographic preferences for Voluntourism experiences? Africa, Arctic/Antarctica, Asia, Australia/Pan-Pacific, Caribbean, Central America, Europe, North America, South America?
2) Interaction – What level and types of interaction do individuals want with local residents, with fellow voluntourists, or with the destination?
3) Intensity – What are acceptable physical and mental intensity levels for a voluntourism experience?
4) Motivations – What are the respondent’s motives for participation in a voluntourism experience?
5) Expectations – What services, for example, are expected from VolunTourism Operators?
6) Willingness/Personal Effort – How willing are voluntourists to actively prepare, participate, and reflect on a voluntourism experience?
7) Other Trip Preferences – What social issues would they like to address?
8) Previous Life Experience – What type and level of past leisure travel excursions and volunteer participation have respondents experienced? Do they actively volunteer at home?
Additional Service Work Areas Of Interest
- Health & chiropractic services
- IT & technology services
Interaction With Local Residents
- "At this point, I realize how 'improve myself spiritually' actually has its limit. The word 'Tourism' that is attached to VolunTourism has such power that I don't want to feel like I'm on a mission. I still want to enjoy the 'tourism' experience instead of being entirely submerged in the problems of the world."
- "Visit various local establishments from arts & crafts shops to historical buildings when the work day is done. Either on our own or in a group."
- "Working and sharing meals with, meeting local residents would be a plus but it’s not a must on a daily basis. Either way is still great."
Perspectives On VolunTourism:
- "I have not experienced voluntourism so I don't really know what I'd get out of it. Though, I can see the conflict I have with the concept. I'm actually going to pay money as much as regular tourists do to go to a destination, BUT I will be providing services to the community, too. That's not a bad thing if my goal is to "improve myself spiritually by helping others." However, my expectation is certainly not to turn a "fun trip with a good cause" into a "mission." Therefore, I should expect no immense obligations or great expectation from the trip provider. But who knows, maybe the experience I get could provide unexpected rewards such as the sense of accomplishment, selflessness, inner peace, or even self actualization. A voluntourism (trip) then could even be a life changing experience."
- "I want a true volunteer experience not 25% volunteer and 75% vacation."
- "I would want to know about any risks, including political or environmental hazards."
- "I tend to be shy when out of my element, so I'd expect a certain level of encouragement from the hosts as well as respect for the level at which I choose to participate."
- "I don't think a person can get to know a place to which they travel unless the get to know the people who live there, who are not visitors and are not in the travel books."
- "The prospect of being able to be of service in a new area, and not just be a tourist, and thereby absorb what the place really has to offer, and find out what it is really like, is to me the most exhilarating thing I ever could have conceived of."
- "I have thought about traveling for most of my life. When I happened across a volunteerism site as I was looking up regular travel options, I was floored! I never really knew there was anything like this out there. The problem I have is I don’t know how to go about getting involved. I’m not sure if I need degrees, or certain credentials. I do know that I want to travel. I also know that I want to have the in depth experience one could only get by actually working with the locals, or helping out environmentally. I know I would get so much more out of travel if I didn’t feel so much like a tourist. I want to dig deep, within myself, and actually make a change in the world. Not sit in a fancy restaurant, going to all the tourist sites, and come away feeling like I really didn’t expand my knowledge, my soul, in a deep, spiritual way. I may just be planting trees, or helping carry things, but I really want the chance to help none the less. I feel every little bit helps out eventually, and I deeply desire to be a part of something as wonderful as this!"
As the data from the survey are being further analyzed, we look forward to the next steps, which will include, at the very least, 1-2 academic journal articles and one practitioner oriented report which will be available for a minimal fee. The idea is to continue to collect data so that we can begin to have a longitudinal look at the changing face of the voluntourist.
The VolunTourist Survey II is now online and available. The second iteration features requests for more demographic information, requires individuals to select single items as opposed to ”choosing all that apply”, and strengthens our understanding of how folks are learning about the survey.
Most importantly, we would like to take the time to sincerely thank those of you who completed the initial survey. Without your input, we cannot learn about who the voluntourist is, what she or he may look like, and how best to create a voluntourism experience that lives up to the needs and expectations of that voluntourist.
I hope you enjoyed this edition’s Research Forum! If you have any questions or comments, please submit your questions to the Voluntourist newsletter, or send me an e-mail to learn more!
See you next issue!
Nancy McGehee , Ph.D.
Hospitality and Tourism Management, Virginia Tech
For more Study & Research Articles visit Dr. McGehee's VolunTourism Research Forum. Go There >>>
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