Global and Local: WorldVentures Voluntourism Sparks Philanthropy at Home
WorldVentures is going places. More precisely, the group travel agency’s 450,000 members are going places, presenting a rare opportunity to give back in communities around the world.
Plano-based WorldVentures, now celebrating 10 years in business, has tapped into that opportunity through voluntourism, or group travel with a social purpose. VolunTours are the flagship initiative of the WorldVentures Foundation, created in 2010 to advance the company’s mission to create more fun, freedom and fulfillment in people’s lives. As WorldVentures has expanded—annual revenue rose from $195 million to $352 million in 2014—so too has its approach to philanthropy. Alongside voluntourism the foundation supports an increasing number of local, representative-led volunteer projects. WorldVentures also partners with Nancy Lieberman Charities to build state-of-the-art basketball courts, called DreamCourts, primarily at Boys & Girls Clubs in low-income communities across the U.S. We sat down with Executive Director Gwyneth Lloyd to talk about honing the foundation’s initiatives and keeping in step with a fast-growing, visionary company.
DSN: Could you provide some background on the WorldVentures Foundation and VolunTours?
GL: The foundation began as the founders’ [Wayne Nugent and Mike Azcue] idea. They wanted to have impact travel as well as build a travel MLM. The kind of people they are and the way they think is: How can we make a difference while we’re doing whatever we do? This new, somewhat European piece called voluntourism—which, by the way, is in the Oxford dictionary as of 2015—was for kids in their gap years or Europeans who were going to take a whole month and go dig trenches in Nicaragua or something, but it wasn’t the typical American experience. We owned it and then started to ask how we could make it match our membership. From there we developed VolunTours as a vacation option. For example, our members can choose to go on a cruise, a ski trip, a wine tour or a VolunTour. It’s a part of the portfolio.
DSN: The foundation started off with VolunTours, but now you’ve added Volunteer Days or Service Excursions, as well as DreamCourts. What gave rise to Volunteer Days?
GL: Volunteer Days go back to DreamTrips by WorldVentures. People would ask if they could do a little volunteering during the excursions. If you have a big group of people coming together, about 10 percent will want to participate—not everybody does, but when members do take part in the projects, the volunteering is what they remember most from the trip, even if they had great parties and stayed up all night and everything….
As the company grew globally, local reps and members wanted to begin doing philanthropic work locally, and so we designed a Volunteer Day they can organize. It’s grassroots, because we could never manage that volume, and now we’re really doing a surge on that concept because we believe that’s where the growth will be—people making a difference in their communities, with their friends and family. We looked at the WorldVentures mission, which revolves around fun, freedom and fulfillment, and how to actualize that both locally and globally. We wanted to give people a local impact capability and inspire them to do good in their own community.
DSN: When you have a groundswell of interest, as in the case of Volunteer Days, it can be tricky to channel that energy while also staying true to your mission. What has helped you tap into that interest without losing momentum along the way?
GL: In most cases you have a cause and you’re a nonprofit, but we come in as a nonprofit affiliated with a travel company that is also an MLM, which brings its own energy. I sought first to put in the structure of a well-run nonprofit, because there’s a lot of noise. Everyone’s excited. Everyone has mile-a-minute ideas. Somebody wants you to sponsor a ballet class with cookies, while somebody else wants to go build a disabled child center in the middle of Cambodia. You’ve got this incredible range of passions, but you’ve got to keep asking, “What is our purpose? What is our mission?” and be authentic in the delivery. By having the structure, you can now play the game…. Our job is to keep the volunteer experience authentic globally, and to do that we have to focus on keeping everyone moving in the same direction.
DSN: What do you do when a Representative proposes a volunteer project for a DreamCourt, meaning they would lead fundraising?
GL: We try to control the number we deal with, because everyone wants a court in their local community, and we want them to have it, but we have to identify who’s got the leadership involved and the stamina to launch within the next three years and stay with it. We get involved when we see that they’ve really got the fundraising bug. We have training materials and give them one-on-one support when it comes to execution.
DSN: What kind of charitable activities are taking place on the corporate side?
GL: In the past three years, we’ve been working to align our organization with Boys & Girls Clubs…. We recently did a hugely successful toy drive for the Plano club. Volunteers within the organization also helped us with the foundation’s #GivingTuesday push. They came in and took part in our communications that day, and a certain percentage of the money we raised came from our staff, rather than solely external donations. Several employees also give monthly through our recurring donation program. There’s really been a shift in focus, and we decided last quarter to adopt a local Boys & Girls Club and begin measuring our impact there.
DSN: What kind of volunteer projects have you tied into UNITED 2016, the company’s annual convention?
GL: We’re expecting about 22,000 people, and we’re organizing the largest Volunteer Day we’ve ever done in the U.S., with 350 people. Those are the two hands-on things we’ll be doing in Orlando, Florida.
We’re also celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary with a focus on Hug It Forward’s Bottle School program in Guatemala, which has been the foundation’s biggest investment in people, both in terms of volunteering and finances. Over the years Hug It Forward has been our largest single partner. Through their work in developing countries, communities collect bottles to build Bottle Schools [schools built using plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash] and teach local children about the environment. The land is the community’s, and the teacher is provided by the government. Once all that has come together, we go in and fund the building of the school….
We were at 64 schools completed this summer, and for our anniversary year, in 2016, we’re looking to complete our hundredth school as part of our Journey to 100 initiative. Guatemala has been our “country of change” for the past five years. The 100 schools we’ve built there will have created a legacy for the community that was otherwise impossible. These are children who studied under trees or not at all. We’re now 50 percent funded to reach our goal, and I hope to finish that during UNITED.
DSN: You now have five years behind you. What is the WorldVentures Foundation looking to accomplish in the next five years?
GL: We want to be part of a larger WorldVentures Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) picture. The foundation is now part of CSR at the holdings level. Our goal is to take this philanthropic heart and start measuring it against more than just what we do in the world, but how we behave in the world—from procurement to our tourist behaviors to how we share information and benefits with employees. By proving itself philanthropically, it’s also opened up this new model, and I’m going to be heading that up going forward.
For the foundation, under that, we want to really explode the Volunteer Day concept. We want people to do volunteer work locally as much as we can get them activated to do it…. Our mission is to share our bounty, our abundance, with the world. We want one rep to take 20 people who have no idea who WorldVentures is and go do something wonderful for their community. That’s the message that’s left behind—who is this organization that does so much in the world?—and it becomes an attractor.