When I incorporated Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy in 2006, while I was still a staff reporter at The New York Times, I knew next to nothing about philanthropy.
Two years later, in 2008, I launched Roadmonkey and still knew next to nothing about philanthropy - except that were many ways to do it wrong and many people concerned that Roadmonkey was yet another for-profit venture sidling up to the “voluntourism” trough.
Fast-forward past 10 subsequent adventure philanthropy expeditions to Vietnam, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Peru and Patagonia, and it is fair to say I remain dim about traditional philanthropy. I have, however, learned a lot about organizing motivated people to provide measurable relief to far-flung people and communities in need; about creating long-term connections between so-called donors and so-called benefactors; about the huge impact of just showing up for people; and about making every tax-deductible dollar count. We can learn a lot more, too.
Each Roadmonkey expedition combines a physically challenging adventure with a hands-on volunteer project that our expedition members complete in 3 or 4 days working alongside the people we’re helping. For each expedition, we partner with a reputable non-profit organization with local roots, to ensure our work is wanted and effective. We fund our volunteer projects by asking our expedition clients – aka roadmonkeys – to raise at least $500 each through their individual social networks. That’s adventure philanthropy.
Our victories are modest, but often powerful; we do not save lives or perform disaster relief. The goal of Roadmonkey is to connect globally minded travelers with marginalized (mostly quite young) people, and put them to work on a sustainable project that immerses both sides in the world of the other. Authenticity is our mission and we all know how much work it takes to be and stay authentic.
Our clients – mostly single professional women 25 to 45 years old - have built first-ever playgrounds in Vietnam and Nicaragua; school libraries and classrooms in Tanzania; rehabilitated a laundry run by disadvantaged college kids in Buenos Aires; and built a dye house from traditional adobe bricks for indigenous women weavers in Peru. They have also collectively raised more than $80,000 over two and a half years, largely through donations of less than $100.
Adventure philanthropy breaks from tradition in that it must continually prove itself, with every expedition, in a for-profit crucible that combines the efficiencies of market-based enterprise with the passion, expertise and cultural sensitivity of not-for-profit organization. However great the adventure side of our business goes, if Roadmonkey does not do some tangible good and create a meaningful connection between our clients and a local community in need, we will not survive as a business.
Indeed, this is not a high-profit enterprise, which is okay. It is no surprise I came from newspaper journalism, where no self-respecting megalomaniac lasts very long (before switching to TV news).
Not every non-profit organization wants to work with us. After all, we are looking to create a near-term, surgical-strike volunteer project with a small group of disinterested outsiders, and with no promise of future funding or affiliation. Usually our project development takes weeks of planning. Every project is a production.
The organizations we have worked with - including the Catalyst Foundation (Vietnam), Awamaki (Peru), Livingstone Tanzania Trust (Tanzania), Fabretto Foundation (Nicaragua), Voluntario Global (Argentina), among others -- wanted Roadmonkey because our clients are hardworking, smart, and seeking to create a positive impact they could not make without taking a sabbatical from career and family. (They also are, by the way, excellent fundraisers.)
In the future, will our adventure philanthropy model change to allow more roadmonkeys to connect to more people in need? Probably. All organizations want to grow. How that will work will depend, I suspect, on the profitability of Roadmonkey. That may sound provocative or even heretical. It should not.
There is, inarguably, I would say, great worth in connecting curious, influential travelers with disadvantaged communities around the world. What is more, virtually all of the founders or executives at admirable 501(c)(3) organizations I know have advised me to not go the non-profit route with Roadmonkey.
But that is another story.
Paul von Zielbauer is the founder & CEO of Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy Inc. Roadmonkey combines physically challenging adventures with meaningful volunteer projects, to give globally minded people the chance to become hands-on adventure philanthropists. Prior to becoming a social entrepreneur, Paul spent 11 years as an investigative reporter and Iraq correspondent for The New York Times. As a staff writer for the Times, he covered the American military, private security companies, the New York City prison system and organized crime. Paul earned his B.A. from Iowa State University and his M.S., with honors, from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.