8 qualities to look for in trip participants

Before diving into the logistics of any nonprofit travel program, we must have clarity on who the right participants are for the trip.

I always stress that any trip should be designed around one specific objective, with a clear understanding of the type of people that could help the organization achieve that objective.

Whether your objective is to raise money, spread awareness, or recruit new Board members, I will share a few qualities that I think are essential when considering participants for your trips.

1. Passion for the cause

There is a reason this is #1. Someone who is uninterested in your organization’s cause has zero potential to invest time, money, expertise, or relationships. This seems so obvious, and while I’ve never met a nonprofit who knowingly and intentionally sent a disinterested person on a trip, I have met plenty of nonprofits who have recruited friends-of-friends and total strangers to their donor trips. Though I 100% encourage donors and Board members to invite friends on trips, these friends must also be vetted by the nonprofit as people who have a passion for the cause and could potentially help the organization achieve its mission.

2. Connection to your organization

Ideally, everyone on the trip should be known to someone in your organization, even if they have only been recently introduced. Some nonprofits advertise their trips on their websites or through other online platforms, allowing anyone to register. I strongly advise against this. The issue here is that you may have people registering that are only interested in the destination of the trip – not the mission. They may have no desire or means to support the organization after the trip, and worse, they may have ethical dispositions that are antagonistic to the mission (for instance, poverty tourism). Do not take a chance on these unknowns – make sure everyone on the trip has passion for the work you are doing and has demonstrated that passion through some previous interaction with your organization.

3. Past experience contributing to your organization

There is no better way to prove that a person has passion for your cause and connection to your organization than by that person donating money, time, or expertise. From data on previous transactions and knowledge of current relationships, you will be able to determine if this is the right kind of person for a trip.

4. Capacity to help achieve your goal

Once you are clear on your one main objective, you will want to assess which participants can help you achieve it. If the objective is to raise $100,000 for a project, you will want to recruit people who can contribute at least 10-20% to that figure.   

If your objective is to create awareness through enhanced social media presence, you will want to recruit participants with large social media followings who have demonstrated savviness in the platforms you use, and ideally, have volunteered for your organization.   

5. Respectful of different environments and people

The best participants are the ones who are aware and respectful of the differences they will encounter in both the people the meet and the places they go. Assessing this can be challenging and often surprising. Just because someone has extensive travel experience or has been to multiple countries on that continent does not mean that he or she is necessarily respectful or appropriately behaved. Likewise, there are plenty of people leaving their home country for the first time who are perfectly humble and considerate when abroad.

I caution you not to be swayed by credentials or an impressive list of countries this person has visited. Also, don’t merely evaluate this individual based on your personal interpretation. Remember that “respectful” and “appropriate” mean different things in different contexts. Just because you don’t mind being interrupted by a donor – which you interpret as a sign of the donor’s enthusiasm – does not mean that same behavior will be well-received by a local partner. 

Ask yourself these questions about the participant: How well do they listen? How self-aware do they seem? Do they refrain from negative judgements of others? If you are concerned about a particular participant, have an open and honest conversation with that individual before making any promises.

6. Ability to attend and perform the functions of the trip

Of course, there are some basic requirements people must meet to participate on a trip. If the trip takes place in a foreign country, the participants should possess valid passports, they should be able to take time off work (if applicable) for the duration of the trip, they should be able to pay for their expenses on the trip, they should adhere to the laws of the country where the trip will take place and so on.

There is a reason that this basic criteria is point #6 and not point #1: if we start with presumptions about time, money, and ability, we run the risk of unfairly discriminating. The point here is not to assume anything about your trip participants. Don’t assume a single mother can’t go on a 2-week trip. Don’t assume a person with a physical disability can’t go to a low-resource setting. Don’t assume a recent college grad can’t pay for her expenses on a trip.

If the individual meets criteria #1-5, he or she should be invited. Provide all relevant details and concerns and let the individual decide whether he or she can attend.

7. Clear understanding of the trip’s goals

The responsibility to convey the goals of the trip and relevance to the mission rests entirely on your organization. Do not hide this language in a paragraph or a flier, or trust that your Board member or volunteer told their friend “what they need to know.” It is the responsibility of the staff who will attend  the trip to meet with each and every participant and clearly state the purpose and goals. I assure you this is necessary. One of the main reasons donors do not give on a trip is because they were unaware it was a fundraising trip. You must be clear about this upfront, before they hand in a deposit, so that they are fully onboard. If the participant is not comfortable with the goals or purpose of the trip, they should not attend.

8. Reasonable expectations regarding their experience

Again, the responsibility to convey these expectations is on your organization. As stated in #5, you have a duty to inform the participants of situations relating to health, safety, law, and logistics. Let them know the hotel is 3-stars, not 5-stars, and that 3-stars in India is different from 3-stars in Indiana. Don’t just say the site is a 2-hour drive from the hotel, say that it will be 2-hours in an air-conditioned van on unpaved, windy roads. Do not merely send your participants a guidebook or one-sheet about the trip expectations (which they may not read) – I recommend you also follow up with a phone call or in-person meeting to restate expectations and address concerns. You will need to be proactive in assessing their expectations and deeming them reasonable. If a donor has unreasonable expectations from the onset and refuses to accept your accommodations, they should not attend the trip. It may sound extreme, but trust me, this is in the best interest of you, your organization, and even the donor. We want to set people up for positive experiences that create lasting change, and that’s hard to do if we’re arguing about shower heads and wifi speeds.

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