While there can be a lot of variety in terms of structure, purpose, and implementation, most philanthropic travel programs fall into three categories.
It is helpful to understand these categories and their distinctions so that you can evaluate your organization’s current travel program and its ABC’s (actions, benefits, and challenges). For organizations who have yet to begin their donor travel program, getting a sense of what others are doing could be a helpful guide in determining where you want to head.
1. Crowdfunded travel
This scenario occurs most commonly when the organization provides multiple trips throughout the year, advertises those trips broadly, and recruits heavily from the general public. These travelers are not major donors, are not currently making a significant monetary gifts to the organization, and do not possess the funds to pay for the cost of their own transport and lodging. Thus, the individual or group crowdsource the money through friends and family through websites like GoFundMe, Fundly, and Facebook. Once they have raised the funds, they will pay a trip fee to the nonprofit, in which a percentage will cover their travel expenses (sans airfare), and a percentage will support the organization.
Beyond the percentage of the trip fee that goes to your organization, you should not expect a monetary gift from the traveler within your current fiscal year. The individual or group may stay connected to your organization as a result of the trip and may, at some point become donors, but do not count on increased donations from this group in the immediate future. There are some organizations who use this form of travel as a source of revenue, but they are doing trips throughout the year and recruiting large numbers of participants.
Also, you do not have direct access to the people who donated to that individual’s campaign, and thus, you are unable to follow up with them to thank them and maintain communication. You can and should share some marketing copy with your travelers so they can reach out to their networks on your organization’s behalf, but you should not expect that many of the people who donated to the traveler’s campaign will become donors to your organization. Most will be championing the person, not the cause.
While taking travelers to see the work this way will not raise big funds for your organization in the short term, you can still gain long-term benefit from this initiative. These are people who know how to fundraise. They are comfortable asking for money and have demonstrated success in doing so. They could be valuable volunteers and advocates for you in the future. They are also people who know how to harness the power of social media, and could use those platforms to spread awareness of your work.
Give each traveler opportunities to photograph and share their story while on the trip. Provide them with the right copy and materials to use so that they tell your organization’s story the way you want it told. Follow up with each person individually to ask how they would like to leverage their experience and network to benefit the organization in the future. As I said, there are many volunteer and marketing opportunities that could come from this.
2. Fill-the-seats travel
In this scenario, the nonprofit determines the date of the trip and the number of people to bring, then advertises the trip broadly to “fill the seats.” Recruiting methods are typically not targeting specific individuals, rather, they are open to anyone with the time and money to attend. A registration page is posted on their website for individuals to sign up, the trip is advertised through social media or at local events. Seats on the trip may even be sold during a live auction at the annual gala. Typically participants will pay a trip fee to the nonprofit, in which a percentage will cover their travel expenses (sans airfare), and a percentage will support the organization.
Because we don’t know who will sign up to attend the trip, we risk attracting people who merely want a unique vacation and are not interested in supporting the organization or cause. We also don’t have the opportunity to screen them before they sign up, so we don’t know their capacity as donors, or where their true interests lie.
It will admittedly be difficult to fundraise from this group, because it is likely the trip was not advertised as a fundraising trip. People have signed up for the reward of travel and assume the trip fee they paid counts as their donation. They are not expecting to be asked for an additional gift and may not be receptive to an ask.
Advertising the trip broadly brings new people into your circle that may not otherwise have engaged with your organization. Through this initiative, you can grow your organization’s network while deepening relationships with each cohort of travelers. They may not all become major donors, but they may become volunteers, board members, or friends. They could help introduce you to potential new donors and other people in their networks who can champion your cause.
If you are currently unable to take major donors to the field or have no prospects, a trip like this can help provide valuable information for setting up future travel programs. You will learn a lot from this journey and the people you bring, and those lessons can be used to inform future trips with major donors.
Meet one-on-one (or over the phone) with each participant before the trip to determine interests, capacity, and background. Learning more about these people will help you design a better travel experience for them, even if the itinerary and logistics have already been set. Depending on what you learn in these meetings, you may or may not fundraise on the trip. Afterwards, follow up individually to solicit feedback that you can use to improve future trips. Make sure to leverage each participant’s skills and network (for example, asking for introductions, having them contribute to social media campaigns, inviting them to speak at an event or to recruit participants for the next trip).
3. VIP travel
This scenario consists of small groups (think 2-6 people) of targeted major donors that the organization has invited to an exclusive and customized journey. The trips are not advertised broadly and there is no way to join unless you have been personally invited. Rather than picking dates and accommodations based on the nonprofit’s needs, the trip is designed around the donor’s needs. The dates will be determined at a mutually convenient time, and the accommodations and itinerary vary depending on the donor. In these trips, it is clear that the purpose is fundraising. An ask is typically made on the trip, and additional revenue is the goal.
Most organizations don’t have a huge pool of major donors to choose from when it comes to their travel programs. Out of all the major donors currently supporting your organization, only a fraction of them will have the time, ability, and interest to make an international trip to see the work. Recruiting can be challenging if the pool is not very large or if most of your major donors are unable to travel. Talking to them will give you a realistic sense of how many you need to recruit, and what kind of revenue goals would justify the effort.
Additionally, the schedule and needs of the donors may be very difficult to accommodate. Striking that balance between catering to their needs while also conserving the resources of the organization will be a delicate dance.
These are the trips that raise serious money. If you have recruited and screened appropriately, you should be able to determine reasonable revenue goals and meet them. VIP Trips are one of the most effective means of fundraising and creating lifelong champions for the organization.
Additionally, money is not the only objective. These trips will allow you to form closer connections with people who are normally private and out of reach. You will have the unprecedented opportunity to connect with, learn from, and educate these donors in ways that are not possible in short meetings or at events. Many of these people may chose to join the Board or contribute in other ways as a result of what they have seen and experienced.
Recruit and screen thoroughly so that you get the right participants for the trip. Prepare them to be asked, so that they know the trip’s purpose and are expecting to discuss money while there. To the extent possible, you will design the trip around their needs and interests, while designating plenty of one-on-one time to discuss funding. Follow up individually for acknowledgement, feedback, and opportunities to leverage their experience.