When planning to take donors or volunteers to the field, it is imperative that the trip aligns with your organization’s Mission, Strategic Plan, and Development Plan.
Failure to think through a travel program’s role in each of these three could result in creating unachievable goals for the trip – or worse – no goals at all. It’s not unusual for some nonprofits to assume that any kind of immersive travel experience will generate some positive result, but if the results are vague from the onset it can be difficult to determine if all that time and energy was a wise investment. In this article I will be describing a few ways organizations can align their travel programs with their big overarching goals:
1. Aligning the trip with the Mission
Everything your organization does must be guided by the mission. If fundraising is done on the trip, those funds will support the mission by paying for programmatic work or overhead. If the purpose of the trip is to raise awareness of an issue, cause, or solution, then that campaign must fall within the mission. I usually don’t see nonprofits struggle to relate funding or marketing back to their missions, but where there seems to be a challenge is in volunteering.
If you are bringing volunteers to do work in the field, that work must directly support the mission. If your organization’s mission is to improve health outcomes for a particular community and you do so by providing healthcare services, you can send medical professionals to provide clinical skills, as well as non-medical professionals who can assist in administrative or labor-intensive service that benefit the patients. They should not be gardening, painting houses, or bathing animals at a shelter. But these are the kinds of things I sometimes see happen when a nonprofit does not effectively align the work it needs done with the skills and interests of the volunteers it recruits.
Much has been written about volunteers being sent overseas to do work that does not need to be done or that could have easily and more effectively been done by local people.
Why does this happen?
I believe there is a fallacy in nonprofit culture that says “if you have people wanting to donate time, you had better find something for them to do.” Even if it is unnecessary, redundant, or off-mission.
The problem with this mindset is that by engaging volunteers this way you are actually taking away from the mission – not adding to it. This also goes against the very goal volunteers hope to achieve with their contributions. I’m sure most volunteers would have rather waited for the right opportunity (a match between skills and need), than gone on a trip where their time and money ultimately made little difference.
To prevent yourself from getting in this situation ask, “What would we have done without this volunteer support? And how much would that have cost us?” (If the answers are “nothing” and “zero” then the contribution was not meaningful). If your program does not have meaningful work that can be carried out by volunteers, or there is a mismatch between skills, interests, and need, then it is best not to create a travel program that engages them.
2. Aligning the trip with the Strategic Plan
Is your organization expanding into a new territory or deepening your work in an existing one? Are you launching a brand new project that is yet unfunded? Are you actively seeking out partnerships with other organizations to increase impact? Are you wanting to raise awareness of these partnerships or solidify new relationships with key stakeholders in order to advance the work?
These are the kinds of big-picture ideas that are covered in a strategic plan, and can absolutely be enhanced with a travel program. You may not be able to align the trip to every strategic goal, but ideally your travel program should support at least one major goal or initiative on the Strategic Plan. This is a critical step in order to achieve support from both the leadership and Board for a trip. It will also help you distill your one main objective for the trip. For instance, if your organization’s Strategic Plan includes launching a new program that is only partially funded, your one main objective for a trip to that region will be to secure additional funding for that program.
3. Aligning the trip with the Development Plan
Almost all travel programs of this nature are overseen by the Development team. Whether this constitutes an entire department or 0.5 FTE of one person’s time, it is usually their responsibility to determine if a travel program will be effective in engaging donors, investors, and volunteers. It is important that any travel program engaging these stakeholders be clearly outlined in the Development Plan. Only by looking at all the fundraising initiatives for the year will you know whether it is possible to assign monetary goals for the trip and what some reasonable goals might be. You can also explore whether you want to set goals relating to a number of new donors, or how much to increase gifts from current donors.
If the trip is not a fundraising trip, the non-financial goals should also be addressed in the Development Plan. This might include securing a certain number of volunteers, logging a certain number of volunteer hours, acquiring new media assets and stories for future campaigns, or increasing engagement on social media.
Having your travel program align with your Mission, Strategic Plan, and Development Plan not only serves as a guiding light for your organization, but also instills your participants with a sense of pride and purpose. This is what distinguishes donor trips and volunteer trips from other kinds of travel: participants want to know that they are contributing to the cause and that their time and money has made an impact. By knowing how a trip aligns with your organization’s plans and goals, you can clearly articulate to your trip participants how they fit into the bigger picture.