Staff members are selected to participate in donor trips for a variety of reasons. In an earlier article I published on roles and responsibilities, I argued that the staff members physically attending the trip should be those folks who hold the relationships with the key travelers and who are comfortable with the fundraising element. While I still believe this is best practice, I want to probe deeper into the role of staff on trips, as I have found that sometime the role they are asked to perform on a donor trip is incongruous with role they are used to performing in their office.
On any trip, it is essential that at least five roles are represented: that of the decision-maker, the fundraiser, the expert, the helper, and the documentarian. On some trips, five different staff members occupy these roles. On other trips, local partners or tour operators sometime take on one or two of these roles. In theory, one person could occupy all five roles, though when you read the descriptions, you will see how difficult that truly is.
My point in further examining each role, and in spelling out the tasks to be performed on the trip as well as related skills, is to help you and your organization select the right people for your trips—and, just as importantly, to help you further vet and leave out unnecessary players. You may assume sending a development officer is an obvious choice, but if the trip calls for a helper, and that person is focused more on budget goals and less on guiding a group, challenges will arise and needs will go unmet.. Simply put, a Helper must be helpful, and every trip needs a Helper. Likewise, if there is not an expert on site and you fail to send one, donors will miss important information. If your HR manager wants to attend a trip, but that person is not a decision-maker, fundraiser, expert, helper, or documentarian, then there is no role for them on the trip, and they should not attend at the organization’s expense.
The decision-maker represents the organization and can make decisions both large and small. If an emergency happens, this person will decide the course of action by following standard protocol and consulting with the local partners on available options. This person must have both authority and accountability within the organization. For that reason, it is challenging to place a subordinate staff member in the position of decision-maker on a trip. It is also unwise to fill this role with a local partner from a different organization or the tour guide/operator.
This person must possess critical-thinking skills, remain calm and solution-oriented, and be able to act with decisiveness. The travelers and local partners, guides, vendors, and operators must know expressly who the decision-maker is and respect their authority. There may be times the decision-maker makes a decision that is unpopular with the group—say, to reevaluate the site when protests erupt—so this person must be comfortable facing resistance and must be steadfast and resolute in their decisiveness.
The fundraiser may hold relationships with key travelers or at least have knowledge and comfort with fundraising on trips. This person does not necessarily have to occupy a role within the fundraising office at headquarters— they could be an executive director, board member, or even program officer. This person should be comfortable discussing costs, budgets, results, and impact. If needed, this person should be ready and able to answer questions about financial support and giving. If you have planned to make an ask on the trip, this is the person who will do that. If not, the person should still be prepared for a giving conversation if the donor brings it up spontaneously.
This is not a role to put on your local partners, operators, or guides. They will likely be unfamiliar with fundraising and will not have the established relationship or knowledge of the donors needed to navigate such sensitive conversations.
The expert knows your programmatic work inside and out. They are well-versed in the cause, the mission, the country, the site, the culture, the theory of change, the systemic factors, the barriers, and the successes. Often, this role is filled by a dynamic program officer or program director, whether flown in from headquarters or living on-site. Sometimes this role is best performed by someone outside the organization, such as a renowned scholar, diplomat, local partner, or other influential player.
This person is primarily responsible for delivering the content on the trip. They should be not only knowledgeable but also a fantastic communicator, a humble listener, and a wise teacher. They will need to deliver the content in a way that can be understood by people outside their industry and be responsive to honest questions and even pushback from donors who arrive with their own assumptions and ideas.
The helper ensures that all logistics run smoothly and responds to traveler needs both large and small in a timely manner. This person possesses excellent customer service and a patient demeanor. They try to anticipate traveler needs and meet them before travelers can even ask. They are always proactively crafting plans B and C in case things don’t go according to plan A (and they never do). In short, this person is on the lookout for ways to put travelers at ease, both physically and emotionally.
Many times this role is staffed by a third-party guide or operator who has been trained in handling groups of this sort and is well-resourced on-site. Staff members may also take on this role, in addition to the guide or sometimes in lieu of one, but my point is this: every trip needs a helper. If doesn’t matter what this person’s role is in their everyday job—every trip needs someone watching out for the group and meeting their needs in a humble, unassuming way.
Many of these trips ought to be documented, both visually and through storytelling, to leverage the experience for future marketing and recruitment. Someone has to take really good photos, interview participants, gather quotes and testimonials, and write well-crafted stories about the experience.
On the high end, organizations hire professional media crews for $30,000. For those without that budget, they provide their own staff shot sheets and checklists to ensure just the right images (shots) are captured, people are interviewed, and stories are told while on the trip. My point here is not to insist you hire a third-party documentary company or that you pay for extra staff to attend the trip just to get footage, or even that you rely on the staff already attending to do this job. My point is that you think about the role of the documentarian in advance and prepare accordingly. These are rare and special journeys that provide excellent opportunities for fresh and compelling footage.