Giving Back: Using Service Projects to Support Your Organization’s Mission
Many travelers today want to go beyond traditional “tourism” and instead seek experiences that more deeply connect them with the people, culture, and environments of their destination. One way to do that, and to support your organization’s mission at the same time, is to incorporate a service or citizen science component into your trip.
As a travel planner, you can include one or two days’ worth of volunteer activities or build your whole trip around a particular project. Organizations and academic institutions like the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History, Penn State Lehigh Valley, and National Audubon have successfully used hands-on volunteer or citizen science activities to engage their travelers while furthering their own goals in conservation, education, and sustainability.
photo by Sea Turtle Conservancy
Sea Turtle Conservancy
Along with welcoming researchers and volunteers at their field station in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy has organized several group travel programs for its members and other interested travelers to Cuba. The benefits of these programs are twofold: participants assist Cuban researchers and biologists with data collection, and donations built into the trip cost assist with fundraising.
“A program like this that combines hands-on activities with local experts, educational components, and chances to explore some of Cuba’s prominent sites like Havana and Viñales Valley is attractive to members and donors, boosting participation and ultimately helping the STC achieve their conservation goals,” says Holbrook travel specialist Lisa Palmese-Graubard.
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History
The Hilton Pond Center, located in North Carolina, aims to conserve the flora and fauna of the Piedmont Region of the eastern U.S. Its Operation RubyThroat project focuses specifically on protecting Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and to that end, the Hilton Pond Center has used travel programs effectively since 2004.
In addition to conservation efforts locally, the center’s executive director Dr. Bill Hilton Jr. leads trips every year to the hummingbirds’ wintering grounds in Central America, to destinations that include Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Belize. (In October, the organization will embark on its 30th trip in the name of citizen science and conservation.)
Travelers use mist netting and live-trapping operations to help capture and band hummingbirds in the field. The data they collect provides a more complete understanding of the birds’ migration route and patterns, population dynamics, molt, and longevity. Operation RubyThroat program also typically include time for field trips to view other fauna and lush flora in natural areas.
photo by Sandy Doss
Penn State Lehigh Valley
This approach also works for academic institutions. In 2017, students from Penn State Lehigh Valley visited Cuba, and while in the field, students from differing colleges of study worked in groups to research a specific environmental sustainability issue confronting not just this developing nation but the world.
From government agencies to NGOs to researchers in the field, they delved into the policies and practices of Cuba's national park system and species conservation. Students had the opportunity to engage in species citizen science in Guanahacabibes Peninsula, where they collected biometric data in support of green sea turtle nesting. While this data collection occurred on the beaches, their observation of coral farming and the health of Cuban coral reefs proved to be a key highlight of their experiential education. Students also participated in service learning through a beach trash collection project.
Another way to support your organization’s mission, rather than directly incorporating a service or citizen science project, is to plan trips that benefit destinations in other ways. Flyway Expeditions, a collaboration between Holbrook Travel and National Audubon, aims to strengthen bird-based tourism as a conservation and sustainable development tool.
The tours developed from this initiative are designed to help protect key target areas along the flyways for migratory and local species in Latin America and the Caribbean. Travelers’ tourism dollars not only go toward safeguarding natural habitats, but they also help support sustainable livelihoods for local guides and locally owned businesses.
As a trip planner, knowing your audience is vital: Will your potential travelers be more interested in a full schedule of volunteer or citizen science activities, or will they prefer a more balanced itinerary with other experiences mixed in? Your travel provider should be able to suggest destinations and projects that are a good match for your mission as well as connect you with organizations in-country that are working toward those same goals.
“The real service learning part is up to the group leader, and in how they present the projects they are doing and how they affect the community and the environment,” says Holbrook travel specialist Debbie Sturdivant Jordan.