Sharing Success — Learning from Peer Organizations
Does travel make you want to help others? How about helping your peers? At Holbrook’s recent gathering of travel professionals in Costa Rica this past month, peer-to-peer exchange was evident, as planners and leaders provided useful tactics and data to support their counterparts at other institutions.
“It was exciting to see the more experienced nonprofit organizations be so encouraging,” said Holbrook’s Stefanie Plein. “Representatives from organizations like Seattle Audubon, Tennessee Aquarium, and St. Olaf College were quick to share strategies with others that were either new to travel or have not offered travel recently.”
In addition to guest speakers, Plein and co-leader Debbie Jordan also provided tools for leaders that can translate to anyone who is working to make a successful travel program:
Start with the benefits for your organization
Whether you are engaged in offering travel for alumni associations, nature organizations, higher education, birding or other affinity groups, offering travel programs has many benefits. “Bottom line, offering international trips is a low risk venture, with low overhead and high return,” says Christine Tanzer of Wisconsin’s Natural Resource Foundation. “The benefits are well worth the investment, and it allows us to grow both our community and our impact.”
Here are some benefits to consider as you design a program:
Provides life-changing experiences that inspire loyalty
Boosts membership and community
Creates awareness about your organization’s mission
Raises funds for special projects
Supports scientific research
Positively impacts local communities
Educates, inspires, and supports conservation
Use data to make the case
Travel planners are often willing to provide data on the success of their program. This information can help validate your current offerings or provide a case study to convince your Board of Directors or institution higher-ups. Tanzer lays out the facts about NRF: from 2004 until today, over 291 people have traveled internationally with the organization – with 21% returning more than once. 20% of international trip participants are currently major donors, and international trips have inspired over $2 million in gifts to NRF since 2004. Through these trips, NRF has given $14,500 to local conservation efforts in destinations like Alaska, Ecuador, Belize, and Costa Rica.
Other organizations have had similar success. Mass Audubon is a great example of a conservation organization that has used travel for fundraising and community building, with a program that dates back 50 years and now offers dozens of international trips. Seattle Audubon, while newer to the arena, has recently built their program to many areas of Latin America, including a recent program to Colombia.
Tie the destination to your core mission
It’s not enough to simply take a country that has been successful for one nonprofit and offer a similar program. Travel planners suggest you need to create unique connections that tie to your particular organization, exhibits, faculty or research.
“When I look at choosing a destination, I look for places that have a direct connect to our programs or exhibits,” says Karen Burns from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. “Our members want to be immersed in an experience. Rather than running around from place to place, they want in-depth encounters and to get to know the people and local culture. I never go with a canned trip that is not customizable.”
Travel leaders say their members enroll because the program is unique to their institution, often led by an expert from the organization, with special talks on topics that tie to the mission.
Beyond the numbers – passion and compassion
It’s hard to quantify some aspects of a successful travel program, namely the power of a meaningful experience matched with people’s inherent desire to make a difference. Tanzer has witnessed this firsthand for over 20 years running NRF's local field trip offerings. “They're an opportunity for people to engage with something they really care about, and the positive experiences they have in the field means that we have this growing community of people excited to be a part of NRF’s mission.”
At the same time, these meaningful experiences also have the capacity to be fun, and therefore memorable. This enjoyment leads your community to come back year after year, fostering lasting engagement and financial contributions. If you're looking to incorporate travel at your institution but are unsure how to make it work for you, reach out to peers that have already experienced success, as they are more than willing to share it.