I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

27 March 2009 ~ 0 Comments

My thoughts on Non-Profit’s salaries and excess


Some comments I wrote on the topic here.

21 March 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Thoughts on voluntourism and “fair trade”

I added some thoughts to the comments on this article:


There is a film by Daniela Kon called “Changing the World on Vacation” which explores these issues. The website is http://www.deedaproductions.com where you can view the 16 minute selects reel.

The film highlights the organization I run, called PEPY, and many of the mistakes and lessons we learned during our first year of running volunteer trips in Cambodia. Watching the film now, I see so many things that we have changed in how we operate trips to make them more learning experiences and more targeted towards supporting the communities and programs they are meant to be aiding rather than just catering to the volunteers themselves.

There is so much to consider with voluntourism – decades of development best practices, responsible tourism, educational facilitation, etc. Getting it right takes not only some trial and error, but also a commitment to monitoring and evaluating the impact of your trips knowing that you will indeed find that you have done things wrong…. which is a hard thing to accept when it comes to helping people and doing good. You want to get it right. So when you know that you wont and you know that in some cases you are harming the programs you are aiming to help, it is often times frustrating enough for people to either close their eyes to it and not accept it or walk away frustrated that doing it right takes a lot more effort than they thought.

I think both voluntourism and development work in general can be forces for good when so often they are not, but it takes time, self-criticism, and a discerning donor/client base. I think PEPY still has a long way to go in this regard, but I hope we are working towards doing it right. We are also looking to partner with other voluntourism operators to solidify our Voluntourism Effective Practices (VEP) self-checking tool to keep us aware of the positive and negative impact factors in our programs.

If there are voluntourism operators out there looking to be involved, we would love to work with you :-) [email protected]

PS – Brian, I very much agree with your “Fair Trade” point. Yours is also how I define fair trade – looking more at the issues of dumping etc which cause economic imbalances and inequities which make it impossible for those whose governments are not subsidizing agriculture to compete. We need a new word for this area of discussion around fair trade as all too often, once those words are thrown out, people think of fair trade products and coffee. Those who oppose that arena of “fair trade” believe in the same economic principals which I do – that you shouldn’t be subsidizing something with the hopes of it becoming “sustainable” – as it won’t be. If those same people were made to understand that the same logic applies in reverse to what we are doing with agriculture being shipped abroad, they might still be staunchly opposed to “fair trade” products which are made competitive via subsidizes and be able to get behind fighting for fair TRADING practices among nations.

03 March 2009 ~ 1 Comment

“Changing the World on Vacation” – a film highlighting PEPY’s mistakes and lessons learned

It is sometimes uncomfortable to talk openly about the mistakes you have made, and definitely embarrassing when they are shown on a big screen for everyone to see, but that is exactly what we are doing at PEPY with “Changing the World on Vacation.” This documentary, by filmmaker Daniela Kon of Deeda Productions (http://deedaproductions.com/), reflects on the “politics of compassion” and the impact of volunteers and volunteering.

The film focuses on footage taken from the first year of PEPY Tours on trips in December 2005, March 2006, and December 2006. Now, over two years since the last clips of the documentary were shot, we look back on so many of the decisions we made and actions we took…. and it makes us cringe.

“What were we thinking?” is a phrase heard among our staff over and over while watching this film. What were we thinking, not having a strict clothing policy for rural Cambodia? What were we thinking designing our trips based around traveler ideas for education, not education coming from the local populations to the visiting guests? What were you thinking when you said “Cambodia has a limitless supply of fish”, Daniela? Ummmm…. I’m not so sure.

What I do know is that watching the film makes me realize how far we have come and how much we have learned, it highlights areas where we can still improve, and overall it is a vivid example of many things NOT to do in volunteer tourism. Our hope, by being part of this project, is that this film will prevent others from making the same mistakes we did and will act as a conversation starter around this important topic: “How can you best support positive change while you are in a foreign culture?”

For those who have watched the film, and even for those who haven’t but are interested in the topics of traveler’s philanthropy, voluntourism, and NGO work, we’d love to elaborate more on the lessons we have learned as they relate to the Daniela Kon’s documentary.

1) Poverty voyeurism is bad and can add to the problem. Johnny was right. We agree very much that Steung Menchey (Phnom Penh’s largest garbage dump) is not a place travel groups should visit, no matter if they are going with a NGO or not. We had brought our first year of PEPY participants to Steung Menchey with an NGO partner we were working with at the time and, as I state in the film, we thought the visits were justified at the time. The last trip we did to Steung Menchey was that trip shown, December 2006, as we realized that, no matter how “well” we thought we were doing the visits, how much money we were funding into groups working with children from the dump, nor how much learning it provides to the travelers, we would still be adding to a type of tourism we do not believe in. Tour buses now visiting Steung Menchey stop at the top of the site, allow people to get out and take pictures and then head off to lunch. People traveling with an average operator which is not funding development projects in Cambodia often feel overwhelmed at Steung Menchey and want to “help”. With no education on how best to do that, some hand out food (resulting the chaos like in the documentary) or money.

Consider that life on the dump means an average of ½ dollar in revenue for a family. Consider that many of the people working on the dump are children who have either been sent to the dump by their families to make money or, in many case, “bought” by someone, sometimes with honest explanation and sometimes under another guise, to work in the dump. If this is the case, and tourists start handing out dollars, double the expected daily income, it all of a sudden becomes that much more profitable to move and work on the dump. This makes the problem the giver set out to counter all that much stronger and further incentivizes parents to send their children to work in this dangerous and scary place.

Throughout the coming weeks we will be following up with other responses to the film. Starting tomorrow, click on the “Critical Views” tab on the PEPY Team Journal to see all of the posts. Stay tuned and please give us your thoughts.

21 February 2009 ~ 2 Comments

Assessing Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) and Traveler Philanthropy

I recently read a blog, one of many, which was striving to analyze how positive “voluntourism” can be. The questions tend to revolve around one core question, “If volunteers are unskilled or getting involved in unnecessary or low priority work, and they themselves are getting a lot out of the experience, are they really doing good?”

As I was thinking about this and trying to put my ideas into words, an image popped into my head: a spectrum of “positive impact” that ranges from 100% financial contribution to 100% volunteer contribution. This implies that if your volunteer time is:

a) necessary and high priority for the organization or community,
b) introducing locally unavailable skilled labor or
c) providing volunteer services that would otherwise be costly to the organization,

then financial support in addition may not be necessary. However, if none of the above applies, then there should be a donation requirement offsetting the costs of hosting volunteers. In either case, financial contributions help sustain ongoing project needs, thereby making the volunteer trip valuable beyond the activities taking place during short-term volunteer projects.

Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, perhaps this chart will illustrate the point. Based on my experiences, if volunteer tour operators or traveler philanthropy projects fall on or above the dotted line, they will positively impact their partner projects through the introduction of skilled and necessary labor on one end of the spectrum, significant funding on the other end of the spectrum, or a combination falling somewhere between the two.


At PEPY, participants volunteer time to a short-term project with the understanding that the most significant part of their contribution is the funds they provide to sustain ongoing projects. Additionally, they receive on-site education which, ideally, translates into future involvement. We believe that everyone, even “unskilled laborers”, has the ability to contribute. Even if volunteers lack knowledge about the issue or program, they can contribute by learning more and promoting awareness to others, and by providing financial support.

For me, the essentials for successful volunteer tourism are honest marketing (ie: being open about what portion of participant fees are going to the projects they visit and the relationships involved), setting clear expectations both for the communities/programs visited and the travelers, and an understanding of the diagram above. If volunteers are not contributing resources otherwise unavailable (i.e. high-skilled labor), then funding is needed to maintain an overall positive impact. Those organizations operating in the red area have a tendency to focus more on the needs/wants of the travelers, often conveying a false sense that their impact is extremely positive and necessary, without following through on the commitment to make that statement true.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think about this chart and these ideas? Please comment below.

* If you are a voluntourism operator and would like to contribute to the creation of a self-check tool on Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices, please contact [email protected] We’d love your input to help make all of us better volunteer tour operators and participants!

20 February 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Random tidbits about me, miscellaneously categorized info, and an unabashed plea

1) I now live in a Disney-esque tourist town: After three years in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s chaotic, growing, seedy, dirty, real, thriving, alive, dichotomous, crowded, NGO-filled capital I now live in Siem Reap, the country’s largest tourist town due to it’s proximity to the most famous temple in the region, Angkor Wat. It’s a small town. For variety at night, we can go to tourist restaurant A, B, or C and then rotate through them again in a different order the next weekend. Towns that are built around an average 2.3 day stay don’t need to provide too much variety it seems. We now know nearly every English-speaking expat living in the town compared with a much larger group in Phnom Penh so the rumor mill is now about the size of a cashew nut vs the size of a small mango. With PEPY currently hosting 10 foreign volunteer interns we contribute significantly to the expat population and social scene. In Phnom Penh I used to get “PEPY? Never heard of that, what do you DO?” with a raised eyebrow where as now I get “PEPY? Oh, I met Jam at the ‘Monk Talk’ event at Singing Tree, Karina at the bi-weekly educational meetings, I was dancing up a storm with Shannon one night at ‘Angkor What?’ and Lucky and Josh live just around the corner from me. You work with them?”

Overall, the move to Siem Reap has been a fantastic decision. a) we can get OUT of the city. In PP you are surrounded by an ever-growing expanse of suburbia which makes it difficult to get out into the country side by bicycle without inhaling an hour of exhaust fumes on your way. In Siem Reap, we can hop on our bikes and be in a rural area, or better yet the back entrances to the Angkor Temples, within 10 minutes. Fabulous. b) The main reason we moved: we are closer to Chanleas Dai, PEPY’s main target area. In the past, PEPY’s projects were spread around the country, but for the past 1.5 years we have begun focusing more and more on Chanleas Dai to the point where it makes little sense for us to be anywhere but near there! Now our Khmer teachers working in Chanleas Dai can come stay with us on the weekends when they come into town for their university classes and we can head to the school for even just a few hours if we need to. Fabulous again :-)

2) I might want to be a kite surfer if I grow up:
I went kite surfing for the first time a few years ago with Backroads’ friends in Hood River, Oregon, and last year I got to go twice: with PEPY friends, Michael and Peppi, in Vietnam and ATTA friends in Brazil after the Adventure Travel World Summit. ‘Tis the most fabulous sport in the world. You are at the mercy of both the wind and the water yet at times you feel in control of both (for me, still very much a beginner, I am well aware that I control neither and I’m glad when the elements treat me kindly!). If you have water skied or wake boarded it is similar, but it’s like you get to control the boat. I LOVE IT though, like all of my passions outside of PEPY these past few years, it is on the “to-do some day when I have time” list…. some day! Lucky for me, Peppi is starting up a kite surfing school in Mexico (shhhh… it’s a secret ;-)) so I have my next kite surfing destination all picked out for me.

3) Silk-making must have come from aliens. How could the human brain have been able to come up with unwinding a silkworm’s cocoon and then rewinding many together and then setting up an INSANELY complex loom and then making CLOTHING out of it. Have you seen silk being made from the silk worm stages? If not, come out here to Cambodia or buy an educational DVD, it’s amazing. I go to the temples of Angkor often enough and I see the monoliths around our city ranging from the 8th-13th centuries. I see stones laid upon each other, without mortar, which stack over 50m high which are made from stone which had to be hand cut from distant hills and then floated down human-dug rivers then pulled up dirt ramps by elephants and then intricately carved……. all while being fed from rice which was irrigated by more complex irrigation systems than available here now involving 8km long human-dug reservoirs. THOSE are near-impossible human feats, but in a way I can understand them. A king saw a building and said, “I want to make that building bigger, better, more beautiful, with more gold plating and more inlaid jewels and more this and more that – now all you, my people, spend the next 40 years making that happen!” It’s nuts, but I kind of get that. If you have a vision plus the power, money, and human labor force to make it happen, I guess nearly anything is possible (take Kim Jong Il and the North Korean synchronized dancing/stadium cheers. Should be impossible to get so many people to wear the same colors let alone do all those synchronized moves!). But SILK WEAVING?! Who was the first person who saw a silkworm’s cocoon and said “Hey! I’ve got a totally new idea which I think will be a great way to clothe the world. We take that there cocoon, boil it (so as to kill the worm before he eats his way out thereby cutting the single silk strand hence making weaving impossible), DE-THREAD the thing, wind it all together, and make shiny shirts.” Every time I see the process I find it so much more insane than building temples. Who was that enterprising risk-taker who must have first tried to take apart a whole bunch of other things to make clothing before creating the silk worm’s success story. I wonder what he tried to use first? “Let’s tie spider webs together! Nope, still look pretty naked, everyone’s gonna make fun of me at Adam and Eve’s wedding if I show up in these cobwebs! Tree bark? Much more chaffing than I would like.” Aliens, I tell you. Two thumbs up to the aliens though because I sure love clothing that feels like you are wearing air, and nothing is better for that than silk.

4) The economy is hitting us hard.
People have asked how the economy is effecting PEPY and our work here and we are just beginning to realize the effects I think. Tour sales are down to nearly nothing and our fundraising has dwindled to the point where we are not sure if we are going to be able to operate all of our programs through 2009. We had had funding committed to build the first Junior High School in the area where we work in Cambodia which was pulled at the last minute due to changes in the government agencies funding plans. That left us with a community school building committee waiting on a school which was promised to them and our recognition that we would loose the community’s trust if we pulled out of the project at that stage as the contractors had already been picked. Plus, the junior high school kids are being taught in a temporary structure which will not last through the next rainy season. We thought we would be able to raise the $68,000 to build the school in a few months as we hoped that all of the past PEPY travelers who have visited Chanleas Dai would be able to contribute to bringing a junior high school to the area plus we hoped we could get some larger donors to cover the bulk…. but that has not panned out yet. We have raised under $20,000 so far. If we are not able to reach the full $68,000 we will need to drastically cut back the rest of our education programs this year, so we hope that doesn’t happen. We are asking that anyone who is connected to PEPY who has even a few hours of time put on their fundraising hats and see if they can help. $10 each from a group of friends can get this school built…. heck, that was how we raised all of the funds for Chanleas Dai’s primary school in small chunks from thousands of individuals. Any help you can give would be amazing! www.firstgiving.com/pepybuildsjhs

So that’s me, my weird stories, and a little call for help.

Remember, next time you wear silk, tip your glass to the aliens who whispered in some Chinese person’s ear and told them the secret of the silk worms because humans can build temples and create frighteningly synchronized patriotic dances, but only aliens could have made silk.

10 February 2009 ~ 0 Comments

A scary dream

I had a dream last night that roles were reversed, that something bad happened to me and I was very poor, and I was waiting in line for handouts. I was dependent on others to give me food. I saw inefficiencies and problems, but I had to be quiet and wait my turn in case the people giving things away might change their mind and decide to support someone else besides me. People were yelling, there was chaos, but all I could do was wait, because I was no longer in control of my own life.

If we all lived entirely dependent on the wills, whims, or sometimes generosity of others for a brief period, what things would we do differently when we woke up in our real lives?

04 February 2009 ~ 0 Comments

Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously?

“Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, “ he said. My co-worker was referring to a heated debate in our office about volunteer tourism or “voluntourism”, and how to do it “right.”

Living in Cambodia where the major cities have more “orphanages” sprouting up on each corner than you can keep track of, anything involving tourism, money, and development becomes skeptical. Even more worrying is when children are added to the mix: most “orphanages” are actually more like boarding schools, the children have parents who have chosen, or the organization has chosen for them, that their kids would have a better life at the school. Here you see these orphanages which offer daily tours: “Look but don’t touch”…. at least you hope. Others which have their students perform dance shows nightly: “We took our kids off of the street so that they didn’t have to work, and now they will dance for you again, and again, and again.” A group here just moved their “orphanage” up from Phnom Penh because “it made sense for the organization.” Did it make sense for the kids or their parents who are all still back in Phnom Penh?

Is one dance performance for donors per month ok? 10? Nightly? “But it brings in support.” Aren’t there other ways to do that? I have heard groups complain “We have foreign volunteers who come teach our English classes for a few weeks or months at a time…. the kids learn ‘head, shoulders, knees, and toes’ once a month from a new volunteer….. But, they company they are placed here with does make a donation per week, so I guess that’s why we do it.” Is this a GOOD situation for them? Could you not recruit, interview, train, and monitor a longer-term volunteer? Could you take a few other volunteers to do fundraising on short contracts? Does everyone want to spend time with the kids? Shouldn’t “volunteering” involve helping others achieve goals outside of our own?