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.

21 June 2013 ~ 0 Comments

A Tale of Three Teachers

I just heard a fantastic story and I had to share. I’m in the Sierra Mountains, doing a training with Where There Be Dragons before heading to Cambodia to lead a development education course and the Director, Susie Rinehart, just shared this story with me that she said I could share with you.

Susie showed us photos of when the 80 year-old Jane Goodall recently came to visit her daughter’s school. Susie was even more excited to see her than the students were, as she remembered how influential Jane Goodall’s story had been in her own childhood. When she was in 5th grade, the teacher showed a short documentary about Jane’s work using one of those film reel projectors. Susie was mesmerized.

“I want to do that with my life! I want to be like Jane Goodall!” Susie swore to her teacher when the film was done.

“Well, what do you think you need to learn in order to be like Jane?” her teacher, Madame Spear, asked young Susie.

“Well…. I’d have to learn to sit still! I don’t think I could sit for that long watching animals!” Susie decided.

Her teacher gave her an assignment, setting up an experiment to give Susie the practice in “sitting” she would need in order to become the next Jane Goodall. She was told to sit by the water fountain with a notebook and pen, tracking each time someone came to the fountain.

For three school days she sat there, writing down the name of each student that came for a drink, noting their behaviors and keeping a time log. After 3 days she returned to her class and told her teacher she was giving up. Being Jane Goodall was WAY too hard, and sitting by the water fountain was way too boring!

Susie might not have become a gorilla tracker, and rather than stillness she cultivated a love of motion, running ultra marathons around the world. But what she did learn from the impressive Madame Spear, was how to be a great teacher. Susie went on to help direct a school, and is now the director of an exceptional global education travel company.

And there she was just a few months ago, eager as her 11 year old self, about to go meet Jane Goodall, and tell her her water fountain tracking story herself. And what did the wise Jane say, when she heard Susie’s story? She smiled and laughed and then said:

“And how did the people react when they saw you sitting by the water fountain?”

“They acted funny,” Susie said. “They looked at me or behaved differently when they were drinking from the fountain.”

“Well, then you certainly didn’t sit there long enough,” said Jane.

And I, for one, am so glad Susie didn’t, and Jane did. Both are certainly doing what they were designed to do – and making the world a better place for it! I wonder which teacher Jane Goodall would look back on who inspired her, as I’m sure there is at least one. Here’s to exceptional teachers inspiring young people to go out and teach exceptionally.

23 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Why I don’t have a “list” of places you should volunteer

Over the last few weeks, since the BBC Four Thought talk I gave on volunteer travel went live, I have gotten a lot of requests for a list of places to volunteer. Below is a link to a post I wrote on WhyDev about why volunteer rating systems might not work for exactly right for YOU!


15 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

Can Marketing Your Social Impact Harm Your Social Impact?

When I was last in Cambodia, I was speaking with Rachel Faller, of KeoK’jay about their marketing – and how they weigh decisions about whether or not to market the impact of their work on their employees. The counterbalance of marketing their “impact” vs their “products/service” is one DDD, a Phnom Penh based data-entry company employing “disadvantaged people” faces as well. Here is a piece I wrote for the Ashoka column of Forbes online about this tension involved in marketing your impact:


08 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

PhD’s, DPhils, and Masters, oh my!

SO many people in the last year or two have written to me about a volunteer travel related thesis, dissertation, or research report that they are working on or just completed.  The gals at VoluntourismGal have a post up to collect a list of what people have or are working on in this field…. add yours if this pertains to you!!


01 May 2013 ~ 0 Comments

NGegO & the waste we cause by fueling aid hero-preneurs

A piece I wrote a bit ago and had been holding back on posting just went up on HuffPost…. as if I hadn’t caused enough of a stir already today!  Yikes, here we go…. I’m off to bed!  Any posts I put up next month will be about positive things (I really will try!).


01 May 2013 ~ 1 Comment

BBC Four Thought Talk

I was lucky to be invited to do a BBC Four Thought Talk which was recorded a few weeks ago and will air tonight (8:45pm UK Time). The first draft of the talk was about 9000 words, which I cut down to a 3000 word radio talk, and then was boiled down to a 1000 word BBC New article that is therefor a watered down version of my thoughts but which you can read here if you like:


There are a ton of comments on it already…. clearly this is a nuanced issue – where certainly not all “voluntourism” is good, but just as certainly, not all of it is horrible. I do advocate for a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to donating time and money to non-profits, as I feel that generally there isn’t enough research going into the donation or volunteer travel decision making, but that doesn’t mean I think all NGOs are bad. I just think that, if you have good intentions and you want to do go, it is really important to then do research to make sure your time and money are indeed being used as a force for positive change, rather than the opposite!

If you want the LONG version of my thoughts (and those of the other three co-authors), the Learning Service team and I are working on a book, designed to help people more effectively navigate their decisions when considering volunteering overseas.  Our Indiegogo campaign is live here, if you want to pass it on!  Thanks!


Tune in tonight for the talk, if you are interested!

30 April 2013 ~ 0 Comments

We’re writing a book…. want a copy?

Since the end of last year, I have been part of a team of four authors working on a new book about “Learning Service”. Yesterday we launched a campaign to raise funds for the publication of both the book and the second half of an educational video series we’re working on…. so if you are interested in pre-ordering a copy of the book (!!! :-) !!!), please click here.

For the last few years, the PEPY Tours team has been promoting a concept we call “Learning Service”. It is based on the key lesson we learned in our work in Cambodia: you have to learn before you can help. Though PEPY Tours started via a volunteer trip in 2005, since then we have shifted PEPY Tours from volunteering (“Come help in a place you might have never been before!”) to “service learning” (“Come help in a place you might have never been before, and yeah, you will learn a lot!”) to “learning service” (“Come meet people in a place you might have never been before, learn from THEM, and they will give YOU the opportunity to learn how YOU can be of service, now and in the future”).

Last year we worked on a Learning Service charter and guidelines, which are designed to help would-be volunteers make responsible, informed choices about how they donate their time. This year, we decided that if the concept was going to get more wings, we’d need to move it out of the PEPY Tours umbrella.

We’re now working with other advocates for development education, researchers, designers, and authors to build a wider movement around the Learning Service concept.

I was lucky enough to be contacted by Zahara Heckscher and Joe Collins, who had co-authored a book about volunteering more than a decade ago. They were interested in writing a new book about volunteer travel, and invited me to join them, and lucky for all three of us, we were able to convince Claire Bennett, to join us )with her many years of development education work from leading a DIFD project to add development education to the UK curriculum to leading the creation of PEPY Tours development education toolkits). Together, the four of us have been working on this book, along with a handful of other experts who are lending their contributions to this how-to-guide for responsible international service.

In addition the PEPY Tours team have completed three out of five videos for our soon-to-be-released Learning Service video series and just released the beta version of a Learning Service website (www.learningservice.info). We need to raise more funds to bring the book, website, and video series to completion, so if you are interested in sponsoring a video, buying a book, or donating to our efforts, we’d be so grateful! The fantastic people at KEEN & Eagle Creek have also donated some fantastic gear to sweeten the pot – so check out our Indiegogo page if you are interested in learning more.

I’ll be following up in the coming weeks with little bits of the book, a general overview, as well as chance for anyone interested in or working in volunteer/educational travel to give us feedback on our thesis/organization of the book to make sure we’re not missing anything before we wrap it up.

In the meantime, check out this fantastic video made by Luis, Dur, and Sarah of the PEPY Tours team, and please pass it on to others if you like it!