Building a Global Community Through Impact Travel

Former Olympian Redefines Voluntourism and Makes a Lasting Impact

Age 28 is an early retirement. But Alex Duckworth is a pro snowboarder and former Olympian, transitioning out of professional snowboarding and into her next chapter. As she entered retirement, she did what any 28-year old would do: she planned a trip.

But she didn’t want it to be just a vacation: after a decade as a professional athlete focusing on herself, she wanted to look outward, become immersed in new experiences, and find ways to give back.

She started researching organized tours, wellness resorts, service organizations and international nonprofits but struggled to find the right combination that would let her show up and do something meaningful, while still having epic amounts of fun.

Travel (as We Know It) Is Dead

When the millennial generation travels, they aren’t looking for all-inclusive resorts, all-you-can-eat buffets and golf vacations. They want to explore new lands, get dirty, try unusual foods, digitally detox, post updates. They don’t want to come home with a sunburn and a hangover, they want to come home feeling renewed and reconnected, knowing they positively impacted the places they visited, and have a story to share.

Up until now, the options have been limited for anyone seeking to do good while traveling. Voluntourism has come under immense fire over the past few years, with dozens of articles written to condemn the “White Savior” notion reflected by many insensitive or ill-thought-out international development and volunteering efforts. A simple Google search reveals that “bad” is the word most frequently associated with “voluntourism.”

For tour operators, social impact is often treated as an add-on, leading to situations where visitors show up to be tasked with mundane jobs, hold orphans for a day or teach one-off English classes without adding lasting, tangible value. Some tours of nonprofit programs or at-risk areas have even been termed “poverty safaris.” Enough said.   

But the problem is not that it’s impossible to positively impact the world while traveling--it’s just not being done right.

From Giving to Showing Up

Change Heroes was founded by Taylor Conroy in 2009 to solve a pain point: to make it faster and easier to raise funds for nonprofit projects that make a tangible, lasting and significant impact on their communities.

It started with a school: Taylor took a life-altering trip to Uganda and wanted to fund a school like the one he visited. He was dissatisfied with the crowdfunding options available, and the solution he built grew into a software company leveraging personal video (think: Snapchat for good) and micro gifts (small groups of friends giving the cost of a coffee a day) to reinvent peer-to-peer giving. In 3 years, 15,000 users from 80 countries funded projects benefiting over 200,000 people around the world, working with leading organizations like Free the Children, Partners in Health, and Children’s Wish Foundation.

But for users, it wasn’t enough. They wanted to see, touch, hear, experience their impact. They asked, over and over, can I visit my project in person? The answer was always, No.

Most nonprofits don’t have the bandwidth to host visitors unless it directly serves their core mission. The ones that do, like Habitat for Humanity, aren’t branded to millennials: Habitat caters to an older demographic and often requires a full week of manual labor (and a couple thousand dollars in costs).

But we recognized the power of participation to transform and engage, and we asked, what if the answer to can I visit my project… was yes? And what if the trip was a fully-immersive experience, combining hands-on impact followed by surf and yoga, shared meals, expert speakers and cultural immersion, dance parties, and maybe even a little mischief? What if we could create the most transformative, consciousness-expanding, affordable and fun trip imaginable?

Journey combines crowdfunding, tangible impact projects, and experiential travel to offer 5-day trips to build homes, integrate the experience with wellness, surf, and mindfulness on the beach, and create deep community. Journeys happen monthly throughout Latin America, in partnership with poverty-fighting nonprofit partner TECHO (they’ve built 100,000 homes in the past 20 years by mobilizing over 800,000 local youth volunteers).

Alex Duckworth joined a Journey to Nicaragua in April 2016, where she helped build a home she funded on the platform, met the family who will live in the home, learned about the region from local volunteers and community members, and made some new best friends. A few weeks later, she hosted a dinner in her hometown of Vancouver that brought together her new friends and past Journeyers, bonded by the experience they’d shared.

Amy Merrill is Chief Everything Officer at Journey: a social enterprise offering a new kind of travel at the intersection of purpose, adventure, and community. Journey’s not-so-secret mission is to accelerate empathy and consciousness by helping individuals experience Oneness.