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Meet the World in Person
With so many tour companies out there and more popping up every other day, it can be quite the challenge to find a company and a trip that fits your specific guidelines. Well, if your guidelines include working with inspiring locals, helping protect wildlife, learning new skills or laughing around a home cooked meal, then Visit.org is where you want to shop. Visit.org is the first online platform to offer tours and other travel activities hosted by nonprofit organizations. Work with penguin conservation experts in Cape Town, make your own coffee in Guatemala, or put your surfing skills to the test with youth in South Africa, all while funding ethical legitimate conservation or social justice organizations. Since it got its start a year ago, Visit.org’s mission has been to provide support and public awareness for dedicated nonprofits around the world. We were lucky enough to get a few minutes with Michal Alter and Violaine Pierre, the founders and operators of Visit.org, and ask them a few questions.
What inspired you to start Visit.org?
Michal: As an Israeli, I’ve spent a lot of time backpacking on my own. My most memorable experiences have been the interactions with local people. For instance, a local woman I met in a craft store later invited me to eat with her entire family. Another time, I was hitchhiking in Argentina and a father and son ended up inviting me to stay a week in their cabin in Argentina. The most memorable experiences are unpredictable and unbookable, tied to local, human interactions, culture, wildlife, etc. I realized when I came back, that short term vacations couldn’t accommodate these experiences.
Because of my computer science background, I’m in an ideal position to think about systematic efforts to make the nonprofit sector more efficient as a whole. As a nonprofit consultant, I realized that, contrary to large orgs, small, on-the-ground nonprofits have so much wisdom and issue-specific expertise. They have strong relationships with the locals, and a strong connection to the local history and culture. They have so many assets to leverage, but because they are not open to the public, only volunteers and donors see the work that they are doing. Through the tourism industry, these orgs will become more accessible to the public, which will help them form relationships with new long term supporters.
Violaine: I did a road-trip in the Philippines in 2012, where I met a local nonprofit organization, Kalibo Save the Mangroves Association (KASAMA). KASAMA has been planting mangrove trees for the past 20 years. A "man-made" forest has emerged, bringing huge benefits for local communities. The Mangroves create a natural barrier against typhoons, a safe place for baby fish to grow, wood to create "green charcoal", as well as dozens of other environmental and cultural benefits. They were organizing amazing visits for tourists and locals, but no one knew about it. I fell in love with this project. I even became a mangroves ambassador (I didn't know anything about mangroves before the visit) and decided to find a way to bring more visitors to them!
Violaine visiting a nonprofit in the Philippines.
What have been the biggest challenges to starting this venture?
Violaine: Social entrepreneurship is not very well known yet within the mainstream investor community in the US. It's hard work to convince investors that we will be financially sustainable, and explain that just because we work with nonprofits, doesn’t mean we need to be a nonprofit.
Michal: I agree. It can be difficult to sell our venture to different crowds. Because social enterprise is still not that common, we constantly have to articulate different messages to different audiences. When we speak to traditional mainstream investors, we almost have to hide the social impact aspect of our work. Once they hear that we work with nonprofits, they don’t want to work with us anymore. When we speak to people in the nonprofit sector, they are very excited about the opportunities we can create, but are a lot less helpful about investment money, which we obviously need to scale the business. It’s because social enterprise is still in its infancy, even though it has existed in some form for decades.
What were the first orgs you worked with?
Michal: I worked with Unitaf in Israel, and Violaine worked with Pusod and Kasama in the Philippines. Because of our previous relationships with these organizations, they were the first orgs we onboarded.
Why focus on non-profits?
Michal: Nonprofits have a unique knowledge, experience, and relationship with local communities, that makes them the best providers of authentic experiences for travelers looking to immerse themselves in local culture. At the same time, more and more travelers are looking for ways to make the world a better place when they travel, and don't know how to do that. By visiting nonprofits, you make sure the money you spend on the tour goes back to local communities.
Michal with a member of a nonprofit org in Israel.
How do you investigate and add new non-profits and tours?
Violaine: We have local professional Country Leaders in several countries who help us identify, vet and support nonprofits. We also have travel ambassadors who are long-term travelers who are trained to identify, vet and conduct pilot visits at potential partner orgs.
Michal: We also partner with foundations and nonprofit networks. This is a new way for them to support their grantees, by helping them generate new revenue and support for their cause. Orgs can also contact us through our site; we then investigate whether they would be a good fit. We want to make sure that all the tours on visit.org are safe and adhere to high quality standards, while remaining respectful of local members of the community.
Family visiting a nonprofit in Vietnam © visit.org
How many travelers have taken adventures with Visit.org. What kinds of travelers are attracted to your trips?
Michal: We have piloted 200 visits so far. We cater to a wide range of travelers: students; young families with children; professionals from the nonprofit and public sectors who want to see how similar issues are tackled in other corners of the world; corporations who use it as an educational program for employees; and high net worth individuals who are interested in social impact and also want to learn more about local culture and environment.
Have you been on all the tours featured on Visit.org? Which trips have stood out the most? Where are you heading next?
Violaine: I've been on nine tours so far, and I'll visit our partner orgs each time I have an opportunity to do so! I am going to Kyrgyzstan this summer - I'm planning to find more organizations to partner with in this amazing country!
Michal: I recently visited Costa Rica with my family and we took a tour with one of our partner organizations, La Reserva Forest Foundation. It was a two hour tour of their reservation, which included a number of different types of trees, animals, insects and a huge variety of birds. We had a local guide who was unbelievably knowledgeable. He lives and breaths his surroundings. It made the whole experience educational for us, but also intriguing to the kids. They also have a 300-year-old tree called “Papa Loco” that was awe-inspiring, not only its size but also its history.
Visitor milking a cow on a community-based tour in Peru © visit.org
If your Indiegogo campaign is successful, what are your next steps?
Violaine: We want to expand our activities to a new country (you can vote for the country if you donate to our crowdfunding campaign). We also want to translate the website into Spanish and make it more user-friendly with additional features for orgs and visitors.
Michal: In addition, we want to help more remote nonprofit orgs come onboard, and for that we need more money to send our representatives. We also want to make our platform user-friendly by making more search criteria and more inherent social features so that travelers can communicate with each other. We also want to build a user dashboard where users can collect virtual badges with all the orgs they have visited, as well as save orgs in a basket for later. We want to make user reviews more robust so that users can rely on others’ experiences and create the best experience for themselves on future trips. Lastly, we want our brand to be more “out there,” so that more travelers who seek authentic travel experiences will hear about us and know that they can use this as a service to make their trip-planning easier.
Visitors doing a horse trek with a community-based organization in Kyrgyzstan © Sary-Mogol CBT
After all that hard work, you both will need vacations. What is your ideal vacation?
Michal: A few years ago, I would have said backpacking solo for a few months in a new part of the world. Now that I have a family, I would want to spend a month or two fully immersing ourselves in a local culture. I want the kids to experience a new way of life. I want them to understand how the locals produce and prepare their food, how they build and warm their homes, and what their day-to-day lives look like. I want my kids to come back home and realize that there are many ways to live a life in this world.
Violaine: Ideally, I want to go on a trip that I won’t be able to stop talking about for the next few decades! From my experience, those kind of vacations are the ones where you meet with local people and go beyond your comfort zone by trying things you were not expecting to do; always saying "yes" to everything the local community offers.
What can travelers do to make sure their own vacations are authentic and appreciated by local communities?
Violaine: Book a tour on visit.org!
Other than that, travelers can also book a tour with a local responsible tour operator or with a community-based nonprofit organization. Use local transportation services, eat local food and participate in local activities as much as you can. It's also very important to respect the local culture and environment. I see too many tourists doing things abroad that they would never do at home. Tourism should be a positive experience for both visitors and locals!
Michal: It’s also important to educate yourself about the location before you go there.
All photos courtest of Visit.org and Sary-Mogol CBT.