Each year, small green flyers advertising the GIVE Foundation volunteer and travel program arrive on our campus. Hung from toilets and placed on empty desks, the flyers advertise trips abroad to places like Thailand, Hawaii or Laos that will have a lasting impact on you and the communities you visit. GIVE is just one of the travel opportunities available to FSU students, but it claims to stand out with its programs focused on English language education, eco-friendly infrastructure, and environmental conservation and from wildlife. The truth behind their quaint marketing, however, is unclear.
Most of the information available for these projects comes from the GIVE website itself, which provides lots of images and promising blocks of text, but very little detail. When contacted by email for more information on the relevance and effectiveness of their programs, GIVE pointed me to volunteer viewers from TourRadar and GoOverseas. In total, these websites have about 1,100 reviews from about 7,000 volunteers who have participated in the program since 2012, and the vast majority are positive.
The volunteers really seem to have transformative experiences during their travels. However, there is no further evidence on the program’s claimed impacts. Their website lacks reliable third-party reviews, testimonials from the communities they serve themselves, accurate financial information, or statistics to back up their claimed results.
In terms of reviews, the footer of the GIVE site highlights several awards and certificates. On closer inspection, however, these only include their paid Adventure Travel Trade Association membership, community or traveler choice rewards from GoOverseas and TourRadar (which are only based on reviews online from their volunteers), and their rating from the Better Business Bureau (which does not assess reliability or performance but rather determines whether a business meets accreditation standards). Frankly, these “evaluations” don’t say much about the relevance and effectiveness of their programs.
Likewise, the only financial report on the GIVE website is an unlabeled pie chart of the program’s spending in 2019 (the last year they were fully operational due to COVID-19). It counts $9,775 on entrepreneurship, $5,260 on education, $16,110 on the environment and $0 on administration. Their Charity Navigator profile, however, tells a different story. Instead of $0 for administration, it reports $65,055 spent on administrative costs in 2019. This is still only about 6% of their overall expenses, a decrease from the 13% spent on administrative costs in 2017, which means that most of their expenses go to their program.
The rest of the financial information just isn’t there. Charity Navigator gave GIVE a failing grade for finances and accountability, primarily due to a lack of independent auditing or financial review. Unfortunately, they had no scores for organizational impacts or outcomes, leadership or adaptability, or culture or community. When contacted for comment, GIVE gave no response.
The few facts and figures I could find on GIVE come from their GuideStar profile, which contains self-reported results on their success in education, environment and entrepreneurship. In total, GIVE has more than ten program sites in five different countries (Nicaragua, Tanzania, Thailand, Laos and Nepal), not including the United States. They help fund seven schools in these countries that serve approximately 1,000 students in total. Although this is not a small number, it should be noted that it is seven times less than the number of people they sent abroad to participate in their volunteer programs.
As for the environment, the only statistic on their website (although quite hard to locate) is that they provide care and training to 3,500 captive elephants in Asia. This is one of seven ambitious projects in collaboration with their host countries and communities. Finally, regarding entrepreneurship, GIVE reports 100 jobs created by their social entrepreneurs. The people featured on the website have all founded tourism-related businesses in their respective countries.
This is the most central problem with GIVE – it is above all a tourist agency. Their website is largely focused on selling a product, which is problematic when that product is experienced in local and remote communities in foreign countries. This is perhaps unsurprising since GIVE director Jack Allison was an advisor for a banking firm before co-founding the organization with Katence Olson, whose background is in marketing and operations. Neither seem to have anything to do with sustainability, service, or the countries they promote travel to.
GIVE has no skill or expertise requirements for its volunteers so that they can “provide this experience to as many participants as possible”. Supposedly, the volunteers don’t need any education, sustainability or entrepreneurship training, as they are led by experienced guides and project coordinators, and any projects that require specific skills are carried out by hired contractors. But that begs the question: why are there volunteers in the first place?
Without any standards or screening, volunteers only need the ability to pay or fundraise for their trip. From there, they need to be travel-prepared, (hopefully) instructed in cultural sensitivity, educated about the local community, and taught how to perform the volunteer work expected of them. Couldn’t this money, time and effort be better invested in GIVE’s projects, affected communities or local people who could potentially do the same work as US volunteers?
These are the problems associated with most volunteer trips or overseas missions. There are certain assumptions – which are rooted in colonialism and white supremacy – that we know better than local communities or that they need our help, even if we are completely unaware of them or not qualified to help them.
While GIVE seems to care a lot about taking the initiative from the communities themselves and having a lasting impact, perhaps much more so than similar programs, there are still gaping blind spots in their organization and mission. Before deciding to volunteer abroad with GIVE, this is something to consider.