Welcome everybody, my name is Kamiel Verwer and I come from Holland. That’s V-e-r-w-e-r. I am sure you are all on social media? Would you like to add me as your friend on…? I won’t mention any companies, don’t worry. But as it happens I found a guy with the same last name “verwer” living in Australia on the F-thing. When I sent him a message asking how is life he replied “g’day it’s kinda mellow down here, I’m sipping my beer here and mending my sailboat, hey why don’t you come over and we have a drink together and hang out.” As a result 1) I realized the importance of social networks, and 2) decided I like Australia.
Today I want to share with you a concept that I call Charity Travel.
It’s about combining exciting traveling with simply doing something good (I couldn’t come up with a term for this shorter and more precise than charity. It doesn’t mean I am mother Teresa). Together with my girlfriend, I designed a yearlong journey around the world, from October 09 through October 10, to be a striking example of this concept. Since I was blessed with an inheritance big enough to buy a classy car – which I decided not to do – we were able to support numerous projects and create an amazing network of likeminded people around the world, interested in making the world a little bit better. Today, I hope to explain to you how it works and why this is the way to go.
Since I am a new face to you I want to spend a few sentences on my background. I was born in the Netherlands in 1979. My first presentation was with ten about playing violin, my second presentation with twenty about brewing beer. I was in university at the time studying computer science…but it was inevitable that I would switch to philosophy. Then I moved to Berlin and wrote a dissertation on ethics. Basically it was about proving why we have an objective, universal duty to ensure the future of mankind and that there is a galactic law prohibiting the destruction of our blue planet. It was all very theoretical and I had enough in 2008. I went traveling, just like that.
And then one day in Paraguay, I took a walk in a slum in Asuncion and some people showed me around. A group of youth was saving money for a football and I decided to buy it for them. Now there was this little boy called Camilo who really enjoyed bouncing and throwing the ball. People yelled “Camilo” as the boy was absorbed by his play. In south America they call me also – Camilo. It felt right. It took me a few more months to come up with the concept of charity travel and prepare the whole thing but believe me these ventures are prompted by a small spark of the humane.
Now let’s give you something to chew on. Here’s our Vision statement:
“A world in which social networks empower people to follow their inclination to do something good without unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. A world in which charitable work is exciting and effective at the same time. A world in which expertise and knowledge of all kind is shared among the neediest communities everywhere. A world in which young travelers find professionals responsive to their idealistic intentions so that they are sensitized themselves, do a good job and have a rewarding experience.”
You might wonder if this concept is so new as a glossy presentation might want to make it appear. Well, we all know about adventure challenges where a superhero rows around the world in a coconut fundraising for a famous charity. They are super good folks, and those adventures should definitely continue, but it’s not something everybody can do. What about the normal people that just wanna help out?
There are two major concepts that DO apply and appeal to normal people, volunteering, (including voluntourism), and donating. Now the implementation of these concepts typically involves a big hierarchical, bureaucratic organization. [In the case of volunteering, trust, I mean the trust in the just cause in that faraway land, is the asset of big volunteering agencies that ripples down the hierarchy.]
You can buy a volunteering package that is costly because the organization has to cover its overhead expenses, such as office buildings and SUV’s. Some programs charge the “volunteer” 500 dollars – a week and all you get is some information packages and a t-shirt. I have seen people in their early twenties who got disappointed for the rest of their lives because of this.
Or you can donate to a big organization without knowing how the money is used.
But the world is changing. And I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, just make it roll better.
In the case of donations I know there are already some smart internet platforms that let you as a donor get in direct contact with your beneficiaries. For volunteering, this is underway as well (platforms like idealist.org). But this contact is only virtual. I mean you cannot touch someone’s hand who has touched theirs. And all kinds of people can sign up on those platforms. Last time I checked, I saw a lot of commercial and abusive entries.
Part of the solution is, I think, a pro-active mindset of the volunteers and donors themselves. They should connect better. They should travel and build up a network of personal connections and write references and recommendations for projects, initiatives and its instigators.
Now how could independent individuals help? I will go through four points to give you an idea of what everybody can do provided he or she has a dose of common sense and the problem solving resourcefulness a decent high school education has equipped him with.
But first: how do we know deserving causes when we are not yet intimates on our own future network. The royale answer: www.couchsurfing.org. It is a free nonprofit hospitality website that has about 2 million users worldwide. Invite each other on your couch and share your culture – now that’s a motto right? I bet that at least a few of you are using it. Can I see hands please…
So this is how we do it. We look for people on couchsurfing and other trustworthy platforms to get in touch with local initiatives.
Couchsurfing’s statistics are overwhelmingly positive with 99,76 percent positive experiences, the 0,2 percent negatives mostly for not showing up, and it’s a no-brainer that we should put that to use when we are connecting goodness. And we have done so successfully. So, once we have our cause, what can we do to support it?
1. Volunteering. We do construction work, artistic work, teaching, giving workshops, cooking, daily chores, and translating documents. Okay, let’s hold it right there and give you some very concrete examples.
One of our projects is the orphanage that we built last December and January together with our Kenyan friends near Lake Victoria. It’s near the place where the grandmother of Obama lives, who kindly received us, but that’s a different story.
We used the Luo style to build it: making a strong wooden frame and filling it up with thick mud. Took us about ten days with local volunteers and travelers we had met on the way. We plastered it and my girlfriend Yeon painted the child-friendly mural to make it look nicer and signal the community that here will be run a center of excellence – entirely by locals. We worked together with them, those were 16 or 18 year old boys who would otherwise hang around and drink the local rum-like brew. We saw them become so enthusiastic about it, and that was just great. We are no professional construction workers, and we hired local experts “fundis” to lay the bricks and measure the roofing timber.
Another thing that we did is giving children workshops. I love it, and we gradually became more experienced. We did this for example in Laos and Cambodia. Even though we just taught it for two afternoons the other volunteers were happy with us because we could share many ideas. We had done workshops in other countries before, and was is really motivating to see how we got more and more experienced. The first time in Kenya all we could think of was some rope-skipping and jumping through a tyre. In Cambodia we did yoga, aerobics, a number of interesting social games, pantomime theater, painting and paper maché.
Remember this: young people without “professional experience” often have more resources than they realize and they can prove, but once you learn to use them you can make a valuable contribution. There are many smaller ngo’s (where the decision makers are actually on the ground!) who value this.
2. Donating. We donated money and material resources. In some cases, money is the better option, for example when supporting an established ngo with a specific scholarship program. In the case of small local initiatives it is better to donate in kind. Also, that way we can be sure the money is used the way we want it to be used.
For example we donated a sewing machine that we had bought in the market on a tuktuk for 100 dollar, to a small orphan home in Tiruvannamalai, southern India, beautiful temples and ashrams by the way. It was so rewarding to see how Ruby, the wife of the director there, started to make pillowcases straight away. Her daughter and one of the orphans were looking over her shoulder and then they tried to sew themselves. Just like that, we had set up a vocational training program and an income generating activity.
And there are so many things we could donate to alleviate poverty. I mean, think about it, if we give some smart item that costs us, say, between 100 and 200 dollars, we can turn around someone’s life entirely because we give her (and her family) a sustainable livelihood. If you can’t think of anything right now don’t worry. There are a lot of items that we use during our travels, yet we can’t take them home if we want to avoid exorbitant excess baggage fees. Warm clothes, hiking boots, a tent, a solar cooker, books, and so on.
We bought a tricycle in Lijang, southern China for less than 70 dollars. The thing was strong and well welded. My girlfriend painted our logo on it and with that trike we rode into the countryside and after enjoying a wonderful morning, we started looking for a poor merchant whose livelihood we could improve significantly with our donation. We finally found an old lady selling delicious berries in a bucket she had carried on an old rusty bike, and donated the trike to her. We had only used it for a day, but you can use the stuff as long as you need it and donate it before you fly out. What else could we donate…?
Let’s not forget knowledge and ideas! This can turn out to be the most valuable donation you are ever gonna make (too bad it’s not tax deductible). Especially small struggling initiatives on the ground really need input of inventive ideas to move forward and make the step to becoming professional ngo’s that can connect to benefactors and write grant applications. That is what we have done with a small ngo in Cambodia that provides vocational, computer, and English training with local and international volunteer teachers. We showed them how to use internet resources, painted a kid-friendly mural on their office that shows books and numbers so that visitors see at a glance what the ngo is doing. We helped them setting up a small libary and compiled a heap of recommendations. Many things we had just learned ourselves when we were visiting another NGO in Cambodia – and of course we introduced them to each other.
Keep in mind: travelers have more resources, knowledge and items to give than they realize, and if they can identify the right place to donate them to, they can make a sustainable contribution. One of those resources by the way is fundraising. Example. A traveller who visits Burkina Faso for a month can ask his friends and family to donate to a cause that she will render entirely transparent and accountable, and it would be so much nicer to give.
3. Networking. I already spoke about that. Like I told you before, we make extensive if not excessive use of the F-thing. And there is the L-thing, the T-thing you name it.. Now for already established ngo’s it doesn’t harm to have some extra connections. Perhaps that old friend of yours whom you told about that street kids orchestra over the internet has a cousin who is looking for a volunteering opportunity and has bachelor in musicology.
But for the really small organizations, struggling orphanages it can be vital. Because they can’t afford new schoolbooks and uniforms such as Joy Valley in Nairobi, the governments treathens to close them. For them it is more than a fancy opportunity that a friend of a cousin works for a professional educational ngo and can convince them to assess the situation on the ground. And believe me, those places are not frequented by ngo’s. It would be very expensive to audit them. What we did at Joy Valley? We dropped by unexpectedly to check if it wasn’t a hoax. And they were 100% the sad reality. Hungry faces, hiv, open air classrooms in a crumbling grey brick building next to a heavily polluted creek, locked with a big padlock to keep the children inside safe.
By the way, we bought them a sewing machine, food, and cement to fix the roof.
Let me give you another example of a good Cause that is unlikely to be supported by the big fish. I went to Palestine where on a beautiful afternoon last November, I visited a Palestinian village school to teach them the value of peace. A young Palestinian named Sameer is continuing the Peace Groups in the West Bank as we speak and I believe that these grassroots initiatives plant the seed of tomorrow’s peace in the middle east. I keep telling friends about his initiatives and suggest them to travel to Ramallah and the villages where his Peace Groups are active.
So bear in mind: the traveler’s community has a wealth of resources when it comes to connections. When they would all do good responsible networking, helping out the deserving will be much more efficient. Also realize that what is needed is not a new website, but awareness of how we can use the established ones effectively. Hey, if you are a good charitable project out there, we will find you, before you can find us. Wait a minute – in any case we will both benefit.
4. Publishing. Only networking is not enough. We keep our personal blogs and the project website. From October 2010, we will be back in Europe and work on the Charity Travel book that will appear in Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Swahili, Luo, Zulu, Xhosa, Shona, Portuguese, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Lao, Vietnamese, Kmai, Thai, Malai, Spanish, French, German, Indonesian and English. We want people to feel the same enthusiasm we do.
To wrap it up, Charity Travel is about independent doing-simply-something-good-out-there. It is exciting and it is a humanly rewarding experience. Fair dinkum. It is also very effective provided you make smart use of social networks in order to identify your deserving causes, and reflect on what you can do in terms of 1) volunteering, 2) donating, 3) networking.
Thank you very much for your attention.