Getting your people out of the office to bond is one thing, but rewarding them with an overseas volunteering adventure to help those in need can have wide-reaching benefits for all involved, writes Joanna Tovia.
Corporate bonding trips are all well and good, but do the outcomes really justify the expense? A team-building volunteer experience overseas, on the other hand, can provide some surprising pay-offs for businesses, beginning with your team returning to work raving that their life-changing trip has filled them with the motivation to do good – both for the company that provided them the opportunity, and the world at large.
That’s exactly what Me to We sets out to achieve in the corporate volunteering trips it runs in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, India’s Aravalli Mountains, and Kenya’s Maasai Mara.
“It’s a way for companies to apply their organisational values in a tangible way,” says Me to We director of travel partnerships Gabrielle Nijdam. “Each corporate volunteer experience is customised to fit the needs and support the goals of each company.”
Over the past few years, teams from Facebook, Virgin, KPMG, AOL, Microsoft and more have embarked on volunteer trips with Me to We, with participants immersing themselves in new cultures by working alongside locals on a building project, be it a classroom, hospital or library. The idea is to create a sense of camaraderie, to get co-workers stepping outside their comfort zones, and to challenge them to see the world in new ways.
“It’s a humbling and life-changing experience that bonds teams in a remarkable way,” Nijdam says.
Volunteer with care
Immersive travel is growing in popularity among companies, but sending a team overseas to volunteer should be done with caution.
Given the numerous ‘voluntourism’ experiences now on offer around the world, authentic trips are becoming harder to find, with many ventures charging volunteers money to take part in ‘helpful’ activities in schools, orphanages or villages when, really, the money would be better spent paying locals to do the work. It’s not unheard of, for example, for volunteers to spend their days building libraries or schools, only to have the locals tear down their substandard work overnight and redo it – rebuilding brick walls so they’re actually sound, for example.
Reputable organisations with a track record of sustainable social development, however, can provide meaningful experiences that benefit locals and visitors alike – immediately and over the long term. And when you combine doing good with corporate bonding, the benefits can also be far-reaching for the company footing the bill.
Me to We donates half of its net profits to its charity arm to continue the community development work it has been doing for the past 20 years: improving access to clean water and sanitation, and making a difference in the life-sustaining areas of agriculture and food security, education and health, along with creating ways for people to earn alternative incomes.
According to social entrepreneur Marc Kielburger, who co-founded Me to We with his brother Craig, more than 200,000 children have received an education because of Me to We’s work, a million people now have access to clean water, and millions of dollars’ worth of medical supplies have been donated. Me to We has also founded and supports clinics, schools and programmes around the world.
“We’re a development organisation first,” says Kielburger.
Me to We’s fully hosted corporate bonding trips have been designed to make lasting impacts that will benefit many generations to come. The trips to Kenya, India and Ecuador are each 10 days long, with secure accommodation in comfortable lodges or tented camps – complete with flushing toilets, electricity and hot running water, along with meals prepared by on-site chefs.
In Ecuador, aside from taking part in a development project such as building a new classroom, volunteers are also immersed in the destination and local culture throughout their stay, visiting a cocoa farm and learning how to make chocolate, experiencing a Shamanic ceremony and exploring the Amazon rainforest with a naturalist guide, for example.
In India, volunteers play a part in empowering communities to end the cycle of poverty. Activities such as Bollywood dancing, yoga and nature hikes are also part of the adventure.
Volunteers heading to Kenya, meanwhile, experience life in a local Maasai community, go on safari and visit an authentic Kenyan market. There’s also a curated selection of extensions for participants to enjoy before or after their Me to We trip so they can explore the destination further if they choose to.
Teams are briefed before flying out to prepare them for what lies ahead, particularly the more emotional aspects they can expect from the experience.
“Trip participants can be taken aback by the emotional connections and the relationships that are formed during their experience as it’s not always expected from a corporate trip,” Nijdam says.
As well as bringing colleagues together and creating a greater sense of community, she says participants walk away with a renewed sense of purpose and newfound confidence in their personal and professional lives.
Alpha Group marketing coordinator Jennifer Ottywill, who participated in a Me to We trip to Kenya, says she and her fellow team members learned from each other as well as from the experience. “Not only have we been able to help build a community in Kenya, but we are building a community within our office culture; it’s given us this additional motivation,” Ottywill says.
Managers and business owners joining staff on their volunteering adventure often appreciate the chance to witness the team coming together over the duration of the trip.
“Seeing firsthand the difference we’re making in people’s lives is a very inspiring experience,” says Nelson Education president and CEO Greg Nordal. “I’ve learned that the opportunity to build confidence by presenting [staff] opportunities to volunteer has just been huge in terms of building culture and community.”
To see the Me to We experience in action, click here.