In 2008, I traveled to India for three months. The only goal for that trip was to open my heart. Fresh from leaving one an entire life behind, my broken ticker was closed and cracked and needed a bit of love and compassion to float on in. There were several things I wanted to do in India to open up and one of them was volunteering. On this big trip, I volunteered in three places: a medical clinic in Bodhgaya, at a home for disabled women in Kolkata, and a classroom for street kids in Jaipur. All these experiences rewarded in different ways and connecting with the women and children of India let the love in.
On my next big trip, I’ll have a different purpose for volunteering and working: helping women. This time, I want to use my professional skills in technology and business to work with organizations that educate and empower women. I shared my stories and next big trip desire at a recent Meet Plan Go San Francisco event on volunteering. At this event, the amazing Groundwork Opportunities shared their stories and information about their African volunteer programs in healthcare, education, and environmental projects with over 80 attendees. Big Trippers definitely have a desire to contribute while they travel.
Shortly after this event, the Muskoka Foundation contacted me about their organization. Alice Gugelev, one of the co-founders, and I talked about volunteering while on a Big Trip. During our conversation, I felt the Muskoka Foundation is an organization that can help long-term travelers volunteer in a meaningful way – one that benefits both the traveler and the organization.
How Did the Muskoka Foundation Start?
Alice and her husband Jay Shapiro were on a big overland trip around the word and wanted to make a positive contribution by volunteering in the places they visited. Their search for volunteer programs yielded two different types of volunteering styles: ones that required a 6-12 month commitment to “make a difference” or organized group tours where the volunteers stayed separate from the organizations, often sleeping at nicer hotels and eating at tourist restaurants. They also found the focus of most organizations was teaching English or construction. Both worthy activities they felt, but the couple was looking for an organization that could use their professional skills and do so on a more flexible schedule.
In Alice’s work at the World Bank, she had found that there was plenty of money in microfinance if non-profit organizations knew how to ask for it. Unfortunately, in their research of volunteer organizations, she found that the staff usually didn’t know how to do basic financial forecasts, which are critical to receiving that money. “There was plenty of capital and they needed someone who could crank out a business plan,” remembered Alice.
The light bulb went off for the couple. Why not start an international volunteer organization that matches travelers with needed business and professional skills with the organizations who will use them? “Let’s start something that uses my skills so I can volunteer on my own time?” Alice shared. The Muskoka Foundation was born.
What is the Muskoka Foundation?
The Muskoka Foundation is a non-profit volunteer organization that combines the two ideals of volunteering: help the volunteer make a difference and give the organization something they need. The foundation finds partner organizations in developing countries through their network and then researches their mission and staff.
Currently Muskoka Foundation has business, music, sports, and outreach programs in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Their focus is empowerment. “We want to be a catalyst for sustainable change, not build dependencies. By listening to the needs on the ground…We’re not doing what we want to do, but what’s needed,” Alice commented.
The programs focus on “skills transfer as a catalyst for you to move into a career,” Alice expanded. “Instead of teaching English, how about helping a student publish a blog in English, prepare a portfolio or enter competition.”
What are the Volunteer Programs?
The programs have two formats depending on the volunteer’s needs. If the traveler only has a half-day to volunteer, they can do the “Global Citizenship” program. These programs vary, but in most cases the traveler visits a youth organization and shares the story of their lives and the students share theirs or meets with local businesses that support the non-profit organization.
For those travelers who want to have a more in-depth experience and have a week to volunteer, Muskoka Foundation connects them with a five-day program. The programs are structured and the organizations work from a curriculum time and time again.
“Still,” Alice says, “travelers need to be flexible.” One of the volunteers in Brazil arrived at her photography class for the local children on the same day the police took over the favela from a drug lord. When it was safe, “the kids came out to take pictures and they had the first photos after the raid.”
How much do the programs cost?
The organization does not charge for a traveler to volunteer, it runs on volunteer power and subsidies from the couple’s own funds. The goal of Muskoka Foundation is not financial. Alice’s goal is to take “any traveler, learn your skills, and slot you into a program in a meaningful way. We want to make any traveler think about volunteering on their trip.”
I asked Alice if I could take her up on that. I was particularly attracted to the Village MBA program because I have an MBA and can certainly do a marketing plan better than teach the ABCs. My hope is that the program is in place by the time of my next big trip.
- The Muskoka Foundation
- Traveler story about their experience with the Muskoka Foundation
- International Volunteering Resources on Take Your Big Trip
- Volunteer Chronicles on MeetPlanGo