The arrival of fall means that fundraising season is starting and a number of new social good projects—everything from planning volunteer trips abroad to launching new nonprofits—will be gearing up in the next few months.
As many of my previous columns have explored, everyone has a different style and method for practicing social good, especially abroad. But to make sure all those varying methods are actually effective, we need to continue the conversation about how to approach our efforts.
Enter: Daniela Papi, an innovator in the field of service learning, leadership, and development. Papi is the founder of Promoting Education emPowering Youth (PEPY), an education and youth leadership organization in Cambodia, PEPY Tours, a development education travel company, and learningservice.info, an online resource focused on the concept of “learning service,” which promotes putting learning first in international service.
I sat down with Papi to learn more about her efforts toward improving the impacts of volunteer travel and get her best advice on how to follow in her footsteps and launch a successful—and effective—career in the social good industry.
Tell me a little bit about how you got started in the social good sector and how your career has evolved over time.
I began PEPY in 2005, with no real intention of starting a nonprofit. Some friends and I decided to fund the construction of a school through a nonprofit organization we found online.
Later, we realized the organization was focused on building schools, but it didn’t do any work to directly support the teachers within the schools. So, we registered a nonprofit organization in order to be able to use the funds we had raised to support the people working in the schools—not just the buildings.
I ended up staying in Cambodia for six years and eventually handing PEPY off to a fantastic local leadership team that still runs it today.
During my time in Cambodia, that same team and I also started a travel company to raise funds and awareness about the nonprofit work. The travel company started as a voluntourism company, but we eventually realized it would be better to help young travelers learn how to take a more long-term approach to the way they give, travel, and live, rather than focusing on one-off, short-term projects. PEPY Tours now offers development education tours aiming to do just that.
Why did you start learningservice.info?
We started using the term “learning service” a few years ago when we realized that the “service learning” model (a term often used in North America) was backward. We didn’t want to advocate “learning” as a secondary byproduct of travel, but rather something that was necessary first and foremost throughout any volunteering or development project.
We wanted to create a new brand that wasn’t related to our existing travel company, so that other companies might also buy into the model, so we launched learningservice.info—with videos, guidelines, and tools for people interested in rethinking and improving the impact of volunteer travel.
How did you recognize a need for change in the voluntourism sector?
Through our work in Cambodia, we realized we were fostering what we now call “moral imperialism”—that is, telling young people they could get off a plane in a country they don’t know, work on issues they had only read about, and jump in to “help.” That kind of thinking conveyed it was our right and responsibility to help, rather than a privilege we earn from learning, asking questions, and ensuring that what we are willing to give is in line with what is actually needed.
What’s the best way to get involved in a social good organization—and what should you avoid?
If you’re looking to take a volunteer travel trip, I would be wary of any website that is selling experiences in multiple locations around the world. It’s hard enough to manage the relationships and concerns of one area of the world, let alone 10—or in some cases, hundreds. If a website is selling experiences in that many places, chances are they’re really acting as a travel agency, and might have very little knowledge about the places they’re sending people. Ask questions, and speak with someone who has been to the location before you or is currently living and working in that location to get feedback.
If you want to work in development, first figure out what goals or issues you care most deeply about and want to get involved in. Learn as much as you can about those things, and then do your research to find the most respected organizations working on those challenges.
Then, your best bet is to seek out an internship with one of those organizations. You see, painting a wall or teaching the ABCs might be fun, but it isn’t building an awareness about the complexity of aid. Working as an intern, on the other hand—even if it means you get stuck filing papers—gives you a better understanding of the inner workings of organizations and will likely provide a much more useful perspective for those considering development work in the future.
A lot of young people want to make a difference in the world, but often feel paralyzed by the critiques of the development industry. How can they make an impact?
Read up. We will soon have a list of useful development books on learningservice.info that can be great resources. Take a course on international development. Apply for an internship with a development organization to see if it’s right for you.
You don’t have to work for the UN, join the Peace Corps, or take volunteer roles for the rest of your life to do good in the world. You can be a chef, an actor, a teacher, or a million other paid jobs and still have a positive impact on the world. You can employ workers from disadvantaged communities, support causes you care about through engaging them in your work, or simply be a role model for responsible leadership. There are so many ways have a positive impact on the world—but you need to find the one that matches your strengths and interests, not just the role others tell you do to.