Tourism Cares: Creating A Return On Giving

What’s the return on giving? It’s the question every non-profit needs to answer if it’s going to attract philanthropy, and prove its value as an organization. More than ever, there’s a need to tie outcomes to an organization’s mission, and nowhere was that echoed more strongly than in a recent conversation I had with Mike Rea, the newly appointed CEO of Tourism Cares.

Started some 10 years ago, Tourism Cares was forged from the mash-up of the USTA Travelers Conservation Fund and the NTA National Tourism Foundation, and is dedicated to the mission of “preserving the travel experience for future generations.” Tourism Cares is supported by a range of companies from within the travel industry, including its core of tour operator members. Its programs have largely centered on scholarships and coordinating volunteer events, where travel industry employees come together to help preserve a landmark like Ellis Island or clean up Coney Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. 



It’s a small organization that’s worked hard to grow its impact and do good things for our industry. But it’s also competing with dozens, if not hundreds, of other organizations, all of whom are focused to varying degrees on travel and preserving some aspect of the travel experience—monuments, rain forests, World Heritage Sites, etc. 

Enter Mike Rea. Although only a few weeks on the job, he already has begun to think about Tourism Cares and the marriage of travel and philanthropy in new ways. Maybe it’s because his background is a unique mix of both. He’s fresh from a stint at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he concentrated on education programs. Prior to that, he was with Bank of America working in Wealth Management with a focus on philanthropic giving.

While new to the travel space, Rea is no stranger to its reach. He founded an organization called Give2Asia that has paved the way for tens of millions of dollars in philanthropic giving throughout Asia, by finding ways to connect money to causes when there was seemingly no organization in place to do the work for which the money was intended. This ability to serve as a conduit for philanthropy is a skill and perspective that promises good things for the future of Tourism Cares.

Just as impressive is his laser focus on the critical importance of outcomes and aligning his newly inherited organization around strategies, impacts, outcomes and metrics. 

While incredibly respectful and proud of all the good work that Tourism Cares does, he also embraces the reality that he is there to foster change and to take the organization in a direction that allows it to play a larger role in helping our industry. 

To demonstrate and underscore the importance of outcomes, he shared the story of Tsunami Plus 10. It was an effort Rea personally championed to measure the impact donations and philanthropy had post-tsunami. One of the great stories they uncovered was in Sri Lanka where $50,000 in funds was granted to send 160 kids through a program that trained them in the culinary arts. Tsunami Plus 10 endeavored to track down these kids 10 years after going through the program to see what the outcomes actually were. The stories they surfaced are nothing short of inspirational. Many had found long-lasting and successful careers. One had become the head of a chocolate factory. And, while many had left Sri Lanka, virtually all who did regularly send money back home to their families. Here is a philanthropic investment that empowered people and gave them lifelong earning power—all from a relatively modest investment.

In taking on the pursuit of Tsunami Plus 10, Rea saw it not only as a way to inspire renewed interest in the region, but also as a way to inform future international programs, especially in the midst of disaster. Just as importantly, it became a way to explore donor expectations so that it might help encourage more confident philanthropy and stewardship in the future.

Rea pointed out another example, Friends International, and the social enterprise they created in Cambodia. They’ve partnered with the organization Mith Samlanh to create a “training restaurant” called Friends The Restaurant. Run by former street youth and their teachers, it has proven to be a huge success over the past decade, leading to cookbooks and spawning other restaurants and businesses, all of which benefit from and support tourism.

Rea often looks at well-run programs by organizations in other categories and wonders if they can’t be refined and replicated to be equally successful within travel. He sees a great opportunity to tap into the expertise abundant in the travel industry, but in short supply in non-profit attractions and sites. Imagine a developer being made available to enhance a website or an accountant to help create better financial controls and systems. By providing their skilled employees a few days (or even hours) a month to a site in need, travel businesses could make a very impactful and lasting contribution. The concept is already practiced in other industries, so Rea rightly asks, “Why not apply that model to ours?”  

No matter the activity or tactic, Rea said he’s intensifying the focus on outcomes linked to a Tourism Cares mission that he hopes to further crystallize and define. That means shifting the metrics from simply being about how much money was raised or how many volunteers show up at an event, and instead looking at how the organization’s actions, programs and contributions have created positive and lasting outcomes.

As we ended our conversation, Rea reminded me that there are only a handful of things in this world that have the power to transform for good. Travel is one. Philanthropy is another. 

It’s a reality that bodes well not only for Tourism Cares, but for our industry. 

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