Are blogger trips an example of poverty tourism?

Over the past few years, more and more charitable organizations have enlisted the help of bloggers to market the work that they do. For some organizations, this has looked like product reviews or storytelling. Other charities have planned trips in which high-profile bloggers are invited to see first-hand what the organization does, and then in turn, to share that story with their audience. Organizations like Compassion, Food for the Hungry, and World Vision have done such trips for years, but more recently even more organizations have decided to utilize this model as a marketing tool.

With the growing popularity of such trips, there has also been a growing criticism. I think that is natural, as they’ve become more common. Some of the questions about blogger trips are valid and important, as I think that best practice as it relates to helping developing countries is something that should always be at the forefront. I wanted to flesh out some of the questions I’m hearing, for a couple reasons. First, for myself. For full disclosure, I’ve been on blogging trips before, and have some planned for the coming year. In fact, I’m leaving for a trip to Southeast Asia with Exodus Road next week with three other bloggers. I want to make sure that I’ve done diligence in considering my part. Second, I want to clear up some common misconceptions about the purpose of blogging trips, and provide some rationale for their popularity. In addition, I want to look at the concept of poverty tourism and how blogging trips may or may not play into that phenomenon.

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I think the most important thing to note about blogger trips is that they are marketing trips. They aren’t always billed this way, because people get cringey about the idea of charities doing “marketing.” But charities rely on contributions, and marketing is an important part of their business plan. Marketing is vital . . . the difference between an under-marketed charity vs. a charity that has a robust marketing plan is that the well-marketed charity has more funds to serve the people they are wanting to help. Marketing can literally make the difference in how well a charity can reach it’s goals. This involves brand messaging, social media engagement, web presence, and a myriad of other considerations that any business would consider.

When you consider that charities need to market themselves like any brand, it’s not surprising, then, that bloggers are being enlisted. Countless brands have turned to bloggers in the past few years, because it’s a way for them to reach an engaged audience. Blogs are now just as viable as magazine and newspaper ads in terms of offering a way for brands to be noticed. Most bloggers get hundreds of pitches a week from brands hoping to get a little air-time on their blog. And over the past decade, many companies have invited bloggers to come and see first-hand what they are all about. I’ve been on blogger trips for a wide variety of brands before, from Fisher Price to Continental Tires. Brands continues to offer such trips because it’s a cost-effective way to really engage an influencer and thereby engage her audience.

Charitable organizations have also seen the value in marketing through blogs. Using a recognizable face to tell the story of a charity is nothing new. We can all remember the commercial spots from our youth in which 80’s television stars tugged at our heartstrings while sitting next to a hungry child in Africa. And while we may cringe at that imagery now, bloggers are a new (and hopefully more respectful) iteration of spokespersons for charities, to highlight the work they are doing and to help fundraise to continue that work. And the reason these trips are on the uptick: THEY ARE WORKING. Charities are doing their research and realizing that the return-on-investment of a blogger trip makes sense for the company from a marketing standpoint, and that the potential for increased revenue outweighs the cost of such a trip. My friend Lindsay Nobles works for Feed the Children and has been part of blogging trips in the past. She explains:

“Non-profits incur a wide range of marketing and/or development expenses. In my experience, blogger trips have had a solid return on investment. I do think it is important to ensure that a high percentage of a non-profits funds are going towards program expenses. You should be able to monitor these percentages via an organization's website or Guidestar Exchange.”

As I’ve been asked on blogger trips, I’ve attempted to ask and answer some of the hard questions myself. I thought I would go over some of the commonly-asked questions about blogger trips and share where I have landed. I’m also going to defer some of these questions to friends who lead such trips.

How is a blogger trip different than poverty tourism?

Poverty tourism (sometimes called slum tourism) is the act of going into an impoverished country or community with the sole intent of seeing and/or photographing poor people in their environment. To give you an example of poverty tourism at it’s worst, I will humbly submit a personal story of behavior that I’m not proud of. When I was in my twenties, I was flying to Zimbabwe and on the way, I had a layover in Johannesburg, South Africa.  During that 8-hour layover, I walked out of the airport and paid a cab driver to take me to Soweto, where I walked around and took pictures. I had no reason to be there other than to satisfy my own curiosity. I’ve come a long way in my understanding of what is appropriate, and in looking back, I am mortified that I did this.

I don’t believe, however, that every visit from an American to a impoverished community equals poverty tourism. For example, if someone were to fly to Haiti to visit a tent city and earthquake rubble, gawk, and take pictures of the people who live there, that would be poverty tourism. On the other hand, if someone were to fly to Haiti to visit local restaurants, stay in a resort, and buy artifacts from local artisans, that would be regular tourism. Tourism within poor countries is not a bad thing. It stimulates the economy.  But respect and intent are important distinctions.

I think this is true for blogger trips as well. If the point of a blogger trip is for bloggers to go and take photos of poor people, full stop, that would absolutely fall under poverty tourism. However, in most cases bloggers are not going into communities to take pictures or tell stories of random people, nor are they going with the intent of capturing people whose lives are in devastation The point of a blogger trip is to highlight the work an organization is doing in an impoverished community Therefore, the story is about the organization and it’s effect on the community. The story is about how people’s lives are being transformed. And in most cases, this involves interacting with specific individuals who have been identified by the organization and given consent to have their stories shared.

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How is a blogger trip different than a short-term mission trip?

My thinking on short-term mission trips has really evolved over the years. I’m no longer a huge fan of people organizing and fundraising for expensive trips in which their express goal is to “love on people” or “share the gospel.” It’s my belief that this kind of money could be better spent equipping local pastors to minister to their own people . . . who speak their own language (both literally and culturally) and who can follow-up on a long-term basis. That’s not to say that I think all mission trips are bad, but my thinking now is that people raising funds for a trip like this should be bringing a very specific set of skills that couldn’t otherwise be done by someone local. For example, a team of dentists visiting a rural community to repair teeth, doctors who flew to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake to work in clinics, a group of therapists traveling to Thailand to do EMDR with sexual abuse victims . . . I think there should be a compelling reason for people to ask others to donate to a trip instead of donating directly to a local organization.

A few key differences between blogger trips and mission trips:

1. They are a marketing trip, not a service trip.

2. They are usually funded by the organization’s marketing budget

3. The purpose is to use a blogger’s particular set of skills (namely, storytelling, connecting with an audience, and inspiring people into action) to benefit the organization in long-term ways.

My friend Lindsey Nobles with Feed the Children elaborates on this:

“Blogger trips are not mission trips, they are vision trips. They allow interested advocates to witness the work of a non-profit, first-hand, in the field. The nonprofit hopes that what they see validates it’s claims, and that they share stories with others (fans, readers, etc.). These trips, when all goes well, raise awareness and support for an organization's work.”

My friend Jamie talked about her own process in deciding to go on a blogger trip:

I had to ask my own cringey self if I actually had a particular set of skills that would prove beneficial to the organization I was joining hands with and the people they serve.

If I flew halfway across the planet, would a cost-benefit analysis have a favorable outcome for the Exodus Road? I decided, in the end, that I would go only as a storyteller and I would go only if telling the story would have real, tangible value. I would not go as missionary, I would not call it a missions trip, and I would not pretend I was doing something I wasn't actually doing . . .

In other words, I would market.

When I go on a blogging trip with a charitable organization, I take my role very seriously. For me, my role is to increase ten-fold the cost of bringing me on the trip by getting my own readers excited and involved in what they are doing.

Couldn't the money be better spent just sending it directly to the organization?

Of course, this question is a bit of a gamble, but most organizations are hoping that the cost-benefit analysis of a trip like this would come out in favor of donations that cover the cost (and greatly exceed) the operational costs of a trip. And the popularity of these kinds of trips, and the fact that organizations usually repeat them, would indicate that the trips are, in fact, a marketing tool that benefits the organization’s allocation of that money.

My friend Daniel White, who organized the trip I took with Food for the Hungry, says of the question of sending money directly:

“Unfortunately in a world of overconsumption of messaging and branding and images, we all have to find unique and exciting ways to rise above the noise. Blogger trips are great for not only rising above the noise and creating an exciting journey for people to follow along with in realtime, but it's also a great time to connect with new audiences through the trusted voices of the bloggers chosen for the trip.”

As an illustration of the way a blogger trip can impact an organization in ways that go beyond the cost of the trip: in 2012, I went on a trip to Haiti with Help One Now. On this trip, after several meetings with other bloggers trying to figure out how we wanted to engage our readers, we launched the LEGACY PROJECT. With the help of some dedicated church partners, generous readers, and Pure Charity—we raised over $200,000 to build a school in Port Au Prince, Haiti. Our trip had a lasting impact on that community and introduced many new donors to a great organization.


Are bloggers exploiting the stories of impoverished people?

In my experience, bloggers are sharing the stories of people who work for the organization, or who have volunteered to share. When I went to Haiti with Help One Now, we visited a ministry partner who oversaw a large and well-known tent village. We agreed not to take photos at all in the tent village, to respect the people who lived there. But we DID take photos of the ministry partner, and we also shared his heart and vision for the work he wanted to do.

I had a similar experience in Ethiopia with Food for the Hungry. My trip leader, Daniel White, explains their ethics:

I can't speak for all blogger trips, but when Food for the Hungry  and other trust organizations I know take trips all stories are vetted and approved by the families and the organization with the agreed purpose of raising more awareness and funds for their community work. Any blog trip that I've ever been on or led has always put the people's dignity at priority first. Most if not all blog trips are connected with a community that is already fully engagement in partnership for community development before any type of blogger trip is organized or arrives. I can see how people think that bloggers just show up and start walking into random communities and start telling stories, but that's just not the case. Generally these community relationships have been strong for many months or years before any blogger ever arrives and the work being shared is generally very well thought through and integrated into the DNA of the plan of the organization walking with these communities.

Why do poor people need bloggers to tell their story?

This is a question I hear a lot, too. Why do people in impoverished countries need some privileged folk to come visit and share their stories? Ideally, this wouldn’t be necessary. In an ideal world, a person living in Haiti or Ethiopia or Thailand could speak and have people listen because of the merit of their experience. But in reality, that doesn’t happen, and bloggers sometimes bridge the gap. I’m going to close with what Daniel White had to say about this question:

“Bloggers are needed to tell the story because sometimes no one else will. The bigger question is "will people listen"? There are people all over the world dying of preventable diseases ever day, and many organizations are telling their stories each day hoping that people will help in just one small way. However we as westerners are bombarded daily with opportunities to help. The question is, are you going to be too overwhelmed with opportunity to help someone in need that you choose not to, or are you going to make a difference for just one person or one community and rise through the noise?”


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