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Airbnb Now Offers "Social Impact Experiences." How Much Good Will They Do?

A new offering from Airbnb taps into the charitable tourism trend. It's an admirable undertaking, but only if it can avoid certain pitfalls.

Airbnb Now Offers “Social Impact Experiences.” How Much Good Will They Do?

Airbnb's new social impact experiences offer people a chance to do good.

[Photos: courtesy of Airbnb]

In November, Airbnb announced a plan to become a one-stop shop for the next generation of travelers. In a Steve Jobs-style address, the company’s CEO Brian Chesky announced new Airbnb initiatives, including the possibility of booking air travel and restaurant reservations. Airbnb now offers what it calls Experiences, where users pay to book a three-day pottery workshop in Tokyo, for instance, burlesque classes in London, or a day with a reality TV exec in Los Angeles. Or you could pick one with a charitable twist. About 10% of the Experiences currently on offer are called "social impact experiences" and are run by local non-profits that collect 100% of Airbnb’s fee from each transaction.

Say mass incarceration is an issue that you follow closely, and you happen to be traveling to Los Angeles. You might sign up for Life-Changing Music, where your $200 supports Give a Beat, an organization "bridging global electronic dance music culture with youth and families impacted by incarceration." On day one, you’ll spend two hours visiting Homeboy Industries, learning about its employment training for the formerly incarcerated. On day two, you’ll get a private DJ lesson in Silverlake, along with entry to an underground dance club.

At the moment, most social impact experiences run between $150-$250, usually for several days of activities. In San Francisco, you can serve the poor a meal in the Tenderloin neighborhood in support of GLIDE Memorial Church), or walk aging dogs to help fund Muttville, a senior dog rescue organization). If you're traveling to Nairobi, $150 buys you two days of learning Maasai crafts and Kenyan cooking (proceeds go to the women's empowerment nonprofit Zawadisha).

"We heard from hosts and guests, on both sides, that they wanted to be able to find more ways to contribute to the communities where they live, or where they stay as a guest," Airbnb’s Head of Social Impact, Kim Rubey, tells Fast Company. "There’s a strong universe of travelers who do want to have that ability to give back and benefit local organizations."

The idea of traveling the world to help improve it has a long history, from centuries-old missionary traditions to the modern Peace Corps. But the idea of marrying tourism with charity is particularly zeitgeisty these days—and Airbnb isn't the only company to tap into it. Kind Traveler unlocks hotel deals when you donate a minimum of $10 per night to a charity listed on the website. A recently-formed organization called Travel+SocialGood aims, in Executive Director Kelley Louise’s words, to "propel the travel industry to meet its potential for positive impact." Even Carnival Cruises has dabbled. Last year, it announced a spinoff brand, Fathom, devoted to volunteer voyages to the Dominican Republic and Cuba (although it recently decided to scale back those efforts).

The trend is new enough that defining it is still tricky. A 2016 report from a DC-based group called the Center for Responsible Travel points to five related types of tourism, from ecotourism ("responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment") to ethical tourism ("tourism in a destination where ethical issues are the key driver") to pro-poor tourism ("tourism that results in increased net benefit for the poor people in a destination"). A 2015 survey-driven study commissioned by the nonprofit organization Tourism Cares (a philanthropic arm of the tourism industry) concluded that "a growing segment of the traveling population" cares about social responsibility and, when traveling, "wants to learn about local issues and how to help." The report went farther, declaring that "Engaging this new traveler is increasingly important for...business."

Exactly how important for business, it's hard to say. Because the categories are so varied, it's difficult to pin down what sliver of the global travel business, which contributes more than $7 trillion to the worldwide economy annually, has a charitable component attached. But some statistics in the report from Tourism Cares make clear that if you're not in the charitable tourism business in the U.S. at least, you might be missing out.

Ten percent of American families surveyed reported having taken a volunteer trip, with an additional 22% saying they planned to. As with other industries, trends in tourism suggest a preference for ethical, sustainable companies. While conceding that price was the most important factor for most travelers, the report found that a third of participants "also consider a company's commitment to social responsibility." When it comes to the environment and sustainability, the study found that the "percentage of consumers who are willing to pay more for sustainable brands that showed commitment to social and environmental values went up from 55% to 66% between 2014 and 2015," and that "73% of the younger generations—Millennials and Generation Z—are more likely to pay more for sustainability, compared to 51% of Baby Boomers." Sustainability isn't synonymous with charity, of course, but the kind of person who cares about the first is more likely to care about the second. In other words, doing good is doing well with consumers.

Whether motivated by altruism, the bottom line, or both, Airbnb’s social impact experiences seem encouraging to several industry experts. Travel+Social Good’s Kelley Louise says the program "shows a lot of promise because they’re working with locals non-profits. I think that by going to the community and saying, ‘How can we help you, what services do you need?’ instead of saying ‘You need XYZ’—that’s a huge consideration."

Louise does caution, however, that good intentions aren’t always enough. Particularly when traveling to a different society and culture, a seemingly good deed may in fact be the opposite. She points to an organization called the Better Care Network, whose research concluded that in many places calling themselves orphanages in the developing world, most of the children have a living parent; the centers are essentially tourist lures. Samantha Hogenson, the managing director of the Center for Responsible Travel, says that in all cases, the best research suggests it’s inadvisable to volunteer with children for a duration of less than six months. Her organization has a 12-page guide to the "dos and don’ts of travel giving" that explains how in many instances, charitable donations of certain goods can breed dependency and harm local economies. (To this end, many international aid organizations are rethinking donations, exploring the benefits of cash transfers over tangible goods.)

If Airbnb’s social impact experience scales anything like its lodging service, can we be assured it will be a force for unequivocal good? Currently, says Airbnb’s Rubey, any would-be host for the social impact program must prove that it's a registered nonprofit, per the laws of the country in which it operates. She adds that where possible, Airbnb will "cross-reference those nonprofit partners with an independent third-party vetting service." Rubey is aware of concerns surrounding orphanage volunteering and explains, "We’re not exploring opportunities with orphanages at this time." She says that for now, most NGO’s on the Airbnb platform don't ask for much in the way of volunteering at all. Rather, "they see this as more of a way to educate and showcase their work. They use it more more as a marketing opportunity."

Kristin Lamoureux, associate dean of NYU's Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, says that when she first saw Airbnb's announcement on social impact experiences, she fretted. She wrote her dissertation on volunteer tourism and knows the potential pitfalls well. As she scanned the website, she was relieved to learn that Airbnb doesn't work with orphanages; she was also impressed that 100% of the fees would be going to locally based nonprofits.

At the same time, Lamoureux knows better than to think we're witnessing the beginning of a revolution in travel-based altruism. She has found that the main reason consumers take volunteer trips is less about doing good and more about "being able to talk about it, to share," she says. "And I don't think that's getting less in the social media culture." She tells of a colleague who visited a volunteer tourism destination, where a priest showed her to something he called "the painting wall." He explained: "When the gringos come down, we have a wall, and we let them paint it." Group after group of Americans would repaint the same wall, again and again, so they could feel like they had contributed in a tangible way. Each group could see a freshly painted wall, feel good, take some pictures, and return home with a story to share.

But even if travelers' motives aren't always as pure as we might hope, does it even matter, as long as local charities materially benefit? That's Lamoureux's greatest hope for the Airbnb program. As the priest had explained to her friend: While the freshly painted wall didn't improve the village measurably, the money the travelers brought in did.

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