In the final installment of of our series on ethical start-ups, we interview Kathryn Pisco of Unearth the World. She and her husband started Unearth the World to fill a major gap in the voluntourism industry. Unearth the World promotes best practices and runs volunteer programs in Zambia, Peru, Ghana and Nicaragua.
How did Unearth the World get started? What was the seed that started it all, and how did you decide to help reform an entire industry? Where did you recognize a need, and where did you aim to fill the gaps in the volunteer sector?
Unearth the World got started after my husband, Mike, and I took a one year traveling sabbatical. We visited 20 countries in 250 days and engaged in 5 separate volunteer travel projects. While we had never volunteered internationally before, we sought to travel in a more authentic and meaningful way. We taught English in Nepal and Cambodia, worked at a children’s home in Thailand and Ghana and built homes in Zambia. The volunteer travel experiences were the true highlight to our journey because they allowed us to form amazing relationships and engage in cross-cultural exchange. But, these experiences also exposed us to some of the problems in the growing volunteer travel industry. We saw that the industry lacked financial transparency and affordability with many projects costing several thousand dollars for just one week. We also saw a lack of community driven projects. Instead, we saw many projects that were created with the purpose of bringing in tourists rather than actually addressing a true need in the community. Additionally, we saw that most of the volunteer sending organizations failed to train and educate their travelers before and after their trip leading to uninformed and unqualified volunteers. These problems in the industry saddened us greatly. So, when we returned home from our journey, we vowed to do something to improve this industry. We conceptualized an organization that made volunteer travel easier, more transparent, and beneficial to international communities.
Once you had the idea to launch Unearth the World, how did you decide that this would be part of your career? What were some of the biggest challenges, and most rewarding days in the early start of the company?
The idea for Unearth the World began on our trip but we did not officially decide to start a business until the very end of the trip. We agreed that one of us would have to get a traditional job in order to earn a steady income and the other person would launch Unearth the World. I feel like I lucked out because Mike got a job offer almost immediately to return back to his sales role in the medical device industry. I then spent a few months networking, learning about the industry and interning at a nonprofit to learn about the best way to launch our vision. Then, in April of 2014, Unearth the World was officially born!
As with any startup, we have experienced our share of ups and downs since our founding. My biggest fear was that we would fall into some of the same traps that the other players in the industry had fallen into. So, I took great care to develop a partnership vetting process that promotes reciprocal and transparent partnerships. Another challenge has been marketing and advertising our organization in a responsible way on a budget. Many of our competitors have been in the space for a long time and it is always challenging to be “the new kid”.
I would say that the most rewarding days have been when we actually plan and execute meaningful trips for individuals and groups. Seeing someone else experience a transformative journey abroad is the reason we launched the business and always keeps me going!
There is a lot of talk about best practices in the volunteer industry, but they aren’t always easy to adopt in the field. How do you engage with best practices, in the field and how do you ensure ethics and social responsibility are implemented in your trips and programs?
This is a great question because it is something that we focus on daily. Unearth the World does our best to ensure ethics and social responsibility by gaining regular feedback from both our international community partners and our travelers. We co-create our programs with our community partners to ensure that they are truly benefitting from our volunteers. And, we run Unearth the World as transparently as possible and welcome critical feedback so we can constantly improve.
We also require each of our travelers to engage in a robust pre- and post-trip global service-learning training curriculum. This training focuses on important issues like reflection, global citizenship, power & privilege, culture shock and what it means to be an international volunteer. We believe that prepared, educated and trained volunteer travelers are more likely to make genuine positive impact and uphold Unearth the World’s responsible volunteering policy.
Even with best practices in mind, things don’t always go as planned in the field, and we can all make mistakes. How do you prepare for and mitigate situations when they may happen (for example, a volunteer with your group may be a little too intrusive with the camera, or a miscommunication between a volunteer and local community member turns sour) and ensure that lessons are learned along the way?
Unearth the World knows that even with detailed preparation and best intentions, things do not always go as planned in the field. We do our best to mitigate uncomfortable and inappropriate situations by engaging each of our travelers in a pre- and post-trip training program that touches on issues of responsible travel, power & privilege, and global citizenship (among many other things). We also co-create and enact a detailed risk management plan for/with each of our sites so that – should something occur – we are prepared to act immediately. And, should some mistake or issue still happen abroad, we have adopted an “open door” policy that not only seeks but also encourages regular and timely feedback. We hope to learn about issues as soon as they occur and take immediate action to alleviate problems. We know that problems occur but we also believe that important learning happens when we respond to these problems head on. Unearth the World goes out of our way to implement appropriate improvements based upon these important learnings.
From your perspective, what does “impact” really mean?
Defining and measuring impact is an ongoing challenge that Unearth the World has. I personally define impact as the change that results from action. In the international volunteer travel space, there is a lot of talk about the impact that volunteers make in the communities they serve. For Unearth the World however, we believe that the best way to promote the growth and success of international communities (and contribute to positive impact!) is to partner with local, community-driven organizations. UTW is not the expert on how to improve education in Peru, housing in Zambia or the environment in Nicaragua. BUT, our international nonprofit partners are. Therefore, we believe that we can bring the most benefit to these communities through side-by-side collaboration with existing local organizations. But, because Unearth the World is not designing and implementing the international projects, it is impossible for us to take credit for the amazing impact that these projects have. While we do supply human and financial capital to each of the projects, we are not the only contributors. Therefore, in order to measure the impact that Unearth the World has, we focus on the effect that our pre/post-trip training and immersive travel has upon our individual travelers through pre and post-trip surveys.
A lot of projects we see in the industry are often unsustainable, from rusty playgrounds to toilets and libraries go unused after the volunteer group has left. Why is it is so hard to admit failure in the volunteer industry? Who should hold volunteer agencies accountable? How do we start conversations about what we can do better?
I think that it is difficult to admit failure in the volunteer industry for many reasons. For starters, most volunteers enter a project with great intentions and it is often embarrassing to admit that failure has occurred. Additionally, there is a lot of negative press and focus upon the volunteer travel industry right now making each project a high stakes endeavor. Finally, for these volunteer projects to even happen, outside funds and donations are often needed. Admitting failure in volunteer projects also often means that donated money has been inappropriately used. I believe, however, that admitting these failures is an important step in changing the volunteer travel industry for the better. Sometimes – despite best laid plans – failure occurs. In the business world, failure is often seen as a way to learn from mistakes. I believe that is what has to happen in volunteer travel. Individual travelers/volunteers and international community partners/nonprofits/NGOs need to hold volunteer agencies accountable.
What recommendations do you have for travellers who want to volunteer, but may not have the resources to travel with a big group or organized company?
There are many online resources available for finding affordable volunteer opportunities. I would recommend that travelers ask the right questions when trying to find a good fit (Here is a great link of questions to ask. Also, it is often less expensive to plan travel directly through the NGO/nonprofit. Unearth the World also regularly help travelers fundraise for their international volunteer experiences. I have found that the friends and families of my travelers are more than willing to help contribute towards these trips. BUT, I also highly recommend that people volunteer in their local communities. There is most likely tremendous need that can be addressed in your home town and this costs very little. While you are not traveling to exotic locations, you will still have a wonderful (even impactful) experience while volunteering at home.
We know that travel is transformative. What is the biggest transformation you see among your volunteers, and among the communities they work with?
I see a worldview transformation occur in almost every single Unearth the World volunteer. Our pre- and post-trip training coupled with the international volunteer experience encourages volunteers to see the world, others, and themselves in a completely different way. Cultural barriers are broken down during our projects because Unearth the World volunteers live and work alongside local people. And, our travelers are able to see themselves as changemakers. Someone once used an analogy that really solidified it for me. They said, “You cannot read the label of a bottle when you are sitting inside of it.” I think that this perfectly sums up what Unearth the World volunteer travel does. We take people outside of their proverbial bottles and help them to understand their current worldview and how it may change after personal interactions with international communities. Then, we try to catalyze this change!
How do you measure when your work is completed, and a real impact has been made. At what point do you determine when you should stay and keep working in one community, or move on to the next one?
As I mentioned earlier, impact measurement is challenging for Unearth the World because measuring impact in the volunteer travel space is challenging and complicated overall. Unearth the World believes that the best way to promote the growth and success of international communities is to partner with local, community-driven organizations. But, because we do not design and implement the international projects, it is impossible for us to take credit for the amazing impact that these projects have. While we do supply human and financial capital to each of the projects, we are not the only contributors. Therefore, in order to measure the impact that Unearth the World has, we must focus on the effect that our pre/post-trip training and immersive travel has upon our individual travelers. Yet, measuring opinions and perceived impacts through surveys is extremely difficult. All of our returning volunteers self-report that Unearth the World experiences are personally transformative and positively impactful. Travelers develop skills, become better leaders and communicators and even raise their social consciousness. But, we would like to implement a better way to measure these impacts. In fact, there is no volunteer travel organization that has figured out how to effectively measure this kind of personal transformation. So, to address this challenge, we are working with experts in the volunteer travel field and university professors to design an innovative measurement tool utilizing Q-methodology (also known as Q-sort). Q-methodology is the systematic study of participant viewpoints and is used to investigate the perspectives of participants who represent different stances on an issue, by having participants rank and sort a series of statements. It is Unearth the World’s belief that this tool will allow for a way to quantitatively measure the impact that UTW programs have on our travelers.
We work with each of our community partners to understand their long-term plans for their organizations. We discuss these goals and agree to work collaboratively with each organization until these goals are met and/or exceeded. We do not want to be working with the same organizations for 20+ years. Instead, it is our hope that Unearth the World volunteers will help build capacity and contribute towards self-sustainability for our partners. At this point, we will move on to another NGO/nonprofit.
What’s next for Unearth the World? How do you plan to grow and sustain your work?
Unearth the World has certainly been busy lately!! In our first year, we have been fortunate to learn from our returning volunteers and 5 incredible community partners to continue to improve our offerings.
Currently, we are focused on further personalizing our pre- and post-trip training, measuring impact, and expanding our reach by working with more travelers. We have just solidified collaborations with several universities (Cornell University, Providence College, Harper College, etc) to plan group global service learning experiences for university students. And, we are eager to continue to work with families and individuals to increase our impact. We plan to grow our work by doubling the number of volunteer travelers that we work with this year and deepening our relationships with our community partners. We look to sustain our work in a few ways. First, we are excited to be hiring our first official employee this year to take over our operations so that I can focus upon business development. And, we are creating a board of advisors so that we can be more strategic and diversified in our growth. Financially, we know that our work will be sustained through our program fees but we aim to obtain grants to further promote growth.
Any major trips coming up our readers should know about or can get involved in?
Since we partner with grassroots nonprofits whose programs are always running, you can travel with Unearth the World at any time! But, we do have a few unique opportunities that I would love to promote. First, for families that are interested in volunteer travel, check out this Unearth the World blog to learn about upcoming family opportunities . Also, we recently completed our first collaboration with Wanderful by planning an amazing trip to Peru. We are excited to announce that plans are in the works for a second trip so STAY TUNED!
Even if you cannot travel with us today, we welcome your involvement in Unearth the World through a few other ways:
- Connect with us on social media: Like us on Facebook or engage in a conversation on Twitter.
- Follow our Responsible Tourism blog or join our monthly newsletter to stay up to date on upcoming opportunities.