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Philanthropic travelers can have it all -- opulent surroundings, stunning sights and a chance to make a difference.

Philanthropic travelers can have it all – opulent surroundings, stunning sights and a chance to make a difference.

Giraffes in the Serengeti

Photo by Karyn Millet

Giraffes in the Serengeti

More photos here

H

umanitarian travel doesn’t have to mean hard labor or rustic lodging. Unlike voluntourism, philanthropic travel is high-end, designed for people with more money than time. And for most charities, there is nothing they need more than money. “There are plenty of people to bang the hammer,” says David Chamberlain of Exquisite Safaris Philanthropic Travel, a travel outfit that specializes in charitable outreach. “What we need to do is get them the hammers and the nails.”

To that end, the company donates $250 of its own profit per traveler to the cause. By putting their own skin in the game, they hope to inspire travelers to match the donation. Exquisite Safaris creates luxury trips with humanitarian elements for individuals, families and nonprofit organizations that want to show sponsors the change they’re effecting. Working all over the world, the company partners with grassroots, nonprofit organizations that can show visitors the trip of a lifetime while building relationships and inspiring philanthropy.

Their partner causes range from education to healthcare to clean water and cover the world from Africa to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Nepal. The one thing their partners do have in common is good management. Exquisite Safaris will only work with 501c3s (tax-exempt status for nonprofits) that are well-managed and efficient. Most important, they won’t work with anyone who wastes money on executive salaries. In fact, many run entirely on volunteers.

Take The Friends of Ngong Road for example, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that funds education in Nairobi. Made up entirely of volunteers in the U.S. and four employees in Kenya, the organization was launched after an accidental but inspiring travel encounter. When Paula Meyer retired from managing mutual funds in 2005, she decided to celebrate with a safari. Upon arrival in Kenya, she met Peter Ndungu, a U.S.-educated pastor committed to helping his hometown of Nairobi. He introduced Meyer to the lives of AIDS orphans in his community. Immediately, Meyer was compelled to act.

“After seeing the way they live, I knew they needed help and that it should start with me, so I emptied my wallet,” she says. On the 17-hour plane ride home, she’d found her retirement goal – starting a foundation to feed the students of Nairobi. “I did the math, and for a latte a week, we could support these children.”

She quickly applied for nonprofit status while back in Kenya, Ndungu established a non-governmental organization, or N.G.O. In January 2007, The Friends of Ngong Road became a reality and she quickly recruited 60 sponsors. Today, there are more than 350 donors helping to pay for students’ school fees, uniforms, books, basic school supplies, counseling support, and a healthy meal six days a week.

“Getting a meal to them is way more important than a laptop,” she says. Maybe even more key, she says, is building a community. “Creating a support system that tells these orphaned children that they’re okay [is so important] – that someone in the U.S. cares enough about them is huge for their self-esteem.”
Now, thanks to a partnership with Exquisite Safaris, the people who care are closer than ever. This June, they helped Meyer bring 12 sponsors to Kenya. They arrived to see firsthand just what it means that 70% of the people in the country live in what the United Nations defines as a slum – an urban location with no running water, no electricity and no sanitation facilities.

“And the AIDS orphans are at the bottom of that barrel,” says Meyer, who now devotes her life to helping them. “The conditions these children live in are unimaginable to most people in the U.S.”

A tour of Nairobi’s neighborhoods, including classrooms and local homes, made clear the plight of most Kenyans. But the travelers did much more than feel pity. They made genuine friendships, saw the beauty of the area’s culture, music and warm spirit. They also saw just how valuable their meals are to Kenyan children.

“It doesn’t have to be Africa though,” says Chamberlain. “Exquisite Safaris will go anywhere.”

Right now, that even means the United States. They are currently organizing their first trip within our country’s borders. In June 2009, they will send philanthropists on a tour of Appalachia, including North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. Travelers will be introduced to the music, art, cuisine, and culture of the Appalachian mountains, along with several organizations that empower the people of the region.

“There has been pervasive hopelessness there for decades,” says Chamberlain, who hopes that travelers will build one-on-one relationships with the youth of the region, learn what can be done to help, and ultimately go back home to spread the story.

No matter where they head, travelers will get as much or as little opulence as they want and spend as much or as little time as they want visiting charities. For some that means half a day, for others it can be as much as a week. In the end, Chamberlain hopes people will connect at the heart and be part of a long-term solution.

“People are used to checkbook charity, which is a virtual experience. And now it’s click here to donate, which is wonderfully effective but again, it’s a virtual experience. Philanthropic travel completes the circle of giving; with relationships, the gift flows back to the donor. It can change lives on both sides for the better.”

 
Into Africa

When school lunch sponsors see their dollars at work, the gift continues.

Newport Coast resident George Namkung left for Tanzania with big plans – go on safari and climb to the 19,340-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Little did he know, fate had even bigger plans. A chance meeting with a government minister and an impromptu tour of Tanzania’s impoverished schools left Namkung determined to change the hungry students’ plight. And that he did. Only months after his visit, he started Kids of Kilimanjaro, a Costa Mesa-based nonprofit that now, a mere three years after its launch, provides lunches for more than 10,000 children a day. Attendance in the district they support is now at 100%, with all of the students graduating to the next grade. That’s quite a contrast to the 60% national average.

Supporters are so enthusiastic about the difference they’re making, they begged Namkung to take them on his next trip. So this June, Namkung and seven philanthropists arrived in Africa just in time for the last week of school and the start of the Serengeti’s awe-inspiring wildebeest migration, a movement that involves 1.3 million wildebeest, 3,500 lions and hundreds of thousands of zebra, gazelles and hyenas.

“It’s like the westward expansion of the U.S., but it’s all animals in this case,” says Namkung. “It beats the San Diego Zoo anytime.”

The first half of the trip focused on what Namkung counts among the greatest natural outdoor experiences in the world. First, a hike through Kilimanjaro’s rainforest and a stay at the Tarangire Tree Tops, a complex of luxury tree-top tents overlooking Lake Manyara and the Maasai Steppe. The next stop was Ngorongoro Crater, a World Heritage site that is home to more than 30,000 animals and one of the most luxurious lodges on earth.

After being awed by lions, giraffes, elephants, hippos, flamingos, crocodiles, and of course, more than a million wildebeests, the group set off for what would become the most memorable part of their visit – a tour of the Monduli school district they’d been working to support. The kids were waving and jumping up and down to greet them. Drummers and dancers put on performances and the visitors were able to see meals being prepared and enjoyed, students avidly learning and interacting. The physical and mental health benefits of a daily meal were clearly apparent, and everyone stepped up to the plate with sizeable contributions.

“This was not the mission,” says Namkung, who had been determined to keep the trip low-key. An effort to inform and educate became a powerful incentive to give – both money and skill. A writer is creating a children’s book, a photographer donated all of her photos from the trip, a videographer created a marketing video for the organization, and a special-education teacher committed to entirely fund a school for the blind. Although it isn’t part of the agenda, Namkung imagines there will be plenty more trips to Tanzania. As long as donors want to go, he’ll find a way to take them.

“Africa’s beauty is hard to express,” he says. “But I’ve been around the world 125 times and visited more than 80 countries. There is no other place like Africa on the planet. It’s really the people. They’re the warmest, most hospitable you’ll meet.”

And so, it seems, are the sponsors behind Kids of Kilmanjaro.

 


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