Mike Rea grew up in Pasadena, Calif., where his father worked at the nearby NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so it's no stretch for him to come up with rocket-based metaphors. The new CEO of Tourism Cares -- he began the job two months ago after founding executive director Bruce Beckham retired -- sees the organization not simply as entering "stage two" following launch, but calls attention to the more subtle parallels between the liftoff phase of philanthropic groups and space exploration.
"The designing, building and funding is a feat unto itself," he said. "Escaping gravity, piloting all these systems for the first time -- it's all so hard. Underfunded, yet building fast. And in the case of Tourism Cares, it traveled through the greatest financial crisis of our time, one that affected travel severely, without blowing up or flaming out. That was an incredible accomplishment.
"I'm here in part because I think the Tourism Cares community of donors and board members is really, really strong. It's an incredible base to build upon."
But when Rea begins describing his vision for stage two, the metaphor lapses quickly: Rockets don't typically change trajectory dramatically during this phase.
The traditional model for nonprofits assumes that donors will be motivated by a desire to see specific actions performed that will leave the world a better place. Over the past few decades, there has also been increasing recognition that, particularly with corporate giving, donors would also like to benefit from the goodwill that results from sponsorship.
Rea had started an initiative called Give2Asia when he worked for the policy-development nonprofit Asia Foundation, and he subsequently worked for Bank of America's philanthropic investing division and as a strategy manager for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He sees nonprofits as social enterprises and believes they can grow in size and impact by giving donors even bigger returns on their charitable "investments," in part by providing information and networks that enable donors to make their philanthropic efforts more efficient and effective.
"It's very competitive out there [among nonprofits]," he said. "Companies, many of which have their own projects and foundations, get approached by everyone. It's not enough to simply say, 'Give to us because it's the right thing to do.' If that's already part of their culture, they're already giving, so why give to us?"
Rea approaches the challenge by looking at what current and potential constituents need and identifying gaps in travel-related philanthropy that are not being served. He offered examples of what he believes are opportunities for Tourism Cares to grow by providing services that can also lift the entire segment of travel-related charitable giving.
There currently is no research, he discovered, regarding consumer habits associated with travel and philanthropy. Providing a report and analysis on the topic, with in-depth presentations to high-level sponsors, could create real value for donors, he believes.
And creating a networking affinity group for people who work for travel-related nonprofits would not only provide an opportunity for people in charge of foundations and corporate philanthropy to share best practices and discuss common problems but could also provide a forum for pooling resources to address large-scale problems, like disaster relief.
Rea is also taking another look at one of Tourism Care's signature events: the volunteer programs during which travel professionals restore attractions in need of attention. Currently, the programs involve a day of hands-on activities in which volunteers paint, mend and restore national treasures. Among other changes, Rea wants to add a "skilled volunteer" aspect, matching professional skills to a distressed attraction's additional needs.
I'm on the board of Tourism Cares, and while I was not on the search committee that nominated Rea, I am very excited by his approach. The organization's next volunteer event is Sept. 26 and 27 in Plymouth, Mass., to restore the 17th century Plimoth Plantation. These events always present a great opportunity to give back (and network), but this event will additionally give you the opportunity to meet Rea and discover how you can help the industry in an ongoing and meaningful way. You can find more information at TourismCares.org.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.