Packing for a philanthropic purpose

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Giving back, particularly when traveling to impoverished regions such as Africa, has become almost a staple of luxury travel, with tour operators and hotels alike establishing partnerships with local communities to help them do everything from building schools and health clinics to packing lunches and volunteering at animal shelters.

The movement really took off during the Great Recession. And as those philanthropic efforts have grown, so has the debate, and divide, about the true impact of programs that include bringing travelers into communities to do volunteer work for a few hours or a day or simply  filling a suitcase with school or medical supplies to donate on arrival.

In a recent article, I wrote about Abercrombie & Kent's efforts to help women in Africa set up bike shops. But the actual donations stop after the first shipment of bikes, focusing instead on helping the women build their own businesses.

"I don't like philanthropy that just airdrops a bunch of stuff. It's not sustainable," said Keith Sproule, executive director of A&K Philanthropy. Sproule said he feels the same about the concept of "pack for a purpose," which he said can damage host communities "because they start to look at visitors as someone who are going to hand them something."

What I didn't realize when I wrote that story was there is an actual nonprofit in North Carolina called Pack for a Purpose, whose founder, Rebecca Rothney, obviously, took umbrage with the characterization of her group.

It is a much-awarded organization, and one that has grown significantly since its website launched in 2010. It now has partnerships with more than 465 resorts, tours operators and travel companies in more than 60 countries around the globe.

To date, she said, travelers have donated more than 188,000 pounds of supplies through the participating travel companies and community programs, which she said are carefully vetted and closely monitored.

For example, before a resort or company is accepted onto their website, it must have a partnership with a local organization that demonstrates true need, Rothney said. And the items on the list for donations are constantly updated to ensure they are relevant.

"This is making it easy for people to do a good deed that aren't on a mission trip," she said. "Because people going on a mission trip are already doing a good deed.

"This is not people taking a bunch of [garbage]. That's what people used to do. We want to make sure you're making good use of your donations."

The group's list of partners is impressive, from Twelve Carnations in South Africa to Richard Branson's Necker Island in the Caribbean to Raffles in Cambodia.

And not all are in developing countries. For instance, the group has partnerships with Chatwal in New York, which works with a program that helps children whose parents are incarcerated, and the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, which has partnered with a youth mentoring program in the Washington area.

"We've never said this is something to replace other projects," Rothney said. "I view it as a hostess gift.  It's about gratitude. If I would do that for a person, why wouldn't I do that for a place?"

Whatever side of the philanthropic debate you fall on (or don't), it's certainly a good reminder to mind your manners and always do a little advance research before giving your money or time to any program.

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