Tourism with a Conscience, Backpacking with a Purpose.

Operation Groundswell, backpacking with a purpose.

The idea of volunteer service programs abroad was born in the early 60’s with programs like Volunteer Service Overseas and The U.S. Peace Corps. Since then, volunteer travel has expanded and transformed with the emergence of a more interconnected global community. Operation Groundswell (OG) is on the cutting edge of this industry, offering a genuine and ethical travel experience. They strive to cultivate consciousness while providing real services that directly benefit the communities they work with around the globe.

David Berkal started the company with Jonah Brotman in 2006 when they became disillusioned with the expensive volunteer tourism programs available. They set out to create not only an alternative service, but to introduce a socially conscious business plan that personifies 21st century thinking.

Technology has been essential to that plan.  As Berkal, Executive Director, points out, “It is not a business we could have run 10 years ago.”  From advertising methods to communication with trip leaders in the field, Internet, Skype and social media have played a huge part in the infrastructure and success of the company. This year OG added online fundraising to that list.

Although fundraising has been suggested to participants in the past, this year it was a mandatory requirement. It works like this:

OG currently offers trips in 8 different locations including Africa, India, the Middle East and South America.  Their current target population is college students with a gap year ideology who value life experience as much as academic classroom credits. Their trip costs are minimal, in some cases 25% of competitor’s costs. The cost covers basic travel expenses and minimal administrative costs. Trip leaders are hand picked and offer expertise in the destination country to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship. Upon acceptance into the program, each participant must raise a minimum of $1000 through individual fundraising efforts. One hundred percent of the funds raised are then distributed in a carefully thought out breakdown: 40% to Kiva microfinance loans, 45% to the specific in country projects, and 15% to carbon offsetting.  Operation Groundswell offers a detailed explanation on how they have decided to divide funds in 2010 on their fundraising website.

By partnering with DoJiggy for Online Fundraising Software and Calum McGuigan from Fervent Events as the fundraising coordinator, this years participants exceeded expectations raising 110% of the goal.  As McGuigan states, “Operation Groundswell had 75 travel volunteer participants for their 2010 program. A viral center point for fundraising was a huge help, as we had many volunteers in different locations. DoJiggy enabled OG participants to collect donations from peers all around the world, quickly and efficiently.” In addition to the personal touch imbued with the customizable fundraising pages, the ease of using the system allowed participants to be creative with their fundraising efforts as well. Events from rock concerts to themed dinner parties were held, all the while raising consciousness about the programs in the destination country.

Facilitating this kind of fundraising success, along with the increased popularity of Operation Groundswell’s idyllic tours, ensure the sustainability of their important programs like Camino Seguro in South America and Horizons Children’s Center, in Northern Ghana, their longest standing relationship.

Berkal comments, “Technology is changing the world faster than we can perceive. I have been to rural villages with no running water or electricity where people have access to cell phones.” In a world transforming at a rate of speed that seems unfathomable, it is inspiring to see the tools of technology being used to facilitate a positive impact and spread consciousness exponentially.


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