Voluntourism: Integrating Travel and Public Service

China Development Brief, No.54 (Summer 2012)

中文 English

In this article, Fu Tao profiles the successes and challenges of an up-and-coming social enterprise in Chengdu that creates travel experiences with a public benefit bent.

2008 triggered an influx of newcomers to the public benefit sector – the “Public Benefit Inn” (公益客栈), founded in Sichuan by Ni Kaizhi being one such example. While working for a Shenzhen IT company Ni went to Wenchuan nine days after the earthquake as a volunteer aid worker via a referral from the Sichuan 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center (四川512民间救助服务中心). Later, Lv Zhao, founder of Non-Profit Incubaor (NPI) invited Ni to join the new NPI office in Chengdu.  Discussing the time he entered the public benefit sector, Ni recalls the passion with which he visited rural disaster areas, carrying out research, and monitoring and evaluation of the work of organizations which implemented the Narada Foundation’s (南都基金会) ten million RMB disaster relief funding.

The Path to Social Entrepreneurship

After a year with NPI, unhappy with the existing state of affairs, Ni began feeling restless. In his words the work with the NPI was insufficiently challenging, “the work was repetitive and always the same and I lost my enthusiasm.”  In August 2009, he heard about a social entrepreneur training program jointly organized by the British Council, the cultural and education branch of the British Embassy (英国大使馆文化教育处) and the Narada Foundation, which was being held in Chengdu.  At this training program, Ni came empty-handed, unlike all of the other participants who had their own social entrepreneurship projects, but the training inspired him.

After finishing the training program in September, Ni noted that agricultural produce was not selling in the disaster area, prompting him and some friends to set up the Urban-Rural Community NPO Development Center (城乡社区NPO发展中心) (hereafter, Urban-Rural Community) with the aim of getting the local urban and rural communities involved in fair trade. Upon handing in his resignation, Ni talked to Lv Zhao about his own idea for a social enterprise. Receiving Lv’s approval, he applied to enter NPI’s Chengdu incubator program.  Despite the support of NPI’s incubator program, he was unable to secure funding that year for his project.  “At that time, our mission and vision were always changing, and our projects lacked a core structure.  Without funding and a brand, it was hard to gain the trust of donors,” says Ni, reflecting on his difficult start.

Gradually, they reached a turning point.  After getting their ideas and direction together, they launched an interactive urban and rural travel service, to promote interactive tourism for the public benefit.  The Urban-Rural Community invited the “Public Benefit Inn” to join their specialized tourist training in Chengdu’s surrounding rural communities. Through their organization, urban volunteers travel to rural areas and have the opportunity to participate in environmental protection, poverty alleviation and child education projects, as well as family activities.

On October 1, 2010, a 14-person tour group traveled to Hanwang and Zundao townships in Mianzhu City where they paid a visit to local communities to help harvest rice.  The participants, along with Ni and NGO insiders, were all curious and supportive as they completed  “the trip witnessing the post-disaster reconstruction”.  Even though the event resulted in a loss of 3000 RMB, the activity offered a rare opportunity for Ni to gain observation and suggestions from the participating NGO workers.  Afterwards, Urban-Rural Community also created an online community forum – ‘The Rice Paddy Community Network’ (稻谷社区网), as a platform for tour participants, friends and mentors to exchange stories and ideas.

Ni went on to build on this success, and in the subsequent period between October and November, organized four more visiting tour groups. In November 2010, Urban-Rural Community was selected for the Entrepreneur Innovation Prize, established by the Youchange Foundation (友成企业家基金会), which came with an award of 80,000 RMB. In 2011, it won a bid to receive 190,000 RMB in disaster reconstruction funding from the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (中国扶贫基金会). The funding was used to organize community public benefit tour guides trainings, develop 10 new public benefit inns, organize voluntourism for 1000 people, and improve the design of tour packages and marketing activities. The Rice Paddy Community Network was upgraded to the China Public Benefit Tourism Network (中国公益旅游网) and formally launched on December 1 of the same year.

The Role of Communities

Selected sites for the village “public benefit inns” were communities with   around 10-15 households.  The requirements for these communities were that they be 30 minutes journey from tourist sites, have public service needs, and be willing to accept this kind of voluntourism.

Ni explains that the public benefit inn project emphasizes guidance from the community. Visitors that go into the community are met and shown around by the community’s public benefit guide.  Within the community there are retired teachers and married women with children, all of whom, with the correct training, can become guides.  Furthermore, their employment in these positions benefits peasant households and boosts local employment.  The design of the theme-oriented tour packages is based on the needs of the community and the feedback of these guides. During the tour, the guides must observe and collect meaningful community stories and traditions to record.  The Urban-Rural Community receives ‘orders’ through community discussions and services are fairly distributed in order for everyone to benefit.

The Hardships of Social Entrepreneurship

When the Public Benefit Inn was initially launched, Ni was unable to generate enough attention, so he turned to social media to promote his project and attract new customers through mainstream portal sites and various tourism forums.  Now the situation has improved, he was able to shift his focus to promoting the China Public Benefit Tourism Network and meeting the needs of regular customers through Sina Weibo, Renren, and QQ groups, while at the same time designing special tour packages targeting the needs of companies.

At present, the Urban-Rural Community is carrying out market development using public benefit as the starting point.  In the initial launch stage, a social enterprise is always difficult to sustain solely with income generated from the market. However, given limitations that some donors have in their understanding of ‘public benefit’, there were times when Ni was unable to attract funding.

After the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, the reconstruction in the earthquake zone had a positive impact on the quality of houses in the villages. Yet even though poor people were provided with better quality housing, their lives for the most part were still impoverished, with no substantive changes.

Sichuan University offers an EMBA class. After finishing the class, the entrepreneurs came up with an idea to spend  30,000 RMB on a graduation trip to provide help to disaster-stricken areas.  When Ni received the commission to plan and implement the tour package for entrepreneurs, he was in Shenzhen. He immediately rushed back to Chengdu to design a 3-day 2-night tourism program.   He took his entrepreneur clients around Mianzhu, Maoxian, and Wenchuan on an investigative tour. Yet in the end, he was unable to satisfy his clients who asked that “the houses be in bad condition, and the people be poor”.  After seeing the farmers’ new homes constructed after the earthquake, even though the homes were completely empty inside, the entrepreneurs were skeptical that local farmers were poor enough to deserve their support. Recalling this experience, Ni did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Social entrepreneurship needs more than just innovative ideas, the startup details must be well designed and executed.  The initiative must be filed (bei’an) with the local Public Security Bureau, the distribution of profits with the community, and hosting standards need to be negotiated and regulations drawn up.  The Urban-Rural Community provides a link between urban and rural areas, but also can be a collection point for complaints of all kinds reflecting the many complications involved.

After tour group enters the community they are given meals and have free time during which they can play mahjong or rest.  But Ni has received complaints from guests that the food was unsatisfactory and the portion sizes were too small. Many were also dissatisfied with the travel services.

Some of the Urban-Rural Community’s own members have not acted conscientiously. Some regard themselves as tourists and relax, while others drink heavily and forget their responsibilities.  These matters both confuse and concern Ni, and test his patience and capacity as a team manager.

Nevertheless, having previously worked as a regional sales manager at a Shenzhen IT company, Ni is relatively proficient at resource integration and marketing, and is always thinking of new ideas.

Resource Integration and Marketing

To compete with experienced travel companies, the Urban-Rural Community must emphasize their own brand of tourism.  This is where the concept of “voluntourism” comes in.  The Urban-Rural Community assigns each group a theme, such as environmental protection, elder care, education for parents and their children, youth experiences, enterprise development, stress relief and so on. To supplement its limited resources, it formed partnerships with other local organizations in Chengdu.  The Urban-Rural Community’s current environmental partners are the Green Society Environmental Action Network (GSEAN, 济溪环境交流网络), and their elder care partners are the Western Senior Citizens Federation (西部老年联合会).  For tours focused on youth experiences, it partners with Youth Spaces (青少年空间) which is in every district in Chengdu.

Ni is currently planning a large-scale promotion by holding a Voluntourism Festival and seminar. He also plans to print 2000 postcards featuring the Public Benefit Inn and its rural village activities.

Of course, there remain challenges, and the Urban-Rural Community has continued to experience many setbacks when applying for funding.  Their application to foundations to hold a competition for social entrepreneurs to promote public benefit tourism was not approved. They failed to qualify for the finals in the Cinnovate Initiative (芯世界技术应用奖) competition hosted by Intel China, China Poverty Alleviation Foundation and the Narada Foundation, and did not get past the early assessment stage of the 2012 Narada Foundation’s Ginkgo Program (南都公益基金会银杏计划).

The Registration Puzzle

While Ni has a number of ideas for how to promote the Urban-Rural Community, he is always thinking about how to register his organization.  In order to define the Urban and Rural Community’s position in the social enterprise world, Ni recently registered it as a business (益游中心)in March of this year, but he still wants to register as a nonprofit organization. The business registration is convenient for commercial operations, but institutions relying on developing and operating public benefit tourism need to develop a public benefit tourism brand.  Registered businesses are restricted in applying for government procurement funds and foundation funds, and there are tax requirements they cannot bypass.  The current method used is to transfer any public benefit funds to NPI’s Shanghai headquarters and have NPI act as a trustee for managing these funds.  [Editor’s Note: As a registered nonprofit, NPI does not have the tax requirements of a commercial enterprise.]   Ni noted that most of their clients regard the Urban- Rural Community as a public benefit organization, and participate in its activities because of its public benefit nature. As a result, Ni stresses the importance of financial transparency, and insists on publishing the Public Benefit Inn’s finances online.

After a great deal of effort, the Urban- Rural Community finally received approval in May of this year from the Chengdu High Technology District’s Social Enterprise Bureau (成都高新区社会事业局), and successfully registered as a civil, non-enterprise unit.  [Editor’s Note: A civil, non-enterprise unit is one of three categories of nonprofits that are registered under the Civil Affairs office. The other two are social organizations (shehui tuanti) and foundations (jijinhui).]  In 2012, Ni plans to run 2-3 projects for business, in addition to two foreign university groups, three trips for recent university graduates, and around 20 trips for groups of individuals, in order to earn an income of 170,000 RMB to fund its operations for the year. In March of this year, through the referral of YouChange Foundation (友成基金会), Urban-Rural Community and Hong Kong Polytechnic University signed an agreement to organize a rural services program tour.  In early September, the university will send 104 students to two public benefit inns to participate in poverty reduction and community development activities.  They plan to put all their effort into this program to accumulate experience for hosting future university groups from China and overseas.

Personal Reflections

Since setting out on the public benefit path in 2008, Ni and his partner of six years have been traveling back and forth between Chengdu and Shenzhen.  After its first year of incubation, NPI stopped giving it small monthly grants, and at that time they thought of going back to Shenzhen. Now things have changed for the better but their future remains uncertain.

Ni’s public benefit tourism commitments leave him dividing his time between the countryside and Chengdu.  But Ni prefers the clean air and freedom of the countryside. In his words, “in the countryside I feel needed but in the city I can feel very insignificant.”

There is a saying that Chengdu is a city where, once you arrive, you will never want to leave. Now Ni too feels a sense of belonging in Chengdu.  He likes the city, and not just because of its unique geography, climate and cultural characteristics, but also because there is an atmosphere of solidarity among the NGOs there.  He has been able to share a glass of wine while having impassioned conversations and debates with other NGO founders and entrepreneurs.  When the project started, and funding was trickling in slowly, they used friendships as a guarantee and personal savings to meet their urgent needs, including advances, wages and salaries.

Although the Urban- Rural Community has now acquired some influence, Ni recognizes that there are still many difficulties. The existing team has still yet to fully mesh, and often the execution is lacking.  Ni is the kind of person who is always leading the way with new ideas, but as the organization becomes a team effort he no longer needs to take on all matters single-handedly and needs to be patient in dealing with management and team building issues.

When this interview was conducted in March the Urban-Rural Community had just moved to a new property within the Second Ring Road of Chengdu.  With office equipment not yet fully in place, several rooms appeared empty.  On the entrance wall, Ni had made a photo display, documenting their performance since 2008 – from the bottom up, these photos are laid out in the shape of a tree.  The trees height increases with the increase of participants and activities and splits into two branches at the top to represent the growth of this young institution.

Contact: Ni Kai Zhi






对公益界的不少新人而言,2008年是触发其人生轨迹发生转折的一年。在四川创办公益客栈的江西小伙子倪凯志就是其中一例。汶川地震发生后第9天,在深圳 一家IT公司工作的倪凯志奔赴灾区,经由四川5.12民间救助服务中心的转介成为驻遵道的志愿者,后来,在NPI孵化器创办人吕朝邀约下,加入刚刚成立的NPI成都办。回想当时那一段刚刚进入公益圈时的"燃情岁月",倪凯志自称自己"像一条激情四射的疯狗"跑遍了灾区乡村,参与了 NPI作为执行方承接的南都基金会1000万灾区资助款的一线调研、监测与评估。
在NPI一年跑下来,不安于现状的倪凯志内心又开始躁动起来,他觉得NPI的工作缺乏挑战性,"总是重复同样的动作,有些发腻"。2009年8月,听闻英 国大使馆文化教育处和南都公益基金会在成都联合举办社会企业家培训,倪凯志非常冲动,自费参加。这次培训,与其他参与者都是带着自己的公益创业实践而来不同,只有他一个人是空手而来,在培训中激发出公益创业的思路。
9月的培训结业后,看到灾区农产品卖不掉,倪凯志和几位朋友成立了城乡社区NPO发展中心(以下简称"城乡社"),想做城乡对接的公平贸易。他向吕朝申请 离职的时候把自已创业想法和吕朝进行沟通,得到吕朝认可,申请进入NPI成都办孵化器。尽管得到了NPI创业孵化支持,但在孵化器的一年时间里,几经努力,项目资助申请均无果而终。"当时的心太大,使命、愿景一直在变,项目又没有核心主线,自己又是新秀,缺乏资金和品牌优势,难以取得资助方信任。" 倪 凯志这样反思起步时走过的最难的一段路。
2010年10月1日,一个14人的旅游团首发绵竹市汉旺、遵道两镇,到当地进行社区探访、收割稻种。参与者全是与倪凯志相识的NGO圈内人,大家带着好 奇和支持的双重心态完成了这次"灾后重建新生见证之旅"。杀熟的结果,是整个活动亏了3 000元,但城乡社收获了难得的同行观察和点评意见。随后,城乡社还创建了网上社区论坛——稻谷社区网,作为旅游参与者和益友们的交流平台。
 其后倪凯志趁热打铁,在10~11月间又连续做了四个团。2010年11月,城乡社以此参选友成企业家基金会设立的友成企业家创新奖并获得了8万元奖励,大大鼓舞了信心。2011年,城乡社竞标获得中国扶贫基金会灾后重建项目19万元资助,用于举办社区公益导游(益导)培训,开发10家益栈,组织 1000人的公益旅行,并对旅游产品进行设计和营销等一揽子活动。稻谷社区网也由此升级为中国公益旅游网(www.cnvt.org),同年12月1日正式上线。
倪凯志表示,益栈项目强调社区的主导性。益友进入社区后,由社区公益导游(益导)协调接待。社区内的退休教师、婚后带小孩的妇女等都可以成为益导,经培训考核后上岗,从而惠及农户,带动当地就业。对推出的团购主题,也围绕社区需求、征求益导的意见。 此外,益导在导游过程中还要观察、收集和发掘一些有意义的社区故事和传统并加以记录。对城乡社发来的"订单",由社区协商自定接待户,大家轮流受益。
四川大学有个 民营企业家的EMBA班结业,企业家们准备拿出三万参加一次毕业旅行,同时为灾区做点事,找到了正在深圳出差的倪凯志,委托他以公益客栈为基础设计和执行这个活动方案。他专门从深圳跑回来,迅速为对方设计了一个三天两夜的行程路线,并带着企业家代表实地跑了绵竹、茂县、汶川等地的几条线路考察方案。但最后 这个唾手可得的项目还是打了水漂,因为对方提出的一个条件,是"直观上,房子要破旧人要穷"。企业家代表看到震后新起的房子,即便里面空空如也,还是一脸疑惑,"总觉得不会把有钱的人家选上吧,怎么解释也说不通。"直到现在回想这段经历,倪凯志还是哭笑不得。
凯志正在酝酿的一个大型推广方案,是举办一个公益旅游节与研讨会,让拥有旅游资源的一方(社区、益栈、村两委),与有需求的企业、高校、公众和(户外、旅行社) 公司 面对面 ,全方位吸引旅游与公益链条中的各方参与其中,架设政府、企业、乡村及旅游爱好者的信息桥梁,待项目策划方案确定后,预计年内将在成都举 办首届中国公益旅游节。此外,以乡村"益栈"活动为主题内容的2000张明信片印制计划也在紧锣密鼓地筹备着。
对外推广有了具体的想法,机构的注册问题也一直在倪凯志的脑中挥之不去。对于自我定位为社会企业的城乡社而言,似乎今年3月刚刚完成工商登记的益游文化传 播中心这个身份已经够用,但倪凯志还是一门心思想为机构争取非营利注册。固然工商登记在商业运作上有不少便利,但机构依托公益旅游市场开发,运作仍然需要主打公益牌,工商注册的身份在争取政府采购以及基金会资助方面多少受到限制,至少税收方面的门槛就绕不过去。目前的做法,是筹集到的公益资助款项打入 NPI上海总部,由后者帮忙托管财务。倪凯志表示,现在的益友们,大多也是把城乡社当成公益组织,冲着中心的公益属性来的,因此倪凯志特别强调益栈项目的财务透明度,坚持在网上公布公益旅游运营的收入和支出情况。
 经过努力,城乡社于今年5月份终于得到成都高新区社会事业局认同,成功注册为民办非企业(注册名称为"成都高新区益众社区发展中心")。2012年,倪凯 志计划做2~3个企业专案,外加两个国外高校团,三次大学生毕业旅行以及20次散户团,这样机构能取得17万收入,基本可以完成年度的运营指标。今年3 月,由友成基金会转介,益游中心与香港理工大学签订了一个乡村服务计划体验之旅订单,令他大大缓了一口气。这所大学将在9月初派出104位学生到中心的两 个乡村益栈,以扶贫和社区服务两个主题进行国情教育。届时整个机构都将全力以赴,全程跟踪,以便为后续机构针对国内外高校团体乡村服务体验提供运营经验。
自2008年踏上公益之路,倪凯志和相恋六年的女友在成都、深圳两地分分合合。在NPI一年孵化结束后,机构每月小额资助款也终止,快要坚持不下来的时 候,甚至产生过回到深圳的念头。现在机构有了一些转机,俩人的未来仍然需要机缘,相信随着时间的推移,两个有共同理念的年轻人一定会找到幸福。
成都被人称为来了就不想走的城市,作为外来者,倪凯志现在对成都有了归属感。他喜欢这座城市,不只在于这座城市特有的地理、气候和人文特点,更在于这里有 NGO之间休戚与共的氛围,有几位能够举杯共酌、倾心交谈、争论不休或互相扶持的NGO创业伙伴。在项目启动,基金会承诺的资助姗姗来迟的时候,他们以友情为担保,用个人积蓄互相"拆借"资金以解燃眉之急,垫支员工工资,扛过难关。

Senior Researcher, CDB

Translated by Sophie Chadd

Reviewed by Tom Marling

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