Early last fall, a package arrived for me at my office. In it, a brand new messenger bag carefully packed with one laptop, headphones, an external hard drive, a charger, and padded with Greenheart Travel t-shirts. It was from Greenheart Travel, a volunteer trip provider (and also — full disclosure — one of my company’s clients), but it wasn’t for me. It was a gift for one of their partner organizations, The Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Would it be too much trouble for you to bring it with you on your trip out there next week?” They asked.
“Sure, I pack light. Not a problem at all,” I responded.
I know how hard it can be to get electronics, even a clunky, old, refurbished Toshiba like this one, into developing countries. Ship it, and you risk it getting lost or heavily taxed at customs. Buy it there, and it’ll cost double what it would back in the States. So, finding a traveler who was headed out into the jungle was the best solution.
On my end, traveling with two bags is always a no-no, but for this, I was willing to make an exception. Packing for a cause is a good reason to check an extra bag.
What’s Packing for a Cause?
Packing for a cause means that you’re bringing donations for a particular organization abroad (e.g. a school, hospital, NGO, or development project) that they wouldn’t be able to get easily in their home country.
Typically, these are goods that the organization has specifically requested from the traveler or donors, and the donor will give these items directly to the organization, community leader, or institution to distribute and put to use as they see best.
You can also purchase and donate goods once you’re in country and then transport them locally — which works best for things like basic school supplies, food, or other essentials.
One thing worth mentioning is that with disaster relief, like after the recent Ecuador earthquake, most travelers would be better off donating money to a disaster relief organization than donating goods.
What Organized Donations Can Solve
Bringing a suitcase full of crayons and candy to hand out to kids while you’re on safari in Kenya is not packing for a cause and actually causes more harm than good. Packing for a cause seeks to solve this problem. Travelers sometimes want to bring donations for developing countries but often don’t know how to go about it in the best way.
By giving school supplies directly to a school instead of individual kids, we’re not encouraging begging, or for kids to skip school and wait for freebies. Instead, we’re putting donations in the hands of local leaders who best know how to distribute them.
Also, it allows us to give items that are actually needed, rather than what we assume is needed, by acting on an organization’s request. For example, while I was teaching with the Peace Corps in Madagascar, USAID distributed these great crayon and coloring book kits to all the kids in my village. A nice gesture, but it didn’t solve the real problem: the fact that half of my students often lacked a functioning pen for taking notes.
How to Give Back While Traveling
If you’re traveling to a developing nation and want to give back in a constructive manner through donations, there are several avenues you could follow:
Bring Donations From Home
The organization, Pack for a Purpose is, arguably, the only platform that matches travelers with NGOs and local organizations to distribute donations from one country to another. They’re also very well established, and a great platform to look into first.
Buy Donations in Country
Alternatively, you could use Globe Drop, a more recently launched platform for matching travelers to organizations. After testing the site out, it seems that most organizations are looking for locally sourced donations, like soccer balls, bags of rice, basic first aid, and school supplies.
Look at NGO Websites
The countries where Pack for a Purpose and Globe Drop work are somewhat limited. Though a more popular destination, like Thailand, is likely to come up on these platforms, more obscure destinations, like Sri Lanka, won’t. If these platforms don’t work out, you could also get in contact with an NGO. Some organizations will have wish lists directly on their website. A good resource for finding local NGOs is Wango’s worldwide NGO directory.
Ask a Peace Corps Volunteer
As an RPCV, I can honestly tell you: we’re all hustling to get donations to our countries of service. Whether it’s a box of used library books or some half-way decent bandaids, if you get in touch with a PCV in your destination country, they’ll definitely be able to suggest a thing, or ten. I’d recommend looking up PCV blogs or getting in touch with project leaders who are currently fundraising.
Know Where Your Donations are Going
Just as you would do if you were to volunteer abroad, you should look up the organization you’re planning to give donations to. A quick Google search of “[organization name] + reviews” will often pull up testimonials from former employees or volunteers. Or, you could do the reverse and search “[organization name] + scam” just to make sure it hasn’t been flagged yet already.
Orphanage scams tend to be a particularly common one out there, with countries in Southeast Asia and Africa especially, setting up fake orphanages to capitalize on and take advantage of well-meaning travelers.
Tips for Packing Your Donations
Typically, school supplies, food, and first aid items are the most commonly requested donations. Though you’re best off using a specific wish list of donations, there are a few general tips to help you pack for a cause:
- Use a bag you’re willing to leave behind – Either include it as part of the donation (e.g. a hiking backpack donated to the park rangers at a national park) or use a cheap, or old, bag that you’re OK with disposing of along with the donations.
- Bringing school supplies? Prepare for large class sizes – In Madagascar, I had a modest class size of 47 students. Other teachers abroad that I’ve talked to regularly quoted class sizes of 30 – 70 in developing nations. Be prepared for this if you’re trying to give a class set of something.
- Don’t ship or check electronics – Checking, or shipping, electronics runs the risk of the item being damaged or stolen. Shipping electronics runs the additional risk of being taxed. Technically, you shouldn’t be taxed on a donation, but you may have to jump through some pain-in-the-butt hoops to prove that a box of 4 laptops are donations for a local school.
- DO check any sharp objects, liquids, etc. – Trying to donate 30 pairs of scissors? Yeah, you should check that.
- Keep your personal bag extra light – Try and pack lighter than usual. It’ll make the extra piece of luggage less cumbersome.
If you want to make a constructive impact on a country you’re traveling to in the near future, consider bringing an extra bag full of donations for a local school, health center, or NGO — it’s a great reason to pack an extra bag.
Use a platform like GlobeDrop or Pack for a Purpose or get in touch with a local NGO, or volunteer, to find out what’s needed in your destination. Then, pack it all up in a bag you’re OK with leaving behind and bring it with you to help make your travels count!
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