In a world of natural calamities, political strife, social disparity and religious upheaval, the word “building” seems to have a different connotation, synonymous with impossible. Whereas the 20th century had been about corporate greed and profiteers, today’s business environment is more focused on opportunities beyond the limitation of resources; organizations work to find and exploit opportunities that appeal to the consumers regardless of the ethics behind their tactics. It’s then not surprising to find specifically for-profit enterprises under the guise of social entrepreneurship.
Despite that, there is a category of business organization which has recently popped up more frequently as we approach the second decade of the 21st century – it is called social impact enterprise model (Austin, Stevenson, and Wei-Skillern 2003). Social impact organizations are enterprises which work specifically to alleviate society’s maladies. One such organization which has recently made waves is Visit.org.
Still in their beta phase, Visit.org is an online marketplace that offers travel tours and cultural activities that help create awareness of local communities for travelers. What’s the surprise in that, you ask? Well, for one thing, in the process they are also planning to raise revenue for these communities to help them develop and overcome their setbacks. And in return, they give the world experiences to remember for the rest of their lives.
What’s more, their business model seems to rest on the social impact assessment framework (SIA).
The general principles and core values of SIA are:
- Shared values including human rights, cultural diversity, and local community development to govern above all social activities.
- Promote building of communities with laws and plans with the aim to bring up worst-off groups to the average level.
- Allow people to have the right to live, work, and socialize in fairness through diversity of cultures.
- Let local people be involved in all decisions pertaining to development of their economic and social systems.
- The aim of all development should be to empower, grow and strengthen local communities rather than political or profit driven. (Vanclay 2003)
So how does Visit.org make SIA work for them? By sharing their belief and value for human connection through experiential learning and to effectively inspire public knowledge and engagement. As they say in their corporate video here:
Building Global Local Communities
From a network of friends, families, colleagues, and diverse team members, Visit.org has been able to recruit around 50,000 partners or community- based organizations that offer “unique, engaging visit experiences”. With their online marketplace they are able to:
- Create awareness of local communities by recruiting local organisations which can take the responsibility of taking permission from locals and help them curate travel experiences for effective presentation of their communities.
- Promote these communities with visit.org online marketplace to tourists and adventurers who are willing to pay a good price for engaging with local people which are culturally rich, unique, diverse and/or indigenous.
- Recruit local people to promote their own communities by offering them the opportunity to show the best features of their people, and gain their willingness to be hospitable to tourists.
- Consult with local people and encourage them to be involved in the decision making and planning processes with a vetting system that’s fair and just.
Clearly, from what we see of visit.org, building a community through an SIA model doesn’t take much in terms of political and economic efforts but does have a long term impact on social development and economic growth. It’s like building an eco-system for the world’s local communities. Visit.org seems to have worked out a workable formula pretty easy enough without having to resort to corporate greediness or the typical non-profit approach.
So let’s see what contributed to their success.
Social enterprises in general tend to mushroom and die just as quickly due to several factors. Visit.org however has survived their beta phase due to the following success factors, I believe.
One of the most important factors for the survival of any social organization are grants and donations. Robert Gunn and Chris Durkin in their book Social Entrepreneurship: A Skills Approach (2010) maintain that grants and donations are highly competitive and usually carry terms and conditions related to the outcome of their disbursement. While visit.org may have depended on funding as seed investment for starting their venture, they don’t need it to sustain their long term business plan. In fact, local communities and partners are the ones who are to attract, earn and sustain their own organisations with visit.org as the hub for generating revenue.
Returns on Equity
Most social entrepreneurs are furthermore limited by a timeline and the mandate for fixed (or flexible) return on equity to ensure sustainable entrepreneurship. At visit.org, that’s not the case. Whatever is earned go directly to the local organizations and communities, so there is no limitation to how much or how little ROE is maintained.
Focus on Local Communities
Since all local communities and the organizations representing them are in-charge, they are responsible for curating their own programs, how much they want to expose the community to external travelers, and set the rules for respecting both the travelers and the community members. There is a sense of involvement rather than exposure in this practice.
Information Meets Adventure
Last but not least, visit.org’s unique selling point is its ability to identify the need of millennial travelers who are looking for information about unique travel experiences around the world. This category of travelers (which are growing steadily) are keener on paying a price for a customized tour rather than opting for the traditional luxury and expensiveness of it all. As Caroline expresses it here:
Austin, J., Stevenson, H. and Wei-Skillern, J. “Social and commercial entrepreneurship: same, different or both? Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, Vol. 30, Issue 1, January 2006.
Vanclay, F. International Principles for Social Impact Assessment. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, Vol. 21, Issue 1, 2003.
Gunn, R. and Durkin, C. Social Entrepreneurship: A skills approach. Policy Press 2010.