Indonesian Operator ‘Wise Steps’ Shares Voluntourism Best Practices

This fledgling tour operation, founded by former nonprofit staffers, shares how they prioritize responsible volunteering experiences in Southeast Asia.

Wise Steps
Reading Time: 5 mins

Nonprofit organizations play an important role in improving local areas. But as they typically require the support of external donors to maintain operations, NGO employees often spend precious resources fundraising to keep the good work flowing.

That’s why former nonprofit staffers Matteo Bierschneider and Ayu Masita decided in 2017 to found Wise Steps Travel, an Indonesia-based tour operation dedicated to using business as a force for good. “We found the only way to make an efficient long-term change is through social entrepreneurship,” says Bierschneider. “We’re financially independent but have a similar vision and mission you would find in an NGO.”

Now nearly in its second year, Wise Steps has run 30 tours with almost 200 individual travelers. The company has three product tracks centered on the idea that tourism can support people, planet, and profit. Wise Journeys focuses on creating customized or thematic group tours for travelers that explore the diversity of Indonesia’s 300 ethnic cultures and hundreds of languages. Research & Study engages in international university groups. Re-Voluntourism (a mashup of the words “responsible,” “volunteering” and “tourism”) enables travelers to work on local community projects such as marine conservation initiatives or rural sustainable farms.

While running voluntourism excursions is an important and worthy endeavor, Bierschneider says other operators working in Southeast Asia must take special considerations to ensure the work is both helpful, and safe for travelers and the recipients of the voluntourism.

Arival caught up with Bierschneider to learn more about what it means to be a conscious business, how Wise Steps is a model operator when it comes to voluntourism and how you can incorporate these tenets into your business.

What makes Wise Steps a unique operator in Indonesia?

Matteo Bierschneider: We work with a big network of local projects and communities directly and have traveled to the regions we offer to our clients. That allows us to be experts when it comes to designing insightful and educational journeys where travelers really experience the quality and the beauty of Indonesia.

How do you choose and vet your volunteer partners?

Our aim is to be the leading provider of responsible volunteer travel. Why isn’t voluntourism inherently responsible? In some Asian countries, we have seen an abuse by volunteering providers. For example, in Cambodia the number of orphans has decreased in recent years. But the amount of orphanages (which also offer volunteering opportunities) has increased. The media jumped on this discrepancy and created a rather negative impression about travel volunteering. 

However, when well managed, volunteering can be a powerful tool to help many people, communities and projects. We think of travel volunteering more like expert volunteering, where travelers with a certain set of skills can contribute to projects in need of these skills.

We meet and visit these projects personally and there is an internal assessment regarding accessibility, accommodation, safety and other indicators. After we partner with the local project, we ask them to identify must-need skills we can provide them with.

What important considerations must tour operators take when inviting travelers to partake in local volunteer opportunities? 

Wise StepsVolunteering is all about local impact. Unfortunately, too often tour operators offer these experiences only for the sake of the travelers and not the local project. For example, a very common scenario: Students just out of school want to do something socially meaningful in a foreign country. A common project is teaching English in an elementary school for maybe four weeks. This sounds great, but the biggest impact is the feel-good effect of the traveler because the traveler is not properly equipped to teach, four weeks is not enough time for long-term language improvement and the original school curriculum may be disturbed and must be later adjusted. 

My point is there is a huge need for guidelines about voluntourism especially when working with children. 

Our approach is a bit different: For our Research & Study tours, we only accept volunteers that have studied to be English teachers, and we organize workshops with existing local English teachers. Additionally, volunteers for long-term projects are educated about local traditions, behavior, clothing, laws and cultural customs. 

Many organizations benefit most from long-term volunteers. How do you provide impact with short-term volunteers? 

Ideally, we cater to volunteers that want to stay at least one month to ensure maximum impact. That said, if you follow the idea of expert volunteering, which we sometimes call “experteering,” then even short-term stays can help. 

For example, a local Indonesian foundation has great projects and relies on visitors to generate income. But they don’t have great online presence and marketing—and while they have a staffer who manages the website, they aren’t an online expert. Through our Web Media Specialist volunteer package, travelers who know a lot about marketing can volunteer for one week to train the marketing staff in this organization to increase marketing performance. It’s a short-term volunteer experience with big impact. 

That said, we are still a fledgling company. And we have much to learn. We are always improving, too.

Trending

already a member?

Lost your password?

NEED TO REGISTER?

Become an Arival Insider
THE ARIVAL INSIDER PRO ACCESS MEMBERSHIP; YOU GET ALL THIS TO HELP YOU ADVANCE YOUR BUSINESS.

Included in Free Membership

Included in Arival Pro Membership

The Arival on-demand video library archive
Access to the entire library of over 150 video sessions and webinars

Arival.guides
Short, digestible research & trends reports delivering insights into our industry, such as The Tour Operator Outlook for 2021.

Arival.travel articles
Topical articles about marketing, tech, operator business and operator stories in all areas of tours, activities & attractions & experiences

Job board access
Find a job from our regular listings, post a resume to the talent network and learn strategies from the job resources articles

New webinars
Helpful, instructional sessions covering subjects such as Mastering Facebook Ads, Grow Your Business and How To Work With OTAs — topics to help advance your business.

Discounts on all Arival in-person events
20% Discount on all Arival in-person events (save up to $300)* based on business type

Arival ProShield – Insurance program
Access to tailored insurance solutions by Granite Insurance is available exclusively for Arival Insider Pro Access Members. Insider Pro Access Members also have access to a suite of resources from Granite Insurance including templates, forms and other informative documents.

Insiders Pro Access member exclusive webinars
Paid membership-only webinars to deepen your understanding of important industry topics.

Job postings & talent directory
Post jobs & connect with candidates most applicable to your business.

Private roundtables to connect, learn and engage
Small, focused and intimate discussions exclusive to Arival Insider Pro Access members.

Full access to Arival’s library of in-depth reports
Up to date, deep analysis of tourism topics ranging from Self-guided Tours to Sales & Distribution Trends and Outlooks, based on the data that defines the industry.

The latest on-demand videos
Over 350+ on-demand videos featuring hot topics in tours, activities & attractions

Insider discounts in digital marketing, tech, e-learning, and more
Save money on additional tools, services and learnings you need to run your business. Exclusive to paid members.

Membership Overview
ARIVAL CODE OF CONDUCT​
CONFERENCES AND COMMUNITY SPACES​

At Arival, we believe travel can make the world a better place. Our mission is to establish and inspire a diverse community of individuals and companies in the In-destination Industry by providing opportunities to gain insight, share knowledge and build connections. To make it possible for true collaboration, creativity, innovation, and idea exchange to thrive, we are committed to facilitating a welcoming and respectful community for all. This Conference Code of Conduct shares our community expectations and applies to all attendees, employees, exhibitors, speakers, sponsors, volunteers, and other participants at Arival- produced and sponsored events. We empower all participants in our community to actively engage in creating a friendly, inclusive and safe environment for all.

Arival’s core values include the following, and create an expectation for conduct at our events and in online community spaces:

We demonstrate a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live.
We value integrity and strive to consistently interact with others in ways that are authentic, ethical, and fair.
We are dedicated to transparency, committing to clear, open and honest communication.
We actively pursue and advocate for inclusion, diversity and representation of varying cultural backgrounds, perspectives and ideas

Arival welcomes people from all cultural backgrounds, and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, gender (including pregnancy, perceived pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, or related medical conditions), gender identity, religion (including religious dress and grooming), marital status, domestic partner status, genetic information, age, national origin or ancestry, military or veteran status, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or any other basis protected by federal, state, or local laws.

Accordingly, participants must refrain from displaying any demeaning, harassing, aggressive, or intimidating behavior or materials that would interfere with others’ experience and participation in our community.

If you witness or are subjected to inappropriate or disruptive behavior or have any other concerns, notify an Arival staff member as soon as possible.

Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will not be tolerated. Arival reserves the right to refuse entry to or remove any party from any event or community space at any time when participation or behavior create a disruption or hinder the event or enjoyment of the event by other participants. All determinations are at the sole discretion of Arival, and the decision of the Arival team will be final. Severe breaches of this Conference Code of Conduct may result in disqualification from participating in future events. Individuals expelled due to violating this Conference Code of Conduct will not be eligible for a refund or other consolation.

If you have questions regarding this Conference Code of Conduct or its implementation, please contact us at [email protected].