In 2009, Jay Shapiro and Alice Gugelev founded The Muskoka Foundation, an organization that inspires travelers to “use what you know, to do good as you go.” Volunteering and travel go hand-in-hand for Jay and Alice, and the mission of their organization is to transform the travel sector so that meaningful volunteering is a part of every travel experience. They are building a global network of travelers that are interested in donating their time and skills at partner organizations all over the world. All programs available through The Muskoka Foundation focus on building cross-cultural relationships, empowering youth and local staff through skill transfer workshops and providing market access for local products.
Though I don’t believe there is any right or wrong way to travel, I’m definitely a believer in travel that supports local communities and sustainable programs, so when I learned about The Muskoka Foundation, my interest was piqued. I haven’t worked with the organization, but I wanted to learn more about it, so I got in touch with Alice about how the organization works, what its goals are and what makes it different from other volunteer organizations.
1. Why did you start The Muskoka Foundation? Have you had volunteer experiences that shaped the way you created your organization?
When Jay and I embarked on an around-the-world trip a few years ago, we found it difficult to find the right volunteering opportunities that fit our experience, philosophy and mode of travel—hence The Muskoka Foundation was born. In the last three years, we have found that more and more people share a similar profile and intent. The Muskoka Foundation currently has 20 local partners around the world where volunteers can come for a short term to conduct training workshops based on local needs and on their skill sets.
Prior to starting The Muskoka Foundation, Jay was a boot-strapping serial entrepreneur who volunteered throughout his life. I worked at The World Bank, Bain & Company and Bridgespan Group, and I did a lot of volunteering outside of work. All these experiences have shaped the basic philosophy of The Muskoka Foundation, which consists of four basic principles: Dignity, intentional approach, empowerment and sustainability.
2. How does The Muskoka Foundation blend travel with volunteer work?
At The Muskoka Foundation, we connect travelers to communities and volunteering opportunities along their planned routes. Once a traveler contacts us and shares their skills and travel plans, we will provide the relevant partner backgrounds, curricula, equipment and connections. Once travelers are part of the network, they are encouraged to offer feedback—they can recommend local partners, stop working with others, add programs and improve processes. This helps improve the overall experience for the travelers who come after them. The Muskoka Foundation does not organize tours nor do we limit volunteering to specific schedules. We also do not provide visas, flights, airport transfers or room and board. We do not charge volunteers or local partners.
3. Why should a traveler consider volunteering through The Muskoka Foundation versus another organization that offers volunteer opportunities?
Each traveler should really understand what they are looking for in the volunteering experience. If a volunteer requires full organizational support like transfers, insurance, volunteer and cultural training, and room and board, and he wants to live with other volunteers, then there are many other wonderful organizations that he can work with. If travelers feel confident traveling on their own, would like to leverage their skills while volunteering and agree with our four key principles of dignity, intentional approach, empowerment and sustainability, then they should explore becoming part of The Muskoka Foundation network.
4. What are some of most significant success moments for The Muskoka Foundation?
There are there key moments that stand out for us since we founded The Muskoka Foundation. First, we’ve realized the extraordinary talent of youth. For example, in our photography program, even after a few days, youth that had never held a camera before were able to capture amazing images that were bought by people around the world. This helped raise thousands of dollars for their organizations through their own efforts. Many of these photos were shared in gallery shows and café shows, and even used as framed photo gifts by governments!
Second, having travelers truly believe that they have made a difference has been a major success. To read and hear the reactions of travelers who have volunteered and what they felt and learned through the experiences has been incredibly fulfilling. It continues to confirm our belief that this is a big gap in the travel sector today.
5. What are the long-term goals for The Muskoka Foundation?
We have four long-term goals for the organization. We hope to transform the travel sector and make volunteering part of every travel experience, eventually working with thousands of travelers that are part of a global network that supports the movement of “use what you know, to do good as you go.” We hope to have 40 established local partnerships around the globe that believe we are making a net positive impact with their youth and their staff. Through these partnerships we hope to impact hundreds of youth. Finally, we want to build stronger relationships based on respect across cultures and within local communities.