The ethics of asking strangers to pay
Brad and Sheena Van Orden arrive at the southern tip of South America.
There is a growing trend among travellers of using the internet to solicit donations to help fund their trips.
But if you want to quit your job and follow your dreams to travel the world, is it OK to ask others to pay? And how does that differ from accepting the help of a stranger you meet along the way?
Many travellers post "donate" buttons on their blogs, ranging from "buy us a beer" to requests for cash in return for useful travel tips. Others go further and use target-based crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo to launch fundraising campaigns that offer donor rewards, which can range from something as simple as a thank-you postcard to copies of creative products such as books or documentaries.
US couple Brad and Sheena Van Orden saw the uglier side of the phenomenon this week, when they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the proposed next leg of their round-the-world road trip: traversing China in their campervan. The route, they said, is prohibitively expensive due to China's high permit and guide fees. In return, donors will receive a digital version of the book they have pledged to write about their adventure.
The couple had raised 30% of their $25,602 target in just six days when they began to receive abusive messages, both through online comments and emails, about their “self-indulgent, middle class adventure”. These messages forced the couple to consider cancelling the fundraiser.
“We chose crowd-funding because we saw an opportunity to tell a story. It became a matter of business because we needed sponsors. It just made good sense to ask the people who would be reading our book to help,” Brad said. “What we didn’t expect was that, as word spread, there would be such a degree of hatred aimed at us. No longer was our project seen as a 'project', but as a couple of spoiled kids trying to get strangers to pay for our vacation. This is the entirely wrong message."
Among more than 200 comments on Autoblog, a website that featured their campaign, a reader that goes by the online name Michigan accused them of concocting a "flimsy scheme to defraud people" while another, Detox 440, said: “I have a hard enough time paying for my own life and interests... it's pretty crappy of you to ask others to subsidize your poor decisions.”
Another reader, Chi-town-andy, defended the couple’s campaign: “You don't have to give them money... this isn't a tax. Why can't we be appreciative of their journey and the risks involved?”
The ethics of asking for money are a topic of much debate among travellers. Bryan Scott, who is blogging his journey through Central America, said that his choices were “not someone else's responsibility to fund”.
Overlanders Zach Channing and Jill DiMedio removed their website's donate button after it was only up for just a few days and returned the money they'd received after some family members disparaged the idea. “Knowing we'd lived simply and worked multiple jobs to save up enough money, they felt it was out of character and offensive,” DiMedio said.
But, like many bloggers, digital nomads Jessica and Kobus Mans and Jared McCaffree feel comfortable with their website’s "buy us a beer" button because it's a voluntary way for readers to reward them for the free travel information they publish. “Since we put a substantial amount of time in documenting campsites, budgeting, border crossings and internet availability, we have no qualms about creating a way people can send money if they want to,” Jessica said.
The history of travel is awash with tales of the kindness of strangers, taking in wandering travellers and giving them free food and shelter. So is asking for money online any different than accepting free hospitality from people encountered along a journey?
A family of six that has been travelling the world continuously for 13 years recently completed the African leg of their round-the-world journey, with plans to take on Europe next. But Herman and Candelaria Zapp said their travels would not have been possible without the help of the people they met. They have been hosted in some 2,500 homes during their travels, with countless others helping with more than just shelter.
“This [feat] has a roll call of 12,000 people who have helped,” Herman told the UK Daily Mail. “Almost 90% of the time we stay in people's homes.”
To many travellers, accepting free lodging and meals is totally different than asking for money. For example, even though Channing and DiMedio decided against adding a donation button to their website, they have participated in ”pirate” (free) camping on locals' land.
“What is happening is a non-monetary exchange that benefits both parties,” Channing said. “What we bring to the table is our story, our adventure, and our experiences.”
Similarly, in crowd-funding there can be a fine line between simply asking for cash and seeking donations in return for a service or creative work.
Blake Boles, author of The Unschool Adventures Guide to Online Travel Fundraising, said these campaigns are “not a charity drive” because participants must offer rewards in exchange for contributions. ”The most important ethical matter to consider is: can I truly deliver what I'm promising?” he said.
According to Boles, the Van Ordens approached their China project correctly – demonstrating they worked hard to save for their trip, offering interesting rewards and showing that the particular goal for which they're seeking money is a one-off opportunity they couldn't fund otherwise.
“Those who criticize either don't understand crowd funding or are perhaps just jealous of their incredible adventure,” he said. “People may accuse you of being cheeky, but if you've designed a respectable campaign, you're in the right.”
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