Peace Science Digest

Travel as a Catalyst for Social Impact and Peacebuilding: The Work of Philanthropy without Borders

Photo credit: Caliopy Glaros

Editorial note: Research to Action posts highlight the ways that individuals and organizations use academic research to inform their program design and implementation. By showcasing real-life examples of how research informs action, we demonstrate how to bridge the gap between research and practice. In this post, Philanthropy without Borders applies core concepts and theories from anthropology, communication studies, and social psychology to transform the field of travel philanthropy to create more meaningful connections and togetherness across cultures.


Philanthropy without Borders is a boutique consulting firm that provides strategic guidance to international NGOs, foundations, and corporations on philanthropic travel and social impact programs. We specialize in helping mission-driven organizations craft strategies for their programs, enhance their revenue through program offerings, and develop critical skills in their stakeholders, such as global leadership, empathy, and intercultural competence. We believe in travel as a vehicle for philanthropy, peace, social impact, and the transformation of people and places. We help organizations achieve their goals of connecting people across cultures to create positive change in the world.


Both travel and philanthropy, in their distinct ways, entail encounters between people from different cultures, backgrounds, and/or life experiences. Given the right conditions, these encounters can serve as a catalyst for positive social change. We at Philanthropy without Borders are primarily interested in what happens when these groups of people meet and how to make these encounters more meaningful. What are the effects of human contact across cultures? How does this contact change people? How can we use the opportunities this contact provides to reduce prejudice, re-balance power dynamics, and communicate more effectively and authentically to achieve shared goals?

To answer these and other questions in our consulting work, we use tools, methods, research, and approaches put forth by experts in three disciplines:

  • Anthropology helps us understand how people see, experience, and make sense of the world. Ethnography, anthropology’s primary research method, involves extensive observation of and participation in a community to scientifically understand the meanings groups of people attach to their practices. An understanding of ethnographic method can benefit broad tourism studies as well as destination-specific projects.
  • The field of communication studies helps us understand how people interact, both one-on-one and in groups. To understand how culture influences these interactions—how we communicate both within our own culture and across cultures—we use the findings and models from the fields of intercultural communication and sociolinguistics.
  • Social psychology helps us understand ways of thinking. Within this body of research, we draw in particular on the work of scholars of Intergroup Contact Theory, the idea that personal contact discourages prejudicial beliefs.


Since we work at the intersection of two industries, travel and philanthropy, we keep abreast of research that can be applied to each of these industries, in an effort to create more meaningful cross-cultural exchanges. 

The travel industry is the largest in the world, responsible for 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP).[1] We actively apply research that can be leveraged to improve organizations’ travel offerings and transform their travelers. One example is the work of anthropologist Dean MacCannell, whose “Modalities of the Urban Symbolic” refer to different ways travelers might engage with an attraction (for instance, traveling as ego reinforcement or as a means of learning about another culture) and thus be changed by that engagement. This provides a lens through which tour operators and advisors can evaluate their programs and better understand the experience of travelers in them.[2] Adapting this research for a training we administered for the Transformational Travel Council helped its members optimize their travel offerings to meet consumer expectations as well as to create ethical and sustainable encounters at each destination.

We also draw from Sam H. Ham’s research on interpretation, which he defines as “translating the technical language of a natural science or related field into terms and ideas that people who aren’t scientists can readily understand.”[3] We use his work to train guides and tour group leaders who are responsible for communicating with their guests and “interpreting” what their travelers see. Ham’s research shows that a leader’s interpretation affects the understanding and actions of the listeners, so appropriate and strategic interpretation can do a lot to inspire guests to change their behaviors (for instance, be more environmentally conscious) or contribute positively (volunteer or donate money). This knowledge is extremely valuable to our clients as they seek to catalyze positive actions in their guests. 

The philanthropy sector also represents a big part of the economy: some $417 billion invested in social projects that remain ignored or underfunded by the public sector.[4] We are actively applying research that can be used to increase the empathy of funders so they may better understand the people impacted by their support.

Funders often make philanthropic decisions based on how they perceive the problem and their own ideas for the solution. In anthropology, this is considered an “etic” perspective—the perspective of the observer. We help philanthropic organizations in this sector shift their decision-making process toward an “emic” perspective, which is the perspective of the subject (in this case, the recipients of funding). Understanding the difference between these two views can have an enormous impact in the philanthropy sector, allowing organizations to transform their narratives about recipients of philanthropy and changing the way grant-makers vet and select grantees.

Impact travel, a subset of philanthropy and tourism defined by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) as “contributions of ‘time, talent, or treasure’ to local projects,” is especially well positioned to apply the findings of Intergroup Contact Theory, principally the 2008 meta-analysis by Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp.[5]Here we learn that contact between different groups does not automatically lead to a reduction in prejudice, but under certain conditions, such as when those different groups share a common goal or have equal status in the context of the encounter, it creates that possibility.[6] Impact travel, a bridge between people who want to help and people requesting help, can employ these findings in program design and stewardship of travelers. Because of this research, our consultancy has been working with philanthropy to move away from poverty tourism and superficial encounters between groups to trips that create deeper opportunities for engagement and learning.

The knowledge we need to improve the way we give, live, work, and travel across cultures is already out there—it just has to be harnessed and applied. Instead of re-creating the wheel with limited resources, we can leverage the work of thousands of talented experts to create solutions that transform travel and philanthropy, catalyzing even greater social impact and peacebuilding across cultures. 


Caliopy Glaros is the Founder of Philanthropy without Borders, a consultancy that provides strategic guidance on philanthropic travel and donor stewardship. As an expert in philanthropy and intercultural communication, Caliopy works with organizations to build and optimize travel programs that inspire generosity, cultivate empathy, deepen learning, and connect people across cultures in mutually beneficial ways. Caliopy has designed such donor and volunteer programs in more than sixty nations on five continents.Caliopy has an academic background in Anthropology and Adult Learning, is a certified trainer in Intercultural Communication, and is the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access (IDEA) Chair of the Oregon and SW Washington Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Keywords: contact theory, peacebuilding, philanthropy, social impact


[1] World Travel & Tourism Council. (2020, March 26). Economic impact. Retrieved on April 8, 2020, from

[2] MacCannell, D. (2011). The ethics of sightseeing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[3] Ham, S. H. (2013). Interpretation: Making a difference on purpose. Fulcrum Publishing.

[4] Giving USA. (2019, June 18). Giving USA 2019: Americans gave $427.71 billion to charity in 2018 amid complex year for charitable giving. Retrieved on April 8, 2020, from

[5] Honey, M. (2009). Travelers’ philanthropy handbook. Washington, D.C: Center for Responsible Travel.

[6] Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2013). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. London: Taylor and Francis.