Tasty Donor Delights

August 1, 2007       Marla Nobles      

The number of donors seeking experiential travel is on the upswing. National Wildlife Federation said it’s seen, at the very least, a 30-percent increase in travelers compared to last year’s numbers. So has World Wildlife Fund.  And World Vision (WV) echoed the sentiment, reporting the engagement by its high-end donors has jumped, particularly within the past couple of years.

A recent survey of 198 people worth $10 million or more found that wealthy people will spend 56 percent more this summer than in 2005. Experiential travel ranked fourth on the list of spending, at an average planned spending of $103,000 for the super wealthy — better known as prime donors. While many nonprofits are taking advantage of this growing market by offering, for instance, jet travel to far-off lands, a select few are trying something a bit more unique.

Culinary travel is being used as a way of connecting a love of food with a passion for philanthropy.  And with the recent take-off of cooking shows, celebrity chefs, and the popularity of reality television that pits amateur chef against amateur chef, culinary travel is on the rise.

“Everyone eats and drinks, that’s understood,” said Erik Wolf, president and CEO of the International Culinary Tourism Association (ICTA), a nonprofit education and networking association headquartered in Portland, Ore. “Culinary travel is something that everyone does, regardless of your age, sex, etc.”

One study found this particular niche of travelers to be younger, more affluent and better educated than “non-culinary” travelers. The study, completed by Travel Industry Association, Gourmet Magazine and ICTA, showed that 27 million Americans, or 17 percent of leisure travelers, engaged in culinary or wine-related activities within the past three years.

“It has mushroomed,” said Wolf, describing the exponential growth in culinary travel. According to the study, 60 percent of U.S. travelers are interested in culinary travel in the near future.

Tapping into this wealth of opportunity, the Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Culinary Institute of America (CIA) recently launched Sophisticated Palate, a program that marries “the best of the CIA with the best of Napa Valley to create the ultimate culinary experience for the distinguished food enthusiast.”

While the program is positioned for “Foodies,” the ultimate objective is for the participants to become loyal donors to the CIA, according to Spokesman Jay Blotcher. “This is our way to cash in on a growing trend,” said Blotcher. “However, we make a great point to do follow-up. These people are immediately on the list…. We definitely seek to build them as donors, and see if they would support the camps and/or the CIA.” The money raised from the program will fund scholarships.

The first run — a trip to the organization’s Greystone campus in the Napa Valley — occurred this past June, with many more on the horizon. Each class holds up to 15 people, and offers two and four-day classes at price points of $2,000 and $4,000, respectively. Airfare and accommodations are not included.

“June didn’t sell out,” said Blotcher. “It’s all very new.” Blotcher compared Sophisticated Palate to the organization’s more entrenched program, its on-campus “Boot Camp” classes. “Our Boot Camp began in 1999 and had a slow start. And now, years later, it is an institution over here at the CIA. It’s the most in-demand continuing education course that we offer.”

The CIA began promoting Sophisticated Palate in April, culminating with an invitation to journalists from upscale “Foodie” magazines and Sirius Satellite Radio.

“There’s definitely a market in the nonprofit sector for something like this, and for other than educational institutions,” said Blotcher. “I think any nonprofit should examine the overwhelming popularity of the culinary travel phenomenon and try to hook into that potential.”

Low-end for the high-end

If you want to see what World Vision does on the ground, prepare to get down and dirty. “We like to travel low to the ground, if you will,” said Elwood McLoud, senior director of advancement services, of the organization’s travel program. “We hire local staff, so when you go to a country there aren’t 100 transplanted Americans there running the project. It’s locals. Local food. And we try to stay in local places.”

The program, said McLoud, is offered to the charity’s mid-level (between $5,000 and $25,000 annually) and major donors ($25,000 and above annually). The trips range from five to 10 days and cost between $1,000 to $4,000, including airfare but sans frills.

Despite the lack of luxury accommodations and gourmet cuisine, and the fact that the trips are not tax deductible, the travel program has thrived for nearly 15 years. “We’ve seen an increase in donors wanting to visit projects,” said McLoud, particularly in the last three years. And that means more “transformational development,” added McLoud, who said the ultimate goal is not financial, rather “that the donor will be transformed as they see this community being transformed.”

Not forgetting the backbone of any nonprofit, this past July the Seattle-based WV launched the first of two traveling exhibits to give the not-so-wealthy an opportunity to experience the charity’s works.

“We’re trying to bring the experience of Africa to people here who might not be able to afford to go,” said McLoud. The exhibits will be free to the public and set up primarily in churches and, through visual, audio and sound, will provide visitors with the story of an African child living with HIV/AIDS.

“You literally are transformed in that 12 to 15 minutes, into being in that child’s African village,” said McLoud, who said afterward visitors will have the opportunity to sponsor a child or become WV donors. “It’s really bringing the field to the masses here…to the donor.”   NPT