News & Politics

Traveling Philanthropists

Washingtonians who give around the world

When Renee Harris Austell, an international-law attorney who lives in Great Falls, was looking for a way to volunteer with her 14-year-old daughter, Madison Dunn, she discovered Global Camps Africa. The Reston-based nonprofit offers nine-day camps near Johannesburg for children whose lives have been affected by HIV and AIDS.

“I wanted to do something with my daughter so she could break out of her comfort zone and really have a sense of how things are in other parts of the world,” says Austell. In April, she and Madison volunteered at one of the camps, working with girls close to Madison’s age to provide HIV/AIDS education and life-skills development.

Austell and Madison came home even more committed to the cause. “Anyone who gives financially will do their research, but to actually travel to the community being impacted, to learn the names of the people who are being affected—it makes all the pieces come together,” says Austell, who now is a board member of Global Camps Africa.

She joins a growing number of Washington philanthropists who are not just writing checks but traveling around the world to work directly with those in need.

“There’s a shift from supporting organizations to more strategic philanthropy,” says Wayne Farmer, managing director of Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors, a DC-based company that works with philanthropic foundations and families. He’s helped arrange trips to Guatemala, eastern Congo, Liberia, and South Africa.

People are more interested in taking on complicated global issues and working on them in person, Farmer says, while the Internet and a rise in consumer savviness have resulted in people wanting to know exactly how their money is being spent.

Volunteering also allows local philanthropists to share their expertise. April Young, a businesswoman who lives in Falls Church, has traveled to Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania to teach classes on how to start and operate a small business with Five Talents International, a Vienna-based nonprofit that focuses on savings and microcredit programs.

“People are so grateful that you care about them, and they’re hungry for the knowledge and resources that we bring,” says Young, who also contributes financially and serves on the board of Five Talents. The trips changed her: She started thinking twice before buying Ferragamo shoes after realizing that her shoe money could go toward helping people start small businesses.

Cindy Cox Roman, who runs her own market-research and consulting firm out of Washington, traveled to Peru and Bolivia in August with HelpAge USA. The organization works with older people in developing countries by helping them generate income, making sure they aren’t overlooked in disasters, and helping them get access to health care, among other goals. Roman got involved after learning that the organization needed someone with communications experience. Traveling, she says, “means that as a donor you can see what’s working and how it’s working and have a closer connection to where your donation is going.”

As for Austell’s daughter, before she went to the camp in South Africa, the teen worried about what the girls there would think of her and how she should act. “But after being there for one day,” Madison says, “I realized I just had to be myself. That really helped me become more confident in myself and what I am capable of doing.” 

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