If you’ve been following along, you are probably aware that I’m a pretty big fan of traveling with a nonprofit called RAKlife (RAK= random acts of kindness). So, of course I wanted to feature the organization on my Travel Inspo page! I had a chance to chat with Matt Foster, the founder of RAKlife, recently and here are some of his thoughts. Unless quoted, I’ve paraphrased his words from my notes.
Q: What is the mission of RAKlife? “To build a community of like-minded people that want to give back but don’t necessarily have a channel to do so, both in the US and around the world.”
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The Search for Happiness
Q: What inspired you to create RAKlife? “In full transparency, I’m a Southern California beach kid that worked his butt off in his 20’s to earn a salary that I thought would make me happy.” When he reached that salary and still wasn’t happy, he took some time to reflect. He realized he was happiest when he was giving back to others in need and traveling. The idea of a non-profit which gives back 100% of donations started to form, but he wasn’t sure if it was just a crazy idea. He floated the idea past a friend who responded that she thought it was a great idea and there was nothing quite like his concept out there.
So, while working full time, he began researching how to start a non-profit and saving money. The RAKlife concept was growing momentum and soon Matt would kick off RAKlife by departing on a year long journey around the world performing random acts of kindness.
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The Story of RAKlife
Q: If you have to tell the story of RAKLIfe, how would the story go? “Like any startup, whether for profit or non-profit, there is definitely uncertainty on how it will unfold in the future. It’s both my joy and frustration that we don’t know what we’ll end up to be. Naturally, I want to keep RAKlife donation-based, which means that we don’t compensate ourselves for the work we do for the organization and RAKlife trip hosts pay their own way. For this reason, I still need to have a normal day job. Because of that I don’t envision RAKlife being a giant non-profit. I’m happy with the volunteers who help us today and for the new ideas they bring to the table. As long as we’re helping people in need, whether that be 2 trips or 10 trips per year, I’m ok with that. I just want to know that we are making a difference in individual people’s lives.”
Voluntourism: Perception vs. Reality
Q: If you could share one message with people who have never experienced volunteer travel, what would it be? “If you are looking for a way to give back, there is an inherent difference in looking somebody in the eye that you are helping. The utter joy and happiness that it brings them.” Beyond donating money, go out and do something. There is no greater feeling than actually giving a gift in-person to somebody that really needs something.
Q: Some people raise concerns with the potential negative impacts of volunteer travel or voluntourism. What would you say to these people? “I have experienced some of that, particularly in areas of the world that are widely known to be in need. For years, money has been donated but I have seen with my own eyes that nothing is really changing.” RAKlife tries to integrate into the local culture, even if we don’t speak the same language. Sometimes, that is laughing over hand signals or sharing a cup of tea. We try to establish connections in advance of the trips and identify a local guide to help us. RAKlife does not give money directly to organizations, all funds go to a specific project that we do while we’re there. I never claim that all activities RAKlife does create sustainable change for the recipients, though we try to do so whenever possible. In some cases, though, we take opportunities to connect with those in need in less sustainable ways such as feeding the homeless in Prague or visiting leprosy colonies in India.
Matt’s Top RAKlife Moments
Q: I know it’s probably hard to pick just one, but what would your top one or two RAKlife moments be? “Oh, wow. Tough question. I’d say that two really stand out.” The first was during our first trip to Xom Pung village in Vietnam. We built a home for a family with a crippled father. “That family has the most genuine good hearted souls that you could come across.” The mother worked hard in the fields to provide for her husband, two children and the grandmother that lived with them. When the house was complete, we gave his daughter a bicycle. All the other children in the village had one, but they couldn’t afford one for her. To see the joy in the father’s eyes when his daughter received that bike is burned in my mind. I will never forget that moment. The second was when we visited the gypsies in Romania. They basically live on the train tracks with no running water and no electricity, sleeping on the ground. While there, we remodeled a classroom at a local school and asked if we could take the carpet we removed from the classroom. We then cut up the carpet and we gave it to five of the gypsy families most in need to cover their dirt floor. We talk about poverty in the US, but it’s crazy to visit people who really truly have nothing.
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The Future of RAKlife
Q: What do you see for the future of RAKlife? There’s a short and long term answer. In the short term, in 2018, I’ll probably personally only go on one international trip so that I can focus on two major programs I’m building out here in the US; partnering with large organizations to make a big impact here. In the longer term, it’ll be a balance of returning to places we’ve already established relationships and going to new places. If I get zero donations, with money that I donate out of pocket annually we can continue to do what we do. I don’t ever want to force RAKlife on people – I want people to join in our efforts because their heart is in it. It’s important to keep it affordable, which means maintaining our zero overhead. A lot is unsure, but the future will definitely include getting people to experience local cultures, helping people in need and keeping the experiences affordable.
I hope to share more in the future about the hosts and others that help to make the RAKLife experience so awesome!
Have questions for Matt? Post them in the comments below and I’ll make sure to get them answered.