PhiLab Interview: Cynthia Gélinas of the Youth Travel Foundation

Par David Zaragoza Sanchez , Masters Candidate
25 March 2020

Interview by David Zaragoza Sanchez for PhiLab

Youth Travel FoundationCoordinator of philanthropic activities for the Fondation Tourisme Jeunesse, Cynthia has four years of experience in the philanthropy sector. Everything started at the Fondation UQAM in 2016 when she began soliciting her university’s graduates for donations for faculty development, research and access to education. She worked there for over 3 years, taking on several positions, from call center supervisor to the administrative assistant of the communications department. Still a part-time student, she is currently completing her Masters in Sociology at UQAM. While Cynthia has previously completed her Bachelor’s degree at Université de Montréal, she claims to be very attached to UQAM, which corresponds to her values in all respects.

David Zaragoza Sanchez (DZ): Could you begin by presenting the Youth Travel Foundation’s mission and structure?

Cynthia Gélinas (CG): Our mission is to promote the education of youth through travel. In our opinion, travel is a great form of education for youth as it offers academic tools that favour the personal, academic and professional development of the youth we support. We offer them financial support for their travel plans. Often, these youth are students with a restricted budget, which would not allow them to travel without our support. 

DZS: Can you tell us more about your role at Youth Travel Foundation?

CG: The Youth Travel Foundation (YTF) is a private foundation connected to Hostelling International Canada – for the Quebec and Ontario region (HICRQO). Currently, I am the Foundation’s sole employee as the coordinator of philanthropic activities, under the supervision of Jacques Perreault, who is also the General Director of HICRQO. I would also like to mention that I am replacing Arianne Méthot during her maternity leave. Over the past few years, she has accomplished many projects and generated incredible content that has really refined the Foundation’s identity. For my part, my most important mandate is to build new partnerships that will allow us to offer more travel grants.

DZS: How did the Youth Travel Foundation come to be? What is the current relationship with Hostelling International Canada?

CG: Both the Foundation and HICRQO owe their existence to the Regroupement pour le Tourisme Jeunesse au Québec, which no longer exists today. At the time, this collective was comprised of four sub-entities. The first sub-entity was the backpacking travel agency “Voyage Tourisme Jeunesse” whose mission was to organize trips for youth. The second sub-entity was the “Bureaux Tourisme Jeunesse” which could be found in CEGEPs and universities across Quebec. These offices helped organize group trips for students. The third sub-entity was the “Youth Travel Foundation”, as it stands today. Finally, the fourth sub-entity consisted of the Auberges de Jeunesse Hostelling International Canada, in the Quebec region, which then became the Auberges de Jeunesse du St-Laurent, which now covers two provinces, Quebec and Ontario (HICRQO). Up until now, the network has three hostels (one in Montreal, one in Toronto and one in Ottawa) and a group of independent affiliates in Quebec and in Ontario.

With time, the “Voyage Tourisme Jeunesse” agency and the “Bureaux Tourisme Jeunesse” had to close, once they realized that travellers changed the way they planned their trips from how they did so thirty years ago. In fact, travel agencies are losing popularity because of the new digital platforms like Hostelworld or Expedia. In response, the Regroupement pour le Tourisme Jeunesse au Québec was dissolved in 2009. The YTF was integrated to OITS until 2014, when it then became HI’s philanthropic entity, for the region of Quebec and Ontario.

DZS: How is the Youth Travel Foundation funded?

CG: The Foundation has several sources of funding and each grant comes from a different donor or organization. For example, the Solo Travel and Group Travel grants are funded directly by the HICRQO and the Mary Barclay grant is funded by HI Canada on the national scale. Mary Barclay was the founder of the Canadian Youth Hostel Association and the money comes from a posthumous donation by Mary Barclay. Finally, there is another source of funding that comes from an event called Sleep for peace. This event was implemented by Hostelling International’s global network and is part of the UN’s International Day of Peace. On this day, all participating hostels donate one dollar to the Youth Travel Foundation for every reservation made for September 21st. This year, we received over 1700$ thanks to this event, which will go to a new grant or to finance a specific project. Last year, with the funds collected by Sleep for peace, we funded the launching of a series of webinars on different themes that touch upon travel for our community of globe-trotters.

DZS: Why offer grants to youth for them to travel? How can tourism become a tool for social change?

CG: According to our vision, tourism is a tool for social change as it favours, amongst other things, open-mindedness, intercultural exchange and sharing. It is in this context that we consider it important to give travel grants to youth.

With this in mind, funded projects must be in line with our values: tolerance, solidarity and benevolence. More specifically, our grantees must demonstrate that they count on being in contact with the local community with the intention of fostering opportunities for exchange. This is essential for us as, if from a young age, we are brought to travel and meet people from different cultures, we become more tolerant, more prone to solidarity and more benevolent.

We have noted that in Quebec, as elsewhere, people who tend to only be in contact with individuals who share the same culture as them are more likely to maintain stereotypes that can perpetuate fears such as islamophobia for instance.

With this in mind, favouring access to travel and seeing it as a long-term social investment starts making sense.

DZS: What are the eligibility criteria? What types of projects do you prioritize?

CG: As mentioned earlier, we prioritize projects that are in line with our values. We thus take into consideration a set of elements that touch on sustainable and responsible tourism. We are noticing the effects of over-tourism on popular tourist destinations and so, it is important for us that candidates aren’t only interested in visiting the more touristic destinations and attractions. We will prioritize projects in the peripheral regions of big tourist attractions or those who will travel by bicycle for example. This demonstrates an effort to reduce their ecological footprint and that they are conscious of the impacts of tourism on the local population. We also select projects that have demonstrated their intention to foster connections and to extract lessons throughout their interactions with the local population.

Also, to ensure feedback from our grantees and to know how their trip went, we only give 75% of the grant before their departure. Once they return, we give the remaining 25% in exchange for photos and a testimonial. The idea behind this is to motivate and stimulate our community of travellers and future travellers while adding relevant content to our website and social media.

DZS: What are your hopes for the future of the Youth Travel Foundation?

CG: At the moment we are actively searching for financial partners, be it through philanthropy or sponsorship, to increase the frequency and scope of the Foundation’s grants and activities. After having worked on the Foundation’s content, image and structure for several years, the current objective is to seek funding through individuals or organizations who share our values and our perception of travel. So, interested partners must know that grants can be completely personalized, meaning that partners are encouraged to choose the criteria and nature of the travel project (artistic, humanitarian, entrepreneurial…) which can be quite vast, as are the majority of our grants today. We let the candidates’ creativity run wild and we chose the projects that speak to us the most, according to our values. We also have a common objective with HI Canada to create and solidify a community of conscious travellers through our social media, blog, travel guides and webinars.

DZS: Can you tell us more about the strategy to establish new partnerships? What are the prescribed approaches and what type of donors are solicited?

CG: I try to vary the types of organizations I solicit, depending on my objectives. I use the search engine offered by Imagine Canada, Grant Connect. Their platform gives me access to a database of potential donors, which I can search through with keywords. I try to focus on donors who give to causes that touch on education, training and professional development, educational associations, international affairs, multiculturalism, culture and the arts, sustainable development, cultural development, etc. Overall, I approach foundations whose objectives are to support registered charities such as ourselves.

We also sometimes solicit organizations closer to home. For example, we are on the verge of finalizing a sponsorship contract with one of our suppliers, with whom we’ve been doing business for years. They have accepted to support us as they know of and respect our reputation as well as the work we do for our community. They were thus open to the idea of associating their brand to our cause, while also benefiting from a visibility plan to reward their contribution.

Finally, I am currently working on building strategic partnerships among organizations that have a similar mission and vision to ours. In our eyes, it is imperative not to see such organizations as competitors, but instead, as allies in achieving our common goals. Without necessarily supporting us financially, we are joining forces to implement a new program for our travellers. Each ally has expertise and particularities that allow us to go further together as we pool our resources. 

DZS: Does the Foundation have any instruments or methods to evaluate the social impact of the travels it finances? Do you have any form of an evaluation process?

CG: To date, we do not have any process per se to evaluate the social impact of the travels we fund. Regarding the personal development of the youth we support, we can only hope that they will reflect on the objectives they have set for themselves, on their intentions towards both the local communities of the countries they visit as well as for their own path. The fact that they must make a statement when applying, but also when writing up their testimonial, allows them to take a step back and reflect on their experience.

However, we have noticed, by reading over certain projects that are submitted, that some youth are apprehensive about being faced with a culture unknown to them. Also, these individuals seem, at times, unbeknownst to them, to have a very ethnocentric vision of the social impacts of their project. In other words, they sometimes omit the impact that this experience can have on their own personal growth and the lessons they can learn. Instead, they put an emphasis on the help they will be bringing to a population they describe as being ‘in need’.

Faced with this realization, we had the idea of launching a pre-departure program, through workshops, in which participating youth will be invited to become conscious of their biases and prejudices, leaving them with a more open-minded vision that is geared towards cultural exchange, rendering their interactions with local communities more constructive. Through this program, we wanted to make our actions more concrete for our community of travellers. Already, we make travelling more accessible for youth lacking the necessary means, but we wanted to go further by accompanying them in the preparation of their travels.

This project is still in its early stages and we are currently building the partnerships to help us implement the project and generate its content. It is our hope that these workshops will make our actions towards these youths more coherent, concrete and complete, being more in line with our social vision of building a more tolerant and open-minded world.  

DZS: Thank you for your time and insight into the workings of the Youth Travel Foundation.

Translated by: Katherine Mac Donald