I remember my first missions’ trip like it was yesterday. Early on a Monday morning we packed two 15 passenger vans stuffed to the brim and set off for a week-long trip to small town in North Carolina. It was my first trip without any family members present and I was filled with great joy and excitement for the journey that was to come.
Just completing 5th grade, I was the youngest on the trip. For the next 9 years, I continued to participate in these U.S. based mission trips travelling across the country to serve those in need. Looking back on it, I lacked the ability to understand the impact these trips had on the communities we were in. While short term mission trips are great at building the character of those who participate in them, they can do great harm to the very communities they are trying to help.
The average cost of a mission trip through the organization I went through was $300, the average size group that attended was 25 people, and the amount of groups was anywhere from 15-20. Which totals up to around $112,500 – $150,000 of profit for the organization. And while some of that money goes to the purchasing of construction materials, most of it goes to feeding the participants and funding fun activities to do during downtime. The intent of these trips for most is to help people in need, but it seems that most of the money goes right back to serving participants needs, not the community. Long term and economically, these communities would be better off if we just donated money for the projects to be done by local businesses.
This problem is only amplified for short-term international mission trips. Calvin University conducted a study around a group of students who raised money for a spring break missions trip to Honduras. This group was able to raise $30,000 dollars to go help an orphanage. Their time at the orphanage included painting three rooms, cleaning up a playground and playing with the children. The labor and materials for a small project such as this would cost no more than a few hundred dollars. So, where did the rest of that money go? One can only assume that it went towards the students travel, food and fun expenses.
When a staff member at the orphanage was asked about the trip, they remarked that, “The money that group raised for their week here is more than half of our whole budget. We could have used that money to do so much for the children.” Their yearly budget is $50,000, which pays for maintenance, food, clothing, teachers and houseparents.
Jobs such as teacher and houseparents are considered womens professions in Honduras. In fact, female teachers account for roughly 63% of teachers in Honduras. The average Honduran woman survives on less than $2 a day. This trend is echoed in many other countries that are targeted as “mission trip worthy”. Sums of money like what the Calvin group was able to raise would be life changing for women and families in this situation.
The way we view helping others is through an ethnocentric lens. Often Americans think that inputting themselves into a situation immediately solves the problem. Money that is allocated for mission trips does have the potential to change the lives of people in poor and struggling communities across the world, just not in the way it is currently used.
If those with altruistic hearts retrained their thinking to instead donate money directly to communities, their impact would be greater and longer lasting, creating a brighter future for all involved.