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    Making the World a Better Place: The Sonder Project

    The desire to do good in the world can produce astonishing results. In a single year it can build two new schools in a poor, far-away country, protect more than a million children in Africa and the Caribbean against intestinal parasites, get two new water wells drilled in a parched African nation, and collect thousands of food items for hungry Americans.

    These are, in fact, the remarkable first-year accomplishments of an organization called The Sonder Project. And, perhaps surprisingly, they are the result of the hard work of a good-hearted VR professional.

    Sarah Hockett of 360 Blue, a VR in Orange Beach, Florida, is the Project’s executive director. “Personally, I always had the desire to help others. I’ve put in tons of volunteer hours and served on various nonprofit boards for local causes,” she said. The desire comes from her heart; she didn’t major in social work in college. “I considered this as a major when I was still in high school, but worried I couldn’t handle some of the things that I may encounter.” Now, Hockett and The Sonder Project team work in five specific areas: educating the poor, feeding the hungry, helping communities gain access to clean water, eradicating malnutrition caused by parasites and collaborating with Habitat for Humanity to build homes.  

    The Project was started, she says, by “a small group of people trying to do some good. It quickly evolved into something more.” The Project’s founders — Ashley Hamm, 360 Blue’s CEO, and Jason Sprenkle, one of 360 Blue’s founders — “knew that we had the ability to take it farther and really make a difference in the world. With this realization, they started reading all they could on how and where to make the greatest impact. Through their research, they found that there were definitely certain things that could be done to get the most philanthropic bang for your buck, so to speak. This is where our focus on high-impact, sustainable solutions comes in. I was already working for 360 Blue at the time, and I jumped on board and we have evolved even more over the course of our first year.”

    How You Can Help: Working with VRs

    One of the unique efforts the Project makes in connection with 360 Blue and other VRs is collecting and donating food (excluding perishables) that has been left behind by departing guests. Hockett had noticed that guests frequently left sometimes large quantities of perfectly good food when they departed, and she hated to see it go to waste. But for a VR, collecting this food and donating it to charity was another task on an already busy, overloaded schedule. The Sonder Project’s Feed program makes it simple.  

    “We provide everything needed for success, from the collection bags to scales for weighing, to sample press releases and more,” Hockett said. “Of course, as part of our original goal, we encourage VRs and everyone to be more involved. There are programs in place for employee giving and owner giving and guest giving that are also designed around the vacation rental industry. Eventually, we hope to see some of these partners jump on board further and perhaps sponsor all or part of a school or any other project, or even join us on a trek — which I can tell you is a life-changing experience, and one I highly recommend to anyone who has the opportunity.”

    VRs can sign up as a collection partner via the Sonder Project’s website at www.thesonderproject.org/food-donation/.

    Hockett notes that the Project makes a special effort to keep things easy for VRs. “We pretty much handle as much of this as possible,” she said. “We send them the bags and a welcome kit. They are then responsible for distributing the bags out to their properties. We’ve found placing them in the linen bags for distribution by cleaning crews to work very well. The bags should be placed somewhere in the home where they will be visible — we recommend the kitchen counter. Guests can then be invited to leave behind their unopened, nonperishable items at the end of their stay. This step varies by company depending on their individual practices. The ‘Glad to Have You’ app is wonderful for this, but we work around this for those who don’t use the app. At checkout, the guest can leave their food items behind for pickup by cleaners, inspectors or any person who will be in the home. That person can then bring the full bag back to a central location, whether that be a laundry area, office, linen facility or wherever’s convenient.”

    A Sonder Project volunteer picks up the food and delivers it to a local food bank. “During peak seasons, we will schedule a weekly pickup, and in the off-season we simply come as needed,” Hockett added. “We have been thrilled to find so many VRs who are willing to take on that last bit themselves and take the food directly to the food bank on their own. This is by no means a requirement, but it does warm our hearts to see those willing to help out.”

    Doing the Right Thing, and Doing the Right Thing for Your Brand

    For a VR, there are real benefits to participating in the effort. “These days, people really want to do business with companies that are socially responsible. 360 Blue owners were thrilled when they found out what we were doing. Our guests get excited to hear that we are behind a nonprofit organization. When we did the initial test run for the Project: Feed program, we had so many fantastic responses come in from guests — it was amazing. When you think about some of your largest and most successful companies with great reputations, they are the companies that have a history of giving back. Think of Microsoft, Facebook, Zappos, Tom’s of Maine. They are all known for their philanthropic endeavors.”

    There are benefits beyond reputation — and brand-building. Hockett says that 360 Blue and other participating VRs have found that collecting food for the Project has helped team-building among the staff. “Your community will respect you, and it gives the industry something to fight back with when they get a bad rap,” she said. “Some of the Airbnb stuff that goes around will have communities and guests terrified of the entire industry. It’s always good to have something to counter that with, to set yourself apart, to bring back the good name of the industry. When you can say ‘My company donated X pounds of food, volunteered X hours and is actively making the world a better place,’ it easily gives you the fuel you need to shut down some of the negativity. Furthermore, when we come together as an industry and can say that we’ve collectively donated more than one million pounds of food in 2016, which is the Project’s goal for next year, we are helping to mold the good things that come to mind when someone thinks of the industry.”

    The response from VRs has been “beyond amazing,” according to Hockett. “We launched the test program only in August and have since brought on more than 100 companies from across the U.S. and beyond in just a few short months. We are gaining new collection partners literally every day. We are currently completely out of stock on all materials (though more have been ordered) and we couldn’t be happier to have this problem!” Already, The Sonder Project is the largest nonprofit organization working specifically with VRs. 

    Helping Happy Endings

    The name Sonder comes from “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” an online compendium of new words to fit new meanings. According to this dictionary, “sonder” is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness — an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra.” 

    “We landed on this because we know that everyone has a story,” Hockett said. “There’s a little girl living in Africa whose story deserves to be told just as much as ours does in our happy little paradisiacal bubble here. Maybe, just maybe, we can do something to help rewrite that little girl’s story and ensure she gets a happy ending.”

    The Project’s efforts, as described on its website at www.thesonderproject.org, are already impressive. Hockett and her team hope to build on the success of the two new schools, the deworming program for more than one million children and the new water wells by helping orphanages in Nepal and India. On a recent trip to southern Asia, Sonder founder Ashley Hamm was able to meet the Dalai Lama and Pushpa Basnet, founder and president of the Early Childhood Development Center in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

    “The long and short of it is that becoming more involved in the ‘global community’ so to speak, is not only socially responsible, but it helps you grow your business, strengthen your team and impress your owners,” Hockett said. “Ultimately, doing good is good for business.” 

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