Around the world with Erin

Adventure philanthropist shares her story

Erin Michelson during one of her trips abroad as an adventure philanthropist.

Courtesy Erin Michelson

Erin Michelson during one of her trips abroad as an adventure philanthropist.

Where in the world is Erin Michelson? It’s a question that Michelson’s friends and loved ones occasionally find themselves asking.

For the past two years, Michelson has traveled the globe from Fiji to Antarctica but, it hasn’t been a two-year-long pleasure cruise. Instead, Michelson has volunteered her way around the world, working on everything from local beach cleanups to helping the homeless and even bathing elephants. She’s recently released a memoir about the experience, entitled “Adventure Philanthropist: Volunteering Abroad.”

While in Naples, the word “philanthropy” tends to evoke images of opulent charity auctions and black-tie chicken dinners, Michelson has branded an entirely different form of philanthropy. But she swears it’s just as — if not more — effective.

“I think of philanthropy in the broadest possible terms,” she says. “It’s not just about giving money, although that’s important, it’s also about donating your time and expertise and creating dialogue about important social issues. There are many ways to be involved and I enjoy each aspect — giving, volunteering and raising awareness.”

Before taking to the open road, Michelson actually worked as a professional fundraiser. But one day during a road trip up the coast of the western United States she found herself thinking, “I could do this forever. And then it hit me — I could do this forever. I could just keep driving. And why stop with the United States? Why not just keep traveling around the world?”

She sold her consulting firm and planned her trip.

“Erin has always been a woman of action; if she sets her mind to something she does it,” says her mother, Sam Michelson, who lives in Naples. “I was concerned for her safety of course, but before she left she sat down and made a spreadsheet of every flight she was taking, every place she was going, so I always knew where she was going to be.”

Starting in Fiji, Michelson slowly worked her way around the world. She says that some of the service projects she did were planned well in advance, but others popped up unexpectedly along the way. And because she was a professional fundraiser by trade, if she came to an area that didn’t have a specific project for her to get involved with, she’d offer to give a free lecture on fundraising to local nonprofit organizations.

“I’ve held workshops for 40 HIV/AIDS organizations in Ethiopia, as well as taught a group of seven individuals under a tree in Uganda. These connections are usually made through an informal network of foundations and nonprofits that I’ve built over the years,” she says.

While Michelson’s work as an adventure philanthropist has taken her far and wide, she insists that you don’t have to travel to be an adventure philanthropist.

“It’s really about the coupling of our own individual passions with a purpose. My passion happens to be travel, so that’s how I interpret adventure philanthropy, but any activity is enhanced by incorporating a philanthropic activity. Giving in the broad sense enables us to meet like-minded people, learn more about an issue we care about and takes us to places we might never have ventured.”

Through her website and her now-available memoir, Michelson encourages others to explore their worlds and get involved, be it close to home or in the middle of the Amazon. But she’s careful not to just let her blog or her book be stories simply about her adventures. Her book is full of tales from other adventure philanthropists she’s met along the way, and her blog profiles both amazing characters and amazing moments of altruism. She says that the point of all of this — the blog and the book — is to help get more people involved.

“The whole reason why I wrote the book was to create dialogue about global issues and how we can live a more fulfilling life by lending our voices, rolling up our sleeves, and opening our wallets,” she says.

“Adventure Philanthropist” is just the first in a trilogy. The next book: “Adventure Philanthropist: The Early Years” follows her personal evolution into the life of 365-day-a-year philanthropy. The last book, entitled “Adventure Philanthropist Comes Home” will be all about the amazing people doing adventure philanthropy here in the United States.

And even after her third book is published, Michelson has no intention of settling down. “Being an adventure philanthropist is a lifestyle, it’s not just one grand trip and I’m done,” she says. “Throughout the years, I have made hard choices to ensure that I can continue to take risks, travel widely and engage with people who are doing extraordinary work at home and abroad. It’s about living a simple, yet fully-engaged life.”

“Adventure Philanthropist: Volunteering Abroad” is available both through Lulu.com and on Amazon.com. Michelson will speak at the Estero Newcomers Club meeting at 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 20 at Figs Restaurant and at 11 a.m. on Feb. 22 at Vineyards Park Community Center. Information: www.goeringo.com

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