Feature / Summer 2013
Backpacking with a Purpose

David Berkal wants to change the way people think about tourism


Company: Operation Groundswell

In 2006, David Berkal was in high school and looking for an opportunity to volunteer abroad. He didn’t find anything that was affordable or matched his vision of what a volunteer travel experience should be, so he decided to make his own. The following year, he and friend Jonah Brotman launched Operation Groundswell, a non-profit travel organization geared to youth. On their first program, a dozen participants visited northern Ghana, where they worked with a Canadian charity that provides food, shelter and other necessities to orphans and needy children.

“We didn’t have any grand expectations at the time,” recalls Berkal (BA 2011 UC). “We just wanted to run this one program.” But enthusiastic feedback from the participants and the charity led them to reconsider.

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This summer, Operation Groundswell will send some 200 participants, mostly under 30, to programs in more than a dozen low-income countries. The organization’s six fulltime staff operate out of a compact office in Toronto’s west end that looks like a converted loft apartment. From there, they handle the complex logistics required to ensure scores of young “backpacktivists” safely reach far-flung locations and have a rewarding volunteer experience that also truly helps the community they’re visiting.

Most of Operation Groundswell’s trips now have themes so participants can choose projects that match their interests – a global health program in West Africa, for example, or an environmental project in Southeast Asia. In Peru, the group worked with an NGO on the outskirts of Iquitos to build a drainage trench – needed to avoid unsanitary conditions. Zuly Manrique, who works with the NGO, wrote to express her thanks: “I have seen the tremendous work you’ve done,” she noted in an email. “I hope we can continue to collaborate on community actions like this to benefit families…”

Berkal has faced challenges, too: he had to learn business on the fly, doing cash-flow statements and balance sheets between lectures while enrolled full time at U of T. Critics, meanwhile, have suggested that Western volunteers tend to get more out of their travel experience than the communities they are meant to be helping. Berkal himself has doubts about programs where participants stay in luxury hotels, travel in air-conditioned buses and are “parachuted” in to spend a few days with a local charity. But he emphasizes that Operation Groundswell participants live as locals do, sleeping in similar accommodations and eating the same food. The vast majority of time is spent at the charity, says Berkal, and trip leaders conduct regular “debriefings,” in which participants “deconstruct what they’re doing and the impact they’re having.”

Dozens of handwritten notes from participants expressing their gratitude are tacked to a wall in the Operation Groundswell office. “The kind of travel we do really changes people,” he says. “People switch majors or start their own non-profits. At least half a dozen participants from last year are going back to the partners they worked with because they felt so passionately about the causes.” And the community partners? “They ask us to come back every year,” observes Berkal.”That’s the fail-safe test.”

Berkal, 25, stepped down as executive director of Operation Groundswell last year, but plans to remain on the board while attending the Stanford Graduate School of Business this fall. Ultimately, he would like to see Operation Groundswell expand to thousands of participants every year. And with that many more backpacktivists in the world, he hopes the program might lead to broader changes in how people think about tourism – from simply seeing the sights to “connecting with local people in a meaningful way and working in partnership toward a lasting positive impact.”

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Photo by Liam Sharp.
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Q&A with David Berkal

Do you ever unplug? Not by choice.

Average work week: 65 hours.

Ultimate professional goal? Tech entrepreneur turned full-time philanthropist.

Best business advice I ever received: I’d rather have an A team with a B idea than a B team with an A idea.

Guilty pleasure: Burning Man.

To me, success is… Dramatically improving the quality of life for millions of people in the world’s least developed countries.

Proudest moment? Being selected by my peers as Valedictorian of the Next 36 Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute.


Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by George Tillman MA%201976 on September 12th, 2013 @ 8:06 am

Great work, but what about “backpacking” to Canada’s North and other of our remote areas (and First Nations)?

# 2
Posted by Magdalena Fedorov on September 27th, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

So inspiring! This has just solidified my decision to go to Burning Man next summer, just to bump into people like David there.

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