Bostonians Harriet and Alan Lewis inspire philanthropy on a global scale through travel
Volume 9, Issue 3
by Martha Prybylo
Harriet and Alan Lewis are an extraordinary example of a couple with a vision for business and philanthropy fused with a passion for learning. He's an entrepreneur; she's a teacher—and their life together is a quest to create a new path. Their company, Grand Circle Corporation, is the number one company in the United States providing international travel, adventure, and discovery for Americans over 50. The company's nonprofit branch, Grand Circle Foundation, gives back to the world their travelers explore by supporting community service projects where their forty worldwide offices are located—be it right around the corner from their Boston headquarters, or in the hill tribes of Thailand, north of their Chiang Mai office.
"We are in the business to help change people's lives," emphasize Alan and Harriet. More than a company motto, this philosophy permeates their travel programs, workplace, and philanthropic efforts. During any given Grand Circle trip—whether to Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, or Thailand—travelers immerse themselves in rich cultural exchanges. Around the world, families host travelers in their homes and prepare meals for them, while resident trip leaders lend insight into their culture during candid discussions about controversial topics.
These trips are offered with the hope that American travelers will return from their journey with a deeper appreciation for what unites people worldwide. "Small conversations," says Harriet, "have the power to change the world. We don't want our travelers to return and say, 'let me tell you what I saw.' We hope they return and say, 'let me tell you who I met and what I learned.'" In turn, she hopes that travelers' hosts will learn something about Americans.
Within Grand Circle's workplace, Alan and Harriet challenge their employees to find and pursue their passion and to take one more step than they thought they could take. Grounded in a deeply held set of company values that encourage risk-taking and open communication, Grand Circle has achieved what few, if any, U.S. travel companies can claim—a post-9/11 resurgence.
The Lewis' philanthropy also bears their signature stamp of doing things differently. Funded by personal donations and up to 10 percent of company profits, the Grand Circle Foundation has contributed more than $20 million worldwide with vibrant, employee-led community service teams throughout the world.
Altogether, employees have given 20,000 hours of their time over the past 10 years to 85 projects in more than 35 countries. Boston associates band together once a year with a local organization, Rebuilding Together Boston, to refurbish the home of an elder in need. Also, for more than twenty years, the Foundation has supported Neurofibromatosis, Inc., an organization dedicated to finding a cure for neurofibromatosis by promoting scientific research, creating awareness, and supporting those who are affected by NF. The Foundation also supports, among many others, the West End Boys and Girls Club, the Big Sister Association, and the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center. And they created a new model of community philanthropy by uniting a group of 17 leaders from long-term community partner organizations into their Community Advisory Group. This group advises the company on its giving, trains the company leaders, and, through the exchange of best practices and shared barriers, coaches each other to raise the performance of their organizations.
Overseas, the Foundation funds projects that protect and preserve cultural traditions and treasures, and invests in the future through the education of young people. The Foundation has helped more than 80 schools all over the world to ensure that kids have safe classrooms, well-trained teachers, and the books they need to learn. Alan and Harriet have formed partnerships with some of the world's most prestigious organizations in preservation, including the World Monuments Fund and UNESCO, which has designated Grand Circle as its first Corporate Partner in Conservation. Recently, the Foundation made a five-year commitment to the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, to build a Holocaust education center. The Foundation has received more than a dozen community awards, recognitions, and citations.
When you ask Alan and Harriet why they give so much of their time and money and why it is such an integral part of their lives and the company, they question back, "Why wouldn't you share what you have? Everyone has something to give: money, time, skills, courage, a smile."
"Giving back is something we have done our whole lives," says Alan, "because it is who we are. In fact, establishing the Foundation was a key strategy to teach people about giving back. Visiting international Foundation sites, such as a rural school or orphanage, provides extraordinary discovery experiences. Our travelers are proud to be associated with a company that cares deeply. In fact, many travelers now donate to schools they visit during their trips and ask to help the orphanages. And our reputation as a socially responsible company is a big help in attracting and retaining the best people in the industry. However, you cannot implant philanthropy into your company; it must be a deeply held belief."
Harriet sums up her philosophy: "When I think of global citizens, I think of a tapestry. Individually, we are one thread, but when you put us all together, we are something special. In this country, we spend so much time getting—getting the house, the car. However, with getting, it is important to give. You get in order to give. I feel it is an obligation to share your gifts."
Alan and Harriet will forever travel, learn, and keep taking risks—and wake up every morning with dreams of how they can help change people's lives and, in so doing, change their own.