We’ll Get There Together: Risk and Reward in Nonprofit Transportation and Travel

By Rachel Sams

I recently took my first post-COVID business trip for NRMC, from my home in Albuquerque to San Francisco. NRMC Executive Director Melanie Lockwood Herman and I both found that our airline tickets cost at least 30% more than we might have expected a few years ago. I chose to spend an extra night in San Francisco so I could take a direct flight (only offered in the evenings), reducing my potential COVID exposure in airports and on planes.

During the trip, a risk assessment for a large nonprofit with more than a dozen program sites, we spoke with team members about the opportunities and challenges they face in their work. We saw, heard, and experienced things that couldn’t have happened the same way virtually. The trip was a great investment of time and the project budget. But the calculations were complex.

It’s always been a challenge to figure out how to move people around for your nonprofit—from transporting staff or clients to daily activities, to planning business travel. Those logistics grew more complex and nuanced during three years of a pandemic. We learned more and thought more about health, safety, cost, and environmental issues than ever before. This level of complexity in travel and transportation is a constant for nonprofits now. Navigating it can make us all better at our operations, and help us more effectively execute on our missions. After all, considering human health and environmental justice should be part of decision-making for organizations that seek to make the world a better place.

But repeatedly making complex decisions about travel and transportation takes time and energy, and decision fatigue is real. We’ll approach travel and transportation for our organizations more effectively if we have frameworks that help us consider safety, health, effectiveness, and sustainability. In this article, we’ll look at some major decision points for nonprofits when it comes to travel and transportation, and help you think through ways to approach them.

Transporting People: What to Consider

Maybe your nonprofit transports hundreds of children on camp outings every summer. Maybe a handful of your employees occasionally drive a work vehicle or use their personal vehicle when traveling on nonprofit business. Either way, you have transportation-related opportunities and challenges to assess.

Here’s what to think about when it comes to your drivers.

  • Know who drives for your organization.

If you have a fleet, you can easily identify who’s on the payroll as a driver for your nonprofit. But your policies, procedures, and risk approach should account for every person who drives on your nonprofit’s behalf—whether they’re at the wheel of the organization’s vehicle, a rental vehicle, or a vehicle they own.

  • Establish driver standards and hold everyone to them.

Establish driver screening and safety standards that suit your mission, circumstances, and resources. Make sure you understand if the insurer providing coverage for your vehicles has minimum requirements and find out if they offer free or discounted resources, such as background checks, online driver safety training and more. Establish disqualifying criteria for drivers before you check motor vehicle records. Full-time drivers should be required to complete written driving tests and road tests to your satisfaction. Remember to verify driving certifications, and comply with all relevant driver qualification standards for commercial vehicles.

  • Train your drivers.

Your nonprofit’s driver safety training should cover your organization’s policies and procedures, accident reporting, and required vehicle maintenance and inspections. Include training on how to stay alert while driving, avoid distractions, drive defensively, navigate road conditions, and properly use vehicle equipment.

  • Make driver recruitment and retention a priority.

Across the country, cities and school districts struggle to find bus drivers. These can be challenging jobs, and your nonprofit will need to demonstrate that it cares for and supports its dedicated drivers. Offer as much schedule flexibility as possible, pair new drivers with mentors, invest in vehicles that provide comfort and safety, and tap into technology to streamline drivers’ workloads and make navigation easier.

  • Give special consideration to how you work with any volunteer drivers who will use their personal vehicles.

Screen volunteers for experience and skill, and ensure they provide proof of a valid license and vehicle registration. Create guidelines for volunteer drivers, covering issues like how many passengers they can transport at once and whether they can transport passengers alone. Conduct orientation and training for all volunteer drivers. Select a driving program supervisor to assign volunteer drivers, monitor their work, and terminate volunteer drivers if necessary. Educate volunteers about where your nonprofit’s non-owned automobile coverage does and does not apply.

You’ve paid careful attention to selecting and training your drivers. What about your vehicles? Here’s what to consider in vehicle selection.

  • Know how your nonprofit will use its vehicles daily.

How many passengers will you transport? Will you haul cargo, and if so, what kind? Fleet management company Union Leasing recommends that organizations buy vehicles that will meet their passenger needs 90% of the time. You can always rent a vehicle for one-off occasions.

  • Know what level of performance you’ll need from your vehicles.

Where will your team members drive this vehicle—in cities or rural areas, on paved or unpaved roads or off road? What will the mileage for your typical trip be?

  • Assess driver needs.

Will your drivers need accommodations or modifications to be comfortable in your vehicles? Give drivers the opportunity to share their needs and wishes before your nonprofit makes its vehicle selection.

  • Assess technological and environmental needs.

Determine what kinds of technological assistance your nonprofit needs in its vehicles (such as synchronizing cellphones with vehicle Bluetooth systems, navigation systems, or backup assistance technology). Consider how electric and hybrid vehicles, fuel efficiency, and other vehicle sustainability offerings dovetail with your organization’s mission and how much priority you want to place on them. And make sure to consider privacy and security concerns with any technologies you evaluate. For more, see our article “Transport Technology for Nonprofits”.

  • Consider your nonprofit’s future vehicle needs as well as its current ones.

Think about how you might need your fleet to scale with your operations. Could your program growth plans require you to transport more passengers? Expand into new geographic areas? How can you work within your current budget to lay the foundation for a scalable fleet operation?

Business Travel: Risk and Reward

If your nonprofit team members travel to conferences, trainings, or meetings, they’ve probably noticed more crowded highways, hotels, and skies. Recently personal travel has surged as families embark on vacations and family trips they postponed during the pandemic. Business travel buyers’ domestic bookings have returned to 72% of their pre-pandemic levels, according to the Global Business Travel Association’s April 2023 poll. Around the world, business travelers are projected to spend over $1.1 trillion on travel this year.

Air travel and event costs, hotel rates, and flight cancellations have spiked as travel businesses deal with infrastructure challenges and staffing shortages. Your nonprofit’s team members may have navigated more canceled or delayed flights or long airport security lines.

The first question when your organization ponders a business trip is the same as it always was: Are the benefits of the trip worth the risks? But the calculation looks different now, based on what we’ve all learned these past few years.

Organizations now know how many three-day jaunts of the past really could have been a two-hour videoconference. Nonprofits must weigh the risk of employees contracting COVID on a work trip or getting stranded due to airline meltdowns. And organizations that place a high priority on sustainability might avoid air travel as much as possible, due to the high carbon emissions of an airplane flight.

Here are some tips to help you weigh the value of a trip and figure out how to get there.

  • Assess your “why” for the trip.

Why is this travel important to your nonprofit? What do you hope to accomplish at your destination? How else could you connect with the people you hope to connect with there? Could you make effective connections virtually? How extensive are COVID cases at your destination, and what’s the capacity of the health care system there if you get sick or injured? What can you only accomplish, or most effectively accomplish, in person?

  • Remember that many possibilities exist beyond “go” and “don’t go.”

Maybe you could condense a series of in-person meetings with a potential funder into a single trip, supplemented with virtual meetings. Maybe you could drive instead of fly. Maybe you could take a direct red-eye flight to your destination instead of a daytime itinerary with a layover that increases your potential exposure to COVID. In most cases, if your destination is more than 300 miles away, it will be faster to fly. But consider all the costs of your trip: gas, tolls, parking—and the potential penalty cost of being stuck in an airport or dealing with rush-hour traffic.

  • Do a lot while you’re there.

Consulting firm Korn Ferry suggests organizations try to arrange one meeting for every hour of travel time. So, if a flight takes four hours, aim to line up four meetings at your destination. Korn Ferry is a for-profit company; as nonprofits, our calculations might look different, but this principle can help organizations form their own guidelines.

  • Keep your travel policies flexible.

Consult our policies and procedures article to help with that.

  • Consider sustainability.

About 90% of the carbon emissions from business trips come from air travel, and many nonprofits have set targets to reduce their environmental impact. Pay attention to the details: A solo business traveler who drives might produce more carbon emissions than they would if they booked a single seat on a short flight.

The Global Business Travel Association encourages travelers to find the lowest-emission travel option: Encourage direct flights over layovers where possible. Encourage your team to choose accommodations close to your meeting and walk or take public transportation if possible.

  • Consider the local economy and local communities.

Can your organization connect with a destination marketing organization or tourism nonprofit that serves the destination community? Those suggestions came from Wesley Espinosa, interim executive director for the Center for Responsible Travel, on the Global Business Travel Association’s May 19 Business of Travel podcast. With a better understanding of local issues and dynamics, your nonprofit can invest its time and travel budget into vendors and meetings that give more than you take from the place you’re visiting—a concept Espinosa calls “regenerative travel.”

More destinations are inviting business travelers to opt into this concept. In Banff, Canada, groups hosting meetings can put in money alongside Banff’s destination marketing organization for a prepaid card attendees can use to make purchases with local vendors, GBTA’s Kelsey Frenkiel said in a podcast. Frenkiel noted that the card can replace “conference swag,” the promotional items given to conference attendees. Conference swag often ends up in landfills, and many groups want more sustainable alternatives.

  • Take some time to process your experience.

It’s easy to jump right back into your regular routine after travel—because no doubt, your regular daily tasks piled up while you were away. But take a moment to celebrate a successful trip, or to acknowledge that you handled challenging situations during travel to the best of your ability. Recall the new things you saw, heard and experienced. What did you learn? What will stay with you?

Bring It All (And All of Us) Together

Whether you’re transporting clients to an event or taking your team to a conference for the first time in years, we go places to connect with each other. The past few pandemic years have reminded us how important that is. With careful attention to the travel and transportation issues in this article, your nonprofit can navigate the risks and reap the benefits of connection.

I recently traveled from Albuquerque to Denver for NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, driving in order to stay for the weekend, visit family, and avoid airport and airplane COVID risk. It was NTEN’s first in-person conference since 2019, and more than 1,500 people attended. We heard thought leadership from Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble, Professor in the Department of African American Studies and Department of Internet Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles; Mesiah Burciaga-Hameed, board chair of Native Land, an Indigenous-led nonprofit that created a searchable map of Native territories, languages, and treaties; and Evan Greer, director of digital rights organization Fight for the Future. Their words challenged my thinking on nonprofits’ relationship to artificial intelligence, capitalism, and much more. I took part in small-group talks with thoughtful peers about trauma-informed nonprofit practices and how to navigate (or opt out of) social media in our sector. I learned skills that will help me and NRMC make our communications more accessible, navigate a website redesign, and continue to improve cybersecurity and data privacy at our organization. I’m a career changer who made the move into risk management in early 2022, and NTC was my first community experience as a nonprofit professional.

The six-hour drive north to the conference took me eight. A backup in Colorado Springs due to an accident put me in Denver at the height of rush hour. I had plenty of time in traffic to reflect on how frequent, short, and affordable flights between Denver and Albuquerque are. But as the meeting wound down a few days later, NTEN’s conference app buzzed with photos of hours-long lines at security at Denver International Airport. By comparison, my weekend drive home with my husband, who’d flown up to join me, felt relaxing.

All travel and transportation decisions about risk involve tradeoffs, and some luck. With the right tools to navigate key decision points, you can find paths that make sense for you and your nonprofit. That will give you the foundation for a productive journey, whether luck is on your side or not.

Rachel Sams is a Consultant and Staff Writer at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. During the height of the COVID pandemic, she didn’t travel further than 100 miles from home for three years. This year, she has seven trips on her schedule, with more to come. Reach her with thoughts and questions about nonprofit transportation and travel risk at rachel@nonprofitrisk.org or 505.456.4045.