UnTours Foundation (untoursfoundation.org) is shaping the way foundations work by investing 100% of their endowment to support entrepreneurs and world-changing businesses shaping the future of tourism.
We talk with Jonathan Coleman, Co-CEO at UnTours Foundation ( @jonathan-coleman ) about the foundation's mission and success stories, and the newly launched Reset Tourism Fund aimed at impactful tourism businesses.
The mission of the UnTours Foundation is to “unleash capital and kindness to nurture ideas and build healthy, sustainable communities.”
In practice, this means that we use the proceeds from UnTours (which is 100% owned by the foundation) and from generous donors and funding partners to operate a revolving impact investment fund. This fund provides low interest loans and other flexible investments to entrepreneurs and businesses at the front lines of fighting poverty, injustice, and the climate crisis.
This investment focus (as opposed to making grants) is one unique aspect of the foundation. It means that our fund can revolve continuously as loans are repaid, the money is recycled to support the next entrepreneur who is changing the world. Also, the fact that the foundation fully owns a for-profit travel company is quite unique. Our goal is that UnTours will continue to be a shining example for using business and travel as a force for good.
My story is long and winding, but I’ll try to summarize quickly. I grew up in small town Missouri, in a family without much money. International travel just wasn’t on my radar growing up. My first time on an airplane was also my first international experience - as a 21-year-old on my way to an internship with an NGO in the Dominican Republic. That internship led to a full-time job after university, which led to a series of opportunities to live and work in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.
I came back to the US to complete an MBA, hoping to transition into the business side of making the world a better place and ended up leading an NGO in Pennsylvania that focused on training and lending for under-represented entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. On the side, my (life) partner and I also started a travel company offering small group, culturally immersive experiences, so that was my entry into the tourism industry.
When the opportunity to join the UnTours Foundation arose, it felt serendipitous because it combined my day job with my side hustle, allowing me to carry on supporting entrepreneurs who are changing the world, while also digging deeper into the tourism industry.
Over the years, we have invested about $10 million through 350+ investments - across all industries and around the globe. We have funded the early formation of well-known coops like Equal Exchange, innovative companies in the Fair Trade movement like Divine Chocolate, organic coffee farmers in Mexico, and artisans in Kenya. Recently, we’ve carved out a portion of our portfolio to focus on the tourism industry, which we’ve called the Reset Tourism Fund. More to come on that later.
There are hundreds of success stories. Equal Exchange (untoursfoundation.org/equal-exchange) and Divine Chocolate (untoursfoundation.org/divine-chocolate/) are well-known standard bearers in bringing high quality and fairly produced coffee, chocolate, and produce to US supermarkets. Three of our portfolio companies went on to be featured on Shark Tank and receive investment, which has been a fun journey to watch!
Senda (untoursfoundation.org/senda-athletics/) is becoming a growing force in the world of soccer (football) apparel as a Fair Trade and Certified B Corp company. Their products were worn by many players at the World Cup, including Alexis Mac Allister, who played for Argentina in the final. We also helped our hometown of Media, PA (just outside of Philadelphia) become America’s first Fair Trade Town, kicking off that movement in the US that hundreds of other cities have now followed.
Reset Tourism Fund (untoursfoundation.org/reset-tourism-fund) is our first intentional push, as a foundation, in funding businesses connected to the tourism industry. We were born out of the industry, but before now it had not been a focus of our impact-focused investing.
Reset Tourism Fund fills the financing gap for small and medium-sized businesses that best represent a better future for the industry. There is LOTS of talk about sustainable, impactful, regenerative, (etc.) tourism, but very few financial resources out there for those businesses that are putting these visions into practice. We identify those businesses that are truly leaving a positive impact on the environment, local communities, and travelers, and provide them capital that is flexible and affordable, so that they can take the next step of growth.
Don’t be afraid to think big about how you can change your community - and change the world - through your tourism business. But at the same time, be ready to prove your ability to grow in both impact and profits. Set realistic targets that have some relevance based on past performance. If you haven’t launched yet, get out there and try something small before fundraising for the big goal. We love a big vision, but also need to ensure that our investments are repaid. This means we’re looking for savvy entrepreneurs who have proven that they can build a solid foundation in their business. Once that foundation is clear, we can be there to help take the leap forward.
Reset Tourism Fund is lucky to already have a few key funding partners, like Expedia Group and TUI Care Foundation, but we need more. We’re about half-way to our initial fundraising goal of $1 million. Once we get there, we’ll start moving toward our overall goal of a $10 million fund. So we’d love to talk with anyone who connects with the CSR or sustainability or philanthropy activities of larger travel companies, or with anyone who would personally like to be involved or who might have potential funding partners in their network.
Entrepreneurs can get involved by applying for investment themselves and/or sharing the opportunity with their network. Spread the word!
UnTours Foundation has been around for 30 years and we feel like we’re still in the early stages of our lifespan. We see massive opportunity to use the travel industry to drive positive change around the world and we want to be at the forefront of those efforts.
Our short-term goals are about steady growth as we build the Reset Tourism Fund and begin to fill the financing gap for small-medium sized, high-impact tourism businesses. Long term, we want to be THE leader in impact-focused financing in the industry. That will take time, but we know that the progress we’re making today leads to the big goals of tomorrow.
Investing is a financial risk, always. But not investing in businesses that prioritize local communities, natural environment, underserved travelers, etc., is an even higher risk - to the future of our planet and its inhabitants. So while we conduct due diligence and consider the outside forces that might impact our portfolio, we balance that with the risk inherent in doing nothing. And acting always wins out - not for every investment we consider, but in the overall picture. We are doers, seeing problems, creating solutions, and growing impact. That’s our role as investors.
Morocco. I love to visit places that bridge multiple cultures, creating a fascinating and complicated mix of perspectives, food, and history - Morocco fits the bill and it’s been rapidly rising to the top of my travel list.
Looks great! Can you share with me more about the ways in which you see yourself helping founders, both now and in the future?
I’ll jump in here, Alex, and Jonathan may have more.
The Foundation has several areas of work. But when it comes to entrepreneurs, especially in tourism, we’re pretty hyper-focused on being that often missing financial “leg up” through our lower interest loans and occasional equity investments. We’re also looking at ways we can become a source of business-for-good knowledge for those same entrepreneurs and the travel industry at large.
Richard nailed it! Some additional commentary - there is LOTS of talk in our industry about sustainable, impactful, regenerative (you pick the descriptor) tourism, and lots of small businesses and startups around the world building amazing tourism businesses with those principals. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap in impact-focused financing to actually help those businesses launch and scale. That's where the Reset Tourism Fund comes in.
I love having the opportunity to chat about how tourism can become a more vital force for good in the world. If you have questions, comments, critiques, or advice for how to improve our efforts, please share!
Richard and Jonathan, replying in separate thread, to cover both!
Appreciate the replies! Excited to see travel focus financing options for founders. Curious if you also help port cos with networking and further validation of pmf? If so, could you bring some examples?