On the night of July 4, somewhere between Florida and the Dominican Republic, the sea is calm, but the cruise ship is not. The resident band is covering country tunes by Zac Brown, and a few songs by the less overtly patriotic Justin Bieber, who is, in fact, Canadian. But if anyone notices, they don't seem to mind. The youngest and oldest passengers tear up a dance floor decked out in American flare, while the middle-aged just watch.
Sitting at the bar wearing a red, white, and blue lei necklace is Ross Velton. "Everywhere I look, I'm getting laid," he says dryly. An approachable, middle-aged guy from Orlando, Velton has a relaxed demeanor that wouldn't lead you to guess he spends his free time racing cars. He's the type of person who can hold an earnest conversation with anyone.
For now, though, Velton is alone, nursing a Dominican beer, soaking it all in. Velton isn't here to celebrate. He's here to lose at USA-themed bar trivia, and because he's come across a great deal with Fathom, the world's first-ever cruise line for vacationers who don't just want to do beaches, spas, and shopping, but to do good.
Launched in April, Fathom consists of a 704-person ship, the Adonia, that sets sail every two weeks from Miami to Puerto Plata, where cruisers volunteer to plant trees, build floors, teach English, and otherwise make the Dominican Republic a better place. (On the off-week, the boat heads to Cuba.) But Fathom isn't the handiwork of some Christian missionary or celebrity NGO. It's a subsidiary of Carnival, the world's largest cruise operator, with revenues of $16 billion a year.
Fathom exists to make money, but it also exists to fill a growing demand in the global-tourism industry: volunteering, a trend widely referred to as "voluntourism." One might think that vacationing and work are inherently at odds. But a 2008 study by Tourism Research & Marketing found that more than 1.5 million people vacation to volunteer, spending about $2 billion annually. Fathom may be the largest single manifestation of that trend to date: In its first year, it claims it could ferry 18,000 passengers who could generate upward of 200,000 volunteer-hours—the equivalent of more than 100 full-time NGO workers. It calls its program "impact+travel," "travel with purpose," that, according to its website, "provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded travelers, become immersed in another culture, and work alongside its people to create enduring social impact."
It's a bold claim. Most volunteer organizations have similar goals—the Peace Corps, America's most renowned foreign volunteer organization, strives for "lasting impact" in the communities where it works. But Peace Corps volunteers go abroad for periods of two and a half years, not two and a half days, and they tend to be frank about not knowing for certain what effects, if any, their efforts may have. This is why critics of voluntourism—such as the filmmaker Chloé Sanguinetti, whose documentary The Voluntourist follows a group of foreign volunteers in Southeast Asia—question why companies like Fathom can't pursue just a hearts-and-mind exchange. Better, they say, to leave development work to the professionals and avoid the patriarchal assumption that ordinary people, while on vacation no less, are qualified to help ease complex poverty in a matter of hours.
Having written skeptically about voluntourism in the past, I had similar questions when I first heard about Fathom and what the company calls its "long-term," "unique business model that allows for sustained impact and lasting development." But when I started looking into it, I was impressed. Fathom could have picked whichever volunteer activities would be most likely to sell cruises—visiting orphanages, perhaps. Instead, it consulted with respected local organizations—one of which helped train the Peace Corps, and had even taught me about health and development in the DR when I was a study-abroad student years ago. These local organizations in turn vetted 32 aid programs to determine which ones volunteers might actually be good at. Then, Fathom selected only the eight best of those.
Curious to find out whether Fathom had devised a model to make voluntourism work—and on a massive, profit-making scale—I set sail on its cruise.
Cruisers lounge on the deck of the Adonia.
The Fourth of July celebration on Fathom's boat is, first and foremost, a celebration of America. But it's also a celebration of how America likes to see itself and its place in the world: as an influencer, shipping its missionaries across the globe as a force for good. As I discover at the party, however, not all of the cruisers are there primarily for the volunteering.
"Some of these people are having wet dreams over helping those people," a skinny, red-haired woman named Lisa Cook tells me at the bar. "Doing arts and crafts and music and kumbaya and teaching English in the homes—some people really drank the Kool-Aid."
Cook is on the boat because the ticket is cheap. "If all the money people spent on this they just sent to an organization, think of all the people they could help," she says after berating me for my choice of cruise-ship beer. "But they wouldn't."
That's the secondary argument Fathom makes about its cruises: that the company is directing tourists' money into local communities and organizations that otherwise wouldn't get it. "What makes you think that saying, 'Oh, people, donate to this, support that,' will make people donate?" Ambra Attus, Fathom's on-ground director, later told me. "You don't feel for that cause."
Unlike Cook or the Kool-Aid-drunk cruisers she describes, Velton is going into it all with an earnest curiosity about the ramifications of his volunteering.
"Other than tossing a soccer ball around with kids, I have no teaching ability," he says. "My friends are like, 'What are you doing?' They expect to hear 'zip-line.'"
Velton has measured expectations about volunteering. "'Impact' is a strong word," he tells me. At best, he sees Fathom as a patchwork operation. "You're a drug company—you create a new pill to solve one thing. But we still have headaches."
"It's a roll of the dice," Velton says. "But if it influences even one person, then that's great. Where's the harm in that?"
The next morning, Velton is attending a prep session for volunteers as the ship neared the palm-treed coastline of Puerto Plata. A perky Fathom impact guide named Tatiana Seles was conducting a multiple-choice quiz that included the island's indigenous inhabitants (Arawak, Taino), the name of the country's most notorious dictator (Trujillo), and the nation from which the Dominican Republic won its independence (Haiti, not Spain).
Seles transitions to more practical things: Don't pet the stray dogs, don't throw toilet paper in the toilet, and if there's no running water, flush with a bucket or let the attendant do it for you. "If someone flushes the toilet for you, are you supposed to tip them?" one woman asks. "No, not here," says Seles.
Seles introduces Velton and his cohort to the term "paternalism" and politely suggests that instead of jumping off the boat and snapping images of poor people, they ought to wait until the end of a volunteer activity, and then ask permission, and even then just take photos with the people, which is less patronizing than taking photos of them.
Toward the end of the session, Seles reads a series of vignettes, each describing an everyday Dominican. There's Miriam, the elementary school teacher who loves teaching, and Robin, the humble handyman who, when asked what he'd do if he won a million pesos, said he'd give it to his family, "without a second thought."
"Look at all the things they don't have. And yet, they're totally happy," Seles says. "DR, happiest country on earth, honestly."
When the session ends, Velton and I walk outside to one of the boat's balconies, where we watch the ship inch slowly into Carnival's new private port, which it opened last year at a cost of $80 million. Velton mentions the simplicity of the narratives that Seles read. "The presentation was like, 'We're really poor, but we're really happy.'
"I'm not trying to be cynical. But she wrapped it up with, 'This is the real DR,'" he continues. "But you and your company spent millions of dollars to make that port, and now you're showing me someone who's poor!"
A few french fries fall in front of us from an upper deck, landing on the dock below. As we look down, we see eager passengers beginning to disembark. Velton wonders what his volunteering will entail. He hopes the work will be hard—that it will feel rewarding. He wants to be the guy getting his hands dirty while pouring heavy concrete with a shovel. "But I know that they've planned this as, You're gonna be standing over here smiling with a bottle of water."
An hour later, I'm sitting in a church in Puerto Plata listening to a Dominican woman employed by Fathom's local partner, Entrena, tell a room full of Fathom volunteers that "all of you are part of history." Puerto Plata, she says, is "a city that has been waiting for something. And now something has arrived."
"On the count of three, we're gonna say, 'Oh, yes!'" she shouts. "One, two, three—'Oh, yes!,'" the crowd cheers. The volunteers disperse, following Dominican women and children to their houses nearby. We're part of one of Fathom's English-tutoring programs, a volunteer activity that, to Fathom's credit, seems to strike a perfect balance between what Dominicans need and what sun-seeking cruisers can do.
Inside a well-furnished living room, a 13-year-old Dominican girl named Sandra tells me she's learning English to get into the tourism industry. "It's very hard to find opportunities without English." Her friend Luigi, also 13, says they're taught English in school but admits they don't really learn it.
In another home, nearly a dozen children crowd around four volunteers. "Tee-shirt. TEE-shirt," one volunteer repeats to a little boy, pointing at the boy's T-shirt. The home belongs to Manuela Roselyn Castillo, 25. She tells me she's worked as a waitress in some prominent tourist hotels here but couldn't hold down a job because her English wasn't good enough.
As the tutoring wraps up, one volunteer tells the Dominican women how grateful she is that her teenage son had the chance to meet kids his own age in an entirely foreign place. "I'm sure these memories will last him a lifetime," she says.
The next day, I'm on a bus with Velton and 25 other volunteers en route to a small factory to make water filters out of clay and sawdust. I'm sitting in the back next to Taylor Schear, an enthusiastic teenager from Fort Lauderdale. Even though it's been less than three months since Fathom's launch, Taylor is here for the second time. Her mom, Julie Schear, is a travel agent, which earned her a free trip and a reduced-price one for her daughter and her husband in May. They enjoyed Fathom so much that they bought a second trip out of pocket, this time bringing along Taylor's best friend, Michelle Norgren.
Taylor is the type of traveler Fathom wants to attract: She began taking college-level courses her freshman year of high school, knows American Sign Language, and has worked as a volunteer and a mentor at an orphanage near her family's home. On her last Fathom trip, she says she made a Dominican friend. This time, she tells me, "I'm going to try and hold a full Spanish conversation."
As our bus winds its way inland, a thin, 22-year-old Dominican guide named Frank Manuel Vasquez explains that the lack of clean drinking water is a huge problem in the Dominican Republic. "In my home, we buy bottled water at $1.10 for a five-gallon container. This can be very expensive, in some cases impossible for many people, in a country where the minimum wage is $170 a month," Vasquez says.
The North Carolina–based NGO Wine to Water (W2W), which operates the ceramic-filter factory where we're heading, claims that "water related disease take [sic] the lives of an estimated 1,300 people a year" in the Dominican Republic, with 15 percent of Dominicans lacking access to improved drinking water. Vasquez tells us that each family we make a filter for today will experience a 4 percent reduction in waterborne illness, which will lower unemployment, keep children in schools, and save families money. On its website, Fathom promises travelers "you will bring clean drinking water to communities in need" and that families' "lives will improve with easier access to clean water and additional income saved by not having to purchase more expensive clean water." (One Fathom contractor later estimated that some families spend 10 to 15 percent of their income on bottled water.)
"I don't care what any anybody says," Bryant Vega told me. "I know I made a difference. This guy has a floor in his fucking house.
"In just five years, Fathom travelers could provide 15,000 homes with water filters and reduce student absenteeism due to sickness by 35 percent," Fathom claims.
When the bus arrives at the ceramics factory, the volunteers are split into four groups and set to work. Taylor, her mom, and Norgren put on breathing masks and start sifting dried clay through a large sieve. Yellow dust fills the air and sticks to their clothes. "It's a great look," jokes Taylor, who tries out a word or two of Spanish on the Dominican craftsmen, to little effect.
The Dominican workers—mainly men who look to be in their 20s—stand behind the volunteers, occasionally offering tips or instructions, but mostly just watching. I talk to one artisan named José Veras, who tells me that in a normal day he and the other workers can sift ten bags of the clay. Today they're aiming for just seven.
Over in the filter-molding room, Velton has sweat running down his face as he rolls a mixture of moist clay and sawdust into large balls, drops them loudly on the ground to flatten them, and carries them to the hydraulic press that will shape the stuff into something resembling an oversize gardening pot. Velton pushes a button to make the machine go, but the lead Dominican craftsman does the skilled work, using pieces of plastic to remove excess clay and shape it. He tells me that in a typical day, a team of three Dominican employees could make 100 filters, but today they're shooting for 25—one for each volunteer.
An older woman who tends to annoy the other volunteers by asking too many questions tells an American consultant for the project, "It seems like we didn't accomplish very much."
"Oh no—you were productive," he responds. "They're counting them right now."
After a few group photos, we're ushered back to the bus to distribute some of the water filters to Dominican families. We ascend a winding path into the hills of Los Llanos, a collection of houses along a dirt road not far from the port. We walk to a small yard where four Dominican filter recipients greet us warmly with a prayer. Vasquez teaches them how they're supposed to clean the filters each week, doing a partial demonstration.
Marino Nicasio, the mayor of the community, asks, "How is this different from the sand filters?" Tim Kiefer, an Entrena consultant on the trip, explains that these new filters won't break as easily. Privately, Kiefer tells me that a few years ago, Los Llanos had received bio-sand water filters from the Peace Corps. But some of those filters wore out or broke over time. It occurs to me that perhaps the people receiving filters already had clean and affordable water—the sand filters, or even bottled water, which I had seen in many Dominican homes before—and I make a note to return later to find out.
After the ceremony, as the volunteers shuffle quickly back to the bus, Norgren and Taylor hang back to exchange a few kind words with Nicasio and Eva de Rodriguez Bonilla, an elderly woman who's also receiving a filter. They ask me to translate before hugging and kissing them goodbye. I ask Nicasio about the sand filters—the ones he said "didn't serve well," that "broke before their time."
"Maybe these are better," he tells me.
That night, back on the boat, I find another cruiser named Steven Baines at a meetup for former Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) in a lounge on one of the ship's upper decks. Baines was joined by three other former PCVs, all of whom now work for Fathom.
Baines, who volunteered in Bolivia, mentions that the projects he and other PCVs pursued took a considerable amount of time to pan out, if they did at all. Gil Lang, an impact guide who volunteered in Romania, admits that he hasn't heard of many Peace Corps projects "that last. But it's about relationships."
I ask Lang if, given how hard it is even for PCVs to achieve lasting change in a foreign country, Fathom's travelers were going away with an inflated sense of accomplishment. He assures me they were not. One sunburned passenger named Bryant Vega, who had just spent the day helping to build a concrete floor, chimes in. "I don't care what any anybody says. I know I made a difference. This guy has a floor in his fucking house."
The next morning, Velton, Taylor, and her family are back at it: this time, building a concrete floor for a family that doesn't have one. On the bus to El Javillar, a lower-income neighborhood of Puerto Plata, Felix Desangles, a bearded Dominican American facilitator with Fathom's local partner, IDDI, leads an orientation.
"Thank you for coming over to this island to make this a better place," he begins. Desangles wears dark sunglasses and long sleeves, and he tells us that 80 percent of the people in this neighborhood don't have concrete floors. Imagine how muddy it gets when it rains, or how hard it is to clean a floor made of gravel or dirt, he says. A dirt floor increases the risk of parasites getting into the feet of children, sickening them, making them miss school, and sometimes even hospitalizing them—a costly expense for any family.
"Getting a concrete floor is like winning the lottery," says Desangles. The families get the floors for free, courtesy of the volunteers' cruise tickets and the additional $20 they each paid to do this particular activity.
We descend into an alley where three Dominican boys are already using shovels to mix water, cement, and sand. Desangles calls over Gleni Peralta, whose floor we'll be building. A short, energetic woman in a casual red dress who wears braces and a smile, Peralta gives a speech. "I would like to thank God for sending each and every one of you. This was the only thing left for me to be able to move into my new house."
We set to work. The neighborhood boys who were mixing the concrete are told to hand their shovels to the volunteers. Looks of confusion cross their faces as a Fathom contractor pours half of the cement out of the buckets the boys had just finished filling. It's so the buckets aren't too heavy for the volunteers.
A dozen volunteers form a bucket brigade to pass the cement from the mixing pile down a narrow path to Peralta's house. There are so many volunteers that they have to stand shoulder to shoulder, somewhat gratuitously passing each bucket only a couple feet to the next person.
The guy doing the more skilled work of measuring the ingredients for the concrete is a thin but muscular 27-year-old named Chen Valentine. I ask him if it's necessary to have the tourists here helping with the work. He tells me outright that it isn't—that all the men in the neighborhood know how to mix concrete. But would they do it for free for Peralta, like the tourists are doing? "Claro," he says—of course. In a close-knit neighborhood like this, people help one another out. Besides, with high unemployment, there isn't much else to do.
"I feel like it's helping us more than them," Taylor says, watching Valentine and a volunteer spread concrete on the floor. "But at least it shows them that Americans care." Velton tells me it feels good to be helping Peralta finish her first home. "I couldn't believe so many people live here," he says, looking around the crowded neighborhood. "It makes me feel guilty for playing Grand Theft Auto V."
By midday, the volunteers' work has come to an end, and Peralta thanks them for their help, smiling and laughing. Back on the bus, Desangles wraps things up by reminding the volunteers of the lasting impact they've just achieved. "If there's one thing that they will never forget, every morning that they wake up and put their feet on the cold concrete floor, they're gonna remember what you did for them."
As the ship chugged back toward Miami, Fathom's impact guides told travelers about the collective impacts they'd achieved—the number of water filters produced since Fathom's inception, the number of floors built, trees planted, hours of English tutored. "These impact activities are going to go on," Seles said to Velton and his cohort. "This is sustainable impact. It's not just gonna disappear."
After our cruise, I returned to the island to see the effects of this impact firsthand. My first stop was Los Llanos, the community where we'd given out water filters. When I arrived at Nicasio's house, I found that he already had plentiful and affordable clean drinking water. There was the sand filter, provided years ago by the Peace Corps, through which he filters his tap water. Other families' sand filters had broken, but Nicasio said his still works just fine. Nearby was a dispenser for blue, Culligan-style five-gallon jugs, called botellones, a second source of clean water. The ceramic W2W filter made three. "I think after I filter it through the sand I'm gonna filter it through the [W2W] one, too," he told me. In fact, I soon discovered that all four Dominicans who received Fathom's filters that day had already had clean water in their homes.
"I think the tourist has a responsibility to think, Is this company a company that I want to do business with?" Steven Baines told me.
Nicasio explained to me that their community first began drinking purified water 20 years ago, as botellones became readily available and the cost of purified water dropped. He said nearly everyone he knows in Los Llanos drinks clean water, and he didn't mention expense as an issue. (When I spoke to him a few months later, he told me that, because of the W2W filter, he had stopped buying bottled water, though he didn't say whether it was saving him much money). I was glad to see that Nicasio had such ready access to clean water. But I wondered whether the volunteers I had accompanied realized that they were bringing clean water to people who already had it, knew how to get it, and could afford it.
Leaving Los Llanos, I headed on to Puerto Plata to follow up with some of the Dominicans who'd been tutored in English the week before. Emelda Garcia, a quiet, kind woman who owned the house where I had met the two Dominican teenagers, invited me inside. I asked her whether she learns more English during the tutoring sessions with the Fathom volunteers than she does on the off-weeks when the boat isn't here—when young Dominican instructors tutor her instead. "We learn more with the muchachos, of course," she said, referring to the paid instructors. "Any question you can ask them, they know the answer." Fathom employees pointed out to me that, without the travelers' money, this tutoring wouldn't happen. But that seemed to imply that travelers could do even more good if they skipped the cruise altogether and sent their money straight to Entrena's English tutors instead.
Finally, I paid a visit to Peralta, who had invited me back to see her house, which was nearly complete. It wasn't until Peralta brought me across the alleyway into her old home, the one she shared with her mom, that I looked down and realized that she already had a concrete floor. In fact, in contrast to what Desangles had implied to the volunteers on the bus ride home that day, Peralta has had a concrete floor her whole life. So have all of her children.
Seeking an explanation for these apparent discrepancies, I reached out to Fathom and its contractors. Recalling how Fathom's contractors assured the volunteers that they do regular follow-ups with past filter recipients to be sure that their filters achieve what they claim, I called Josh Elliot, W2W's director of international operations, to ask to see that research. To my surprise, he said it doesn't exist.
How much money did Dominican families save by using the filters? No way to know. Any research showing that its filters had reduced waterborne illness among the Dominican families that received them? That school absenteeism declined by 35 percent as Fathom claimed? Nope. "Our filter water is definitely superior" to the purified water most Dominicans buy, Elliot assured me. So W2W or Fathom has tested them both in the homes? Well, no. Elliot pointed to a limited survey that a partner organization had conducted of W2W's filter recipients. But when I consulted it, I found that of only 68 people surveyed, 13 had problems with their filter, 21 had to have it replaced because it broke, and no statistically significant correlation to reduction in disease or diarrhea was found.
But surely W2W could show me research that its own filters worked in other countries? Actually, says Elliot, "the only area that we do ceramic water filters is in the DR. It's our newest program." In fact, it started just a year ago. Not only does the organization Fathom chose for its volunteers lack evidence that its filters actually work—this is the first time they've even tried it.
Thinking back to the day I watched Fathom's volunteers distribute those filters, I recalled how on the bus ride down the hill from Los Llanos, Vasquez had tried admirably to engage the weary volunteers in a wrap-up discussion about what they'd achieved. "The first time you step on the island, you're already making an impact," he assured them.
"Can we say objectively this family in the DR, in a public-health trial, will experience what this family in Mexico experienced? Not yet, because we haven't measured it," admitted Sarah Binion, a Fathom impact guide, referring to a Mexican government program that measurably improved families' health by giving them concrete floors. She's in a great position to know. When I spoke with Binion in July, she was completing her PhD in international development with a focus on measuring impacts. In fact, she told me she had created a monitoring and evaluation plan that outlines "a systematic way" to measure and evaluate the impact of Fathom's volunteer activities—things like whether families that got water filters and concrete floors report being healthier, happier, or better off for it. She had just submitted the plan to the company for consideration that month, but nothing like it had yet been implemented.
She continued, "As far as what we know, so far, it's very little. All we have right now are outputs"—the number of filters created, floors built. Those "don't translate to outcomes, and don't translate to impacts." "Impacts" meaning whether those filters and floors actually improved health or incomes and whether those improvements stood the test of time—precisely the thing on which Fathom built its brand.
When pressed, some Fathom employees said it's too early to tell about impacts—the company is only in its first year. But if Fathom had been serious about impact, before it started it could have conducted a baseline study, common in development-aid work. This would have entailed visiting each community where activities were to take place to survey residents about their income, health, happiness, and more, so that Fathom could do so again later on to compare change and measure any improvement over time. Yet Binion herself had told me that the only data they had were their outputs.
And while it's true that you can't measure all the impacts
of volunteering, the fact that you can't measure something shouldn't give you the right to simply declare that it works. Two Fathom employees were so confident in Fathom's volunteering that they told me that the problems facing these Dominican communities—problems Fathom is hardly the first organization to attempt to fix—will soon be solved entirely. "If two years from now you come back to the DR and we're still doing the same things, we haven't succeeded," Lang told me on the boat.
But during my return trip to the country, I caught up with John Seibel, the founder and director of one Fathom's partners, Entrena, who admitted that without a study like Binion's, there isn't any way to know if the sweat equity the volunteers invested while making water filters, for instance, actually improved health or wealth among the families that receive them.
"I think that's a pretty good assumption. But the only way to prove that is to see if the water filters are being used," said Seibel. And "obviously," he told me, "you're not at a point where you can determine, 'Will it reduce waterborne disease, or will it not reduce waterborne disease?'"
Well, obvious to everybody but Fathom. I asked Seibel outright: Is it dishonest for Fathom to go on telling its passengers that the water filters those volunteers make will reduce waterborne illness for those families? "I don't know if you can get that specific right now," he told me. "If you're gonna be making assumptions like that, you need to do an impact analysis."
"'Sustainability,'" Seibel continues, "is a word that people talk about, but it's perhaps the hardest thing to achieve." Fathom's current volunteer projects are built on the assumption that Fathom will be in this for the long-term. That's problematic when you consider that Fathom has no assurances that it will.
The fact that there were only 525 passengers on the 700-person boat during my voyage—even after giving free rides to journalists and travel agents and lowering ticket prices last-minute from $1,465 to as little as $200—raises questions as to whether the venture will prove profitable enough for both Carnival and the ship's owner to renew. On the boat, I learned that Fathom's contract with the Adonia, the British ship, was slated to end in 2017. What's more, Seibel told me Fathom's contract with Entrena ends in November. It may or may not be renewed.
That's not what Fathom told Julie—Taylor's mom, and a travel agent who Fathom has asked to help sell its cruises. Julie said she spoke in August with Fathom's regional sales representative, who "assured me that, being backed by Carnival, that they've made long-term commitments to IDDI and Entrena. The commitment that they gave is that they're there as long as they're needed."
When I told Julie that the director of Entrena said that wasn't necessarily true, she paused. "That's disappointing. That's really disappointing."
Julie had a similar reaction when I told her that the families to whom they'd given water filters already had clean water. "That's so deeply disappointing. Not disappointing that they had clean water—but now I'm thinking that there are families out there that don't have clean water that really could have benefited from this.
"Well, at least there's the concrete," Julie said. "At least that woman didn't already have a concrete floor. Or are you gonna tell me otherwise?" she added, almost as a joke. I told her what I'd learned about Peralta.
"You can't fluff that," said Julie, a bit angry. "That woman didn't have a concrete floor, and now she does"—those were the words Julie recalled Fathom's local partners saying. "The emphasis on our bus was the health issue, and 'this is gonna make things so much healthier and change their lives.'"
When I followed up with Julie's daughter, Taylor, she told me it wasn't just on the bus that Fathom promised travelers they'd be making a difference, but on the boat too. "It was a whole conversation from multiple Fathom people about how there's a lot of disease that comes from dirt floors because it rains and then all the bacteria... which is true. But it doesn't apply when they already have a concrete floor," she told me. Same with the ceramic filers: "Those Fathom people did not mention anything about how they already had clean water."
"If they're not gonna be credible about what they say, how am I supposed to believe the other things?"
How, for example, was she to believe what she'd heard from Tim Kiefer, the American contractor for Entrena, that ceramic water filters had worked elsewhere and therefore it was safe to assume they'd work here?
"That's the whole conversation we had with Tim," said Taylor. "We were trying to get him to explain how it works, and it was more like, 'We know it works.'"
In "Shipping Out," his famous essay about a luxury cruise, David Foster Wallace writes that "the promise is not that you can experience great pleasure but that you will. They'll make certain of it." Time and again, on the boat and off it, Fathom seems to express this same attitude to its volunteers: not merely that you can make a difference, but that you will.
Fathom sells its cruises on that promise. On its website, Fathom claims it provides an opportunity for travelers "to create enduring social impact." The truth might read more like, "It's possible your volunteering will create an enduring impact, but it's also possible it won't, and because we haven't done the proper research, we just don't know."
Looking back, Taylor said, "I think it was meant almost not to be super clear. It seemed sort of sketchy, and it seems like maybe that's the way it was meant to be, so people wouldn't question."
She pointed to those final cohort sessions on the boat, the ones where Fathom impact guides presented them with the raw numbers of what they'd achieved.
"It seems great because of the numerical value," she said. "But I'm not an expert in any of these things. Perhaps if I was a water-filter specialist, I would know that these numbers mean this. But I can't really judge it. And I feel like that's kind of what they're banking on."
When I called up Velton to tell him about what I'd learned, he said it was "a little deceiving" to have been told there was research that showed Fathom's filters were already improving lives in the DR when in fact there wasn't. Still, he doesn't think Fathom acted with malice.
Baines was disappointed to learn that Fathom wasn't doing more to find out whether its volunteers were changing lives. After his time in the Peace Corps, Baines spent three years doing development work for a major NGO in Malawi, where he was required to do monitoring to ensure his health projects were actually working. He was disappointed to learn that Fathom hadn't conducted a baseline survey before it launched. When I told him in August that the company was considering investing in Binion's proposal to study impacts in the future, he said, "I'm a little concerned that you're saying they're considering it as opposed to it being a part of what they already are doing. That shouldn't be something that's up for consideration.
"Given that they have several people that are Peace Corps volunteers, they know that that's important. It's just good business to be able to have baselines," he said. "You have donors you need to report to. If you don't have donors, you don't have investors." Donors, investors—these are the people who, in theory, hold NGOs accountable for their work in foreign countries. But who would do the same for a cruise line?
Most tourists "aren't going to sit back and do a critical analysis of it," said Baines. They're not the professionals. "I think the tourist has a responsibility to think, Is this company a company that I want to do business with?
"What I would really hate would be for the families in the DR, for them to lose out in some way," he said. "Fathom, they can take a hit and move on to something else. For the tourists, someone like me, we had an experience. But for the people in the DR, this is their livelihood.
"I think there's a responsibility," Baines said of Fathom's creators. "If that wasn't foremost on their mind, what was?"
As a travel agent, Julie surmised that perhaps the reason Fathom "embellished," as she put it, was to sell more cruises. If so, that worried her even more: What if Julie had unwittingly passed along Fathom's misinformation to her own clients? Since its inception, Julie had felt passionately about Fathom's mission, and she'd twice fallen in love with the experience herself. I asked her if, knowing all this, she'd continue selling Fathom cruises to her clients with such vigor. "I won't sell something I don't believe in," she told me. "I can't be quite so enthusiastic about it now."
Julie said she can't understand why Fathom wasn't more forthcoming in the first place. "If it was presented the way it really is, I still would have enjoyed it," Julie said. "But when you find out the reality is not what was presented, it makes you feel like you've been duped."
I told Julie that I planned to present my findings to Fathom's creator and president, Tara Russell. Julie said she'd read great things about Russell. "It seems like she's the type of person that would take your research and your information to heart. I'm just hoping that they're open to take some feedback and make a change."
Over a phone call, I described to Russell what I'd found. She was surprised to learn that Peralta already had a concrete floor—Russell had thought that her volunteers were giving floors to families that didn't already have them. When I asked her about the water filters, she said their primary purpose was to save families money. When I told her that Wine to Water didn't have any research showing that they do, she said she was "disappointed."
Russell insisted that Fathom has "taken a rigorous and detailed approach" to its volunteering. "We have held ourselves to the highest standard" by "doing robust impact evaluation," she told me.
But Binion had told me in July that Fathom hadn't yet done any sort of studies that could truly measure impact. Russell said Fathom has since begun those evaluations. But when I asked Binion for the details, she wrote, "I'm not at liberty to share because the proposal itself is proprietary and belongs to Fathom." Instead, Fathom sent excerpts from the abstract of that proposal, which didn't explain what metrics it would be monitoring in each community, or how. Fathom also sent a blank questionnaire it said it used early on to fill in logistical notes about each community (distance from port, restrooms, capacity) with tiny boxes for "impact outcomes" that couldn't have fit more than a few words each—nothing resembling or even approaching a baseline study.
Russell admitted "we can't say with certainty, with confidence, what exactly the full extent of that outcome is yet.
"No one could promise to know what would be the outcome," she told me.
When I pointed out that Fathom does make such promises regularly, she said Fathom had merely repeated the information provided by its partners. That sounded unlikely to me since John Seibel, head of Entrena, had told me that without having done the research, the company couldn't possibly know the impact of its activities.
"It's unfortunate we don't have data," Russell told me. "But we do have the anecdotal, strong belief that it has made a demonstrable impact for these families."
Russell's faith in anecdotes became clear when she told me a story about a Dominican woman she met who had "severe breathing conditions and asthmatic conditions," whose family had spent "basically all the money they had trying to keep her alive, in and out of the hospital.
"We came in, were able to put in a cement floor, and by the time I met her, she looked healthy. She was able to go back to work. The kids had gone back to school," Russell said. "So when I think about the impact we've had just on her as a family, it's dramatic."
When I asked Russell what evidence she had come across that made her think that concrete floors cure asthma, she paused. "I don't have all the data around that," she said. Then how could she be sure that Fathom's concrete floor was what had transformed the woman's life?
"This has never been done before," Russell reminded me of Fathom's undertaking. "Do we expect that what we're doing is perfect? No.
"Doing good is complicated."