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Travelers 50 and older have always comprised the majority on tours and cruises offered by nonprofit organizations such as museums, zoos and university alumni associations. That's because mature Americans have the time and disposable income to travel as well as to volunteer or provide financial support for nonprofits.

And they often prefer trips with an educational aspect.

"In the late 1980s, a lot of organizations looked like vacation shops," says Bob Chambers, a travel consultant to nonprofit organizations. Chambers says they did no more than sell standard packages. That has changed. Back then, a university alumni association might offer members the same luxury cruise that they could sign up for as individuals. The only added benefits were that the handful of alumni would dine together and could join one another in activities and shore excursions. Nobody from the alumni association staff would be along, nor would a professor who was an expert on the history or other aspects of the ports.

Some nonprofits still offer trips like these get-togethers for members, but most itineraries now have much stronger educational components than standard tours and cruises. Most have a theme or destination that relates directly to the organization, says Chambers, who used to direct travel programs for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and operated a travel agency. And very few of today's nonprofit itineraries build donations into the price of the trips, which used to be the case.

That's because a decade ago, the Internal Revenue Service began to examine travel programs of nonprofit associations. For-profit companies and travel agencies had been complaining for years that nonprofits were taking business away from them. Actually, then as now, nonprofits usually work with tour operators, cruise lines and travel agencies to develop itineraries and often to handle bookings and reservations.

The profit-making companies also protested that it was unfair competition when nonprofits used their tax-exempt status to mail sales brochures at nonprofit rates. After examining the situation, the IRS told nonprofits that travel programs must relate to the organization's mission.

"The IRS wants lectures or a classroom-like environment," Chambers says. "If you're a museum, you'd be visiting other museums and private collectors.

"Another key was a 1992 IRS ruling that said a nonprofit group could not offer a tour for $5,000 and say that $500 of that was a tax-deductible gift. The IRS said that by their nature, gifts are spontaneous and so cannot be "forced' from members by building them into the price of trips."

As a result, more nonprofit groups have redefined their travel programs as educational outreach to their members rather than perks. This redefinition means that they usually showcase faculty or curatorial expertise.

"We look upon our WorldWild Tours as educational programs that take people to see wildlife and sustainable resource programs and learn ways they, as well as the zoo, can contribute directly to conservation," says Beth Sandler, who organizes trips for the San Diego Zoological Society.

A physiologist from the zoo's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES), who is developing artificial insemination techniques for pandas, led a recent zoo trip to China.

"She knew the places and people in China to visit, including two panda breeding centers," Sandler says. "The trip also featured lectures by scientists residing in China."

On a trip to Kenya and Tanzania, zoo members delivered equipment - bought with proceeds from the zoo's travel programs - to game wardens in Kenya. The equipment would assist wardens who were collaborating with CRES on identifying black rhinos and studying their movements in the Maasai Mara.

The Smithsonian Institution, often called "the nation's attic," offers Smithsonian Associates about 360 trips a year to 250 destinations.

"We stick to our mission of education," says Amy Kotkin, program manager. "There is a study leader on almost all tours who gives lectures and provides informal commentary along the way."

The study leader may be a Smithsonian curator or scientist, an independent scholar, or a faculty member of a university or museum.

"We also involve tour managers and study leaders, who know the places well, in developing the itinerary," Kotkin says. "They might add elements that are quite personal, such as a visit to the countryside house in Tuscany of a restoration architect they know. Or a meal at a typical but off-the-beaten-track place."

Overall, senior travelers will find that the organizations they belong to are offering more rewarding trips than ever.

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