Photo: The author at her NGO in Indonesia.
I recently started an NGO, 4th World Love, that focuses on community development in distant lands and I’ve learned a few lessons on the front lines of grassroots NGO’dom.
Here are a few bullet points to consider after you’ve already got your cause, your website, and your plan.
Start by remembering this one – don’t forget to laugh – because in the end, if there is no laughing-til-you-cry, it’s just not worth it.
1. Communication Is Primo.
Once you’ve got your organization’s base set up, there will come a time when you must get back home to raise money, make money, and ponder new ideas. Once you’re gone, things can quickly go downhill unless you set up a chain of command, with loads of communication.
We appointed a local Field Director and Field Coordinator before we left with very specific instructions (we need a cash flow report once a month, make sure the volunteers sign this waiver before they start the program, always text back confirmation when you get information).
Things like this keep the program from bursting at the seams. It’s hard when the village has no internet, but with texting at the fingertips of most third world’ers, we’ve had no problem staying in touch… even though there are multiple black outs per day.
REMEMBER: You have to set the parameters in order for them to be followed. Period.
2. And, Then There’s The Exact Opposite – Miscommunication.
Everyone from the village becomes a friend; therefore, they want to text and e-mail all the time. This is fantastic because updates and passing information along is crucial to NGO success. What isn’t great is when everyone starts ignoring the chain of command and breaks free of the system to share their trivial issues.
Better to set up a precise method of relaying information before you leave. Better yet, create a job description document so everyone knows who is responsible for sharing what. You wanna tell me that a baby who had cleft palate surgery is doing well– that rocks. But, if you wanna tell me all about the late petty cash report… well, that gets the smack-down.
REMEMBER: Set up proper channels and make sure your appointed directors are clear with everyone involved about the rules and their specifics. If you don’t, expect chaos.
3. Fundraising – The Ultimate Challenge.
This little diddy is the hardest part of NGO’dom. Where do funds come from? You can’t expect people to keep giving cash, especially in an economy like this.
Therefore, one must get incredibly creative.
We came up with an idea for a contest – Donate $100 to win a free trip to Indonesia was the one we ran last year; this year we’re doing the same thing, but in Baja. People really respond to this idea because there’s a chance for them to win something crazy-cool…not just donate a bit of cash.
But just because they did it once doesn’t mean they’ll do it twice.
Again, thinking cap goes on. We started producing Pilates/volunteering retreats in Mexico where all profits go to fund 4WL – and the cost of the trip is a write-off. Pretty brilliant.
We also scour local villages for things we can sell (handmade scarves, cool bamboo bags and boxes, and organic soap). But we’re gonna have to amp it up a level and get more than just individual sales – we’ll have to go gangbusters, and try to sell mass quantities from the samples we currently have. Get the order and then worry about getting them made. All profits fund local projects.
REMEMBER: Most people who say they will donate DO NOT. It’s the random folks who really kick in the dinero. Bless them all.
4. Bring in Volunteers…or Not?
The intrepid souls who traipse the world working for free are the backbone of any NGO. They storm in with good ideas, piles of energy, and the will to get things done.
However, they can be a full time job for those running things back on the home front.
Dozens of e-mails have to be answered from online volunteer shout-outs, money has to be wired, transportation has to be coordinated, home stays have to be arranged, and thousands of questions have to be answered. The key is to develop a system for managing it all.
Let’s say someone e-mails, curious about 4WL. Instead of getting really detailed at the top, I just send them a Volunteer 101 sheet, an article I wrote about the village, a volunteer form for them to fill out, and the permanent volunteer schedule.
If they plow through all that information, as well as the highly detailed website, and then blast back specific questions, then I know they are legit and might actually make the trek to Indonesia. If they just ask evasive generic questions and haven’t taken the time to really get deep with our materials, then they aren’t worth the effort.
They probably just sent out a blanket email to 50 orgs and still have no idea what they want to do. I’m not saying don’t be nice, I’m just saying read between the lines.
REMEMBER: Hold their hand, but only if they hold yours back.
5. Establish Your NGO’s EXACT Cause.
Folks ask all the time, “What is your cause, exactly?” Until my last scouting excursion, I wasn’t able to pinpoint it. But, now I can – we focus on community development. Pure and simple.
Whether it’s through organic farming initiatives, carpentry workshops, cleft palate surgeries, English lessons, a new t-shirt business, opening a small café, or teaching photography and video skills – it doesn’t matter. We do it if the village requests it.
I can’t imagine rolling into a township and hearing all of the various ideas and dreams and then shutting someone down ’cause we just do “healthcare” or “AIDS prevention.” Though both noble causes, we’re about more than one thing. And, getting to that determination took some hard digging on the soul front. Even though we lived it, wrote it, and hatched the very idea, crafting the exact statement that surrounds the sentiment took some time.
REMEMBER: Think hard about your cause before you start promoting, because you will be fronted and you most definitely need an answer. A good, telling, inspiring one.
6. Boil Down New Ideas.
Phase 1 is complete. Now it’s time to take it all to the next level and take stock in your recent progress. What is the next level, especially since everything is running so well? Maybe you want to expand your efforts into another village; perhaps you need more volunteers and on-site facilitators; you might even want to start another fund raising scheme.
At this point, it’s time to take it all to paper because a wing and a prayer might have worked for the first round of goodness, but now, things bear a little more investigating. We just put together our first 4WL newsletter and it was incredible to have all our happenings laid out in one super-fly PDF. Not only did it help all our supporters get the inside tip to all that were doing, it helped us hone in on where we’re headed in the near future…and what might be missing in the right now.
Bottom line, you must share the intel. Take loads of pictures when you are on site. Follow up with volunteers and get them to send you testimonials that you can post on your website and share. Plot, plan, scheme, dream, share– it’s the only way to ratchet up the vibe you’re trying to create.
REMEMBER: Make people proud to be a part of your organization and they will go to war for you…as you would for them.
7. Don’t Forget About Personal Sanity.
All of this work is draining and can be heavy on the soul. Am I doing enough? Where do I get new ideas? Will I ever be able to pull it all off? All these questions keep me and my partner-in-crime awake at night, but the more balance we try to create in our own personal lives, the better off we are.
If I work out every day, my energy soars and I’m off-the-charts productive. If I go out til the wee hours drinking and do a midnight slam down of pizza with ranch dressing, well the next AM ain’t so great.
Finding my own personal level of balance is crucial in making all these great things happen.
You also have to have a level of self-promotion that would make most cringe. I’m certain people get sick to death of my weekly e-mails about new far-flung contests, retreats, and excursions. But, you never know, I might just hit them at the moment they are fed up with their own existence and are looking to make a change.
Be it within you, your network, your village, or your organization’s plans for the future, that’s what it’s all about – making a difference in the world and feeling really, really good about it.
REMEMBER: To a person who makes $20 bones a month, every single penny counts, and if you put your energy in the right place, in the most positive spot, then you will reap rewards like no other. Might not be a penny, but it will shine like one.
Wondering how to start an NGO? Ryan Libre gives you a primer in How to Start a Successful NGO in 10 Steps.