Volunteer Voice: Learning More About Sustainable Bolivia

by Hal Amen Mar 16, 2009

Photo: Hal Amen

During the last six weeks volunteering through the Cochabamba-based Sustainable Bolivia, I’ve come to know its small but friendly and dedicated staff, some of the 30 local foundations it supplies with funding and volunteers, and a bit about its business model.

Less clear to me, though, is how the organization developed. What makes people devote their lives to the pursuit of improving others’, and, more importantly, how do they go about this?

I sat down with Sustainable Bolivia’s executive director, Erik Taylor, to find out.

HA: It’s obvious from your background that you’re an avid traveler. How are travel and the volunteer spirit related?

ET: I think unfortunately they’re often not related. Travel is typically a consumer item, a form of consumption. You’re purchasing an experience, and most people when they travel aren’t really thinking about helping others along the way. I don’t mean to pass judgment…that’s just what travel is, traditionally.

Photo: Sustainable Bolivia

But there are also new forms of travel emerging—voluntourism, ecotourism. A lot of people now are looking to travel in a sustainable way and give back. That’s one of the reasons for the formation of Sustainable Bolivia, to help promote this trend.

HA: Can you pinpoint the moment when you decided founding a nonprofit was the right path for you?

ET: It was something I’d thought about off and on during my studies, but actually when I came to Bolivia initially, it was to work for a different nonprofit. Unfortunately, after being here for about six weeks, everything fell apart. The organization shut down without warning, there was tons of chaos….

That was the impetus for really playing with the idea of starting my own. It was either that or go back to the U.S., or look for a job somewhere else in South America. So I thought, “I’ll give this a shot and see what happens.”

HA: What education or life experiences best prepared you for the challenges involved in building a nonprofit from scratch?

ET: I earned a master’s in social science through the Global Studies Program…the ultimate international program. In my year, there were 30 students from 19 countries. You study for three semesters in three different countries: Germany, South Africa, and India, completing a research project in each place. And you’re at the universities as a local student, so that’s nice.

For the fourth semester, everyone splits off and does an internship. Mine was in Ecuador, which was great because I got to work for two different organizations concentrating on ecotourism. A lot of what Sustainable Bolivia is, what it’s designed after, is based on my experiences there.

Another thing I carry with me that’s really helped me was being an athlete. You have to know when it’s time to lead, when it’s your turn to do what you can, and then when it’s time to be a part of the team. And I’ve been very fortunate to find myself a part of such a wonderful team here.

HA: How did you account for Bolivia’s and Cochabamba’s unique characteristics of need when mapping Sustainable Bolivia’s mission?

ET: The organizations already operating here, our 30 or so partners in Cochabamba, they’re doing good work. They know what’s needed. What they lack are resources, both human and financial, and the idea is that we can provide those…hopefully in a sustainable manner.

I see us as an intermediary between the global and local, because these organizations just don’t have the resources or the time to do what we’re doing, to both attract and then provide for the day-to-day needs of volunteers.

HA: Did you find it difficult to establish meaningful contacts with these organizations?

ET: It wasn’t that difficult; actually, I was surprised at the initial willingness. Of course, there’s a history of nonprofits and NGOs throughout the world, and especially in Bolivia, making promises and then not following through. That was one of the things we were concerned about at first, and we tried to limit our promises in terms of what we offered initially.

Photo: Sustainable Bolivia

But what we provide isn’t that hard of a sell. We approach an organization and ask them what they’re looking for—they set the standards. And on top of that, because we receive a fee from volunteers, we can provide some direct financial support. So from their standpoint, they’re not in a position to lose.

HA: Is there anything you see as setting Sustainable Bolivia apart from other similar organizations?

ET: I think we offer a more serious internship. All sorts of people come through the program, and we enjoy the presence of all of them. But we offer certain positions here that are more serious, that require a longer time commitment and some manner of expertise.

Another thing is I like to think we’re a lot less expensive for what we offer. We try to keep our overhead as low as possible while still giving money back to our partners. There are similar organizations doing similar work, of course, but then there are some with different…priorities.

HA: Have there been any disappointments along the way? What about adversities you’ve overcome?

ET: Anytime you want to start a business, it’s a difficult process…especially with a nonprofit because of the legal ramifications—stuff I’m still trying to familiarize myself with. All the costs, it’s shocking—insurance costs and other things that initially maybe you don’t see.

On top of that, it’s more difficult starting a business abroad. Little tasks can become big endeavors…things like trying to locate a gardener or something. Obviously in the U.S. I could open the phone book and find one, call them, and they’d come. Here, it’s never that simple. Or setting up meetings and no one showing, people being late….

In overcoming issues like that, you have to have cultural sensitivity and keep a positive attitude. Understand that things work here, but they work according to different cultural guidelines.

HA: Where do you see Sustainable Bolivia in five years?

ET: The goal is to offer all this at no charge, or close to it. Right now it’s reasonably inexpensive, but it should be even less expensive, in my opinion. Sustainable Bolivia is a nonprofit, registered 501(c)(3) in the U.S., and we’re actively seeking grants and individual donors who believe in our mission.

If we can achieve this, we’ll be able to attract more qualified people, and people able to make longer commitments. We can be more selective, which of course will benefit our partners.

And there are other fields we can enter—fair trade products, community-based ecotourism. We’re developing a program right now dealing with fair trade. A lot of our partners produce different handicrafts, but they have no market. So, through its intermediary role, Sustainable Bolivia can hopefully help connect their goods to a global market.

HA: What advice would you offer someone who’s considering starting a nonprofit?

ET: I’d recommend finding a good lawyer. That’s really important. Then, surround yourself with people who’re committed to what you’re trying to do. As an individual you can only do so much, but if you find people that share your vision, they’ll in turn provide you with more motivation, and obviously a ton of assistance.

Here’s another thing—it always comes down to money, to finances. Rather than relying solely on donations and grants, look for a way to generate funds. That doesn’t mean you’re not a nonprofit. Harvard University is a nonprofit and it’s sitting on billions of dollars of reserves.

As long as it matches your mission, try to make some money. If you want to be sustainable, you’re going to need some sort of…ingresos. Sustainable Bolivia has a language school, and… the volunteer program, and these are the two main things that allow us to operate.

HA: What about people out there who’d like to volunteer but maybe need a little push? Any words of advice for them?

ET: Just do it. I mean, there’s so much need throughout the world. You’ll benefit personally and professionally from the experience, but most importantly you’re in a position to really help those who are less fortunate. Honestly, what are you waiting for?

Community Connection:

Find more advice about starting your own NGO here.

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