What I’m Learning from Walking 60 Miles and Volunteering for 3 Months
My first grown up foray into the world of philanthropy was participating in the Avon 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk in May 2000. My best friend, her sister and I walked 60 miles in three days from Kenosha, Wis. to Chicago and each of us raised close to $2,000 for the cause. I can’t exactly remember what motivated us to participate, but I can recall the excitement we felt when we were dropped off in Wisconsin to start our adventure. I still remember the delirious chats with my friend as we neared mile 18 each day and how my back ached as I stood outside my tent on the third morning.
We finished the walk among incredible fanfare and support as we entered Grant Park in Chicago. I had an unbelievable sense of accomplishment walking across the finish line – seeing the magnitude of thousands of people around me physically showing their supporting and raising so much money for a cause.
I hadn’t thought about the 3-Day walk in a long time until I watched a TED talk this week by Dan Pallotta titled, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong“. Dan Pallotta is the founder of Pallotta TeamWorks, the company that organized and implemented the 3-Day Walk. Until watching him speak, I hadn’t made the connection between that experience 13 years ago and the one I’m fully immersed in now as a volunteer in Cambodia. (If you have any interest in charitable giving, I highly recommend you spend the 15 minutes to watch this TED talk).
There is a lot of discussion and debate about aid, philanthropy and charity in Cambodia. The international community pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into the country to help organizations fill in the gaping holes of human services that the government has been neglecting. Some say it enables the government to continue doing nothing, others say the money just goes toward International NGO worker’s SUVs. I haven’t fully formed my opinion yet and a lot of the questions circulating in my mind were directly addressed by Dan.
Dan examines why the nonprofit sector may be failing to address some of the world’s biggest problems – a question I’m grappling with as I watch the NGO I’m volunteering with try to solve the issues of youth engagement and development in Cambodia.
“These social problems are massive in scale, our organizations are tiny up against them, and we have a belief system that keeps them tiny. We have two rulebooks. We have one for the nonprofit sector and one for the rest of the economic world. It’s an apartheid, and it discriminates against the [nonprofit] sector…”
My NGO is doing valuable work for a country that needs its youth to stand up, challenge and change societal norms (government corruption, violence against women, human rights violations, etc) all the while being undermined by the issue of “overhead.” Most donors aren’t willing to fund overhead, which includes salaries, office space, money to actually pilot programs to see what may work and money to spend on fundraising. What happens is that the staff is grossly underpaid relative to the amount of effort they put in, the organization can’t truly follow its strategic priorities because it’s chasing donor funds for any project that will fund its work and they don’t have the capacity, expertise or investment dollars to actually raise money to grow and do bigger things.
Dan goes on to say,
“so we’ve all been taught that charities should spend as little as possible on overhead things like fundraising under the theory that, well, the less money you spend on fundraising, the more money there is available for the cause. Well, that’s true if it’s a depressing world in which this pie cannot be made any bigger. But if it’s a logical world in which investment in fundraising actually raises more funds and makes the pie bigger, then we have it precisely backwards, and we should be investing more money, not less, in fundraising, because fundraising is the one thing that has the potential to multiply the amount of money available for the cause that we care about so deeply.”
While we need to be critical of spend in nonprofits (or any business), anyone with business sense understands that in order to grow you need to invest something – dollars, resources, human capital. I’m in the middle of creating a fundraising plan for my NGO based on its new strategic plan. I have plenty of ideas on how they can grow, diversify their funding and build their organization. But I keep coming back to wondering how they’ll ever be able to make it happen. It’s a vicious cycle. Without overhead support to adequately cover costs of fundraising (some dedicated staff time, money for marketing), there is little chance a mid-sized local NGO in Cambodia can generate more unrestricted overhead funds to significantly move itself forward.
In 2002, Pallotta TeamWorks closed its doors suddenly when their key sponsor pulled out amidst controversy of the money the company spent on organizing and implementing highly successful fundraising events, which resulted in the eventual end of the 3-Day walk as I knew it. I can’t comment on how all that went down, but what I can comment on is the impact of the event through the eyes of someone who walked for many miles and raised many dollars. The power, scale and results of that event were directly related to the passion behind the people organizing it and those participating. It’s that type of passion, matched with the ability to scale, that many local NGOs in developing countries like Cambodia, India and Burma need. In these countries, very significant grassroots efforts are taking place with immense passion, but at a very small-scale. Imagine if we gave these highly motivated, deeply invested NGO leaders the skill capacity and the investment to grow their vision, implement their dreams and change their societies. It could be a game changer for places where the levels of poverty and lack of opportunity are completely unimaginable to many of us in the Western world.
“People are weary of being asked to do the least they can possibly do. People are yearning to measure the full distance of their potential on behalf of the causes that they care about deeply.”
It was this one simple sentence in the 15-minute TED talk that gave me goosebumps and had me screaming,”YES!”
This sentence, buried among many other important remarks, reminded me why I chose to walk for 60 miles to raise money for breast cancer. It’s why I rode a see-saw for 48 hours straight in college to raise money for a charity. And it’s definitely why I find myself living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. If we don’t have big dreams, ideas or a yearning to do big things, how will we change the world?
What I’m quickly discovering, however, is that this l is only half of the equation.
While I could volunteer for a longer time at my NGO and potentially help them receive more unrestricted funding, I can’t afford to do it forever. The local nonprofit sector, particularly in the developing world, has come to consistently rely on international volunteers and donors. They can barely afford to pay their staff living wages let alone think about spending money on the things that would truly change their organizations and ultimately their communities. The “rich” in these countries are busy creating their empires and have done little to financially support the work of NGOs. In the U.S. for example, more than half of nonprofit funding comes from individual donors. Donations from Cambodia’s elite is close to zero.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll do once our trip comes to an end and being in Cambodia hasn’t made finding the answer any easier. It continues to raise more questions, more doubts and more excitement about the possibilities that exist. I’m learning that the for profit sector I so badly wanted to run away from needs to have a seat at the table when we talk about the world’s social issues. My understanding of the nonprofit sector, human rights and grassroots change has grown exponentially. How do you bring those things together to right some of the wrongs in our communities?
What I do know is that my dreams will never get smaller, my ideas only seem to get bigger and my hopes for being a catalyst for change become more deeply embedded in my everyday thoughts.
Thank you to Dan for delivering such a thought-provoking talk and thank you to those who actually made it through this entire post (I know it is crazy-long!) for allowing me a platform from which to explore all the things that are consuming my mind thousands of miles away.