Lessons of Philanthropy – An International Expat Perspective

My dear late father, brilliant psychiatric curmudgeon and WWII vet that he was, had a snappy retort whenever I would ask him too many questions, which was usually whenever we were together for more than a passing glance. I might ask him about a story I’d seen on T.V., or something I’d read at school. He’d always respond quickly, but without much detail. That, of course, was totally unacceptable to me at age 10 and failed to sate my ravenous hunger for information. So, as was my wont, I blurted out a quick follow-up, asking for additional detail. Think of those kids who ask, “Why?” after every response, driving their parents into fits of controlled rage with each tersely, yet ever-so-patiently offered answer. That was me. At some point, after badgering my father with yet another question, he stopped playing my little game and shot back with his ultimate final answer, “What are you doing, writing a book? Why don’t ya just skip that chapter!”. End of discussion…at least for the moment.

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My experience with philanthropy while living in Thailand and Mexico this past year would not fill a book, nor will it even be considered a viable chapter of one. But it reflects my experience and my perceptions and may be of interest to those who wonder how the largely North American model of nonprofit leadership, fund raising and volunteerism exist in other countries.

Let’s establish one universal truth from the get-go. The desire to help a neighbor or your own community exists worldwide. In every country I visited this past year, I saw examples of programs and organizations whose mission served to assist or support a specific element of need. The two strongest focus areas in the areas I lived were children and families, followed by animal welfare. Many of the groups were started – and primarily supported – by the expat communities, many from Western countries.

Developing nations have a level of poverty, malnutrition and lack of education that is relatively unknown in the U.S. That is not to say that this challenge does not exist here. We know full well that those communities of need exist aplenty. It’s the extent that differs in other countries, however, that is often beyond comprehension. And with the inability of governments to address those needs, nonprofit organizations have sprung up to meet them. Thailand, for example, currently has dozens of groups working on community development and children and family welfare. Here’s a listing of those groups: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_non-governmental_organizations_in_Thailand#Community_Development

Unlike many other parts of the world, the relationship between humans and animals is a rare and highly valued part of Western culture. Domesticated animals (dog and cats), sadly, are not held in the same high regard in Asia or Mexico, in areas in which I’ve lived. For many, including me, it was one of the more unsettling aspects of my adjustment, with experiences and memories that will stay with me forever. I wrote about the plight of Asian elephants in a previous post on this blog. I was deeply touched by their sense of grace and “emotional” attachments to both their peers and to humans. How we underestimate the power of those creatures to elevate our own sense of humanity!

Mexico, and indeed, much of Latin America, does not have a good history of managing or protecting their domestic animal populations. Hungry, homeless dogs and cats roam the streets of towns and villages everywhere and the culture tends to see them at best as a “casual pet” (one not requiring consistent feeding, safety or healthcare) or, at worst,  a nuisance. To be fair, there are also millions of animals in secure homes being cared for and loved responsibility throughout the region. The expat community, especially, has established much-needed spay and neutering programs, as well as rescue sanctuaries and adoption outreach,  for the thousands of dogs and cats they save off the streets each year. It is, at times, exhausting, disheartening and frustrating work, as there is often limited interest from the residents themselves. Luckily, awareness has been raised and recent successes have been achieved in getting people to bring in their pets or neighborhood strays for no-cost spay and neutering clinics held several times a year. In Thailand, where similar programs have been established, water bowls are set out in front of many businesses to provide for the strays. It is a reflection of Buddhist culture to honor all living things and is a new norm even groups in Latin America have organized to implement.

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English language theater is highly (and some might think surprisingly) successful in both Thailand and Mexico. I was honored and delighted to be involved as a donor and volunteer in both countries with venues that proudly market themselves as the oldest (Mexico) and the largest (Thailand) English-language production houses in their respective locales. Both are nonprofit, donor-supported, volunteer-driven entities that are prime examples of expat volunteerism at it’s very best. I’m mentioned them in previous posts, but check out their websites to see how philanthropy and the creative spirit collaborate on opposite sides of the globe!  https://www.facebook.com/TheGateTheater – The Gate Theater in Chiang Mai, Thailand and http://www.lakesidelittletheatre.com/ – The Lakeside Little Theater in Jalisco, Mexico!

Two groups, specific to the expat community, were among those I joined and participated in while living abroad. Both exist to improve the quality of the expat experience through programs, services and activities and to increase the likelihood of expats successfully adapting to their new culture and international living. In addition, both groups also give back to the communities in which they reside, using expertise, financial allocations and volunteerism to make a difference. Both organizations are held in high regards by the citizens and residents of the countries in which they operate and are ongoing examples of how the western-inspired philanthropic model can work and adapt. Check them out and see for yourself: http://www.chiangmaiexpatsclub.com/ – The Chiang Mai Expats Club and http://lakechapalasociety.com/weebly/index.php – The Lake Chapala Society.

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Now, listen up you fundraisers out there. Raising dollars for nonprofits internationally is difficult. And more than that, the regulations and oversight we often take for granted in our world do not exist in most foreign countries, particularly the developing nations. Records and data-management are often nonexistent, campaigns are usually last minute and poorly executed. Donors often give in cash because of the inability to use credit or debit cards. Donor acknowledgement may consist of a phone call, quick email or….often….nothing. It’s a hit or miss affair and, as I have said over and over this past year, these organizations often exist (and even thrive) in spite of their lack of oversight and what we might perceive to be sloppy financial management. I wish I could donate a dollar for every time some expat volunteer or staffer snapped, “Well, this is Asia” or, “This is Mexico” to counter my suggestions on adopting current best practices.

But more often than not, the mission is there and the motivation is heartfelt. Donors and volunteers see this and are drawn to it. Just as donors in our world, they sometimes simply want to make a contribution and are undeterred by the fact that they really have no idea where their money is going, how it’s being spent or whether they receive acknowledgement. Expats often don’t need a deduction for taxes, either, so that doesn’t play into the equation. They just want to contribute to a community-based need that is very real and tangible to them. As we’ve seen in the U.S., we owe it to the donors to educated them on expectations when making a donation. But as I’ve mentioned, when the deductability advantage isn’t at play, they tend to lose interest in the details of operational efficiency.

Things are changing though. They have to. Groups are realizing that they’ve existed by the skin of their teeth for years and are just now trying to institute a more sustainable giving program. Sadly, due to poor record keeping, unskilled leadership, poor or nonexistent board structure, as well as operating and financial policies and a general laissez-faire attitude toward the business of philanthropy overall, they are recently (and reticently) accepting the need to develop a more sustainable, fiscally responsible, operating model. Unlike their American counterparts, however, they don’t have the wherewithal to hire professional consultants. They rely almost exclusively on local volunteers, of whom few have the background or ability to develop a fully-fleshed out annual campaign strategy or plan.

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Which is an exciting “window of opportunity” (nicely illustrated above by a photo I took this past week while in Mexico City) for groups like AFP – http://www.afpnet.org/ to consider in broadening their outreach beyond North America in the years to come. They could leave a legacy and impact internationally that would be sustainable and measurable, key foundation requirements of any giving program. Think of the impact their mentoring and educational efforts could make on developing countries worldwide!

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Now that I am returning to the U.S. to resume my career and to continue my involvement in community, charitable and culture-related outreach, I will call upon my experiences abroad to focus on what I’ve learn to be true. The nonprofit model of giving, caring and improving the lives of others, animal and human alike, is alive and well. The most immediate needs in each area become the priorities, as well they should be. Expats have brought much of that awareness to the international communities in which they live. We should be proud of those values and how that model, flawed though it may be in translation, is utilized, adapted and implemented.

As defined by an international firm that brings together investors and causes:

 “Philanthropy must be more than just a charitable donation . It is an effort an individual or organization undertakes based on an altruistic desire to improve welfare of others.” 

I cherish my experience in working with and observing these groups over the last year and honor and acknowledge the expats who have been at the forefront of those efforts!

END.