My Latest Burst of Intel: 7 Common Challenges You Encounter After You Launch Your NGO…


Here's the latest article I penned for Matador, pretty useful stuff if you're into knowing a little more behind the scenes stuff from NGO'dom. The real-deal link is here.

7 Common Challenges You Encounter After You Launch Your NGO

Starting the NGO is the easy part. But the aftermath? Now, that’s the thing that keeps you up at night.

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.

“In the end, if there is no laughing-til-you-cry, it’s just not worth it.”

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.

“That’s what it’s all about – making a difference in the world and feeling really, really good about it.”

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.

Casa de Los Angeles Gets the Chi Love (and Donation)


The other day, I finally unloaded all the huge bags of clothes I've been hauling around for months.  A bunch of pals in Chicago had donated tons of great clothes, stuffed animals, etc...for me to bring to Mexico and I ended up finding a great organization to donate them all to.    

Casa de los Angeles is a bright and cheery daycare center just off Pila Seca in SMA that assists poverty striken single moms---by providing FREE day care for their kiddies.  Little ones that would otherwise stay home alone while their mama went to work trying to make a buck.  Everyone is under the impression that SMA is "the rich part of Mexico," but I'm here to tell you...deep poverty does exist here.  I've been able to have wheels here since my little trailer is a tow behind and I've been up and down so many of the streets, side towns, and outskirts---on foot, with friends, and on my own.  There is need everywhere and this safe, and very loving, haven helps out those in dire straits.  Those strong women who had nowhere else to turn. 

I came from no money and I know my parents always struggled to keep me and my bro kickin' it in the game of life.  Odd jobs, constantly moving around and having to make new friends (thx for that one!), simple home cooked food--that is the story of my life in childhood (and oddly, now in adulthood--I guess I came by it honest).  I can imagine what it must have been like to get a big care package of goodies for these women. 

Big, mad, loving props to all my buds in Chi who were cool enough to respond to my "I need help" email.  Besos from me and Casa de los Angeles in Mexico. They readily accept volunteers so if you are into coming down to work with some adorable babies and a great team of volunteers, contact them here.

In the meantime, I am DELIGHTED that my truck is free and clean it's ready for the next batch of goods to come down!  The last photo is my PACKED truck when I left Chicago.  Good God, I am still amazed I made it all this way...well, not really...but sorta...




Sugar, Sugar, Sugar and Oh Yeah, More Sugar...


Every morning outside the school I was volunteering at in Sembalun, Lombok there would stand this charming fella selling his wares.  Try to guess what was in his funky tin belt/walking bazaar?  Little bitty pinches of sugar!  It came in the form of toasted & shredded sugarcane and it went for about a penny or so.  All the school kids would pop by on their way in the front gates and buy a tiny bite (if they had a penny, that is) and once they sucked all the sweetness out of their pinch, they would just be wired and happy to start the long, arduous day of learning.  I thought this was a brilliant execution of entrepreneurship and it just solidifies my belief that sugar really does make the world go round~~
Side note:  I would love to give up sugar this year.  Love to.  Of course, this being murmured as I smell a big fat chocolate cake baking downstairs that I literally roused my mom from a deep, dark sleep to make. 

Remote Waterfalls and Paradise Found on Lombok

Img_3784One of the highlights of my volunteer trip to Lombok was taking advantage of the downtime.  If I wasn't up at the crack trying to baby summit a mountain, I was attempting to learn to ride a moped (which I loved and almost wiped out on a dozen times) or exploring crashing waterfalls.  There was an amazing one that I got the chance to hit up twice--the name escapes me right this second, but the fun I had there doesn't.  It was about an hour ride on motorbike from Sembalun and located down a dusty dirt road (though on my 2nd visit, some fellas were paving the top part of the road).  Once the bike was tucked away, we'd trample down a winding set of stairs to the stream at the base of the volcano-fed falls and then trek about 15 minutes uphill to the most majestic waterfall shrouded in mini-rainbows.  The fresh water pool was laced in soft slabs of sulfur and we'd smear it all over our bodies time and time again before diving back into the pool (it took all the strength in my legs to back up to the downpour because the force was so strong).  After flitting around in the water (and half drowning a gazillion times) and scrambling up the slippery rocks to get closer to the beast , we'd haul back up the path and subsequent stairs (hello heart attack) just clean as a whistle and ready to tackle another jubilant class of kiddies.  There was always a shirtless sweaty fella there taking long hand-rolled cig breaks from his brutal job of hauling full TREES up those stairs--deforestation the old-school way, I suppose.


Sembalun Bumbung Gets a Taste of English, Too...

Img_3851Besides teaching at the school in Sembalun Lawang every day, I also took a short ride to the very similar neighboring village of Sembalun Bumbung to teach a class.  The students at this school were just wild with excitement every afternoon when I strolled through the door and you'd not believe how far a set of flash cards can go with kids who really want to learn.  I taught everything:  numbers, months, colors, days of the week, greetings, nature walks exploring everything you could see with the naked eye, body parts (I loved hearing everyone scream BELLYBUTTON at the top of their lungs when I pointed to mine)....but what they loved most was when when they got to pair off and come to the front of the class to practice conversational skills.  Some of them were just so funny (and some were rambunctious hellions--but in a good way) and it was enlightening to actually witness progress.  All they really knew was how to say hello and by the time I left, they were having mini-convo's.  Just brilliant.  Compared to my kids in Sembalun Lawang, these little balls of energy were straight up flirts.  They made me laugh so much (re: wanna tear my hair out) and by the time I'd leave every day, I felt like I'd just been to war.  With random students popping in from other classes (just out of control), everyone fighting for a smidge of attention and intensely competitive games of hangman happening on the chalkboard, it was chaos every single second.  But the oh-so-enriching kind...

Sembalun, Lombok, Indonesia--A Village as Special as it Gets~


If you look deep into that gorge in the photo, you will see the remote village of Sembalun, Lombok, Indonesia.  It's a tiny mountain village rimmed by a massive active volcano and is full of more love than almost any place I've been in the world; it seemed like everyone in the village was related and/or the very best of friends.  I would stand on the front porch at my families house (I lived in a homestay set up by my volunteer program) and do yoga every morning just after the sun rose and all the little kiddies would be walking to school in their adorable uniforms.  There were a least a hundred hello's before I could even get through a set of sun salutations and half of them weren't even my students.  It's such a social community...people would drop by at all hours just to sit for a spell on the porch (I mastered the art of sprawling my body out into the most comfortable horizontal position--be it porch, living room, or picnic bench-- at any given second) and each family lived in a full compound that included houses for aunts, uncles, grannies, sons and daughters.  Imagine that you don't want to bolt a gazillion miles away from home, your family and life as you know it the very instant you graduate from high school??  Well, the kind folk of Sembalun didn't.  Even if they did want to leave the village it was only so they could make more money and bring it back home to the community and their family.  What an intrepid/primitive way of living, don't you think?

Who Knew a Toothbrush Could Make a Kid So Happy

Img_3937While I was in Sembalun, I had the honor of teaching a gaggle of kiddies how to brush their teeth and use soap.  I know it seems beyond belief, but these little guys were beyond excited to own their first ever toothbrush, toothpaste and bar of soap.  It was a comedy of sorts to see these adorable babes wield their toothbrush like it was a foreign weapon and lug around this giant bar of soap that they had no idea what to do with.  After I repositioned the toothbrush in each of their tiny fists and we'd filled up each of their bright plastic cups with mountain spring water, we set to brushing away.  They were absolutely delighted and clung to their goods as if someone were going to snatch them from them.  After I scooted back in the classroom, they had all stacked up their cups, thinking they had to return them at the end of class (as they usually do with pencils, crayons, etc...) so when we handed them back out to the kids, they were pleased as punch to own their VERY OWN plastic cup.  Wow.  I guess I loved showing them how to rinse and spit.  Who knew?


Semablun Lawang and the Live-In Lombok Volunteer Program


The village in Indonesia where I just spent a spell volunteering (and living with a local family) in was called Sembalun Lawang.  It was a tiny, very remote village on the Muslim island of Lombok and was situated just at the base of Mt. Rinjani, a stunning active volcano.  Though the entire island was incredibly primitive and painfully poor, never in my life have I met more generous and friendly people.  All of my students were so clever and genuinely eager to learn English, it just blew my mind.  I taught middle school and Jr. high school every day and then come night time, I'd teach an adult class.  Sometimes the power all across the valley would go out and the boys would light candles just so we could keep plugging away at basic conversational phrases.  It was tragic for me to leave and I'm already plotting my return to this special place.  If only people knew these opportunities existed, the world might just be a better place.  These lovely folks had absolutely no money (they were simply trying to make a little dinero to meet their daily needs) and they were the happiest lot I've come across in all my travels.  Everything (and I mean everything)  revolved around family, education, and food.  Ah, the glorious, glorious food of Indonesia.  I cannot believe there are no Indonesia restaurants in is that even possible?

Livin` Like a Local in Lombok, Indonesia

Lombokmapflash1 So sorry that  I have been so off grid for the past month.   I really had no idea that the tiny, very 4th-world village where I was headed in Indonesia (it was on the Muslim island of Lombok just East of Bali) had no phones, no net, no nothing.  Talk about wonderful.  I have no idea what is happening in the world and never have I felt more at peace and content and clean.  The next few weeks are going to be a flurry of updates about my entire volunteer experience in the village of Sembalun Lawang (nestled at the base of majestic Mt. Rinjani) and my explorations of the always magical Bali (I cannot believe that I drank BEER---but I guess I now love Bintang).  This particular trip was epic in a million ways (taught an entire 2nd grade class how to brush their teeth and use soap) and one of those  life/mind altering journeys that very seldom happen unless you are lucky enough to really let down some barriers and crack open a few walls that you didn`t even know you`d built up (sure, I guess I don`t mind taking a river bath and coming out covered in baby leeches).  My mind is twirling with new ideas and directions to take, so be on the lookout...more is on the way...mst