Tag Archives: travel

Lessons from Ghana: Making a Difference

My recent trip to Africa reminded me of some of the finer points of delivering assistance and support in areas of great need. These are lessons learned from many years of being involved in areas like Thailand, New Orleans and other areas of unique and extraordinary need.

It is my experience and observation that generous people are drawn to certain areas and certain types of need. The conditions in many regions of Africa are a perfect example: Celebrity focus, news headlines and other media reports has created an awareness of living conditions in parts of Africa. That is good. However, awareness does not always represent a solution: sometimes action does not even represent a solution.  As we like to say within our organization, “Generosity is not the issue, effectiveness is.” Part of being effective is delivering what is truly needed in the eyes of the beneficiary.  

When delivering aid to a people, regions and cultures we may not fully understand, there are things to be aware of that, in context, easily explain why so many efforts do not work. I am going to try to articulate a couple of these important details and perhaps spark deeper thought and discussion when it comes to international giving.

Truthfully, we cannot underestimate cultural differences. We frequently see aid delivered in the form that the donor feels appropriate, rather than what the community in need really desires and recognizes. We saw this after the deadly Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 when well-meaning groups shipped large quantities of coats and scarves to a hot, humid region of southern Thailand; the intentions were good, but the effort was lost on people with very different and specific needs. We see a similar dynamic in many international efforts: housing development for people who culturally would not live in the types of shelter being constructed; a failure to involve appropriate and respected leaders who can be the lubricant between those who want to help and those in need; Last but not least, trying to jump ahead of the process and bring people to a point we as donors feel they need to be, rather than a point they desire to be.

As donors, we need to consider the culture we seek to aid from a perspective of dignity and sustainability. Anthony Oliver-Smith writes,

“The best outcomes imaginable [are] systems in which people can materially sustain themselves while beginning their own process of social reconstruction.” 

Essentially his is the “Teach a man to fish …” philosophy. The sound bites and clips we see in the media, which serve a great purpose by bringing public attention to global need, often abbreviate the situations to the point where a generous and prosperous nation like the U.S. is compelled to react immediately. Again, it is with the best of intentions, but in ways that we see as appropriate from our perspective.

The fact is that when people are in desperate circumstances, you usually find that some sort of displacement is at the heart of the situation. Whether it is caused by political unrest or natural or man-made disasters, there is almost always a dual sense of disconnect from the things they hold dear and at the same time a pride in what they consider to be their heritage. In these stressful times, many look to religious tradition for identity; they seek to reestablish what is meaningful to them. They depend on those they trust the most. That is the starting point.  

We as donors and as caring global neighbors need to remember this. Again, quoting Oliver-Smith,

“We should approach the goals of reconstructing and reconstituting community with a certain humility and realism about the limits of our abilities. Such humility and realism have not characterized to any major extent, the planners dealing with uprooted peoples to date.”

Our usual American-driven focus on cost-containment and efficiency must be maintained to be sure, but not to the point of excluding the needs and wants of the very people we are trying to help. I cannot say it any better than Oliver-Smith:

“Donor-driven …designs [can] endanger the connection that people establish with their built environment, violate cultural norms of space and place, inhibit the reweaving of social networks and discourage the re-emergence of community identity.”

With this backdrop, the Forever Young School in Ghana (the dedication of which was my reason for traveling to Ghana in the first place) is a model. It was created in partnership with local leaders. It was built by local artisans. It is staffed by local teachers who received training from outside sources, but are allowed to teach in a manner relevant to their local community. The dignity and autonomy of tribal leaders is recognized and respected. Local culture was not considered an obstacle, but an asset from which to build. The project is well-designed and takes into account details in a variety of areas, including transportation needs, recreation, academics, health and medical support. It has become the cause of community celebration!

The day we arrived for a special ceremony opening the school, families and local leaders assembled at 4:00 am to prepare for our visit, which was not scheduled until 2:00 that afternoon! They sang for us, they danced, they provided food … the sense of gratitude was at a level that can only been seen when a proud and deserving community is helped to achieve what they need in a manner meaningful to them.

As a result, I left feeling like the donors and organizations that supported this school had created something they could feel proud of – both from a relief-of-needs perspective and a donor efficiency perspective.

It was truly inspiring.



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Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Initiative: Nonprofit Operations

Microfinance: Making a Difference in Ghana

Do you know what microlending and micro credits are?

In reflecting on my Ghana experience, it occurred to me that there were participants on the trip with very high-level business backgrounds, who each made the comment, “I had heard of micro loans and micro credits, but I suppose I did not fully understand what it meant.” Since that is common in my experience, I realized others may well have the same experience. I thought I should take this opportunity to explain in my own way, the simple brilliance of micro-lending.

We can all certainly deduce from the various names, that micro loans or micro credits have something to do with “small loans.” But in the end, there is nothing small about them.

 The sequence is as follows: a micro credit or micro lending organization establishes a fund for loans in a community or region. The average loan will be in the hundreds of U.S. dollars, so a relatively small fund that is well-placed can have a great deal of impact.

Next, applications are selected from local individuals who have a dream and then they are assessed (and this is important) by a local lending board. As an idea rises to the top, assistance is offered in creating a real business plan and some of the risks of the venture are addressed. In micro lending, we are talking about businesses that most often are stuck where they are, based on simple limitations in transportation, storage, inventory—and the only access these small individuals would have to capital would be at what you would have to call the loan shark level  meaning loans at 30% and higher. 

As a loan is approved, a small team is put in place (and here is the simple, but brilliant part) and each loan recipient has a small committee to answer and report to. The committee is made up of the individuals who get the next loan when the current loan is repaid. Think about that for a moment in terms of what it means to the level of support and accountability. “I will help you succeed, because when you do, I get my chance to succeed!” Here is an example from the KOMART Foundation in Ghana, a small micro-lending effort, I saw on my travels:

A local entrepreneur saw the need and potential for an internet café in an area with limited access. The idea turned into a business plan with a committee and then a loan. The loan resulted in a very attractive little business location with multiple stations (Photo 1). The location generated customers (Photo 2). Business growth necessitated employees (photo 3). The success sparked ideas and challenges which were addressed by the local partners (photo 4), but with the added support of an international “board” of enthused donors who were invigorated by the success! (photo 5).

Now meet the successful business owner (photo 6) and his bride-to-be – because he can now afford to marry and start a family. This is the man who as he repays his loan (and we were privileged to witness his first repayment—believe me there was pride in this business owner), will launch another business in his own community and will be the anchor in a network of local businesses who care about one another, support one another and, of great importance in developing regions, trust one another.   

A quick tally may be in order: a few hundred dollars  launches a successful small business that hires several people in the community (creating income for them), provides an important resource to the community (much of the computer use is for online university classes), creates an owner who cares about and can help his neighbors, and as he repays his loan, he launches the next business. On the way this business also made a new family possible.  In Ghana, there are strict rules with respect to getting married. You must provide gifts to the family of the bride that most young men cannot afford. You must also live on your own for a year—this may not seem so bad, but the rent on your small apartment is due for a full year in advance—that is tough to come up with even for most Americans. But if you own your own business and learn how to manage money and growth, you achieve these goals, and new opportunities open up!

It was truly amazing to see this process in operation first-hand – to see the lives impacted, the business generated and the change enacted by a few hundred American dollars. Ultimately, this kind of thing changes the lives of future generations by providing the resources for better education, career opportunities and stable family lives for the community’s children – about which we are passionate.

The final thing I will say about micro–lending is that you don’t need to be rich to donate and see a big result. Small amounts of donated funds mean so much. In fact, we are working to support KOMART. If you have a passion for helping those in impoverished nations in Africa through micro-finance, Operation Kids will match it and make sure it gets to Ghana. They key is working with organizations that you can trust and monitor. We saw that in KOMART on our trip to Ghana. We saw the changes, the process, the imapct, the results.

 More stories from my trip to Africa to come next week.


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Report from Ghana

I had the privilege of spending last week in Accra, Ghana. It was an opportunity to see first-hand the efforts of two of our fine Operation Kids Charities: Right To Play and Forever Young Foundation, in addition to a new micro-credit effort by the KOMART Foundation.

There is more to tell than I can cover in several blogs, but I wanted to start with this. As part of our client service of managed giving, we are typically conservative when it comes to international aid; certainly not because we do not care, but rather due to the extreme potential for fraud and various levels of misappropriation. Africa is general is an area where an ability to deliver aid effectively has been questionable at best.

I have been asked many times by many donors about the solicitations they see on TV and via direct mail, if those “faces of need” really receive the donated help? Sadly, the answer is, “Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.” Anyone who follows this blog or any of Operation Kids’ activities knows that this inconsistent outcome is simply not good enough for us.

In regions such as this, it is even more critical that we get on the ground and observe unfiltered, the delivery of aid efforts and the tangible results. In the case of Accra and the aforementioned charities, I am very pleased to say, the report is good, and the results are real.

First let me comment on Right To Play. The concept of using sports to teach certain skills and attitudes may seem simple on the surface and for those in developed countries you may associate the teaching aspect of sports with sportsmanship, teamwork, discipline, etc.  While those are all real and valid byproducts of a well-coached sports experience, in developing countries the effort takes on an entirely new and life-saving dimension.

Trained Right To Play coaches have the trust and confidence of the children they coach. Based on that relationship and the innocent distraction of “play,” a soccer ball can be used to represent a virus – say HIV – and a simple game can show a child for the first time how the virus spreads. The games address other critical issues such as peaceful conflict resolution which can, in regions where children are forced into military duty sometimes as young as 11 or 12, be the difference in whether some of these children experience a childhood in any sense, or go on to a normal adulthood. The simplicity of the Right To Play model is the genius of it, and to see it first-hand is inspiring to say the least.

As far as the other programs we observed, including the work of KOMART and Forever Young Foundation, I would prefer to address their efforts with individual stories. Over the next couple of months I want to explain in detail, how they have overcome the major issues that are blocking effective aid in so many regions of Africa, and introduce you to some of the individuals who live in Ghana, are Ghanaian by birth, and have not only elevated their own lives, but the lives of thousands of young Ghanaians. I think you will find their stories fascinating and the images compelling.



Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Initiative: Children's Issues, Initiative: Thought Leadership

Off to Ghana for School Opening

I am off to Ghana this weekend to join two of our great charitable partners. The primary purpose of the trip is to open a new school constructed with the support of Forever Young Foundation and a coalition of other groups led by Robert Gay, an esteemed Operation Kids board member. While there, we will also participate in a major Right To Play event. It is interesting to see what can happen when dedicated people who run efficient and effective organizations combine efforts.

For anyone who attended the Steve Young Hall of Fame Gala or the Ann Romney Lifetime Achievement Award Gala in Boston in 2007, your donations went a long way to make this school possible. Funds raised for these two organizations at these galas, in part, went toward this project.  We wanted you to know that your gifts had an impact on these great projects in Ghana. Stand by for photos of what your donations have accomplished!


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Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Project updates

Ragnar Relays – Florida II

What a spectacular experience I had at the finish line of the MyoMed Ragnar Relay Florida in Daytona Beach on Saturday! It was my first time to sit at the finish line of a Ragnar event and, while I knew no one running the race, each runner that crossed the finish line made me stand up and cheer. I cheered for their efforts, their accomplishment and because not many people can say they have run across the state of Florida!

Congratulations to all of the teams and a “well done” to those teams who finished top overall and in their divisions. Team Road Thrill came in at 22:12:47, first overall – their bright orange jerseys were certainly hard to miss. Ragnar has posted all results online here.

Several teams have posted blog entries about their experiences:
Twelve Wild Soles Kicking Asphalt
Team Hendryx (1st in Ultra/Mixed/Master’s and 6th overall) here and here

Most importantly, while in Clearwater at the starting line and Daytona Beach at the finish line, we were able to collect donations for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Florida. Florida was a great inaugural race, and we’re excited to see this race grow into something spectacular. Unfortunately, Tom Bassano, the runner who was going to make the 191-mile trek solo, ran into some injuries just past the halfway point and wasn’t able to finish the race. Next year, Tom plans to take up the race again to help us help Ragnar help kids in Florida. Each year, as the races grow larger and people become more familiar with the charitable component of Ragnar, the donations and the race’s impact on the communities’ children becomes even more significant, so we are excited already for 2009!

There were many questions about the Ragnar/Operation Kids relationship, which was great, since our official standing as their charitable partner is so new. Some of the questions and answers:

How do Operation Kids and Ragnar work together?
Operation Kids is Ragnar’s official national charitable partner – we help Ragnar find deserving, effective charities and projects focusing on youth health and fitness in the cities/states through which the Ragnar Relays run.

Our belief is that it is critically important to know where your donations are going and for what they will be used. We help Ragnar ensure that their donations and the donations of their runners are put to good use and make a solid, measurable impact on local youth health and fitness.

Where does the money go?
100% of the charitable proceeds from the race – raised by runners, volunteers and others – goes to the race’s designated charity (in this case, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Florida). All of the money stays locally to benefit youth health and fitness programs.

How is the money raised?
Teams have the option of raising money for the charity, giving individual donations and/or “buying” their volunteers. Teams have the option of paying to have us arrange their volunteers for them. Approximately half the fee is used to have a staffing agency fill the volunteer position. The rest is a donation toward the locally benefitted charity. If the charity fills the spot, they receive 100% of the volunteer placement fee as a charitable donation.

Did you run the race? Have you ever run a Ragnar relay? If so, leave a comment and let us know!

Overall, it was a wonderful event. We are excited to help Ragnar find deserving charities nationwide, as well as excited to see the passion of the runners, volunteers and support staff that make these events so worthwhile!

Want to see more photos? Check out our Flickr photostream here.

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Ragnar Relays – Florida I

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Running Across Florida. I am here in Clearwater, Florida, at the inaugural 2008 MyoMed Ragnar Relay Florida. Today we sat at the starting line and met the more than 60 teams who have come here to run the 191 miles across Florida to Daytona Beach.

We were able to share a bit about who Operation Kids is and how it helps Ragnar and its runners contribute money to local youth health and fitness programs – which, for this race, is Big Brothers Big Sisters of Florida. It is exciting to tell the runners that 100% of their donations stay local and go to help programs such as the BBBS’ sports buddies program. Thomas Bassano, the elite distance runner who is runing the entire 191 miles solo, started the race at midnight last night. The other teams started at intervals between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., depending on their pre-race pace times. They came decked out in wigs, costumes and high tech running gear – celebrating the crazy and the competitive.

Tomorrow we will make the drive to Daytona Beach to continue to help raise money and to cheer on the teams as they cross the finish line. Those of you unfamiliar with the race should check out a short YouTube video of this year’s Wasatch Back race here to get an idea of why this race is so popular – and why we see it as a great way to help promote youth and fitness.

Here are a few photos of the day.  I’ll be back with updates after Daytona!


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Running Across Florida

In two weeks I will be heading to Florida for the inaugural MyoMed Ragnar Relay Florida – where runners will start in Clearwater and run across the entire state to Daytona Beach. This is the same race that has become such a beloved tradition in Utah – the MyoMed Ragnar Relay Wasatch Back from Logan to Park City. Ragnar has expanded its races each year and it is exciting to see all of the places where the race courses are popping up across the country.

Earlier this year, Ragnar announced their selection of Operation Kids as their official charitable partner. We work to help Ragnar find deserving, efficient charities in the areas in which the races are held that promote youth health and fitness. As always, 100% of what we raise goes directly to the selected charities.

This race is an especially exciting one, because elite distance runner Thomas Bassano will be running the entire race … by himself. We have teamed with him to help raise money for the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Pinellas, Hernando and Citrus Counties.

With the money received from the MyoMed Ragnar Relay Florida race, Big Brothers Big Sisters will further develop its Sports Buddies program, which provides Big Brothers with the opportunity to participate in monthly sports activities with their “Littles.” Sports Buddies provides opportunities for adults to build friendships and model good sportsmanship, while enabling children to experience and participate in sporting, fitness and recreational events that may be out of reach.

Over the last month or so we have had several great calls with BBBS in Florida. I am excited to get to meet Tom, the great BBBS team and to wach all of the crazy runners make the 190-mile trek from “sea to shining sea.” More importantly, I am excited about supporting another worthy cause to help make an impact in children’s lives.

We’ll see you at the race!

For more information on the Operation Kids/Ragnar Relay partnership, click here.

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