In the Spring of 2017, we held our First Annual Charity Night for The Denan Project – a non-profit that supports isolated and impoverished communities around the world. As the student leaders of the Pingry Denan Project group, we had already organized a few other fundraising events like pizza sales and Dress Down Days. The Spring fundraiser, however, took our efforts to the next level. Rather than focusing just on fundraising, it expanded the attention to include education and awareness of the organization. We also decided to raise money for a particular goal – the funding of a water tanker in Denan, Ethiopia, greatly needed during a country-wide drought. We asked Dick Young, the President and Founder of The Denan Project (TDP), to be the keynote speaker, and an audience of over 100 attendees took time out of their Friday evenings to learn more about the charity and its mission. In the end, we raised more than $10,000 for the organization.
There was a second unexpected outcome of the event. Towards the end of the night, we were approached by Mr. Jewett, Pingry’s Director of Global Programs, who proposed a trip to one of TDP’s locations. The three of us had already been thinking about planning a trip related to the charity near the end of high school, but having Mr. Jewett to collaborate with, we were able to transform that idea into the first-ever student-driven Pingry Global Program. We led the charge in designing the curriculum and the accompanying itinerary for the trip, guided by Mr. Jewett’s knowledge of experiential education, and set in motion plans for a trip during the Summer of 2018.
Having been involved with The Denan Project for nearly three years, we set out with specific questions about nonprofit work that we knew we couldn’t find answers to in a classroom setting. We wanted to understand how organizations operated from the inside. Eventually, we decided that the purpose of the trip would be to conduct case studies of three NGOs in Peru, including TDP, through the lens of sustainability. Sustainability, as it applies to our research, is the ability of an NGO’s work to foster independence in a community; we hypothesized that, in an ideal world, a sustainable NGO could step away from the community in a finite period of time and the community would thrive on its own (as opposed to a charity pouring endless resources into a project).
Specifically, we compared and contrasted models for building sustainable communities, exploring the following questions:
- Is this work sustainable, and if not, how can it be improved?
- Does the work build independence or dependence in local communities?
- What are the impacts of international donations and/or volunteers in local communities?
- What roles do these NGOs assume in the structure of Peruvian society?
- How do factors such as tourism frequency and geography influence the approach and impact of an NGO?
- Who started these NGOs? Are the voices of Peruvians listened to?
We left for our trip in June of 2018. Sacred Valley Health (SVH), also known as Ayni Wasi in Quechua, was the first NGO we visited. Based in Ollantaytambo, SVH serves nearby high-altitude communities by giving health education to elected women called “Promotoras.” Promotoras are trained bimonthly in Ollantaytambo and serve as caregivers in their home communities. Promotoras are trained by “Docentes,” also women from local communities. By giving these jobs to local women, SVH helps set the communities on a path of success regardless of whether SVH is there in the future. SVH’s approach to sustainability relies on the training of Promotoras and Docentes so that they can depend on their own knowledge rather than that of SVH.
Awamaki, the second NGO we visited during the trip, helps register all-female weaving collectives as official businesses. Awamaki assists these collectives in determining the value of their weaving products and helps the women gain confidence in their selling strategies. In doing so, Awamaki hopes to preserve the weaving tradition in rural communities. By instilling confidence in the women and helping the cooperatives become officially recognized, these women are able to continue the tradition of their craft. Awamaki’s model of sustainability depends on women graduating its program and becoming autonomous in the weaving economy.
The Denan Project was the last NGO we visited. Its microloan program, through which TDP loans out cuy (small animals favored in the local diet) and bees to local people, teaches business skills and fiscal responsibility. Because of the nature and success of its microloans (the program has enjoyed a 100% success rate), TDP has never lost money on a transaction. The use of microloans, rather than simply pouring donations into the community, makes the exchange inherently sustainable. Additionally, the recipients of the loans themselves are the ones responsible for turning the loans into a business that stimulates the economy of their community. These skills and the businesses that result can outlast TDP itself.
The greatest finding we learned while investigating TDP’s project was that, oftentimes, sustainability must be compromised for greater change to be impacted. For example, the funding of TDP’s hospital would not be possible without large international donations, but these are rarely sustainable and ongoing sources of money. However, without such donations, TDP would be unable to offer medical care as a service. TDP’s practical outlook on sustainability allows the organization to efficiently provide an array of services; this perspective elucidated us to the limits of an exclusively sustainable approach.
In addition to the three NGOs, we visited sites across Peru including Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu. While sightseeing in these locations was highly enjoyable, the immersive nature of our trip made them equally academic. Witnessing the commodification and tourism of Machu Picchu served as a standing reminder of how tourism can shape the landscape for indigenous peoples — something we saw both do and undo the work of charities like Awamaki and Ayni Wasi. For example, tourism funds the work of Awamaki through workshops they run for visitors, while at the same time making their work more challenging by introducing cheaply made souvenirs that undercut the prices of traditional weavers. In this way, tourism is a double-edged sword.
The trip reached its climax when we visited the Congress of Peru in Lima on our final day. The group had the opportunity to meet with Congressman Wilbert Rozas, Secretary of Education Paloma Noceda, and President of the Congress Luis Galarreta. We discussed TDP’s planned construction of a boarding school in Uratari that would allow students from neighboring villages to attend classes. This meeting put to work all of the communication skills and NGO knowledge we had accrued during our two-week trip.
The work of the three NGOs we visited all involved unique ways of helping local communities. Each organization took their own approach to understand the specific circumstances within which they were operating and the local people’s needs. We saw that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be applied to nonprofit work. Whereas one charity may thrive off a tourist economy, such as Awamaki which sells woven goods to tourists, others must subsist in different ways, such as TDP which actively seeks out locations too remote for tourist engagement. Similarly, all charities had different relationships with governmental structures, with TDP relying on local officials to oversee the execution of their projects and Ayni Wasi having a location in Ollantaytambo that has to collaborate with the government-run health post.
Over the course of our trip we saw that charity work is not inherently perfect. An NGO’s model can only be sustainable with the understanding that the organization must adapt to the needs of and empower the local people. However, we believe that with this awareness, an effective and long-lasting impact can be made.