This was originally posted on the Wharton International Volunteer Program blog. Many thanks to WIVP team project leader, Lila Holzman, for bringing together a talented group of diverse professionals who in the span of two weeks helped us flesh out ideas and concepts for sustainable revenue generation, as well as prepare us for the upcoming Global Giving Open Challenge, a crowdfunding portal for non-profits, from September 1-15, 2015. By Lila Holzman
“Working with Cambio Creativo, an educational program for at-risk youths from the undeserved Coco Solo community in Panama, was for me a transformational experience.” – Valentina Ryabova
A Little about our Team Our project brought together a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic team with individuals from Russia, India, Romania, Nigeria, and the U.S. Additionally, all five of us came from different professional backgrounds, had expertise in different fields, and brought different skillsets, worldviews, and communication styles to the table. While we contributed our complimentary knowledge and expertise to achieve our common goal and deliver on our commitments, we also learned from each other. The diversity and openness of our team provided us with an opportunity to look at the challenges and opportunities that we were presented with from different perspectives and to choose the best solutions.
Our Project Partner: Cambio Creativo in Coco Solo and Buena Vista The situation: Summarizing the nuanced history of the Coco Solo community is complicated. The slum-like area has been increasingly marginalized over the years as Colon’s ports (on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal) continue to expand, buying up Coco Solo’s land from the government and crowding out its inhabitants. People in Coco Solo suffer from poor living conditions and half of the community has been relocated to government housing in Buena Vista, where many of their same struggles continue.
When asked what obstacles youths face as they continue in school, Cambio Creativo founder Michael Brown noted a few main issues, namely: a general lack of resources, individuals not knowing how to navigate the process to find and enroll in appropriate schools, and the temptation to go for quick money through unskilled employment opportunities. Cambio Creativo combats such issues with a comprehensive approach focused on both helping kids make it through school with programs that provide nutrition and tutoring and also on empowering them to think outside the box through creative education workshops and mentoring.
The organization: Cambio Creativo is a small nonprofit with big goals. They struggle to make sure they are having a significant impact, while keeping their work within the realm of what they can sustainably accomplish, given their limited resources and the challenging environment in which they work, where a lack of basic infrastructure makes all operations exceedingly complex. The organization is comprised of a few, strong characters whose differing motivations and approaches must come together to work towards their shared, extremely valuable goals. Creating a Bridge & Changing Mindsets While Cambio Creativo understands the people it works with, the local context, and what is feasible for them, WIVP participants have studied the theory of what organizations must to do to function efficiently and how to analyze critical issues like brand management, marketing, and product development. We first had to learn and understand what Cambio Creativo is all about before being able to contribute, and Cambio Creativo had to be open to challenging current ways of doing things. Both groups had to make compromises, remain open, and learn from each other. The truth is that such a process could take endless amounts of time, but a week and a half felt like a promising start.
Before departing for Panama, we began learning more about the realities of the Coco Solo community and the challenges its people face on a daily basis. Some team members experienced the feeling of hopelessness and struggled with the question: “Is there anything we can do to provide meaningful assistance to these people?” However, once on the ground in Coco Solo, getting to know the dedicated team of Cambio Creativo including Executive Director Melissa Mazurkewicz, Director of Development Diana Moschos, and co-founder Michael Brown, mindsets began to change. Their energy, commitment, and, most importantly, confidence in the success of their initiative inspired and motivated us. We realized that even the most daunting of challenges can be overcome when you have a goal, a plan how to achieve this goal, and a combined effort of people who are passionate about their mission. Our Impact It might seem that the week and half we worked with the organization is a drop in the ocean compared to their long-term mission. Therefore, it was important to develop a strategy that would allow us to achieve meaningful results within the short time that was available to us. Identifying Cambio Creativo’s needs was a crucial first step. Prioritizing these needs and selecting the most urgent ones with the guidance of Cambio Creativo’s team together with our experience and skills was the next step. This approach allowed us to generate tangible results that should have a long-lasting impact on the organization. We decided to focus on two main projects, both related to fundraising strategy and self-sufficiency. The first was to prepare Cambio Creativo for their upcoming crowdfunding campaign on Global Giving, which they are looking to launch in September. This was rather straight forward, and we were able to leave behind many materials and action plan steps based on best practices that the organization can use when they are ready. The second project was to help them analyze potential products to sell as a way to diversify their funding and create a source of sustainable revenue generation. We were able to show them how to narrow down their desired target segments and how to evaluate which products would best fit those segments. We designed a survey to further narrow down which products are most popular and at what price points. In our short time, we were not able to do a full cost-benefit analysis or to receive a sufficient number of survey results, but we left an organized to-do list and made plans to stay in touch to help with continued analysis.
One key learning point for us was realizing the importance of maintaining a third person’s perspective as a consultant. It is important to scope the project with the organizations you work with in advance; however, if you feel that a directional change is necessary, the consulting team should recognize this and work with the stakeholders to agree on a new scope. Overall, the intent is to help the greater good, and that needs to be kept in mind over personal preferences. Flexibility is definitely key. Another significant aspect of our work involved making connections. Between our combined Panama, Wharton, nonprofit, and personal networks, we were able to introduce Cambio Creativo to some important contacts, and used our position as a visiting student consultant group to reach out to new stakeholders.
A Few Concluding Thoughts One familiar discussion point regarding volunteer trips abroad is the fact that if the monetary expenses incurred by volunteers while traveling were instead donated directly to the organization, then this might help that organization reach some of its short-term goals. However that would have been just that — a short-sighted thought. We believe the discussions and thought that developed during the trip will help the organization in a more long-term, sustainable way. Additionally, the reality is that volunteers would likely not donate monetarily directly to an unfamiliar organization such as Cambio Creativo. Instead we have contributed in a way where all involved have been able to learn a great deal and get out of this experience more than we put in. We worked hard, enjoyed getting to know one another, and certainly gained exposure to what Wharton likes to call “stretch experiences.”