Help me help others
June 1, 2008 10:48 PM   Subscribe

Tips on creating a non-profit organization to help people abroad get basic necessities?

I'm a researcher working in small indigenous communities of rural areas of South America. All of these communities are poverty-stricken and lack what many of us in more developed countries would call basic necessities.

I was thinking that if I set-up a not profit maybe I could solicit, for example, toothbrushes/toothpaste from the American Dental Association. It may seem like a small gesture, but this is one little way in which maybe I could make a difference: teaching people to brush their teeth. Perhaps with a non-profit I could also request other types of donations (school supplies like pens and notepads for incredibly lacking "schools" - I use the term loosely), vitamins, and other small things which I could bring. I'm not (necessarily) looking to accept financial contributions.

However, I recognize that the logistics involved in doing this may not be easy - especially since this involves work outside of my own country.

FWIW I'm a dual US/EU citizen.

Another idea: joining with an already existant organization - though this is trickier.

Any advice, suggestions, or insight would be much appreciated.
posted by mateuslee to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Why is joining an existing organization trickier?
posted by gum at 11:06 PM on June 1, 2008

Response by poster: @ gum: I work in very specific areas and I don't think another organization would be likely to divert the resources that I need away from its own specific region - I think they would tell me that the best way to help them is to donate time and energy to their cause - but I want to help specifically those communities in which I work.
posted by mateuslee at 11:11 PM on June 1, 2008

Best answer: The operations and logistics costs of nonprofit work can be a huge tax on what you're trying to accomplish independently. Your "provide basic necessities by soliciting donations" vision could be very attractive to an existing organization -- especially if you convince them that you are bringing new resources to them rather than diverting resources they already possess.

Whatever you decide, good luck carrying this out!
posted by gum at 11:41 PM on June 1, 2008

Best answer: I can't really tell you about setting up a NPO, as I've never done it. It seems to me that you've got a great idea for how to get some of the things you need. I would follow your gut and start small. Maybe write some letters and make some phone callas and try to get just the toothbrushes. Once you get them, and give the ADA or whoever as much good publicity as you can (at the least, a nice website write-up), then work on the next item or items. The when you contact the American Association of Small Things you can point to that to show them that you're above board and that they'll get a nice shout-out.

I am taking a page from the advice that is usually given around here for starting a small business; don't file a DBA or try to incorporate, just get out there and start. If it turns out to be something that works and you think you want to expand, then you can worry about setting up the organizational framework then. (Btw, there's lots of threads about setting up a non-prof, but NOLO's book is a good starting point.But don't do it yet.) I'm sure that if you asked your carefully selected institutional donors and then made a passioned appeal to your friends, family and network, you'd be off to a good start. Those people have some sort of connection to you already that compensates for your not being a "legitimate organization."

Also consider simply fundraising and buying the necessities locally. That way you'd be stimulating the local economy a bit. You might think that it sounds dodgy to ask for money like that, but it can work on small scales. (And, really how much do you need for notepads?) A former colleague of mine raised enough money to buy two motorcycles in Togo this way. Granted, she was volunteering for a US-based non-profit at the time, but there was no way for donors here to know that she really spent the money on the bikes. It's all about trust.

Best of luck.

I was about to write that if you need a toothbrush, you can memail me. Then it occurred to me that you've got an entire community of pretty magnanimous people right here at Metafilter. Throw together a webpage that can list what you need and why the need is so great. Perhaps visitors could choose something like 25 notebooks, or 100 pens or whatever, and then give you a donation through PayPal. Alternatively, people might be willing to actually send you the items you need. Post it up on Projects and off you go.

So, if you need a website or a toothbrush, memail me. (seriously)
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 12:44 AM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @ HE Amb. : Thanks for the tips, esp re: Mefi projects. I'll work on expanding my (very simple!) website to ad a page which explains my efforts more clearly and I'll put it up there... This is a great idea. Also, I just bite the bullet and write some local dentists.

Thanks for taking the time to write this detailed response! Much apprecited :)
posted by mateuslee at 1:30 AM on June 2, 2008

Best answer: I suggest you start with a strategic plan covering questions like -

How are you going to make this sustainable? What happens in 3 months after the first set of toothbrushes wear out? How will you get people on the ground to distribute, and let you know when more resources are needed?

How do you know that toothbrushes are vital? Just a devil's advocate here, obviously they are :) But a researched, well-presented advocacy package will help you to obtain resources from companies.

I think it would be wise to see if there are any organisations doing what you're doing, or dental charities looking to reach into new regions. Just because setting everything up legally is so cumbersome and diverts you from doing the actual work as was mentioned above. I have been on non-profit boards and most of our time was taken up with minutae of finances and reporting rather than the actual work.

Good luck whatever you decide.
posted by wingless_angel at 4:17 AM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @ wingless angel: thanks for the advice, indeed I cannot offer sustainability; however, an advocacy package is a good idea. As you've been involved with this before, do you have any idea of what such a thing should look like?

Thanks for the tips!
posted by mateuslee at 4:54 AM on June 2, 2008

Contact the folks at Safe Passage. They did pretty much what you're proposing to do - started a nonprofit from scratch to serve a very specific population. They may be a benchmark you can follow.
posted by anastasiav at 6:49 AM on June 2, 2008

I would urge you to raise cash abroad and buy the supplies locally. It's better for the country's economy, even if the supplies have to be sourced from the capital city, and shipping and customs fees (and sometimes bribes, theft, loss, etc) can impose a surprisingly large cost on shipping stuff.

Secondly, I would urge you to try and figure out how your fledgling NGO can begin to meet what the community sees as its real needs. You are bothered by the lack of toothbrushes, but maybe they are bothered by the high infant mortality rates, or by the lack of running water. Giving away a few toothbrushes is easier, but not very useful if the real problems are more complicated. Your sense of what the community needs may not overlay well with what they feel they need, and both may be in conflict with how an outside expert in a particular field (eg public health, education) would assess their needs.

Thirdly, by relying on the community to figure out what is needed, you can also rely on the community to tell you if an alternate exists. For example, in many places in the world chew-sticks are a great (free or cheap, locally-produced) alternative to plastic toothbrushes. Or, is there a small local store (the kind that sells coke and laundry soap and tinned fish, often out of someone's house) that could be convinced to also sell toothbrushes... if there were to actually be a market for toothbrushes?
posted by Forktine at 6:59 AM on June 2, 2008

Response by poster: @ Forktine: You make some good points, however I don't know of anywhere nearby where I can buy 200 toothbrushes. Also, I don't have much time to go shopping in the capital or the nearest city - this would take valuable time away from the project and who knows about the quality of those brushes, at least I know the ones from more developed contries won't fall apart in someone's mouth, aren't painted with toxic ink, etc.

While it is true that the community would ideally tell me what they need, I have no communication with them while I am here, however, I know they need toothbrushes and a slew of other stuff- the alternatives are there but no one uses them as whitnessed by the poor teeth and resultant pain and difficult eating. There is no dental care to speak of there. There is no store in the community, they are self-sufficient... yes, I know this is only a temporary solution for now - but I want to do something concrete to contribute and this is one way to do this. Paper, books, etc. will also have an impact, for sure.

I understand your concerns about infant mortality (the rate is VERY low, near-zero happily) and there are surely bigger socio-economic issues at hand - however, I do not think I can really tackle these alone. Maybe this is something to do together with another organization.

I'm most interested in making a few one-time donations to the community to improve their lives: Vitamins, toothbrushes, books, notebooks, pens, bandages, etc. Yes, I know it isn't the big picture, but it's a lot better than nothing.
posted by mateuslee at 7:39 AM on June 2, 2008

@mateuslee Visualising Information for Advocacy is a great guide to getting your message across visually which can be crucial with some stakeholders

regarding strategic planning: start with any business book to strategic plans, once you know a bit about them start surfing other NGO sites and look at theirs for ideas. Also bear in mind that if you start seeking grant money every organisation has a different format, so it does take some time and effort.
posted by wingless_angel at 7:36 AM on June 5, 2008

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