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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Seeds for a Future Part 1: Getting your NGO off the ground

The observations presented here are drawn from six years of work in an indigenous Guatemala village of about 1,500 families called Chocolá. Our experiences may not apply to other rural communities. However, from our conferences and discussions with other NGOs and our interviews and work within other communities, we suspect our experiences are more common than they are unique.

The end of the Guatemalan Civil War resulted in a flood of non-governmental organization (NGO) programs spreading across the country in the hope of helping desperately poor people gain everything from their human rights, to better health care, food and nutrition, and training in governance. Most deserve to be applauded, but because the government and many NGOs find it quicker and less costly to pass out money, services, and equipment for “immediate impact” on critical issues, there has been a lack of emphasis on human resources. The absence of such training may leave communities fighting over the goods and services, rather than learning how to work together toward critical common goals. Many communities came to look to the government and NGOs for charity rather than for the human resource development that they need in order to gain control of their futures.

The observations presented in this blog post deal with some of the things we have learned while founding and then running a small community development NGO in an indigenous Guatemala village of about 1,500 families, called Chocolá. Our experiences may not apply to all rural communities. But, from our conferences and discussions with other NGOs and our interviews and work within other communities, we suspect our experiences are more common than they are unique. Large NGOs may have all the experience and tools they need to deal with some of these issues, but younger start-up NGOs with modest budgets and small staffs might find these lessons of value.

Seeds for a Future (Seeds) is an Arizona based 501(c)3 with an on-the-ground partner organization of the same name in Guatemala. Our long-term goal is to help the community develop leadership skills, create enterprises that provide jobs and to help Guatemalans gain the self-confidence needed to identify and pursue a vision for themselves that is inclusive of men, women, young adults and children.

The first thing we did, prior to initiating any work in Chocolá, Guatemala was to organize a body of Guatemala business, academic, and community program professionals to advise us. Through connecting with these individuals we were able to gain a clearer picture of the Chocolá community. It helped us understand the interactions between individuals and learn about the types of NGOs that had failed in the past, eventually resulting in our adoption of the key principles that now guide our organization. Without these initial interactions, Seeds would have been unable to offer its ideas and assistance in a cultural framework of relevance to the citizens of Chocolá.

Once the initial framework of the organization was established, the next steps were getting legal and acquiring funding. It might come as a surprise to learn that more than a few NGOs set up and start working without first registering with the local government or learning about labor laws, tax laws, and other regulations that need to be followed. Some even head down the trail without obtaining nonprofit status in the US. We consulted the Guatemala NGO Network in Antigua for guidance and attorney/accountant referrals. Whichever country you may be working in will have similar requirements, so get started with a clear understanding of what the host country expects and requires.

Fundraising is difficult in Guatemala, as well as within many other countries, so we recommend that you do not expect local foundations, businesses, or philanthropists to be of much help. They support a great many causes, but foreign NGOs, and especially small start-ups, are not likely to be high on their list of priorities. In addition, fundraising in countries like Guatemala is difficult because the laws do not offer tax write-offs to donors, and most successful local fundraising is based on personal connections which can take years to develop. Also, do not assume that you will find it easy to raise money in the US for your humanitarian project. It is a good idea to have money lined up for at least three or four years before you begin, and then start doing more fundraising the minute you begin work.

Be prepared to endure difficulties in establishing a local bank account. The process can be daunting — even inexplicable. You will need an experienced accountant or attorney to lead you through the process, but getting the account can greatly expedite your ability to transfer funds, receive donations and make payroll. Consult a trusted and experienced person to find out which local banks are considered the most stable, and try to choose one that has a corresponding relationship with the American bank where you will have your 501(c)3 funds. Get this taken care of just as soon as you can; depending upon the type of account, it may several weeks for the paperwork to be completed.

Another thing to consider that may not be apparent at first, is deciding whether your staff should be hired as “employees” or “contract workers,” because labor and tax laws for the two are different. Do not assume that labor or corporate laws of the US have any bearing on how the country you are working in has organized its own laws. Make sure you know what minimum wage laws provide.

Setting up an NGO in a foreign country is not always a simple task, and these legal and financial issues are just a few of the important lessons we learned. Stay tuned for further posts from us, investigating some of the roadblocks we encountered after getting our NGO off the ground.

The founding members of Semillas Para al Futuro (Seeds for a Future) include Suzanne and Earl de Berge, and Hal Green, successful business people and generous philanthropists, who were first introduced to Chocolá as Earthwatch volunteers in 2004. While working on an archaeological site under the village of Chocolá, they discovered much more than ancient relics. They found an opportunity to help a small community work its way out of poverty while preserving its historical heritage.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog