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3 Tips For Starting A Grassroots International Nonprofit

A street with a red telephone booth.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgetown, Guyana ten years ago, Scott Stadum fell in love with the country and its people.

When he wasn’t cooking roti or stargazing, Scott worked on a variety of community-driven projects: outfitting hospitals with computers, doing marketing work for the zoo, teaching at an orphanage, and more.

He knew cobbling together such projects was going to be makeshift. This was the Peace Corps, after all. But he didn’t anticipate the lack of resources to be as big as it was. Whether it was shipping computers, printing brochures, or buying crayons, he had to dip into his meager salary each time.

Of course, the Peace Corps doesn’t leave its volunteers to fend on their own as federal grants like SPA and PEPFAR are available. But for many, the process to apply is arduous. These grants also cater to larger endeavors, libraries and playgrounds for example, and don’t offer any opportunities for projects where a few more dollars would make all the difference.

To address this problem, Scott and few other volunteers came up with the idea for Friends and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Guyana (FROG) while still in country.

“Our idea is that if volunteers are going to learn, they should learn from our money. And if they fail, they fail with our dollars,” he says. “If they screw up with a SPA or PEPFAR grant, that’s a lot of money.”

Anybody in Guyana can apply - Peace Corps Volunteers, locals, missionaries, etc.- but the one catch is they need a backing organization to ensure the funds will get properly used. So far, FROG has funded over 20 projects from fixing a water system in a village to paving roads to helping after school programs. They raise their grant money by selling Peace Corps calendars and tote bags, as well as hosting fundraisers.

The process of starting FROG and maintaining it hasn’t always been easy. They fumbled for a while figuring out the best way to accept and distribute grants. They’ve had some flaky board members. They needed to creatively come up with ways to get documents from Guyana to the U.S. given the abundance of slow modems. It’s been bumpy at times, but for Scott, it’s always been worth it.

“There’s a need for grassroots development. I recognize that there’s a need to reform the school system, but there’s also a need to get them books and roofs that don’t leak,” he says. “There’s a place for small organizations to solve these problems one at a time.”

Do you want to start a grassroots, internationally-focused nonprofit?

Here’s Scott’s advice:

  • Do the work first. “If you want to strike out on your own, do it after you’ve had a bit of experience. It would’ve probably saved us a lot of time if we had our own experiences first in learning how different systems and tools worked, how messaging works, how processes work, and all that. Volunteer with somebody first to see how they do it.”
  • Be authentic. “People are surprised that it’s a bunch of white people doing this. But there’s a level of sincerity we have that works. We’re not in it to make money. We’re not exploiting their natural resources or selling cheetah or leopard skins. The work we’re doing speaks for itself.”
  • Embrace your scrappiness. “It keeps you nimble, keeps you moving, and keeps you keep experimenting with the resources you have and trying to find ones you don’t. At the beginning we were very much like Peace Corps volunteers, and not sure of what we were doing or what we were in for. But we were ready to take on the world and try to get done what we set out to do.”

Next steps:

By Celeste Hamilton Dennis

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