- Following months of research into potential partner organizations, the members of Pathfinders Project now have a tentative list of 10 countries and have thus far selected nine service projects in those countries.
- Understanding that our time, skill, and resource constraints are already limiting factors, we have devised the following criteria for selecting partner organizations: participation in clean water, development, and/or education work; local staffing and organizational structure; interest in raising funds and awareness through online presence; and provision of immersive volunteer opportunities.
- We will devote one month to clean water, development, and education projects in each of ten countries. In addition to our time on the ground in those countries, we are committed to providing virtual support for our partner organizations by fundraising for their ongoing projects and telling of their work via social media to a broad internet audience. These external means of support will begin immediately.
After four months, Pathfinders Project has (mostly) finalized its list of countries, partner organizations, and projects. I am incredibly excited to reveal a little bit about the time we will be spending in each country we have selected, but before I do, let me digress slightly. Bear with me if you can; skip to the end if you must.
Recently, I attended a mixer for organizers of the Yale Day of Service. In typical Ivy League fashion, the agenda for the event was unabashedly impersonal – a half an hour for networking, an hour for the distinguished speaker, another hour for networking. Officially, I was there to represent the Yale Humanist Alumni group, but since the focus of the night was evaluating the relative impact of service organizations and projects, I came prepared to discuss Pathfinders Project as well.
The speaker was Dean Karlan, Professor of Economics at Yale and the founder of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), an organization that uses randomized evaluations to design and assess programs for development projects. Essentially, their studies have brought accountability and transparency to the world of charitable giving – at least as far as development organizations are concerned. On a much different scale and with far less scientific rigor, Pathfinders Project engages in this as well. Although our primary focus will be on the authentic interactions afforded by our projects rather than on the service projects themselves, we still wish to ensure that our volunteer work is as impactful as possible. To this end, we have devised our own benchmarks for judging potential partner organizations. Our selection criteria are not research-based – they merely represent what we consider to be plausible indicators of impact; specifically, we have sought out partnerships with organizations that are staffed locally, engage in digital storytelling, and provide clean water, education, development, or immersive volunteer opportunities. These criteria follow logically from our desire to travel widely, interact with local cultures and peoples, write about our journey, and organize service projects that are as meaningful as possible given the limits on the time, skills, and resources we can offer partner organizations. But I wanted to get an expert’s opinion.
During the latter networking portion of the event, I cornered Justin Oliver, Director of Global Outreach for IPA. Unfortunately, my conversation with Oliver followed a late night of lesson planning, a long day of teaching, and a glass of wine on an empty stomach. Even given the best circumstances and adequate time, it can be difficult to explain the values behind Pathfinders Project. Needless to say, I bungled my 30 second cocktail conversation explanation. Instead of understanding that I sought advice on how to evaluate the impact of smaller organizations, Oliver thought I was asking him to rate the potential impact of our five person team. He was frank. He told me to forget about any potential impact and just focus on benefiting from the experience.
On the one hand, if I had delivered the Pathfinders Project elevator pitch a little better, Oliver might have understood that our exact aim is to arrange service projects that allow us to engage directly with people otherwise separated from us by obvious differences. The whole point is to learn as much as possible. So, although from his apologetic demeanor you could tell that Oliver thought he was leveling a major critique at our endeavor, his advice in fact confirmed the very aim of Pathfinders Project. And in the end, the conversation wasn’t a total wash. I learned the hard way that I need to polish my elevator pitch for Pathfinders Project, and I received an indirect validation of the Pathfinders Project mission by one of the leading experts in the field of development NGO impact evaluation.
On the other hand, I think Oliver, expert though he is, underestimates the impact that a well can have on a community that has no immediate access to water. Or a sanitation system on a village where contaminated water diminishes rather than sustains life. The projects we have selected do not fit into the greatest global impact model used by Karlan and Oliver, that much is true; however, even though I never did get Oliver’s opinion on the criteria we are using to select partner organizations, I contend that after looking for immersion volunteer opportunities with locally-staffed, digitally-conscious organizations, we have set up projects that will have a human, if not empirical, impact on the communities we visit and a profound impact on us.
Based on the above criteria, we have selected the following ten countries, spanning three continents, and at the time of writing have confirmed projects in 9 of the 10:
We will begin our journey in Mongolia, planting trees with The Clean Environment to combat the northward expansion of the Gobi desert. The desert sands in southern Mongolia are spreading toward the fertile grasslands and forests of the north. Indeed, some predict that all of Mongolia will become a desert within the next 25 years, a preventable outcome that would displace millions of Mongolians, threatening not only the culture and economy, but also many native habitats and species. While we are working with The Clean Environment to stop this from happening, we will stay with nomadic ethnic Mongolian families in their gers, learning about their everyday routines.
From Mongolia, we travel to Cambodia, where we will assist volunteers Making a Difference (vMaD) on two main projects: (1) drilling for and installing UNICEF designed water pumps; providing water filters; and testing water for impurities; and (2) transplanting Moringa and Amaranth (superfoods) to rural villages and working with villagers to make sure the plants prosper. Although we will be housed with other volunteers, the organizers and permanent staff are local residents, and our project will allow us to interact directly with rural villagers.
Our next stop is India, where we will partner with Gram Vikas to monitor water quality in wells, drill new wells, help install purification systems, and teach English in Gram Vikas schools in Orissa. Again, although we will be housed with other volunteers, we will be meeting, working alongside, and helping local residents.
After India, we travel to a village in Burkina Faso, where we will join up with the BARKA Foundation to establish a local, self-determined water and sanitation board, drill a well, fix any existing wells, construct gender-specific composting toilets for village use, and begin a hygiene education program at the local school. The BARKA Foundation is particularly excited about the digital storytelling aspect of Pathfinders Project.
On to Uganda, where we have not yet lined up a partner organization, but where the need for clean water is dire. Although urban Ugandans have received greater access to water over the past two decades, nearly 90% of Ugandans live in rural areas where water and sanitation coverage remain below 50%. As a result, water-borne diseases are the main cause of infant mortality in Uganda. In the coming months, we will continue seeking to establish a partnership with one of the organizations improving access to safe water for rural Ugandans.
From Uganda we travel to Chile to participate in Conservación Patagonica. We will live and work with Chileans and foreign volunteers to build trails, control exotic plant species, collect native seeds, and restore habitats as part of the effort to preserve land in the Chacabuco Valley that will eventually comprise Patagonia National Park.
In Brazil we join up with Amizade, an organization whose goal of designing challenging and empowering service and learning experiences aligns perfectly with our own. In the coming months, we will coordinate with Amizade to create a program that meets the combined needs and interests of our group and the community we will be visiting.
Then on to Ecuador to collaborate with Agua Muisne. We will build a water treatment system, test water sources for microbial and chemical contaminants, and teach in schools about the importance of safe water and hygiene.
From Ecuador, we then head north to Colombia, where we will join forces with Aguayuda to maintain and install wells and purification systems. Additionally, we will engage in community education about clean water.
Our final project will be in Haiti, with Children of the Border, a Harvard-affiliated humanist organization that designs development projects near the Haiti/Dominican Republic border. We will install latrines in order to keep fecal matter out of the water supply. Additionally, we will support the establishment of a processing plant and supply chain for local guava farmers.
Throughout the process of selecting organizations and establishing relationships with them, our conversations with potential partners have significantly shaped our vision. Honestly, prior to these conversations we were not sure what we could offer partner organizations other than manual labor. We worried that by limiting our time with each project to only one month, the impact of our contribution might be insufficient for the organizations to consider us as viable partners. Lucky for us, most potential partner organizations are as interested in digital storytelling and social networking as we are. So, our partnership with each has grown into something much larger than just one month on the ground in a given country.
We have already launched the online elements of Pathfinders Project, and will soon be highlighting the causes and initiatives of our partner organizations on Facebook, Twitter, PathfindersProject.com, and our personal blogs, linked from the latter. For the most complete picture of our group’s composition, philosophy, and experiences, I encourage you to read the blogs of the other Pathfinders. Odds are, if you’ve read this far, you’ll find something of interest on at least one, if not all, of our blogs. You may even find yourself inspired to follow some of our blogs and our Twitter handle (wink, wink) or to like us on Facebook (nudge, nudge).
In the coming months, we will have two goals: (1) building a connected, engaged audience for Pathfinders Project via Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, and (2) fundraising in the form of small donations in support of our monthly Walks for Water (more details to come) and larger sponsorships from national and international humanist and service organizations. We will provide updates on the individual blogs and on Facebook at least monthly; we will provide updates on Twitter at least weekly. Feel free to comment or email if you have questions, comments, or suggestions!