Is PEPY making a good decision? Let us know your thoughts.

Posted on: May 22, 2009 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

Is PEPY making a good decision? Let us know your thoughts.

This post looks at some of the major questions NGOs must ask themselves: When are we getting too far from our mission?  Can you help work on changing attitudes and changing a whole system while also picking out individuals to support, or do the efforts negate each other?  What amount of money is “too much” for each project and how to you measure “impact” when it comes to education and opportunities for individuals?  Is the quantity of the impact more important, or the quality?  When do you need to say no, even if the opportunity is a good one? 

Daniela shares her thoughts below on the decision to offer students from Chanleas Dai Commune a chance to go to summer camp in the US.  This was an opportunity brought to PEPY by the camp director, Jed, whom the PEPY staff knows very well and trusts.  Should they have said “No, thank you”?  Please share your thoughts after reading.
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For those of you who have been following along closely with PEPY, you may have noticed what might seem like irrational decision making on our part given our current circumstances.  What the close observer to our emails and team journal would see would be:

– A struggle to fully fund the construction of Chanleas Dai’s first primary school

– A large drop in tourism to Cambodia and to PEPY hence a large drop in donations (as tours generate the largest portion of our donations)

– A concurrent initiative to raise significant funding to send four students and two teachers to the US for camp

Here are some of the responses we have gotten from those of you who are following along:

“I wish you were here, I would like to have a conversation with you about the camping program. As a friend who believes you would want me to be “brutally” honest… I have so many questions about what the students’ program will be, what experience the camp has with foreign students, much less those from rural Cambodia. I was actually one of the directors of a short term program that brought inner city kids to use facilities of private camps once the season had ended. Those who donated their camps hardly knew what they were getting into and we were only dealing with American kids who were “different”!!!

Also, I wonder if this might be just too far off from your mission and maybe a case of wanting “everything” for your children. Please don’t be discouraged. It’s your idealism that must answer my cynicism.”

“Yikes, that’s a lot of money to go to camp!! I hope this question does not annoy you but aren’t you really trying to get the rest of the money for the school? It seems this amount of money could get you so much closer to that. You’re talking almost 16K. I understand that it’s an amazing opportunity for four kids but that school will help hundreds of kids? Just asking.”

THANK YOU for asking.  There is nothing I appreciate more than someone challenging PEPY (and me!) to make each of us and our organization better.  THANK YOU for asking those questions and putting this discussion out into the open.  We are always open to the fact that sometimes, indeed, we might be making the wrong decision.  We also know that sometimes the logic, debates, and thought process behind our decisions are not so clear if we are not taking the time to share those things.

As I wrote back to both friends above, here is/was the logic and thought process that went into deciding to accept the opportunity to send students to camp.  This was far from a quick and easy decision (in fact it was something we debated and discussed for nearly two months) and one the community really wanted to accept (understandably), even though many of our team still did/do have concerns.  Read up and let us know your thoughts: Is PEPY making a bad decision?

Before we decided to make the decision to try to raise funds to send four students and two teachers to camp in the USA this summer, we did these things:

  1. Held meetings with PEPY teachers, government teachers, and school administrators to get their opinions.  As a group, we listed the pros and cons of the opportunity presented to us by the camp owner, and debated (sometimes heatedly!) whether this would be good for the kids/PEPY.  The issues brought up were: ability to adjust and thrive in the US, adjusting back to Chanleas Dai when they came back, jealousy in the community, the cost investment in four kids vs. a community-wide program, the cost of this program vs. investing in other types of leadership training in Cambodia.
  2.  Invited the camp director to visit our school with one of the Cambodian camp counselors from his team and other past staff.  The teachers spent 1 hour listening to Jed speak about the camp, its founding principals, and what they should expect the student’s experience to be like.  The teachers also had a lot of time to ask questions and they were not shy about their concerns nor their excitement for the concept.  Jed has been living in Cambodia for 7+ years I believe and is married to a woman from Cambodia.  His great grand-father started the summer camp in Vermont in the 1800’s and the job and love for the camp has been passed on.  For the last 6 years, Jed has been bringing Cambodians to come work as part of his staff at the school.  In addition, as his family has been travelers (his mother runs study trips around the world and his mother/sister run the girls camp) they have brought over students from around the world to attend their camps over the years.  Last year was the first year that they brought Cambodian students to the camp in the US and Jed spoke about what was hard for them (the food being at the top of the list of course!), and what it was like for them when they returned.
  3. Came up with these reasons to still pursue the idea, despite some concerns, but a vote from the teachers and an overall belief that the potential benefits far outweighed the risks (which could be minimized if the right students were chosen):
    • Lengthy experience:  Jed has brought Cambodian staff to the camp for the past 6 years.  The Cambodian staff members we met have been going to work at the camp for the past three years and gave testimonials to the fact that the students would not only be okay, but thrive in the environment.  As the students stay in cabins with no electricity or running water, last year when they brought Cambodian students the camp, the Cambodians adjusted to the camping lifestyle much more easily than the American kids in many ways.
    • Thorough process: Awatd, our Education Program Officer, came up with a very thorough process with which to choose the students.  The students were able to apply (32 did), then in groups of about 5, students were brought in for group interviews to achieve tasks which required leadership and teamwork.  Those with the most confidence, leadership qualities, and ability to encourage and help others were chosen for a second round.  Then interviews were conducted in a one on five format – the student was being interviewed by two teachers, Awatd, Maryann, and Jason (a visiting Texan who provided the outside insight into the interviews to make sure we were not being biased in our judgments).
    • Alternate Funding: As this program would need funding very much a like a “child sponsorship program” (something we have avoided doing in the past), we knew that over the years we had missed out on a lot of donations that people wanted to give “to support one child.”  I know that there are so many people out there who want to effect change in one person’s life in supporting them, getting to know them, and being able to follow that person’s trajectory throughout life knowing that that person’s world will forever be different because of the experience they helped to provide.

That being said (and I do still think those people are out there), with the economy as such and with so many other programs and other NGOs short of funding, identifying those people has not panned out as we had thought.  We do not want to use PEPY program funding to make these trips possible as our program funding should go to our core mission, though we had hoped to not have to turn down the opportunity for these kids by finding alternate funding streams.

Most likely this was/is the mistake that we made as, by taking this project on, perhaps it seems that PEPY is straying too far from its mission, is not recognizing the severity of the global economic situation, and is disjointed in its approach to fulfilling its mission.  Instead, perhaps we should have had the camp or some other organization where child sponsorship was already a funding practice, take this project on directly themselves and we could promote it.

Either way, I would love to hear YOUR opinion.  Can you work in changing attitudes (the main work of PEPY – changing attitudes towards education) while also supporting individuals?  Does doing one negate the other?  Is PEPY straying too far from its core mission?  Should we have turned this offer down?

Please let us know your thoughts.  We appreciate constructive criticism in our work which challenges us to improve.  We also recognize that we have and do make mistakes and we need your help to keep us on track.  Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.