A 14 year journey: (Just a few of) my “take aways” building, sustaining, and transitioning a small NGO
When I was 21, I spent the two weeks after college graduation on a trip with friends in Waslala, Nicaragua. The trip led me to co-found Water for Waslala, which was acquired by WaterAid & El Porvenir on April 1, 2016.
In many ways, this story represents our collective aspirations for GSL – an experience that shaped a young person’s personal and professional paths, prolonged engagement with many individuals and organizations in Waslala over 14 years and counting, an opportunity for hundreds of young people to visit Waslala to learn, concrete development outcomes (constructed water systems that are still flowing), and ultimately, the establishment of a sustainable operating structure that is not dependent on an individual or university partner (think catalytic role of the outsider….or at least I hope).
As I assume the role of globalsl editor, I wanted to “pull back the curtain” and share transparently how I approach this work. What did I learn from the 14 year journey of Water for Waslala that now shapes my current work in the field of global service learning (GSL)? Reflecting on my 14 year journey as a host community organization representative, I share lessons here in hopes that they illuminate some learning that we can apply to our collective work in GSL.
Warning – it’s long so feel free to skip around – there are 9 lessons and the introduction provides a cheat sheet with a list of the lessons…So here goes…
I recently found a letter that I wrote to Padre Nelson and Padre Cleto after my first trip to Waslala in 2002. Below is an excerpt of the letter:
You told us something during our conversation on the last day of the trip. You told us that you both have made your decision – the decision to live and die with the poor. Then you told us that now we all have to make our own decisions about what we want to do with our lives.This part of my life is full of decisions that will affect the rest of my life. Therefore, right now I want to stay focused on the most important things in life. The experience with you all helped me do this. I think that you both have focused your life on what is truly important.
As I reflect back on 14 years of learning through the series of partnerships that is WfW, this was my first lesson: You never know where you will find your most important teachers.
I have learned several other lessons as well, including:
- There is no blank slate
- It was never our idea
- Listen (even when it’s not what you want to hear)
- I will always be an outsider
- Show up
- It’s all about people
- Surround yourself with people who push you
- Lead together
- Don’t hold on too tight (it was never “mine” to hold onto)
These lessons learned are (part of) the Story of Water for Waslala. They are the foundation upon which this organization was built, sustained, and will transition. I share them now as a peak at where we’ve been in order to transparently share where we are going.
The goal has always been crystal clear – ensure access to clean drinking water for everyone living in the municipality of Waslala, Nicaragua. This next chapter, the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance, makes that big, ambitious goal possible.
Over the past year, the acquisition/ transition process helped me clarify the foundational values that make Water for Waslala what it is. Clarifying these values was a crucial step in discerning whether we had found a “fit” in WaterAid and El Porvenir. There are plenty of concrete variables to consider in this type of decision, but as Joshua (WaterAid-Nicaragua’s country director) reminded me during one of our phone conversations,
“I think you have a decision to make and it’s not one you will make with SWOT analyses. It is a decision that you have to make with your heart.”
As I chuckled to myself knowing I had spent the previous day making some very elaborate SWOT analyses, I also found comfort – in this comment I felt like I heard a bit of Padre Nelson.
Over the course of the next few days, I will be sharing a series of “lessons learned” – the story of Water for Waslala and the beginning of the next chapter – Agua Para Waslala. These lessons represent the values that don’t fit into that SWOT analysis. They are who we are as an organization and why we knew this transition was right.
CHAPTER 1: STARTING AN ORGANIZATION
The title founder or co-founder often creates ideas about building something from nothing. When Matt and I first traveled to Waslala in 2002, there was an incredible foundation of community organization and coordination that already existed – Waslala was and is a special and unique place and much of that foundation had been built by the Brazilian padres and a foundation of liberation theology in the local Catholic parish, La Parroquia Inmaculada.
LESSON #1 – THERE IS NO BLANK SLATE
In 2005, as part of filming the WfW documentary, I stood behind the camera asking questions and translating responses for the film crew. Padre Nelson described the approach and vision of La Parroquia:
The poor have very much to give. And the riches of the poor at times are better than material wealth. And this is priceless. Look at the hills, the sun is beautiful, the birds, the moon…those who like the moon, hey you guys and girls who are in love, the moon, all of that. This is important – truly this is the beauty of life! You’re not going to come here and leave only with an image of ‘the poor people’. You enjoy yourself! Because the poor have a beautiful smile, the poor sing, the poor dance, it’s joyful here! You can go to the disco and…maybe you even fall in love and get married here in Nicaragua as well!
Underlying Padre Nelson’s jokes is the foundation upon which La Parroquia Inmaculada was built. He alludes to the problematic, yet common depiction of “the poor people” and flips to an asset-based framework that draws attention to common human interactions and relationships that cross borders – the beauty of nature, dancing at the disco, and even falling in love.
Padre Nelson described “the wealth of La Parroquia [as] the solidarity” – working with groups of Italians, Germans, North Americans, among others who “have gotten to know our reality and support in order to help this community recover so one day it can walk on its own feet.” In his quote, there is an underlying reference to history and its continuing effects on the current situation in Waslala. Padre Nelson described La Parroquia’s approach to their work based in liberation theology,
I cannot say mass for a town that is hungry. We cannot say mass to the sick and force ourselves to say it is the will of God. I think that the Church is pushed to go find where it is most needed. And the Church in Latin America has made an option for the poor and the children. And so, here we are not afraid of working with the poor. And the day that we say mass for money or obligation I think we are no longer church.
Based in liberation theology, La Parroquia created a number of pastorales (organizations) employing locals to serve the people of Waslala not only physically, but also spiritually, economically and socially. These organizations included: health, education, production, promotion of the woman, vulnerable children, and, more recently, water. Water for Waslala was initially formed as another pastoral under La Parroquia.
LESSON #2 – IT WAS NEVER “OUR” IDEA
During my first trip in 2002, there are a few salient memories that I always come back to. The first was a meeting with several community members in a rural community called El Guabo and the second was sobbing uncontrollably as I headed to the airport at the end of only a two week trip. The first marked the true beginning of WfW and the second demonstrated that it only took me two weeks to fall in love with Waslala.
During that first trip, Padre Nelson told the group that some community residents had asked to meet us and he told them “como no?” (or “why not?”). When we met the community at their village school, they asked us to support them in building a water system to serve the school. What did they need from us? To help provide the necessary funds to purchase the PVC pipes needed for the water system. They would contribute all of the manual labor needed to build the system. They needed roughly $3,000 to purchase the PVC pipes. Our group had ten members so we decided that we could commit to raising the funds needed (only $300 per person).
Although I had arrived in Waslala curious about education in the developing world, the community members showed us that before we could think about education and school attendance, it was important to make sure that the school children had access to clean drinking water. In other words, first things first.
There are 90 rural communities in Waslala, many of which are facing this same challenge. Many of which were equally committed to organizing themselves to dedicate months of free labor to ensure that their children have access to clean drinking water at school. We had to ask ourselves: why stop after working with one community? Matt spent his senior year in college writing a plan for how to get Water for Waslala off the ground and the Augustinian Volunteers supported him in spending the year following his graduation doing just that.
We did not go to Waslala focused on water nor did we have any ideas of starting an organization. Community members told us about their plans and since we knew that we could accompany them in reaching their own goals, we did.
CHAPTER 2: SUSTAINING AN ORGANIZATION
LESSON #3 – LISTEN (even when it’s not what you want to hear)
In 2006, I was finishing up my two year teaching commitment in North Philadelphia with Teach for America and I was thinking of moving down to Waslala for a longer period of time. I had been working there already for a few years and was generally going once or twice a year for a month at a time. I shared my idea with a friend and colleague, Junior Gasparini, and he responded: “of course, if you want to move down here, you can live with us in the priest house and we can help get you a job in the education organization since your interest is education.”
Then he continued (the pro and con of close friends)… “But, we are pretty much fine here and can do whatever you would do. What I can’t do it get a seat at a board table in the US to share our message. You can.”
Now, this is not the role I wanted to or hoped to play. I am much more comfortable sleeping in a hammock in a rural village with no running water or electricity than I am sitting at any board table. I wanted my contribution to be “en el terreno” (on the ground)…not focused on funding and strategic partnerships in the US. But, here I am 10 years later, having assumed US operations (funding, outreach, and strategic partnerships) and I still work with Junior as my partner who runs the Nicaraguan operations.
LESSON #4 – I WILL ALWAYS BE AN OUTSIDER
In 2002, I was certainly an outsider when I arrived in Waslala on a two week trip, speaking limited Spanish, meeting every person for the first time and having limited understanding of the history or current context of Nicaragua/ Waslala and the U.S. role in that history.
Now, fourteen years later, I am bilingual, have immersed myself in learning about the history and current context in Nicaragua and Waslala, and have travelled to Waslala more times than I can count. Some of my closest friends live in Waslala – when I arrive for a visit and pop my head into the window of their house, I hear shrieks of “Nora!” as children come running to the door to greet me with a bear hug. I have seen these children grow up.
I will never truly be an insider or native Waslalan because of my citizenship, race, language and other social identifiers that are linked to power and history in many ways. This is not good or bad….it’s just reality. To me, the important thing is to never lose sight of this and intentionally pursue humility knowing that I am always missing something as I think about a situation or decision for the organization.
LESSON #5 – SHOW UP
In December 2011, an abrupt change happened in La Parroquia and, by extension, in Waslala. The bishop on the Atlantic Coast (responsible for Waslala) began putting pressure on La Parroquia to redirect time and attention on evangelism and communion and away from their work in social programs – education, health care, water, etc. During a period of time, there were many heated discussions, disagreements, and even protests in Waslala. This fundamental disagreement about where La Parroquia should direct its work resulted in the Brazilian priests being called back to Brazil and a Nicaraguan priest from another region installed as the head priest in La Parroquia. This transition resulted in closing or ending the work of most of the ministries created by La Parroquia over the years – education, health, vulnerable children, etc.
This transition not only stopped work on education, health care, etc., but also undermined years of work La Parroquia spent building relationships and trust in rural villages in a post-civil war context. I spent weeks in Waslala shortly after this abrupt parish transition. Through my time there, I had numerous people – from organization representatives to residents – come up to me in the street and ask whether WfW would, in fact, continue working in Waslala. I had never felt the impact of my physical presence in such palpable ways. After the parish transition, many if not most of the international organizations and individuals who had worked with and supported Waslala for years and years, had now pulled out since the ties with the La Parroquia, and therefore Waslala, had been abruptly cut. During my time in Waslala, one community organization representative commented about the importance of physical presence for trust and relationships especially during such an uncertain time,
I don’t think I realized how important it was for people to see you guys here, physically and, yes, there is a parish but it’s a different parish and you’re still here and you’re still spending time in your communities because I think the fear was that everyone would leave . . . all the international partners.
LESSON #6 – IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE!
People (myself included) are inspiring, frustrating, confusing, motivating….I could go on and on. My husband, Wil, leads a large (100+ employees), internet marketing, for profit business based in the U.S. I have been leading a small, grassroots, non-profit organization based in rural Nicaragua. When we spend time at dinner discussing our days, we find that our challenges (what keeps us up at night) and our successes (what makes you feel most excited and proud of the organization) are very similar. Everything is really about people!
As I reflect back on 14 years of the WfW journey, it is really all about the people…both on an organizational level and on a personal level. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most solid and inspiring people I know through WfW. This has truly been a collective effort!
First, there is something about Waslala (and maybe WfW) that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go!
In addition to our board of directors, just a few of the many, many examples…
- Avi Loewenstein – former board member who visited Waslala in 2012 and even tried his hand at digging trench line in the Yaro Central community…years later served as a thought partner and pro-bono legal counsel through the entire acquisition process!
- Justin Knabb – technically left the WfW board about 4 years ago, but has continued to handle all accounting, finance, taxes, etc. behind the scenes through today!
- Meag Gruber, our first US team member in Waslala technically has not worked with WfW since about 2009….and still immediately jumps in any time a Nica question pops up or she can support work in Waslala in any way!
- Iain Hunt technically stopped working for WfW in 2013, but continues to provide significant support in engineering design questions, partnership conversations, as an adviser, etc.
- Brian Bozzo first travelled to Waslala in 2005 as a Villanova engineering student…not only has he stayed involved, but he convinced one of his best friends, PJ McAward to co-found Knots Apparel with him as a strategic way to contribute to Water for Waslala!
Second, we have “grown up” together!
Because WfW represents 14 years of my life, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with, know, & collaborate with folks in Waslala over a long period of time. Here is a perfect “people” example:
(Denis) Taleno started working with WfW is 2005 and continues to this day…To be clear, he is not an “employee”…he built this organization! Those in the US may not know or have the opportunity to meet and see Taleno’s impact on WfW firsthand, but anyone who has ever traveled to Waslala (many, many Villanova folks, etc.) have seen his impact very clearly!
A glimpse at Taleno and I “growing up” (or maybe growing old) together.
CHAPTER 3: TRANSITIONING AN ORGANIZATION
LESSON #7 – SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO PUSH YOU
At the end of January 2015, my husband, Wil, accompanied me on a trip to Waslala – a final trip together to Waslala before we added our little guy to the mix. Rio (meaning “river” in Spanish because it relates to water) joined the party on March 26, 2015.
WfW had been growing; however, we’d struggled to identify a sustainable organizational structure to match fundraising growth with our operational expansion in Waslala. Wil and I were sitting in the hotel in Managua en route to Waslala when he turned to me and asked:
Wil: You all have kept things going for over ten years and reached over 4,000 Waslalans with water. If you stopped now, would you consider it a failure?
Wil: Then you need to step up.
Despite knowing that we’d have a new baby on the scene and that balancing both of our professional goals and responsibilities would be challenging, he pushed me to step up as Executive Director of Water for Waslala.
Wil has canceled conferences and moved meetings in order to accommodate my travel to Waslala. He has planned the weeks when I need to be in Waslala in order to leave the house later and get home earlier to make sure someone is home with the little one. He has served as a very patient thought partner as I figure this out as I go (i.e. how do you pursue an acquisition strategy as a nonprofit?).
In many ways, it didn’t MAKE SENSE to step up as Executive Director in April 2015 (with a two week old baby), but looking back I have learned more this year than I have yet to realize …and one of the things I learned is that I married someone who will provide that push when I need it!
Rio reppin’ Water for Waslala on the day I assumed the role of Executive Director
LESSON #8 – LEAD TOGETHER
I have worked with Junior Gasparini (our most recent WfW director) in different capacities since 2004. When our former director extraordinaire, Iain Hunt, left the role to head to Villanova, I called Junior and asked him to take over as director on an interim basis while I worked to fill the role. Junior has several coffee farms in Waslala from which he draws his salary and he supports WfW because of his belief in the work and the mission. I asked him for three months and he agreed…. that was in 2013 (here we are THREE YEARS later)!!
In January 2015, I knew that the year ahead was going to need to be a sprint. Despite a great team and excellent work in Waslala, as an organization, we were in a tough financial spot. Business as usual was not an option. We needed to increase our pace of work in Waslala to meet demand and, thus, we needed to increase our funding dramatically.
I sat with Junior outside Hotel Waslala as the sun set for the day. I knew he was ready to talk about how we could put plans in place to transition him out of the role so he could focus on his coffee farms. I also knew that what was required of WfW over the next year would be impossible if I did not have him as an “all in partner.” I started the conversation…
We’re in a tough spot financially, but I believe we can turn this around. We are doing great work in Waslala and we’ve kept at it for over ten years. But, we’ve grown into an organization with different needs. This is not work that can be done at night and on the weekends to raise funds to support a growing organization. So, I have a proposal for you….I will take a break from teaching classes at Temple this year to focus on what WfW needs.
That got his attention…he turned quickly and looked right at me with an expression of surprise since he knows I love teaching…and waited for me to continue.
But…I can’t do it without you. I need you in as a full partner with me because I know that together, we can get the organization to where it needs to be. Are you in?
He was quiet for a minute as he looked into the distance. I knew he was stressed and tired from several years working two full time jobs. I also knew he believed in this work and the potential as deeply as I did. He turned back to look at me and responded, “well then, let’s do it.” I suddenly felt like I had pressured him into this and tried to offer an “out”…if you need time to think, I’d rather you are sure before you make this decision.” And his response: “No, I don’t change my mind. If you’re in, I’m in.” And…we are now completing twelve years of working together…
Junior and me – 2004 and 2016
LESSON #9 – DON’T HOLD ON TOO TIGHT (it was never “mine” to hold onto)
In May 2016, Junior was able to share the news of Water for Waslala’s transition with Padre Nelson in person. Padre Nelson smiled as he responded,
“I helped to plant a seed and someone had to care for that seed for all these years and now that seed has sprouted into a plant that will continue to grow.”
And, isn’t that exactly the goal? To build something that is bigger than any one of us.
Personally, letting go is hard. It means having to admit that I don’t have my next trip to Waslala on the calendar. But, holding on means limiting WfW’s growth for my comfort (and maybe ego). I know what happens if I hold on. WfW continues to make slow progress and it would be impossible to reach our mission (at least in my lifetime).
But, that isn’t where our story ends. As I stood in front of more than 100 community members in Waslala last month for the official launch event (Transition event photo album), it really hit me. As part of the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance, WaterAid and El Porvenir have assumed the mission – total coverage in Waslala by 2030. In this next chapter, we FINISH our mission!
Stop to think about that for a minute….finish.our.mission!! When does that even happen?!?
The mission of total coverage in Waslala is more work than any individual or organization could accomplish alone and the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance brings together individuals and organizations with experiences, skills, and resources that complement one another. Most importantly, the Agua Para Waslala Program Alliance explicitly aims to facilitate coordination among local actors and institutions, municipal government, community water committees, international NGOs, funders, etc. We all know that, together we will reach universal access to water and sanitation in Waslala!
Get ready, chapter 4 is going to be quite a ride!!
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