We all know how many organizations there are out there claim to help people in need. Well, maybe we don’t know the exact number, but we know that there are a TON. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. alone, and that statistic doesn’t include NGOs, foundations, social enterprises, and other companies whose missions revolve around social justice issues.
So, how are we supposed to navigate through this seemingly endless ocean of companies that, at the very least, say that they do good?
Meet Zoë Timms, founder of Women’s Education Project (WEP), one of the 1.5 million nonprofits I mentioned earlier. WEP is a women’s empowerment organization that runs centers in India providing “resources for young women from families living on less than $1.50 a day to graduate from college and begin a career.” Her passion for helping girls get an education in India was sparked by the many years she spent living and volunteering there. Over time, she got to know the girls and their families very closely, and started to learn what poverty really looks like in different cultures. She listened to the wants and needs of these girls, and with the partnership of some local women, started the first WEP center in Madurai, Tamil Nadu in 2002.
The Sudar Center was modeled on a holistic approach to helping the local community, rather than providing one specific service. Since then, WEP has founded two additional centers in Hyderabad, Telangana and Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh, and approximately 100 girls attend each center. At the centers, WEP students find their voices by gaining skills and confidence. They are able to plan and attend field trips to learn about “personal health, nutrition, communication, finance, civics and the environment.” They also learn about career options, and are empowered to attend university and graduate programs to fulfill their career goals.
There are two ways to do ‘good’ abroad. The first way, and the way that has lasting, meaningful impact, is the holistic grassroots way, like WEP. Get to know the culture, history, and most importantly, people, of the area you want to provide help to. Listen to their needs, and respond to them directly. Accustom yourself to the cultural values and norms, and work within them. Many organizations think they can skip over all these steps and still make an impact, but it’s not the same. No matter how good your intentions may be, it is not right to impose your own cultural values upon the culture you are trying to help.
WEP’s organic evolution is a prime example of a true grassroots movement. Zoë lived in the area for a long time, forming relationships with the girls and paying close attention to their specific needs. The center started out with only a few participants, and WEP has grown remarkably over the last 15 years, providing girls with a comprehensive and sustainable service.
So, if you are thinking about giving back, choose an organization that runs with the same standard as Women’s Education Project does, locally empowering the communities they are helping. It’s not too difficult, but it’s incredibly important. As Zoë says, “if the right people are coming in and really understanding cultural issues and cultural boundaries, you can solve so much together.”
Contributed by Meghan Pues