Thinking Globally: Vancouver NGOs


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Image by: Paul Joseph
Daphne Nederhorst, founder and director of Sawa World, has earned accolades for applying business savvy to her good works.

Why local NGOs find Vancouver an ideal base from which to do 
international development – and how they’ve avoided the financial 
upheaval plaguing bigger charities.

Daphne Nederhorst is calling from the back of a car. “We’re running a little late,” she says. She’s headed from her West Hastings Street office to YVR, and from there by stages to Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and Kenya – some truly prodigious hopping. Nederhorst is the founder and director of Sawa World, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works on Third World development projects. Whatever advantages Vancouver may offer to such an organization, easy connections to sub-Saharan Africa are not among them.

NGOs are the shock troops of international development. Government aid agencies and the UN can draw on resources that citizens cannot match, but they are often slow, ponderous and hobbled by politics. NGOs, composed of volunteers working under a small professional staff, provide housing, clean water, sanitation, medical services, micro-credit, economic development and countless other services, often faster and cheaper. Many Vancouver-based NGOs deal with domestic issues like regional community development and local volunteerism, but internationally focused NGOs, not surprisingly, find the Canadian centre of gravity lies to the east. “In Vancouver, the funding community that supports international work is limited when compared to Toronto or Ottawa,” says Nederhorst. “There is a limited group of international NGOs in Vancouver, and most of them are small.”

Small but feisty. If distance from the centres of government power and corporate finance is an undeniable handicap, it has helped create a climate where B.C. NGOs can chart their own courses, free of the encumbrances that come with large, sprawling organizations and top-down agendas. Because they’re smaller, these local NGOs tend to be nimble and flexible, drawing on grassroots support and exploring new models of funding. They are better able to adapt to the communities they serve, rather than expecting them to conform to some pre-set development model. 

Nederhorst thinks that Vancouver is a particularly good place from which to run an NGO, African flight connections notwithstanding. “I feel strongly that Vancouver provides endless space for innovation and creative minds. That’s been clearly demonstrated during the last four years of our operations. We have over 150 worldwide volunteers inputting ideas to create Sawa’s globally recognized model – tackling extreme poverty through the leadership of the very people who are experiencing that poverty.” 

Sawa’s goal is to forge direct connections between small communities in the world’s poorest countries and those who can help. It does this through videos made by selected community leaders, videos that then appear on the Sawa website, helping local community activists to bypass government and bureaucracy and show themselves to the world. Nederhorst says that, despite the more limited fundraising opportunities available to B.C. NGOs, Sawa succeeded in raising over $200,000 in cash last year – a 150 per cent increase over 2009 levels – and has raised over $500,000 in in-kind donations since its founding in 2007. 

Funding Canadian NGOs

In a little West Pender Street office, Shams Alibhai, executive director of the BC Council for International Cooperation (BCCIC), an umbrella group for local NGOs, has just been on the phone with CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency. And she’s smiling. “We got the funding!” she exclaims. 

Her staff of two – Annabel Wong and Lynn Slobogian – break into cheers. The majority of NGOs in Canada receive some degree of CIDA funding, with most of that money intended for program spending (a maximum 12 per cent of CIDA funds can be spent on administration, and only if matched by the NGO’s own funds). CIDA contributions can be small – under three per cent for New Westminster-based Hope International Development Agency – or in the case of Alibhai’s organization, which receives 90 per cent of its funding from CIDA, almost total. “This is because we do not have any projects overseas and so do not fundraise,” explains Alibhai. “Our mandate is to support our members with capacity building, networking and public engagement in Canada.”

By the looks of BCCIC’s one-room headquarters on the edge of Chinatown, it hasn’t been spending much grant money on overhead. According to Alibhai, the international NGO community in Vancouver is in fighting trim, and growing. “We have 50 organizational members,” she says, “and 30 individual members. And I would guess that there are as many organizations working outside our umbrella as there are under it. I am continually amazed at the diversity of the NGO community in Vancouver. We have organizations whose founders are from the Philippines, Nicaragua, Brazil, East Africa, Pakistan, India – there’s such a richness.” 

BCCIC’s members run the gamut from World Community Development Education Society (WCDEC), a one-man NGO run by Ed Carswell with a budget of $16,000, to Hope International, with 21 employees and an annual budget of $28 million. With a name that long, WCDEC should need government funding just to print stationery, but in fact, it has been self-sustaining for 21 years, running an annual film festival in Courtenay to support the organization’s work in El Salvador. 

Alibhai admits the big NGO money tends to circulate in what she calls “the triangle” of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. “That’s where the head offices are for a lot of the large NGOs – Save the Children, World Vision, Oxfam, Canadian Crossroads International. Many of our members are the regional offices of these larger organizations.”

But she also feels that Vancouver, and B.C. in general, have particular qualities that have encouraged the growth of NGOs. One of those factors is an activist history that started with organizations like Greenpeace. “Environmental organizations have influenced NGO work,” she says. “There’s been mutual learning and sharing between those sectors.”

Alibhai adds that some NGOs base themselves here for the same reason firefighters, architects and baristas end up here – because they like it. She cites Michael Simpson, who operates a small NGO called One Sky out of Smithers, four hours north of Prince George. “I asked him, ‘Why are you operating out of Smithers?’ He said, ‘I like the lifestyle. Smaller communities offer a greater connection, a greater level of engagement. It’s a great place to live.’”

Miriam Palacios, policy and outreach coordinator at the Vancouver arm of Oxfam Canada and a BCCIC board member, points out that even though large organizations such as CUSO-VSO and Canada World Youth have closed or scaled back regional offices, the B.C. NGO sector has been growing. “It really speaks to the commitment and passion of the local communities,” Palacios says.

Both Palacios and Alibhai cite the example of Hope International, the giant on the local scene. “The majority of their $28 million funding comes from here,” Alibhai points out. “That’s a pretty generous public.”


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