Thinking Globally: Vancouver NGOs

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, 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.”


Donor dollars at work: students in a CoDev-funded
classroom in Honduras.

A brief history of NGOs

The modern history of NGO work dates back to the end of the Second World War when aid, reconstruction and resettlement of war refugees surged to the forefront of international priorities. Throughout the post-war era, famines from India and Bangladesh to the Ukraine and Africa have mobilized relief workers, including Christian missionary groups. In the 1960s the Peace Corps sent waves of idealistic young Americans overseas to lend their help to development projects. Along the way the NGO model shifted from relief to development to political advocacy, and finally to today’s preferred grassroots model in which local people own and direct development projects and new enterprises – an ideal internationally endorsed in the OECD’s 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. 

According to Oxfam’s Palacios, the emerging standards are about changing the paternalistic handout-and-pat-on-the-head tradition: “It’s about ensuring the power is in the hands of the recipients, so the relationship is not like the colonial one. We want to make sure that people have all the abilities and the tools to support themselves.”

Logic might suggest that Vancouver would be home to more NGOs active in Asia and the Pacific Rim, but judging by BCCIC’s membership, this is not the case. A map of member activity shows sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America as hot spots for B.C.-based NGOs. “Historically, a lot of the international development done [here] in the early ’70s and ’80s was very much focused on Latin America,” says Palacios. “It feels like Latin America is closer to our backyard.”

Barbara Wood agrees. Wood is executive director of Vancouver’s CoDevelopment (CoDev), with operations in Central and South America focused on women’s rights issues. “Much of the work that CoDev does is built on early Latin America solidarity work that took place in Vancouver in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Wood says. “A handful of activists in the B.C. labour movement were committed to supporting workers and other community organizations, defending their rights against repressive dictatorships in Latin America. The increasing number of Central American refugees who settled in the Lower Mainland made connections with people here and continued to support human-rights works in their home countries.”

Asked to identify CoDev’s biggest challenges in the coming year, Wood says she wants to gain a better understanding of how recent changes in CIDA funding will affect her organization in the coming years. In fiscal 2008-09, CoDev received 25 per cent of its funding from CIDA; in 2009-10, that amount plummeted to nine per cent. 

“The [Harper] government has not only capped their budget for overseas development assistance, but has also made significant changes to the way they work with NGOs,” says Wood. One of the biggest changes, instituted in the summer of 2010, was the cutting of something called the “responsive program.” Wood says the program was invaluable in allowing Canadian NGOs to work closely with organizations and communities in the developing world to identify issues and develop programs. Under the new rules, Wood says, “Much of what was progressive and effective about CIDA’s work with NGOs is no longer included.”

BCCIC’s Alibhai says there is a strong desire from CIDA, as well as from organizations such as her own, to make NGOs less dependent on government. “The challenge is that many organizations have been receiving CIDA funding for 15 years or more and then now, all of a sudden, they are at a loss for CIDA funding, rather than slowly being let go,” she explains. “This means significant, dramatic changes for many of our members and especially their international partners.”

Carissa Youssef, director of communications for Abbotsford-based Food for the Hungry Canada, underlines the necessity for continued government help. “As governments around the world cut their foreign aid and development budgets, communities in the developing world head towards an even more critical situation,” she says. “While we all discuss changes taking place in the Middle East, higher gas and food prices, and upcoming elections, it’s easy to forget the much more sinister situation looming in Third World countries where life can go from terrible to tragic overnight.” 

The NGO call of duty

Many people who start NGOs are motivated by some eye-opening encounter or just an underlying need to make a difference. For Sawa’s Nederhorst, the call of duty was much more personal. Although born to a Dutch family, she spent most of her first seven years in Tanzania, where her father worked as a water engineer and her mother as a diplomat. At an age when most kids develop new career ambitions with every flick of the TV remote, Nederhorst proved herself to be an unusually focused child – she saw local people battling against long odds to improve their lives and their communities, and was determined to help. At the age of seven, she says, she knew she would make it her life’s mission.

So much for the ballerina phase. But it wasn’t a straight shot to fulfilling her aspirations. Nederhorst attended the University of Calgary and eventually ended up at BC Hydro. She quit that management job to start Sawa (the word is Swahili for “equal”) in 2007, living on savings and a credit card while taking a business management course to prepare herself. Now just 38, Nederhorst has seen Sawa grow into a respected international force. In 2009 she was granted Ashoka Fellow designation, joining a worldwide group of about 2,500 “social entrepreneurs” who are granted stipends and support from the non-profit Ashoka Foundation. Last September Nederhorst was one of only 10 non-profit group leaders to gain an invitation to the United Nations Private Sector Forum on the Millennium Development Goals in New York, and was named a 2010 finalist at Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year awards. 


Richard Branson Daphne Nederhorst
Sawa’s Daphne Nederhorst with Richard Branson.

If it seems odd for the leader of a charitable enterprise to be considered for entrepreneurial awards, Nederhorst says it shouldn’t. “Fundraising requires careful strategy, creativity, building trusted relationships and persistence,” she points out. “Not that different from growing sales for a business.”

Like businesses, NGOs can suffer during a recession. And Vancouver NGOs already face challenges as a result of their distance from Toronto corporate HQs. Happily, this has not been the case for Sawa. “In fact,” Nederhorst says, “we grew our funding by 100 per cent during the [2008-09 economic] crisis. This may be a result of not being dependent on government funding. Our main source of funding has come from private philanthropists in Vancouver and across Canada.”

For most NGOs, especially the small ones that dominate the B.C. scene, fundraising continues to be a challenge. “It is impossible to compete with the large NGOs which have advertising and outreach budgets bigger than our entire annual program budget,” says CoDev’s Wood. “Having said that, being rooted in our communities has meant a stability that other, larger NGOs may not have experienced over the last period of financial upheaval. Our donor base, though small, has proven to be quite stable and faithful.”

According to Philip Hassen, president of Vancouver-based CNIS (Canadian Network for International Surgery), government and corporate budget-cutting means charitable dollars are being spread thin. “We have to continue to try harder for all of the funds we receive,” says Hassen. “Yes, it is more difficult, yet Canadians, and especially those in B.C., are willing contributors. We have some work to do to keep our name and face in front of the donors. We just need to get better at it.”

CNIS was founded in 1995 by Joan VanDuzer and doctors Peter McLean and Ronald Lett, who realized the medical needs of poor African nations were far too great for a few well-meaning individuals. CNIS offers surgical assistance, particularly to vulnerable women in childbirth.

“I got interested in CNIS when I was CEO of Providence Health Care and subsequently CEO of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority,” Hassen says. “I chose to get involved because CNIS was not doing direct care, but rather teaching Africans in several countries how to teach others essential surgical skills for physicians and non-physicians – nurses, midwives and health officers – especially designed for those in remote areas and villages. We are now assisting women and newborns by teaching C-sections, since on average about one in 13 [African] women die in giving birth.”

Like Nederhorst, Hassen is impressed with the quality of Vancouver’s volunteers. Organizations such as Vantage Point and Volunteer BC help to put NGOs in touch with local people who want to help. “We have over 100 volunteers,” Hassen says, “doing all sorts of work for us, from editing to sewing to IT work to organizing events to physicians and nurses going to Africa to teach. People in Vancouver want to give, and give so readily of their time and energy. They are extraordinary in their caring and giving of themselves.”

Wood says being three time zones away from the national nerve centre is a mixed bag. “Being far from Ottawa – and not being as closely attuned to what happens in government – is both an advantage and a disadvantage. I think Vancouver has an openness to change and an acceptance of alternatives to the way things are always done that springs from our being so new, relatively speaking, and so far from the power centre of the country. Both of these characteristics help to create an environment that encourages passion for justice, which is at the root of international development work.”

Relaxing in the cluttered BCCIC office, Alibhai reels off a list of successful B.C. NGOs: SEVA, an organization that works to prevent eye disease; CoDev and Sustainable Cities International. “There is a thriving NGO community in Vancouver and in this province,” Alibhai says. “It’s growing, it’s evolving, it’s changing. And it’s rich and exciting. It’s something British Columbians should be really proud of.”