Interview with Son Pham, Deputy Director, LIN Center for Community Development
LIN founder, Dana Doan, saw a gap between the non-profit and for-profit sector in Ho Chi Minh City. On one hand, corporations and businesses wanted to donate and volunteer, but lacked understanding of the non-profit (NPO) sector in Vietnam. On the other hand, small NPOs struggling to develop, lacking funds and skilled resources.
Dana founded LIN (‘Listen, Inspire and Nurture‘) to facilitate the connection between the two worlds, connecting skilled volunteers and financial resources to Vietnamese non-profits. To date, LIN has a network of 191 NPO partners, distributed 98 Narrow the Gap Community Fund grants to deserving NPOs and matched 1,440 skilled volunteers to NPOs.
We were lucky to catch Mr. Son Pham, LIN’s first employee, in between meetings to learn more about the support services LIN provides NPOs in Vietnam.
Prior to joining LIN, he worked with international non-government organisations on HIV/AIDS issues in Vietnam. Son has always enjoyed helping people organise to solve community problems. He joined LIN in 2009, bringing a wealth of experience to the new NPO.
LIN offers a number of support services for NPOs, including, but not limited to: capacity building workshops, fundraising events and ‘matchmaking’ services for skilled volunteers and NPOs. What was LIN’s first program and how has the organisation grown?
In 2009 we began offering workshops every three months to NPOs to help the organisations develop and manage volunteers. The workshops offered a space for the NPOs to share common challenges, network and learn from skilled experts in the field.
We then started the Community Fund, a pool of financial resources from local residents to support non-profit organizations that are tackling the most pressing problems in Ho Chi Minh City. The Community Fund grew into a funding competition now known as Narrow the Gap Community Fund.
By 2012, LIN started to receive financial support from Ireland’s overseas development program, Irish Aid, allowing us to add several more staff members. In 2013 we were able to move out of our shared office and into our own building, which we allow other NPOs to use regularly as an incubation space. Right now we have four organisations working from our site. Since our move, we’ve been able to host regular workshops, peer-to-peer support groups and fundraising events.
How did you build your relationships with NPOs?
When I joined LIN, I already worked for many years with not-for-profit initiatives addressing HIV/AIDS issues in Vietnam. I had many NPO connections when I joined LIN although they were heavily concentrated in one thematic area while non-profits work on a broad range of issues. In building relationships with other NPOs, it helped that I had experience in the field. But the real key to building partnerships with NPOs was to listen their stories, to ask them what they need and to respond accordingly. And that is what LIN did. Before providing any service, we would ask our partners what they needed. If they said that fundraising was their main challenge, we would conduct a workshop on one aspect of fundraising that was of particular interest. After the workshop, we would ask if they were satisfied and explore other needs. To this day, we continue to ask our NPO partners how they are doing and what they need to do better. The LIN team strives to make it clear to our stakeholders that we care about their progress and that we will work to address their needs. Only our actions can prove our intentions. That is how we are able to build trust and maintain partnerships with NPOs, donors and volunteers.
Skilled volunteering was a new concept in Vietnam when LIN first came together. How were you able to recruit volunteers?
LIN conducted focus groups with mid-level and senior-level business people to understand what thought about volunteering, with a particular focus on skilled volunteering. We found that in Vietnam, volunteering used to be associated with government-run youth committees. It was believed to be something only for young, unskilled people. So, when I first began presenting volunteer opportunities to senior staff at corporations, it was difficult to “sell” the concept. I tried to inform them that it could be a career building experience, something that could improve their CV. However; that approach did not address the needs of people who have different reasons for volunteering. It also placed too much emphasis on the benefits to volunteers rather than the mutual win-win scenario that we hoped to facilitate.
The LIN team decided to collect volunteer stories, from NPOs working with volunteers and from the volunteers themselves. To do this, we organized a competition for volunteer stories. When the competition was over, we gathered some of the stories submitted into a book, which helped to raise awareness about volunteerism and volunteer experiences in Vietnam. LIN organized this competition three times and we have three books of Volunteer Stories, which share a variety of different volunteer experiences.
Being able to share the experiences of other volunteers and talk about the role that they play within the NPOs they supported, helped us to attract new people to volunteer. It also helped us to better set expectations for NPOs and volunteers.
Why does LIN emphasise skilled volunteering?
There are two key reasons that LIN emphasizes skilled volunteering: to build capacity and to build trust.
To build capacity – from our research, which was conducted with NPOs and Volunteers prior to starting LIN, we learned that NPOs in Vietnam were in need organizational development skillsets, which are readily available within the private sector in Vietnam. So, we decided to reach out to individuals with those skill sets and ask if they might lead a training and/or coach one NPO staff member in their area of expertise, for a half-day or a couple hours a week.
To build trust – as we learned early on, there was a lack of trust between NPOs and donors, which worked both ways. NPOs needed funds and donors sought NPOs to support but each lacked trust in the other. It was LIN’s belief that spending time in an organization, as a volunteer, is an invaluable way to build trust and identify the most effective way to contribute to the impact of an organization.
How does LIN connect skilled-volunteers to its partner NPOs?
There are a few ways that LIN connects skilled volunteers to NPOs and vice-a-versa:
BlueBees.org (OngXanh.org) – LIN launched this platform for NPO-skilled volunteer matching in 2014. Individuals can register on this website in order to express their interest in volunteer opportunities that relate to one of more of their specific skill sets. Whenever an NPO posts a volunteer opportunity on this website, registered volunteers with the requested skill set will receive an automatic email notification and invitation to respond.
Special Initiatives – On an annual basis, LIN facilitates NPO and skilled volunteer matching through its core programs, including but not limited to Narrow the Gap and the Community Partnership Initiative. For these programs, LIN helps our NPO partners to define their needs for skilled volunteers and recruit on their behalf.
Another option, for individuals who have a specific area of interest, is to search the VietnamCauses.org (PhiLoiNhuan.org) website for a non-profit to support. This online directory of local non-profit organizations currently lists over 160 NPOs and is searchable by name, location and thematic area of work (e.g., children, education, LGBT, environment, healthcare.). If you find an organization you would like to support, you can find direct contact information on the NPOs profile page.
From LIN’s research, you’ve found that there are a number of corporations that want to participate in philanthropy, but have limited knowledge of NPOs in Vietnam. How does LIN engage its corporate partners?
Similar to our efforts with skilled volunteers, LIN offers a few ways to help connect corporations to NPOs and vice-a-versa:
VietnamCauses.org (PhiLoiNhuan.org) – This online, searchable directory of local non-profit organizations currently lists over 160 NPOs. Users can search for a non-profit by name, location and/or thematic area of work (e.g., children, education, LGBT, environment, healthcare, etc.). Donors can find direct contact information on the NPOs’ respective profile pages and reach out to them directly.
‘LIN Oi, Where Are We Going?’ – For companies that want to launch a new community engagement program and/or find a non-profit partner or cause to support, LIN organizes a customized team-building event that helps to raise awareness about local causes and local non-profits with the goal of building stronger partnerships. The event has helped to match over a dozen donors with local NPOs and led to the establishment of two long-term partnerships.
Community Partnership Initiative (CPI) – On an annual basis, LIN matches approximately ten companies (or corporate volunteer teams) with ten NPOs over the course of several months to provide targeted support on a pre-determined project (e.g., human resource management or communications). CPI is like a ready-made CSR program that helps companies to give back to their community while promoting leadership and team building skills for their staff.
Narrow the Gap Community Fund – LIN manages a community fund, which is supported by dozens of companies each year. By pooling local resources and coming together to focus on shared challenges, the Narrow the Gap community fund gives companies an opportunity to make a bigger impact with their contributions. Company staff are invited to participate in the due diligence, capacity building, monitoring and evaluation components of the community fund, which also helps to raise awareness about local causes and local NPOs.
How does LIN help NPOs to fundraise?
In addition to providing resources and workshops to help build the NPO’s capacity to raise funds, LIN manages the Narrow the Gap Community Fund, which allocates grants to local non-profits three times each year. Local NPOs are invited to apply for grant funds up to three times each year. Since 2009, LIN’s Narrow the Gap Community Fund collects donations from various sources and manages the selection and allocation of small grants, three times each year, to local NPOs that are addressing community needs. One of those grant rounds is designed as a campaign to raise awareness and invest in projects that address a theme, which is identified by the community itself.
Our mission with Narrow the Gap is to inspire Vietnamese citizens to pool resources together to create change within their community.
How do you ensure that the money is used according to the proposal?
The key is to clarify expectations upfront. Whenever a grant is announced, the call for proposals includes detailed information regarding the purpose of the grant, the selection process as well as the reporting process. Moreover, when a grant is approved, grantees are asked to sign an agreement letter, which details the activities, benchmarks and the success indicators for each grant. All grantees are required to submit a narrative and financial report, which are reviewed by our grants coordinator and our accountant and posted online once approved. We also request mid-term reports for any project that lasts more than six months. LIN hosts regular site visits to grantees and we invite contributors to the Narrow the Gap Community Fund to join any of those visits.
Besides the formal monitoring and evaluation steps taken by the LIN team, we regularly host events that are attended by NPOs, many of whom are grantees, which makes it easy to stay in touch and uncover any challenges an NPO may be facing during implementation of one of their projects. When we help our NPO partners to see that we want them to succeed, they are less afraid to share their challenges with us. We also inform them that it is okay to change the project if it can improve the impact. Any modifications; however, must be requested and approved in advance.
Out of the 98 projects that received funding from LIN, only one was not completed.
What issues are the majority of NPOs working on?
Around 87 per cent of our NPO partners work in the education sector and with children, 35 per cent work in community development, 26 per cent work in healthcare, 24 per cent work in poverty and 20 per cent work in environment. Although NPOs working on human rights issues face greater regulatory challenges, we still see a number of NPOs forming to address LGBT rights, disability rights and animals rights.
What are your most popular services for NPOs?
Most of our NPO partners are interested to connect with donors and learn about financial management, communications, human resource management and fundraising, which is why we focus a lot of our attention on these capacity areas.
We also receive questions every week regarding legal registration of NPOs; however, LIN is only permitted to facilitate experience sharing in this area as instructed by our regulators. Despite our best efforts, LIN’s past requests to raise awareness about legal difficulties in order to improve information and facilitate the registration process were rejected two years in a row. We hope, in the future, that we may receive permission to more effectively assist our NPO partners by working closely with local officials to improve information and provide assistance in the legal registration process.
How do you tailor LINs services to the Vietnamese NPO sector?
We regularly survey and review the feedback of our NPO partners to ensure that our programs meet their needs. At least once a year we review the collected information in order to improve and plan our upcoming programs.
For example, we surveyed our Leadership Circles – monthly peer-to-peer discussion group for NPO organisers – and found that attendees felt uncomfortable publicly sharing challenges within their organisation. From this information, we were able to restructure the program to include a guided discussion with a workshop ‘feel’.
How does LIN plan to scale its operations?
Since we are a community philanthropy organization, scale may mean to us something very different than a businessperson who is looking to expand across the country, region or globe. For us, scale implies an opportunity to provide better services to our stakeholders and, if possible, to provide a model that can be helpful, if localized, to meet the needs of other communities.
In an effort to better meet the needs of LIN’s NPO partners and other grassroots NPOs operating in other parts of Vietnam, LIN has begun to integrate technology into our work. For example, we are now developing online resources, including toolkits and e-learning courses for people working with non-profits and an online directory and volunteer matching platform to support the philanthropic community. As we apply new technology to our programs, we are also studying the feedback of our stakeholders to identify where and how technology can better address their needs and when an in-person training, event or consultation may be more effective.
Aided by the world wide web, LIN has been able to offer some, but not all, of our support services to NPOs throughout Vietnam. And, for organizations in other parts of Vietnam and Southeast Asia that expressed an interest to replicate one or more aspects of our work, LIN team willingly shares its model and lessons learned with them.
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