For Janet Lotawa, the first step to starting an international development NGO was falling in love.
I don’t really remember what I was thinking, but I remember exactly how I felt.
It was the summer of 1994, and it was a sensation of peaceful happiness, something I didn’t experience often in my teenage years. I was in Fiji, on vacation with my family, staying at a remote island resort.
Fiji is a country in the middle of the South Pacific made up of two main islands and hundreds of small islands. It’s considered the hub of the Pacific and yet is still very much a developing region.
I’ve always been a sun lover, so it was odd that I ended up spending most of my days hanging out inside the staff’s quarters. I felt at ease with the women who worked there. I told them stories and cracked jokes about where I came from. They dressed me up in a staff uniform, took pictures and shared about life on the islands.
The staff lived with very basic resources; drinking Milo cocoa tea together was a real afternoon treat. I came to understand all of the workers at the resort had to leave their families and communities to access work in tourism, and they lived-in, so they didn’t get to go home for months at a time.
I did get to go home, but I loved Fiji so much, I cried when I left that island.
The next summer I returned on a service-learning program with Global Works. I was dying to spend more time in this tropical paradise but I really wanted to experience what life was like in the villages where those women I’d met came from.
I spent a month there, just enough time to detox from my American teenagerness and meet my future husband, Semi Lotawa.
Semi is from the highland region in the interior of Viti Levu, aka “the big island.” He was working for the forestry service and volunteered to stay with our group, wanting to gain more experience working in ecotourism. I married my husband because of the content of his character, but his cultural upbringing and environment has much to do who he is. His ability to create community, his generosity of heart and his talent for genuinely connecting with a wide variety of people are all very Fijian traits.
That month changed my life. Living outside of my usual surroundings helped me to examine what I was really like on the inside.
Here I am, 18 years later, married to my love from Nalotawa Village. We have two kids and have never let the dream of someday moving back to Fiji slip away.
So today, July 13th, we finally set sail for Fiji. We’ll be gone for at least a year.
While my husband has co-founded a sustainable-based forest product company operating in the interior regions of Fiji, I’m starting on my own journey — Rise Beyond the Reef, a Seattle-based nonprofit devoted to creating a better world for rural women and children in the South Pacific.
Our pilot project is in Fiji, but our goal is to share this work eventually with rural communities in other Pacific island nations.
Behind that mission is years of hoping that we would be able to actually do the good work we felt rural communities in the South Pacific need and deserve. Since we got married, every year and a half we’d take a trip to Fiji with boxes of supplies to villages and send materials to schools.
But when I started to write the business plan to formalize that work and create Rise Beyond the Reef I felt choked. How do I express in a plan something I yearned to do for more than half of my life?
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned so far about making your passion a reality in the non-profit world:
1. Know your mission:
Our pilot project plan included a clear approach for strengthening educational infrastructure in rural communities and identified the need for a baseline assessment in partnership with a team of village representatives.
From there, we’d develop our approach for our other two focus areas, health and safety, and economic development for women and children.
I had a plan, but I was still struggling to write our mission statement.
After more than a decade of working as a fundraiser and development professional I’ve learned to trust my ability to articulate passion, priorities and need into compelling statements and stories in their own time. But something was not fully cooked yet.
Eventually I got the chance to meet with Peter Blomquist, a “seen it all” consultant, seasoned in international development funding and programming and ready to tell me how my project blended in with the rest.
“Good!” I thought, “that’s just the sort of audience I need.” I was ready to combat his assumptions with facts and figures with the hopes of gaining his support and endorsement for our work. He talked to me for ten minutes, asked some pointed questions, persisted with his skepticism. I told him I wanted to know how he’d approach the work. He laid out three concise points and connected them with one thread.
He had my mission statement: Rise Beyond the Reef bridges the divide between rural communities, government and the private sector in the South Pacific, sustainably creating a better world for women and children.
2. Get your paperwork right:
We originally were planning to register for 501(c)(3) status in the U.S., but we found out that many international funders (including U.S.-based funders) will not support your work if you are registered here.
Why? Because over the years, they’ve learned that international development works best when it’s built with sustainability at the forefront. So, empowering local communities to develop and lead their own change. Instead of Westerners coming in with Western ideas of how to “fix things.”
We are currently considering some fiscal sponsorship options during the first few years of our work, to help us plug into existing international development networks. By becoming a sponsored organization we have the benefit of an instant community we can reach out to for support. Also, we are not sure doing all the paperwork to get a 501(c)(3) going is the best use of our time when we are working to get programs off the ground.
3. Authenticity is Key:
That’s a big mantra for me right now. There are no NGOs working in the rural regions we are targeting in Fiji. That’s why we are doing this. Whatever approach our work takes, it has to be based on the needs those communities have identified and articulated themselves.
If we are global citizens, then it’s important to value the perspectives and knowledge of people in developed and developing countries.
Rural communities in the South Pacific have incredible assets in their traditional knowledge, their art forms, their hunting and farming practices; their understanding of the rich biodiversity in the environment. There is value in these regions.
It’s important for the members of these rural communities to have the opportunity to measure their own value and facilitate their own sustainable growth (that’s the core value of community-based development) just as Americans have valued doing in this country for centuries.
Donors in the “developed” world have the opportunity to support the areas in the world where there are deficits because we have the resources and technologies to do so. Our aim as an organization is to help remove the layer between the rural communities and the outside world, to help amplify the voice of rural regions and to provide donors with the opportunity to respond to it.
My life has been deeply changed by the women I met in 1994, by the experiences I’ve had in Fiji over the years and the belief in myself I’ve developed that one day I can help bridge their world to a better future.
This is my mission.