The ‘DNA’ of an NGO: Helping people to help themselves

date_range2018-11-30

The idea of an organisation having taken on a life of its own, being fully independent and self-sustaining is a good one. For me it was the thinking that lay behind the charity, the idea of helping people to help themselves, that lies at the heart of SCC.– Paul Cleves, Founder of Saigon Children’s Charity CIO 

On the occasion of Saigon Children’s Charity CIO (SCC) receiving the Certificate of Merit from the Prime Minister of Vietnam for its contribution to education in Vietnam, we interviewed Paul Cleves, the founder of the organisation, who spoke of some interesting stories behind our many achievements over the past 26 years.

As we learned about your impression of Vietnamese people’s spirit during your first visit in 1987, leading to the idea of founding the organization in 1992, could you share more about some people you encountered during those time that most impressed you and motivated you to found saigonchildren? 

When I first came to Vietnam it was a poor country. But what impressed me was that despite their poverty the people were cheerful. They seemed not to consider their poverty an obstacle to getting on with and enjoying their lives. They did not seem to harbour jealousy of the better off or to long for material possessions. However, what they did all desire was an education for their children and being at this time a father of a young child I felt for them and how they must have worried that their poverty was preventing their children from getting an education. What also impressed me was the fact that all the children so ardently wished to go to school which seemed to be in contrast to the children back home who would have done anything to miss school.

The first school built by saigonchildren 

Could you share with us your thoughts at the time you decided to leave the UK and stay in Vietnam to develop the new charity on a full-time basis? 

I had a full-time job in England but came out to Vietnam in holidays to implement the first projects of SCC. But despite the fact that I had a couple of good friends in Vietnam who could help when I was not here progress was slow.

I had the feeling that I was not doing my job in England as well as I could because I was so focused on Vietnam; and I knew the work of the charity would not progress far without a full-time manager in Vietnam. So it did not take long to conclude what the best path was for me to take.

What challenges did the charity encounter in its early stages? 

Without doubt the biggest challenge in the early days was money. Despite being a registered charity, no one knew us. We had no overheads at first, no rent and no salaries so it was easier to convince people when they knew all their money would go directly to projects which enabled the poorest children to go to school.

But slowly slowly, step by step more and more people got to know us. Individuals and businesses in Vietnam could see with their own eyes the work that we were doing, and this convinced more people to support our work. Fortunately, there were no regulatory hurdles in those days as there were no regulations concerning the operations of foreign NGOs. And so as long as we were obviously doing good work there were no obstacles for us to navigate and we worked with and alongside local government agencies who thought highly of us.

In your opinion, what were the key decisive moments that mark the history of saigonchildren?

Having a small band of staff who were committed to their work and who were able to extend the work of the SCC into new districts and provinces and new forms of activity was a key moment. When you see people carrying out their work in a professional and independent way you know that the organisation has taken on a life of its own. And when you see people enjoying their work and finding it fulfilling you know that the task is well done.

Having a functioning and supportive Board of Trustees whose clout and influence expended way beyond my own and whose personal generosity allowed us to raise even more money was also a key moment. And the support of similar and such minded people who were not Trustees but who nevertheless were willing to lend their names and backing was important not only for the money they raised but because psychologically there is nothing like having people who publicly support what you are doing as a boost to one’s confidence.

Paul Cleves (second from the right) with Board of Trustee of saigonchildren (2018)

Could you share your experience of seeing saigonchildren become an established NGO in Vietnam?

The idea of an organisation having taken on a life of its own, being fully independent and self-sustaining is a good one. For me it was the thinking that lay behind the charity, the idea of helping people to help themselves, that lies at the heart of SCC. That is what for me is and should be the DNA of SCC and so long as the idea of taking simple practical steps to help disadvantaged and needy people to get a fair start in life then the organisation should flourish and shall be recognisable as the organisation I helped bring into being.

This year, we are proud to receive the Certificate of Merit from Mr. Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister of Vietnam. This is a new milestone that marks our contribution to eliminate poverty through education and remove barriers to education in Vietnam since 1992.

Saigonchildren received Certificate of Merits from Vietnam P.M in 2018 

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