How do you create a non-profit organization from scratch? According to David McCoy, co-founder and executive director of the Global Alliance for Community Development (GACD), you start with vision and commitment, and build on it, one small step at a time. After he and co-founder Christina Perelli worked on a graduate school development project in Ghana, they found that they wanted to stay connected to the communities where they had created significant relationships.
In the villages of Adaklu Sikama and Klave, in the Volta region, they met individuals who were not living in dire circumstances, but also not necessarily thriving, rather stuck in a kind of intergenerational poverty rooted in a cycle of subsistence farming and petty trading, but little else. They posited that the key to breaking this cycle lie in helping the communities improve their health and educational programs.
They understood that in order for any assistance to make sense and be truly empowering, it would have to be rooted in a genuine partnership with the recipients. In 2008, the pair began working on a plan to help the communities identify their own needs, with the goal of developing improved options beyond the hand to mouth existence that currently followed their primary education.
The total population between the two villages is about 1000. For a small, volunteer organization, this seemed a perfect, manageable size. While David and Christina began collecting books and medical supplies from family, friends and colleagues, they were busy putting their ideas on paper. By 2010, they were well into their application for non-profit status. In October of 2010, the GACD received its letter of determination.
The methodology is simple. Help communities to self-identify their own needs, with a focus on health and education. Start with basics like getting books into the hands of students, and helping people sign up for national health insurance. Give people the tools to help themselves. Bring in partners who are already doing work in that field, in order to maximize available resources. Don’t reinvent the wheel! GACD has partnerships with Ghana Health Services, the National Health Insurance Scheme, and the Volta Aid Foundation, who helps them with diabetes outreach and first aid training.
Current programs are focused on helping people maintain basic health as they develop the foundation for occupations – e.g. funding for water filtration systems, refrigerators for vaccines, toilets, basic health education, providing books, pencils and other supplies to help children gain the opportunity for secondary education, and teaching basic computer and literacy skills. In one of their communities, there are 7 or 8 trained seamstresses but only one has a sewing machine. Eventually, they hope to facilitate the creation of a seamstress co-operative.
To date, most of the organization’s funding has been obtained through individual giving. However, in the summer of 2011, David and his team spent a month in Ghana doing a comprehensive needs assessment, and now, armed with data, they are preparing to begin a robust grant writing campaign.
Clearly, this is an organization that is at the beginning stages of its own development. But with a clear mission and significant community partnerships already in place, they have built a strong foundation. David’s confidence in the future of GACD is apparent. He explained that this is a program that “…can be easily replicated, because we’re working with small communities with finite needs where small amounts of money can have great impact… you can really change the lives of people for thousands of dollars, not millions.”
Most importantly, the goal of GACD is to leave communities self-sufficient. Although the organization is prepared to stay for the long haul, their ultimate goal is to foster independence. ”We’re planning on being in these communities for a while. That being said, if we’re there for 30 or 40 years, we’re failing.” As long as their relationships continue to be partnerships exhibiting two-way commitment, his team will be there, working with the residents to achieve their stated goals.
His biggest current challenge? “Patience,” says David. From an organizational standpoint, working with a small group of volunteers, putting in full time work after working other full time jobs, and dealing with communities so far away in Ghana from the United States, means that things generally take much longer than he would like.
But according to David, the rewards far outweigh the challenges. “Interacting with a community where you’ve been away for so long, but people still remember you and want to invite you into their homes…” Building these types of meaningful relationships is clearly at the heart of his work. His commitment is unwavering.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”