The argument has been made often: Short-term volunteer projects rarely have a lasting impact. However, when a faltering world economy results in budget cuts to so many in-country development projects, it’s good to know there are exceptions to the rule.
The Florida International Volunteer Corps in the Caribbean and the Americas, or FAVACA, is one of those exceptions. Founded in 1982 by then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham, FAVACA is a statewide volunteer program that matches top professionals in varied technical fields with poor communities requesting skills training in those areas. It provides an incentive for professionals to take time off for overseas teaching by paying their travel expenses to do so, or by financing delegations from partnering communities to come to Florida for training.
“The whole process is much more empowering than if you were to go into a country and rent a big office, bring in all these expats, buy a bunch of cars, and say, ‘Here’s the program,’” FAVACA Director of Development Rebecca Reichert explained.
Just how empowering? Between 2005 and 2007, FAVACA placed 163 volunteers in eight- to 10-day service programs, and it estimated that more than 5,000 people benefited from the skills transferred to locals in 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Since Florida shares a similar geographic and cultural makeup with its neighbors, market skills are easily transferred through shared language and field experience in everything from agriculture and hurricane response planning to gang intervention and prevention. That may help to account for why FAVACA is the only U.S. skills transfer program to receive public funds for paying volunteers and delegation expenses.
Of the organization’s $3.3 million budget, more than half comes from state and federal governments, with the rest coming in from foundations, companies and private donations. Around 44 percent of FAVACA’s programs are focused on health and social services; 22 percent on agriculture, the environment and cultural heritage; 20 percent on business development; eight percent on education; and six percent on disaster management.
Sometimes FAVACA will partner with a country’s government through its tourism board, investment bureau, or education ministry. At other times, it will work with small, grassroots organizations that focus on health, education, elder care, microenterprise, and more.
“We get a request from a partner in country and that partner - could be a government ministry, a grassroots organization, a business association, or a university department - requests a certain technical expertise,” Reichert said. “We find that technical expertise here in the state of Florida and send volunteers with that knowledge to volunteer their time.”
FAVACA works hard not to limit itself to the agendas of its federal funding by maintaining a mix of these public and private sector projects.
For instance, rather than dispatch doctors to perform eye surgeries in Haiti, FAVACA taps Haitian Creole-speaking doctors from Florida to teach their colleagues at public and private hospitals in the Caribbean country about new eye surgery equipment and technology. It also deploys a regular stream of financial volunteers to train in microlending techniques through the grassroots Adelante Foundation in Honduras. It has sent geriatrics specialists to El Salvador to work with that country’s national secretary of the family to design more efficient elderly services programs.
It has helped Levi Strauss & Co. to put money and volunteers into programs for health and education in regions where the denim company manufactures its jeans. FAVACA did the same for MoneyGram in communities where it collects remittances.
FAVACA also has been working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and Jamaica’s Ministry of National Security to create law enforcement officer exchange programs between Jamaican police on the island and Jamaican-American cops in Florida with the goal of curbing transnational gang violence.
FAVACA is open to any Florida resident who may have a skill set that matches partner requests. Since those requests vary from year to year and even month to month, the organization keeps a database of volunteer applicants. To apply, prospective volunteers simply send a resume and summary of their skills and interests. As partner requests for training come in, FAVACA probes its database accordingly.
“We’ll go and find two or three resumes for them; they look at the resumes and say which person best suits their needs,” explained Reichert. “We’re really finding a very special niche for our folks, and we’re enabling them to make a perfect match.”
Once those matches are made, the trips get under way. Usually, FAVACA sends one or two volunteers into the field, though it occasionally flips the service and brings delegations from partner countries to Florida.
Either way, FAVACA pays the vast majority of expenses, and encourages volunteers and recipients to contribute what they can. For instance, the volunteer might chip in a few hundred dollars for plane fare while the host group might offer free housing and transportation. As such, an average skills transfer project costs between $2,000 and $3,500.
But FAVACA is careful not to make money an obstacle. After all, Reichert said, their volunteers are usually “busy midcareer professionals, not college students with lots of free time looking to put international experience on their resumes.”
The organization is also careful to accommodate the special needs or concerns of its volunteers by taking measures to provide security or access to health care in dangerous or vulnerable areas.
“A volunteer can turn down an assignment if, for example, they aren’t comfortable working in a particular country,” Reichert said.
This has happened to some Haitians who fear political persecution if they go back. But usually, “the volunteers are being considered for an assignment for which they are interested and available to serve,” Reichert added.
FAVACA extends the reach of its work by suggesting that recipient groups share in the training.
“We encourage the partner organization to invite other organizations or businesses who do similar work so that they can benefit from the training as well,” Reichert said. “They usually have no issue with that; the more the merrier. Plus, they like to be seen as sort of a convener.”
Since training can be noted on both sides of the border, it may be little wonder that state and federal governments dole out funds.
As an example, take the gang project in Jamaica. South Florida has a large Jamaican population, so getting school resource officers in Jamaica trained in gang detection can not only prevent violent activity there but also help islanders alert Florida officials to gang trends migrating north.
“It’s becoming an increasing problem both here and there, so it’s a benefit on both sides,” noted Reichert. “You can see what’s influencing things there and you can see what’s influencing things here.”
FAVACA’s work is varied, so it is hard to offer concrete statistics for success. As such, Reichert said the best measure is the organization’s never-ending flow of requests for volunteers from partner countries. However, there are some cases where the impact is easy to recount.
When FAVACA first sent Lisa Green to train Honduran women in microlending in 2003, the Adelante Foundation had just 20 women lenders. It now boasts some 2,000, who are aided by a constant influx of other financial volunteers from Florida.
Green’s work did not stop there. The former Merrill Lynch financial analyst now teaches financial literacy to refugees in Florida’s Palm Beach County. She made her career switch long before the recession, but says that volunteerism can lead to new perspectives and career angles in an unstable job market.
“The gift of this recession is it forces all of us to get back to basics and integrate more simplicity into our lives,” she said in an e-mail. “It allows us to really ask ourselves the deeper questions like how is my life contributing to the greater good?”
Green added: “As we identify our skills and causes we are passionate about, the bridge between those two starts to present itself. Everyone can do something … time, talent, tithing.”
Haitian-American firefighter and art dealer Nate Lasseur had that experience through FAVACA.
Lasseur first went to Haiti with the organization to teach art marketing to local artisans. After several trips, he became more aware of the country’s infrastructural problems, so FAVACA sent him to teach fire and rescue techniques to Haiti’s emergency response teams. That ultimately led him to form his own organization this year. His International Firefighters Assistance Inc. is now implementing FAVACA’s model to create disaster response training programs between Haitian and American rescue workers.
“It’s like FAVACA would say: They are an organization that helps connect the dots and that’s what they do,” Lasseur said during a phone interview. “It has definitely been that for us.”
“Going on a trip like this could actually get you work, so if that happens as a byproduct, that’s great,” she said.
Jobs and opportunities are definitely being created for FAVACA’s partners. In March, FAVACA brought a delegation of 30 Nicaraguan small business owners from the country’s remote and jungle-filled Atlantic Coast to Miami to learn how to promote their businesses. The group was able to meet with the event planners of Expo Nica, a yearly exposition held in Miami in November to promote Nicaraguan imports, cultural projects and tourism. Since most of the expo’s promoters were unfamiliar with the Atlantic Coast, the event became an opportunity for Nicaraguans from that region to talk about their hotels, restaurants, handicrafts, and ecotourism programs.
Now FAVACA hopes to pay for some of those Nicaraguans to come back for the exposition in the fall to promote their projects. It has also arranged for 12 members of the delegation to come back and participate in tourism internships in Miami.
“We want to put them in with a crowd that might visit Nicaragua, and visit an area as adventurous as the Atlantic Coast,” Reichert said.
Now and in the future
For Reichert, the success of that Nicaraguan delegation was a sure sign that FAVACA should scale up its business exchange trips. That’s one of the areas where the organization is constantly looking for new recruits and ideas.
But where there is poverty, there is always a wide spectrum of needs.
“We always need emergency responders, disaster preparedness experts, agricultural experts on various crops and livestock, small business and organizational development planners who can address fundraising, supply chain management, marketing, volunteer management and other capacity-building skills,” she said.
Since FAVACA and USAID hope to expand their gang interdiction and prevention program to Barbados, Reichert is pushing for volunteers with an interest in law enforcement. Most recently, FAVACA facilitated a conference sponsored by USAID and U.S. State Department on the topic, bringing together law enforcement officials from Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.
“What came out for them was this realization that they need to coordinate better, and I think we’ll get a couple of requests for training out of this,” Reichert noted. “No one else can reach around quite as specifically as we can.”
A lesson for other regions
After six years of lobbying and networking for FAVACA around the Americas, Reichert said she is sure the organization is one of a kind - but it does not have to be.
She said a few years ago some community activists from Quebec picked her brain for setting up a skills transfer program out of that Canadian province. It made perfect sense to her. She said any state or province whose population has cultural, language, or business ties to a developing country can be especially effective.
Still, the program’s strong point is its receptiveness to partner requests, well-planned matchmaking, and incentives of funding and networking for top professionals who might not ordinarily consider such projects.
“It’s a goodwill mission as distinct from a trade mission, but may, in the end, yields business and personal contacts and allows the citizens of that state to get new ideas - to think outside the box,” Reichert said.
Name: Florida International Volunteer Corps in the Caribbean and the Americas
Type: Nonprofit organization
Mission: To “improve environmental, social and economic conditions” in Latin America and the Caribbean through training and technical assistance
Headquarters: Miami, Florida
Annual budget: $3.3 million (2008)
Interim executive director: Demian A. Pasquarelli