Our NGO spotlight this week features LIN Center for Community Development, a local not-for-profit organization that has been working tirelessly to help local people meet local needs for the last nine years in Vietnam. LIN has been helpful to not-for-profit organizations (NPOs), private individuals and companies in Vietnam as an intermediary organization. More than just providing grants, LIN has helped grow countless NPOs in Vietnam by providing organizational development assistance, connections to companies for partnerships. LIN helps NPOs, volunteers, and donors access resources that can help them fulfill their potential as vehicles for sustainable development, poverty alleviation, and citizen participation in Vietnam while also trying to build positive relationships with the local and national government. We sat down with LIN founder Dana Doan to learn about the motivations behind her project for the last nine years.
What was your background before LIN?
When I moved to Vietnam, I thought I would be here for a year, maybe two. So, I took on part-time, volunteer positions with a local and an international nonprofit for about a half a year, meanwhile teaching English to adults in the evenings. Soon after, I accepted a full-time position as a International Trade Policy Analyst with the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Center and Education Forum (USVTC), which was exciting and encouraged me want to stay in Vietnam longer than planned. While at USVTC, I volunteered with the Chamber of Commerce for about five years. At the time, AmCham’s grants program was in the early stages of a partnership with United Way International and I got an opportunity to learn more about the goals of United Way and AmCham Vietnam. Unfortunately, the full potential of that partnership never materialized and the two organizations parted ways. I am sure there were multiple reasons for that decision, however, one glaring challenge was how to adapt a U.S. program to a country with different cultural practices and experiences.
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Why did you feel the need to start LIN?
I saw a problem and a potential solution to that problem. Vietnam is often celebrated for how much ODA (Overseas Development Aid) the country receives. After Vietnam achieved lower middle income country status (according to the World Bank) government agencies, INGOs, and also Vietnamese NPOs expressed concern that international aid would soon diminish, which they believed would negatively affect their development efforts. However, in my opinion, this attitude and dependency on ODA can take away local agency and ultimately inhibit sustainable development. Much too often, aid and development workers come into a country or community with their vision of a problem and how to affect change FOR that community rather than empowering a community to imagine a better future and effect change for itself.
That said, I do believe ODA can be useful provided that it is designed and implemented in close collaboration with local people and local organizations in the communities that are targeted to benefit from foreign support. ODA can contribute to local development when the focus is on sharing experiences, transferring knowledge, and introducing supportive tools and equipment. On the other hand, ODA is not useful when it results in foreign people (or foreign led organizations) micro-managing local people and local organizations.
Unfortunately, that is what tends to happen. Did you know, for example, that less than 0.3% of development aid goes directly to local and national NGOs in the Global South? That’s because almost all of development and humanitarian aid passes through multi-national, bilateral organizations, and/or international NGOs before it ever reaches local people and local organizations in the Global South. I believe this is wrong and needs to be reversed.
So, LIN set out to empower local people to engage and make decisions for themselves and their communities. We wanted to create a framework that would give local people a voice and resources to realize the changes they feel are necessary for their community. Over the past nine years, LIN has been working to promote community-led development in Ho Chi Minh City and other parts of Vietnam.
What has working in the non-profit sector here taught you about Vietnam?
I’ve learned a lot about Vietnam over the past 15 years, working with several different not-for-profit organizations. First, I had to learn that I cannot expect to easily compare the nonprofit sector in Vietnam to the nonprofit sector in the USA, just as I could not expect to easily compare the two political systems. While the US system of government was originally established to minimize the role of government, I learned that the Vietnamese government set out to provide social welfare and benefits for all of its citizens following reunification. Through my research on volunteerism and giving prior to the US-Vietnam war, I found that community philanthropy is quite relevant and symbiotic with the culture and history of Vietnam.
Over the years, affinity groups (such as farmers and women) often came together organically to address local challenges. They would pool their resources to help each other work out solutions to the problems facing an individual, a group, or the whole community. I also discovered that Vietnamese professionals are quite willing and able to contribute their expertise and time to development initiatives. Nevertheless, as their incomes increased and their ability to contribute increased, there was not a simultaneous increase in resources or support on how to give well.
Combined, these learnings assured me and the founding members of LIN’s board that the concept of what LIN is trying to do in Vietnam is consistent with the local culture and established values. We saw a need and a gap and felt that we could facilitate connections between local needs and available resources for the long-term, positive development of Vietnam.
How does LIN operate?
To help local people meet local needs, LIN provides support services to not-for-profit organizations and individual and institutional philanthropists. At the same time, through our research reports and stakeholder surveys, LIN also provides information to the government to contribute to their efforts to understand needs and to develop appropriate policies to meet those needs and to strengthen community development.
Firstly, LIN provides advice, training, funds, tools, and connections to nonprofits that want to make a positive impact in their respective communities. Secondly, we provide advice, training, tools, and connections to individual and institutional philanthropists that want to engage in more impactful giving. We found that, in Vietnam, there are few resources to help people get started as a nonprofit or as a donor and we wanted to fill that gap. Finally, we do our best to inform and engage in dialogue with the local and national government in hopes of promoting positive relations and a strong civil society sector.
One of our most important services is to facilitate a more informed and effective connection of available resources to existing needs. For example, we match individuals and companies with relevant skill sets to nonprofits that need those skill sets. We help nonprofits to identify new ways to engage with their communities, beyond asking for money, and we encourage partnerships within the nonprofit sector and with the private sector and with government.
LIN created online e-learning courses for nonprofit professionals (and their volunteers) to support organizational capacity development. We also created a variety of downloadable toolkits, for both nonprofits and philanthropists, which promote best practices and shared lessons learned in an effort to avoid common mistakes.
Companies that want to get to know about NPOs, social enterprises, philanthropy, Corporate Social Responsibility, or community development often come to LIN. And many local nonprofits that want to know about corporate and institutional donors also come to LIN. As in many countries, there is a disconnect and frequent miscommunication between the for profit sector and the not-for-profit sector, so to some extent LIN has become an intermediary for the two. And we are working to help facilitate cross sector partnerships.
Beyond creating an online, searchable directory of local nonprofits and listing out opportunities to engage and support those nonprofits, we also designed and make available an online orientation for pro bono volunteers, teaching lessons like “what is an NGO?”, “what is the best way to volunteer or offer support?”, “what are frequent volunteer pitfalls?”
We also organize customized events and facilitate programs that help companies to identify a relevant cause or nonprofit to support, like the “LIN oi, Minh Di Dau?” and “Leadership for Nonprofit Initiatives” programs.
Companies that want to try to get to know NGOs or social enterprises often go through LIN. There is often a disconnect between the private sector and NGOs, so we have become an intermediary. We have an online orientation for private companies, teaching lessons like “what is an NGO?”, “what is the best way to volunteer or offer support?”
We also facilitate fixed projects. We have one called CPI, Community Partnership Initiative where we take 10 NGOs that have a need and then we match them with 10 companies that can assist them. They’re matched for 3-4 months, where they work together to find solutions and present them. The best solutions are awarded for being the most sustainable. We work a variety of different companies, such as HR.
What are your goals for LIN?
LIN stands for Listen Inspire Nurture.
Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job, to find a sustainable way to fill the gap that we discovered. There are multiple objectives within that greater goal. To oversimplify, we dream of the day when local people and local organizations are actively involved in community development, readily contributing their assets to help solve their own community problems, and leading partnerships with foreign supporters and government of community development.
When you set up an NGO, you are not trying to build an institution. You are trying to create impact. Of course, if you want to create impact, you need resources, such as well-trained and experienced staff, funds to pay those staff and to implement programs, an office, computers, etc. The key is to focus on the reason your organization exists and to focus on and measure the impact of your work. Too many donors are focused on how nonprofits work rather than focusing on the impact of their work. As a result, too many nonprofits are focused on efficiency rather than impact. While it is important to strive for efficiency, I believe nonprofits and donors should be focusing on impact. There is an important balance that not-for-profit organizations need to maintain.
What message do you want our readers to get from LIN?
Our role is to promote impact and inspire good practices. There are a lot of unhelpful views, approaches, and practices coming to Vietnam from the Global North. For example, the concept of evaluating a nonprofit based on the percentage of its costs allocated to operations. While it is important to ensure that any organization is spending responsibly, there is no gold standard for measuring the efficiency of a nonprofit. Each nonprofit has a unique mission, approach, and limitations so it would be silly to think that you are comparing apples to apples. LIN would rather help individuals and organizations learn how to assess the impact of an organization they might like to fund and how to give strategically to achieve a long-term impact..
Right now, LIN is designing programs to meet existing needs and demands; however, some of the roles LIN is playing could be filled in other ways. For example, in some countries (including countries in Southeast Asia), the Government manages a searchable online directory of local NGOs and a private, for profit company, offers philanthropic advisory services. In other countries, local nonprofits pay for training and advice. At LIN, we are exploring the viability of such possibilities in Vietnam and other ways we can be most effective in achieving our mission. We’re doing our best to fill in the existing gaps, but our approach will likely evolve as community philanthropy grows and as the legal framework for nonprofits and philanthropy improves in Vietnam.
A connector is one role, but we focus on inspiring communities to support good works.
What are difficulties you’ve encountered building LIN?
People working in the nonprofit sector in Vietnam face a lot of challenges.
Soon after I moved to Vietnam, I came to learn that there was a rather negative perception about nonprofits and volunteerism here. People used to tell me not to tell people that I volunteer because they might think I was a student or unable to get a paid job. And, when I started to help get LIN set-up, many people I came across would share their low opinions of nonprofits. Gradually, I found that the perception of the nonprofit sector is becoming more positive. However, talented individuals that join the nonprofit sector out of college often move to the for-profit sector, for better salaries, improved working conditions, and/or other benefits that the nonprofit sector has, at least until now, been unable to offer. And, to this day, I still hear from people starting up nonprofits that their friends and family members discourage them from setting up a nonprofit.
Another challenge in building LIN was finding local philanthropists (local individuals and local corporations) that were interested to financially support LIN’s work. Much of the initial feedback that I heard from local people was that they preferred to give the funds to organizations engaged in charity initiatives rather than organizations focused on social transformation and long-term development. Although we anticipated this, to some extent, it has been difficult to convince local people to fund an intermediary organization like LIN or to convince local people that policy advocacy is important.
Another important challenge is how difficult it is to receive foreign funding. For those that may not be aware, there is a law in Vietnam that requires all recipients of foreign aid money (for charitable or humanitarian purposes) to request official government permission to receive those funds. The process to receive that permission can take anywhere from 3 to 18 months, although the law itself requires a much shorter time frame. While I understand that it is important for the government to ensure that all funds entering Vietnam are for legitimate reasons and legal purposes, the process of approval is far too slow, time consuming, and bureaucratic and can easily force a small nonprofit out of business. The LIN Center came too close to shutting down its operations in 2015 due to exceptionally long delays in the approval of three grants from foreign donors, which put the organization in a precarious position.