Non-profit insights: The art of financial frugality

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In Alexa Mira Society (AMSI), we started to become more conscious in our spending this year. Ever since starting the planning stages in April 2019, we have been spending only around P100k. It baffles me how other organizations spend P100k on a single day.

I think it’s a matter of trying to understand that funneling in hundreds and thousands of money in a program does not necessarily mean you are creating genuine, social impact. Sometimes, frugality with spending can have its positive impacts as well–at times even greater impact.

It’s also about transparency and spending money wisely. As much as possible, we only spend for the things that are really needed on every program day, such as food and honorarium for speakers, among others.

Here, I will share some small practices that our organization does, that thankfully led to positive financial results so far.

Spreading out the program outline

For one, our programs are not a one-time, big-time thing. It’s spread out across the year. This is also one way to keep the programs sustainable and attuned to the practical needs of the community.

For this year, we focused on two main programs. I think this helped us narrow down our focus, so that the funds that get funneled are centered around these two main programs. I think it also helped that we have a small community of five families.

As much as possible, we were also frugal with the expenses on every program day. We don’t really need too much money to move forward and progress–we just need the appropriate amount of money to keep the program going. I think this is a very important lesson for many non-profits. While we are not experts on this aspect, we try our best with what we have.

Funding and grants are also not easy to come by all the time, so we really have to be wise in spending money.

Having a minimalist approach

Having only what you really need is the basic premise of minimalism. In non-profits, I think the same perspective applies.

Being a small organization, we really have to make do with what we have and unleash our creativity around that. In another blog post, I shared how creativity helped us in AMSI.

More than just lessening expenses, minimalism in non-profits means that you only spend on what is essential for the community. You don’t need too much to begin with. You just need a few, well-selected things that could help in the long-term sustainability of the organization and community.

While we are small, I hope other non-profits learn a thing or two from our experiences at AMSI.

Non-profit insights: The art of financial frugality

Standard

In Alexa Mira Society (AMSI), we started to become more conscious in our spending this year. Ever since starting the planning stages in April 2019, we have been spending only around P100k. It baffles me how other organizations spend P100k on a single day.

I think it’s a matter of trying to understand that funneling in hundreds and thousands of money in a program does not necessarily mean you are creating genuine, social impact. Sometimes, frugality with spending can have its positive impacts as well–at times even greater impact.

It’s also about transparency and spending money wisely. As much as possible, we only spend for the things that are really needed on every program day, such as food and honorarium for speakers, among others.

Here, I will share some small practices that our organization does, that thankfully led to positive financial results so far.

Spreading out the program outline

For one, our programs are not a one-time, big-time thing. It’s spread out across the year. This is also one way to keep the programs sustainable and attuned to the practical needs of the community.

For this year, we focused on two main programs. I think this helped us narrow down our focus, so that the funds that get funneled are centered around these two main programs. I think it also helped that we have a small community of five families.

As much as possible, we were also frugal with the expenses on every program day. We don’t really need too much money to move forward and progress–we just need the appropriate amount of money to keep the program going. I think this is a very important lesson for many non-profits. While we are not experts on this aspect, we try our best with what we have.

Funding and grants are also not easy to come by all the time, so we really have to be wise in spending money.

Having a minimalist approach

Having only what you really need is the basic premise of minimalism. In non-profits, I think the same perspective applies.

Being a small organization, we really have to make do with what we have and unleash our creativity around that. In another blog post, I shared how creativity helped us in AMSI.

More than just lessening expenses, minimalism in non-profits means that you only spend on what is essential for the community. You don’t need too much to begin with. You just need a few, well-selected things that could help in the long-term sustainability of the organization and community.

While we are small, I hope other non-profits learn a thing or two from our experiences at AMSI.

Non-profit insights: Creativity amidst ambiguity

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I’m very proud to be working with our nanays at Alexa Mira Society (AMSI).

For the past weeks, we’ve organized several workshops in our livelihood program where we taught them positive self-image, business planning, and personal finance, among others. Looking into their eyes when I was observing the workshops — I can see a glimmer of hope. Our nanays want change, and they want it fast.

Recently, our nanays have finalized their livelihood project with that of making handmade products from crochet. They already found a supplier for their cloth. Since then, they have been experimenting on different designs and talking about their next steps forward.

What I appreciate the most is the amount of creativity and resourcefulness they’re investing into this project and the entire program of AMSI. I’m happy to know that the lessons we’re sharing with them bore fruit along the way.

This is where creativity becomes a big asset and tool in local communities.

On creativity and community building

People underestimate creativity and intuition. As human beings, I think one of our most important assets is to — at proper times — act based on our gut feel or what we sense to be right. Sometimes, our intuition tells us more about our analytical and overthinking mind.

Imagine if we build that into the community.

I believe communities are powerful. In our own community, the nanays have a voice. They use this to power through every day. They use this to fuel their creativity and resourcefulness. We ideate with them, and they execute. They move when they’re provided the proper autonomy and direction.

Everyone is creative. They just have to be given the proper chance.

Teaching ‘how to fish’

It’s common knowledge and practice that non-profit organizations spoonfeed or simply give donations to their beneficiaries. But this is not what we aim to be in AMSI.

By teaching the nanays personal and business skills, we want them to move forward on their own once we ourselves in the team are gone later down the road.

Because in life, it’s like a grand game of autonomy and just striving to be good people.

Non-profit insights: Working one year into Alexa Mira Society

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Since 2018, I’ve been working part-time in a non-profit organization (NPO) called Alexa Mira Society (AMSI). We hold our programs every Saturday of the week, and focus on the kids and nanays (mothers). The tatays (fathers), unfortunately, cannot join us because in Filipino culture, the fathers work even on Saturdays to tend to their families’ needs. There is also the notion that only the nanays and kids should engage with non-profit organizations.

When I first started in AMSI, I was quite reluctant. I had typical questions going on in my mind such as “is there money here?“, “will this be worth my time?“, and “will this be fulfilling?“, among others. Looking back, I realized it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Working in a non-profit

AMSI is relatively new, so my team and I had to construct an organizational structure. It’s not yet as seamless and relatively efficient as other NPOs, but it’s been a good start so far.

I volunteered to be the project manager this year, and initially began setting our respective roles and positions. It’s been months since then, and we’re slowly learning and getting the hang of our respective tasks.

In this working environment, I learned that if you are going to build a structure in an organization, you’re going to have to work together a lot in an unstructured way. Like how you build anything in life, it starts with ambiguity and unstructured processes.

Amid this building-up process, we’ve made really good friends with each other. Today, it’s more like a siblinghood. We remain professional with the tasks, while at the same time maintaining our friendships (and having heart-to-heart conversations here and there). There’s also a strong feeling of family, and that’s something really nice to have.

Working with the community

We work with a community in Barangay Palatiw, Pasig City. One thing I learned and realized with our community is their potential and skills.

For the past weeks, we have been exposing them to a series of seminars and workshops in the livelihood program. We are doing these so that in the latter parts of the program, the nanays would be equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to jump-start their own livelihood project.

The good thing is that the nanays already have an entrepreneurial mindset. My team and I were just really there to help them realize this further. Along the way, they have been conceptualizing and thinking of ways to start their next livelihood project.

The kids in our community are another unique story. Apart from being very makulit and rowdy, the kids have a lot of potential in them that we help nurture through the kids’ program. We’ve exposed them to a number of mini workshops such as urban gardening, personal finance, and arts and crafts, to name a few.

Ultimately, our goal is to help the community stand up on their own feet and earn a living for themselves. We continually instill an entrepreneurial mindset in the nanays and a creative mindset for the kids.

Much of our work has been experimental. We think that to better address the needs of our community, we need to apply a lot of creative approaches. We’re able to see the impact that we’re doing for the community, and I think that’s what matters the most.

Lifelong search for social impact

Social impact is, indeed, a complex subject to dwell upon. When we first started forming programs for AMSI, social impact is one of our main concerns.

Will the activities bring actual change in the lives of our communities? How should we measure our social impact? Are our programs tailored to their needs?

These were just some of the questions we asked. Since human development is a complex topic, what we focused on are what we are currently capable of. We started with simple social impact metrics through feedback forms and attendance sheets, among others.

There is an article by the World Economic Forum that provides a unique perspective on this topic. It tries to ask questions on who should be defining poverty and social impact, among other things, in the first place.

At the end of the day, bringing change into other people’s lives can have multiple meanings. It could be the joy you feel when you see the smile in a child, or even the increase in family income of your beneficiaries with the help of the livelihood project that your organization helped them start. Again, what matters is there is something that positively changed, because in this world, the only ever thing that’s constant (or should be constant) is change.

Non-profit insights: For the families of Barangay Palatiw

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Last July 5, my team and I at Alexa Mira Society finally got completed in a meeting. We discussed current plans and developments in our project for Barangay Palatiw consisting of four programs: livelihood, urban farming, feeding, and kids’ programs.

One would notice that these programs seem a lot, considering that they would be implemented in just around five to six months. But I think what’s more important here are the lessons we’re going to leave behind to the families and encouraging them to act in their own initiative and free will rather than depending on assistance all the time. Ultimately, what we want to leave behind with them is the drive and independence to lift themselves up.

One of the children in the families is named Alexa, a tribute to the non-government organization we’re working with. If we can provide a better, enabling environment for children like Alexa to thrive, this can help them develop and grow as individuals. And we do these through the programs that we’ve obligated ourselves to push through with.

On being entrepreneurial

The livelihood program ultimately aims to equip the mothers and fathers of the community with the business and entrepreneurial skills to jumpstart their own micro businesses. From selling dishwashing liquid, fish balls, and the produce through the urban farming program, these can serve as additional income streams for their families. This also means better education, food, and health for them and their children.

What I would say the social impact here is the ability of the families to spend more than what they previously spent, thereby giving them the knowledge and belief that they have the potential to upgrade their current living status if they have enough drive and willpower to do so. I think this is a very powerful lesson for the families, because through it they begin to gradually break the stigma and stereotypes with regard to being labeled as “poor.” We want to teach them to become entrepreneurial and discover the value of growing their families through business.

Subsistence and entrepreneurial urban farming

The urban farming program has two main goals: help the families become subsistent and self-sustaining by producing their own crops, and help them have even more additional income through the surplus crops that they’re going to get. That’s essentially how simple it is, because practically anyone can go into urban farming regardless of lack in experience or none at all.

The impact that we want to present to the families is that they can grow various crops through the urban farming program. From pechay to tomatoes, they can experiment on different kinds of vegetables. These crops will also help their families have a healthier lifestyle and nutrition.

Hunger and nutrition

Our feeding program will essentially be for the kids themselves. We want to bring healthy and nutricious food for them. Throughout 30 days in the entire program, the families will be preparing food using the ingredients and materials that we will be providing to them. Hopefully, we also get to use the produce from the urban farming program as ingredients for the feeding program.

For the kids

The kids’ program will be divided into four different sets of activities throughout a month. What we aim here is for the kids to simply have fun and learn different kinds of new things. Some of them are already going to school, and we wanted to augment that learning experience through new amd exciting activities. One of those potential sessions is a session where the kids learn about space and the solar system. Awesome, right?

We still have a long way to go, but this is all going quite well. In the long run, this is for all the families getting left behind, starting with those in Barangay Palatiw.

Non-profit insights: Pushing for more sustainability-driven advocacy projects in the PH

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For the past few months, I’ve started working with Alexa Mira Society, Inc., a non-profit organization that aims to uplift the lives of a poor community in Pasig, Philippines. My team and I are working on a project entitled 3S On The Go. It’s named as such because the project has three main programs: sustainable feeding program, sustainable urban farming program, and sustainable livelihood program, which essentially stands for the “3S”. To make them truly sustainable, we need to take action, hence the “On The Go”.

My contributions include helping develop the urban farming program, as well as creating marketing collaterals for our awareness campaigns. As a team, we make sure to look out for each other and find problems that we can help one another with. So far, the experience has been great, and we’re looking forward to the developments of this project.

Our initial beneficiaries are five families in Barangay Palatiw, Pasig City. Here are some photos of them.

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What we wanted to bring to these families are the necessary knowledge and skills that they’ll need to thrive. While I was checking the families’ profiles, I noticed how they have several children (i.e. it is a common notion among poor communities in the Philippines that having more children will help them rise from poverty easier because “more family members mean more income earners”), the mothers were mainly housewives, and the fathers are either a tricycle driver or construction worker. These are typical family conditions in communities like Barangay Palatiw.

But where does our team come in? 

One fact about creating community programs is that you can’t enforce anything into a community. They won’t necessarily adhere to how you want them to change their lives, because they would have a different idea as to what constitutes a “good life”. So you have to make a compromise.

One of the things I learned after having a discussion with my team and a person experienced with feeding programs is that people coming from poor communities have a different view of life satisfaction. You may think, for instance, that perhaps creating a large urban farm in a poor community would surely uplift their lives because they would potentially have a lot of clients looking for vegetables and root crops, among others. However, people from these communities view it differently, probably it may even be a hassle for them. In fact, some of them went away from the province where they used to farm, because they think life in Manila is so much easier. But we know that’s not the case. So you compromise. What do these families really need?

We think that the feeding, urban farming, and livelihood programs will help for three main reasons:

  • The feeding program will teach the families proper nutrition both for the kids and adults
  • The urban farming program will augment the existing vegetable gardens that some of the families already have in their respective vacant lots
  • The livelihood program will teach them about business and therefore, help them learn to become self-sustaining and earn more money apart from their current income sources

Of course, these are mainly projections at the moment. We’ll see where we go from here, and we are taking things one step at a time.

What I really love about this project is on how we get to help improve the lives of these families. There is no certainty that the project will last long-term, but that is what we are working on now. Calculated risks. Sound program design. Proper budget allocation. Systematic implementation. Seamless coordination.

Thankfully, the project is well-funded. This is one reason for us to go all-out in terms of giving better lives to the families. Personally, I haven’t had an extensive experience in the area of advocacy projects like these. The most experience I’ve had is being a volunteer in socio-civic activities that last for a day. Nevertheless, this one’s off to a great start and I’m daring to go at it with no holds barred.

Here’s to more sustainability-driven advocacy projects in the Philippines.