By Jay Jaboneta
Four years ago, I was sitting on my bed in Manila upon returning from Zamboanga City, located in Mindanao, 536 miles south of the Philippine capital. I was in my late twenties, working under the Communications Office of the President of the Philippines. I looked at my laptop and saw my Facebook account. I just knew that I needed to share the story.
Earlier that day, while in Zamboanga City, a volunteer shared with me that during the 2010 election campaign, he and the city’s other residents were on their way to a mangrove village near the shores of the city when they chanced upon children who were swimming to school. Their families were located so close to the sea, living on houses with stilts, because their primary livelihood was seaweed farming.
There was something about that story that kept bugging me. It reminded me that during my time in grade school when I was still living in Cotabato City, I used to complain that I had to walk ten minutes to school. I had always heard of children who struggled to go to school, who walked for many miles and many hours just to get to school. But I had never heard of children who had to swim to school before.
I typed into the little dialogue box that would replicate itself on my Facebook wall, took a deep breath, and shared the story. And then I fell asleep.
The next day, to my surprise, many of my friends began commenting “how can I help?” One of them, Josiah Go, immediately responded with a donation and shared the story as well. That started the mini-fundraising campaign that we used to call the Zamboanga Funds for Little Kids. Within a week, we were able to raise around $1,600 which we believed was enough to buy the very same kids a boat.
I called up another volunteer, Doc Anton Lim of Zamboanga City, who is now a co-founder of our organization, and shared with him the story and how we now had some money to help the Layag-Layag community. I asked him if he could visit them first to ascertain their situation since I myself had yet to see the community.
Doc Anton went there, talked to the community and to the principal of the school. We decided to build them a boat – a yellow school boat – because it was like a yellow school bus on water.
Yellow Boat of Hope
And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, what began as a Facebook status and a request for donations had morphed into a foundation run by passionate volunteers in 45 communities around the Philippines. Since that fateful day in October 2010 when I first heard about the story, we have found more communities where children either swim or wade through the waters to get to school and we help them by providing yellow school boats and other forms of support. That fundraising campaign had morphed into the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation.
Though we had helped over 2,000 children in these communities including their families, the challenges for them to remain in school, to have better access to health, to have a safe and sound learning environment both at home and in school, still remain. And situations like these continue to challenge organizations like ours. Our mission and our purpose have evolved from just making it easier for children to go to school to actually helping children have better conditions to stay in school.
Philippine Business for Social Progress
I have since left my job at the Communications Office of the President to focus on helping organizations in the social development sector. While I remain a co-founder of the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, I have realized that amazing organizations already exist and we have to highlight the roles of both large and small NGOs in order to close the gap in reaching more depressed communities and making them more self-reliant.
Recently, I joined Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) as Head of Corporate Affairs, responsible for leading and managing the team that communicates the organization’s programs and efforts in reducing poverty in the country. It is 43 years old and has a larger footprint that most NGOs in the country but in spite of this, systemic problems continue to plague our country. We realized that we needed to implement larger-scale programs and invite more people to join our efforts.
One of our core programs promotes the idea of inclusive business, which invites companies and businesses to include people at the bottom of the business pyramid in their core business operations. This program is geared at incorporating the target communities within the company value chains as suppliers, consumers, employees, or distributors in order to create shared value.
To illustrate the point, a fast-moving consumer goods company has an instant coffee product where currently only thirty percent of its coffee beans come from the Philippines. They are now exploring different ways of empowering coffee farmers in the country so they can increase it to seventy percent in the next few years. PBSP is working with various agribusiness companies in Mindanao involved in rubber, coffee, cacao, oil palm, and seaweeds to enhance their inclusive business models as well as improve the income and productivity of farmers as part of this advocacy. It is our hope that one day every Filipino will have access to basic social services and will have the means to achieve his potential in life.
We have to begin looking at sustainable models for programs and building organizations such as the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation and PBSP, entities that can continue their operations to empower depressed communities.
I have since learned 3 valuable insights into the role that organizations such as ours, which I will call purpose-driven organizations, play in depressed areas:
Hope is where it starts. All our boats carry a name. In bold letters in the middle of the boat are printed the words ‘BAGONG PAG-ASA.’ When we were naming our very first boat, as is common practice after a ship is built, we went back to our first community and asked them what we should name them and they all answered ‘BAGONG PAG-ASA’ which means NEW HOPE. Today, all the yellow boats carry this name. And I realized that more than anything else, organizations such as the Yellow Boat and PBSP, bring a new kind of hope to depressed communities. As one beneficiary once remarked “It’s hope because at last someone is helping us.”
This happens everywhere – when I was in Palawan a few weeks ago where PBSP distributed shelter repair kits through another foundation, a different beneficiary echoed the same thing and said “you gave us hope, we never realized that there are people who want to help us even though we live so far from the mainland.” Sometimes hope is just what people need for them to start helping themselves. The moment that hope is lost is the moment they’ve given up on a better life as well.
Think Global, Act Local. Sometimes solutions can be small and easy. When we first heard about the story of children swimming to school, we initially thought that maybe a bridge was needed to help them, but we realized that it would be too expensive to build a bridge, and it would probably destroy the mangrove trees which were important to the lives of the community. It would also take a much longer time to raise the funds to build a bridge.
One of my friends, Antonio Ingles, put the idea succinctly, he said “Include the whole notion that any group or movement or advocacy is born out of the need of the situation. Or when solutions to a specific need are no longer viable, new innovative solutions shall emerge to solve issues coming from a creative mind and compassionate heart of a new group…” as Albert Einstein also said before “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Local problems need local solutions and the boat was a good way for the children to reach school, even if it was a simple solution. That one boat created huge impact in the lives of the families affected.
Leadership is critical. In order for any enterprise or movement to continue, the organization must develop future leaders to sustain the organization’s mission and purpose. I have a favorite quote on leadership that goes “A candle doesn’t lose anything by lighting another candle.” This quote, for me, illustrates best what leadership is really all about – it’s about empowering the next generation of leaders who will not only continue current programs but also expand and improve them.
Fulfilling their purpose
NGOs are critical change agents some of which aim to promote inclusive economic growth, especially in depressed communities. All of them advance human rights principles and social progress. We can recall that there were NGOs before ours that were important in the anti-slavery movements and the movements for women’s suffrage in Europe and the US, and recently, in Asia among many others.
NGOs are born out of a need. All NGOs start with a purpose, a sense of mission, a vision to be fulfilled. I feel it’s time we stop calling them non-government organizations or NGOs because it doesn’t capture what they are truly about. To expand more projects and inspire more people to join organizations in the social development sector, we must begin calling them purpose-driven organizations.
About the Author:
Jay Jaboneta is the Co-Founder of Kabayanihan Foundation, Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation and OneAwesomeCompany. He is currently working as the Head of Corporate Affairs for Philippine Business for Social Progres, PBSP is the largest business-led social development organization in the country committed to poverty reduction.