Report by our ad-hoc committee: John Badgley, Roger Paget, and Jack Simpson, with appended comment by Dave Richards
WE ARE A UNIQUE ORGANIZATION – AN ACCOMPLISHMENT IN ITSELF
NLR’s greatest achievement may be simply “opening up” Myanmar to more involvement, showing that even with sanctions and the bad feeling between the US and Myanmar, a small lightly funded organization from the US can make a big difference. Our opinion is supported by these facts:
- We have developed constructive relationships both with the U.S. government and with corporate and NGO organizations, as well as local authorities and NGOs in Myanmar;
- We have a distribution method for our books that works country-wide; it is efficient and very inexpensive;
- We have done this all for very little money, pennies compared to the amount most organizations require for any comparable activity;
- Much of this has happened because Myanmar is unique, the kind of impact we have is unlike what we could do in any other country.
In addition to bringing in books, our story might be useful to others desiring to help Myanmar in other ways. We demonstrate how a small organization with a shoestring budget can make a significant impact as Simpson discusses in two entries on Opportunity Foundation blog.
Should delivery of a million books be the goal of our organization? Is that all the books Myanmar needs, and we then will complete our mission? Will NLR have any reason to continue? Yes! We feel book delivery to Myanmar will remain worthwhile and very important. We should continue to do just what we have been doing for the foreseeable future. The libraries we visited in Yangon and Mandalay are still in great need of better quality book collections; we should slowly improve them.
Myanmar language books we provide come entirely from MBAPF’s charitable sale of our books. This alone is worthy and reason enough that our organization should continue; it will be a very long time before libraries become adequate throughout the country.
Can we continue our relationship with Thriftbooks? Other sources should be sought to get more kinds of books than Thrift provides; but we feel Hector Rivas’ organization is great to deal with and hopefully can continue to provide books useful to the people of Myanmar. We should appeal to Hector to continue support beyond the million books pledged!
Once we agree on what we should do to move forward, we should get professional help in marketing. A website designer is interested in helping us, we recommend investing $500 in upgrading our blog into a true website. We can then have an idea of what an ongoing relationship might cost and what we would get for it. Very likely working with such a designer will generate more money than she costs.
At this time we feel candor should guide discussion. Most cash donations to date have come from the largess of our Directors. While we must endeavor to expand our funding sources, our commitments require financial pledges to assure stability of current operations. This will parallel Thrift Books’ million book pledge. Can we muster comparable generosity vis-à-vis funding security? Dave Richards [appended comment] reminds us of our default path, which has underwritten most of what we have accomplished. This reality persists despite vigorous attempts to widen the donor pool and institutional supports.
This report represents our first effort at systematic planning. Until now we have operated on a semi-annual basis dependent on serendipitous funding. We have been unable to plan further ahead. We can continue in this fashion, but it limits our ability to leverage accomplishments into completed goals. We recommend longer-term pledges.
Distribution of the million books pledged by Thrift Books should be completed by December, 2013. We propose a second-round of appeals to external corporations and foundations. Badgley, as executive director, should lead this effort, but the entire board and our advisors should be in this process. By way of example:
- Might Thrift Books donate more books?
- Might MBAPF continue or expand book fairs around Yangon and in cities throughout Myanmar?
- Might members of our group come up with ideas to expand our impact? For example Sue Simpson would offer reading workshops for English teachers if local leaders and MBAPF approve; and funding a librarian as did three of our most recent tour group—Bill Cochran, Dennis Taylor and Lyda Adair—as a feature of our next tour group.
- Might our upcoming winter tour be marketed as a way of helping local libraries?
- Might improved Myanmar language reading books be published for our libraries, as did Ko Tar, a writer-publisher, who is supporting our project?
- Might more monks support our work, as Ashin Dhammapiya has done?
While our options are constrained by funding limitations, we can improve current operations within existing parameters. Quality control over the kinds of books placed in libraries is one such area of concern.
Dave Richards clearly defines our situation as a fork in a road. Prudently we favor continuation of what we do well, but we should consider adjustments that may enhance our work, such as website improvement to improve our fundraising potential.
By December 31, 2011 we will have distributed 600,000 books to 250 libraries throughout Myanmar. By the end of 2013 we expect to have shipped and distributed the million books donated by Thrift Books. While this effort is focused primarily in the delta region so heavily impacted by the cyclone, we are also helping libraries throughout the country. Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation [MBAPF] handles this entire process. During 2010, with staff and funding donated by World Vision, MBAPF helped local committees in the delta rebuild 20 libraries The United Nations Women’s Guild, through the initiative of NLR’s librarian adviser, Daw Ah Win, contributed funding to rebuild a significant community library in Laputta township and may fund 20 new libraries with shelving, chairs and tables. We hope to maintain this initiative in the future.
Funding to ship donated books is critical to the success of our project. Through the intervention of NLR adviser Matthew Daley [former Deputy Ass’t Sec. of State, Far East], American President Lines donated berths for six containers that moved 275,000 books, NLR only paid for port and trucking fees. However, funding to ship all other containers came from David and Carolyn Leuthold [Fidelity Charitable Trust], Jack and Sue Simpson [Opportunity Foundation], and Dave and Sharon Richards [Seattle Foundation]. Smaller individual and group donations also helped and represent a kind of resource we should expand in coming years. Through an initiative by Dr. Thant Thaw Kaung, the DeBoer Foundation may fund the remaining Thrift Books’ pledge.
The cost of trucking containers to and from port, clearance and custom charges in Seattle averages $1,000 per container [MBAPF pays the $1,000 for Yangon port clearance & trucking from our book sales]. We moved 450,000 books in ten containers and expect to send the remaining 550,000 in eleven containers. Based on an estimated cost of each shipment [trucking, port and customs clearance and shipping] of $5,500 to Yangon [MBAPF will pay the Yangon port/truck fees], our remaining 11 shipments should cost $60,500.
We project administrative costs for NLR at $1,500 per month [$1,400 for executive director and $100 monthly for bookkeeping & tax filing], with other office expenses to be contributed, plus an annual travel fund of $2500. The total for the 33 months to complete shipping Thrift’s million books is $117,500:
- 2011 – $34,000 [minus $14,500 on-hand] = $19,500 for March – December
- 2012 – $41,750
- 2013 – $41,750
Badgley, as NLR executive director, will raise funds, in collaboration with other board directors, to complete this phase of our project by December 31, 2013.
Should we chose to continue beyond 2013 to send books, and continue collaborating with World Vision to fund library construction, shelving, desks, and library training, we must budget accordingly. We have discussed sending computers and training librarians in their use, so we offer two alternative scenarios which might extend our mission until 2015 or beyond.
A.We ask Thrift Books if it can donate additional books to extend our project beyond 2013; and we ask World Vision to continue funding library construction. We seek ongoing donations from UNWG to continue restocking new libraries with shelving, chairs and tables; and we ask MBAPF to continue organizing and sponsoring charitable book fairs/buffets to fund Myanmar language library books. The NLR executive director would coordinate these activities, establish reasonable goals, then recommend what funds we must raise beyond donations by WV, MBAPF and UNWG.
B. Under this alternative, NLR shall negotiate with companies dealing in used laptop computers to seek donations for Myanmar, to be distributed to libraries we are assisting. We must get a letter of approval from the U.S. Department of Commerce in addition to our Treasury License to avoid sanctions. As with our books, MBAPF and WV will be asked to distribute computers and help train local librarians and library committees in their use. NLR will also seek programs on DVDs to train new computer users, as well as related educational programs on CDs to distribute with the computers. A separate budget must be developed for our directors’ consideration if library computer training and education programs are to be negotiated with our partners.
Should either Alternative A or B be recommended for action by our board, it will mean extending the life of our office and administrator beyond 2013. To fund such an expanded mission the executive director will work with the NLR finance committee to develop appropriate budgets and expand our donor base.
Appendix –Dave Richards’ comment
As you’ve got to know me over the last few years, you know that I’m not shy about speaking my mind and sharing my opinions. I have been feeling like I needed to gather my thoughts and share them with you in some semi-organized manner.
NLR has accomplished much in our first few years. Led by John and Thant, we have successfully navigated the US Treasury, built an engaged board, developed strong partnerships (headlined by Thrift Books) and raise sufficient core funding to deliver thousands of books to libraries throughout Myanmar. I am very proud of this!
Now we are at a fork in the road and have two primary choices. I don’t think there’s a ‘tweener, a Fork 1.5 that makes sense.
Fork 1: Continuing doing what we’re doing until John runs out of steam
This is our default path. This work continues because John continues to keep everything moving forward. Without John, this project would not continue. [It also wouldn’t continue without Thant or some key partnerships, but John is the global coordinating leader.]
On this path, we would continue to deliver about 200,000 books per year to Burma, Thant will continue to sell some of those books to buy Burmese language books and as occasional additional funds arise, we can invest in special one-time investments like book shelves or something else. We would need to raise about $30-40k per year in donor money which is doable. We would deliver over 100,000 English and Burmese books to libraries in Burma each year. We know how to do this.
There is nothing wrong with this. It is a reasonable plan.
This plan doesn’t require any marketing, much fundraising activity, much involvement by the board (except funding), new strategy, or new partnerships (unless some stop). We could change our organization’s name, create a prettier website, do some marketing, etc. but it would be window-dressing and wouldn’t materially change our fundamental results. We could do this a “lifestyle charity” which is doing good stuff that doesn’t require status quo change. In many ways this is kind of a multi-family project … a solid, healthy multi-family “make-an-impact” project.
Fork 2: Do something more and bigger
We could transition from a healthy mom-and-pop operation to an aspiring civil society development player in the emerging new Burma, a much more difficult path and requiring many changes. Changes in how we think, operate, commitments and efforts outside our comfort zone. It will be more like birthing a child whom we can hope well for, but it will have a life of its own.
This requires us to create a strategic plan evolve ourselves from a book importer/distributor into something more far-reaching – that is, delivering our vision of global knowledge and understanding into Burma in a material and substantive way. We’d have to figure out many details of how to roll this out.
This option will require us to:
- Raise a lot more money, because we need to:
- recruit a new executive director and pay them appropriately
- give them a reasonable budget for new programs, marketing, travel, fundraising, G&A, etc.;
- Recruit additional board members – some Burmese and other with strong influence in Burma; some with lots of money and rich friends. Ultimately we would hand over control to a majority of new board members;
- Recruit additional passionate volunteers – including many Burmese and interested foreigners, mostly under 30 – who would bring publicity, passion and energy.
Why would we have to do all of this?
To achieve these more ambitious objectives we must take a very different path. It’s like Starbucks when Howard Schultz made the decision to go from one store in Pike Market (after something like 10 years) to a big chain of stores. You either go for it or you don’t. He was a young guy with the capacity to take a 20-year run at it. (Were John only 20 years younger!) We need such leadership capacity if we want to take on this different magnitude.
My history with NLR
I met John through a neighborhood poker game. I think I won $10 from John that first night [maybe John allowed that to suck me in since he mentioned a recent trip to Burma after I mentioned spending a bunch of time in Asia – mostly in India — with microfinance]. So, we started our dialog. I am interested in economic development with particular interest in Asia. John’s first idea was a Burmese college for entrepreneurs. That didn’t work out, Burma got hit with Nargis and the idea to what became NLR started to take form.
John asked me to be involved. I told John from the beginning that while I liked books and education, that I didn’t have a particular passion for this category and undertaking. I offered to help out with some time and seed monies as I like innovative startups and I was interested in the potential for economic development in Burma especially as the political climate opened up. But I was clear that I didn’t see myself as a long-termer in this project as I it didn’t fit my long-term passion.
I don’t have a strong preference for either fork. I think either is a good choice. Since I’m a short-termer, I’m not sure I should vote on this decision. So whichever fork is chosen, I’m not sure it makes sense to continue in a board role much longer.
For Fork 1, I probably should phase out over the next 3-6 months. We’ll consider one last financial gift and then we’ll continue as cheerleaders on the sideline. You’ll probably need to find another family or more with enough resources to fill the financing gap.
For Fork 2, I probably would take the same path. I don’t know anyone influential or wealthy who cares a lot about Burma, which is what you really need. I’m willing to lend what credibility my CV offers, but it is really indirect value IMO. I would happy to be an advisor if there was something specific to help with.
To be clear, I have no regrets about my involvement in time, energy and money. Quite the opposite, I’m very blessed to have been involved with NLR and I am proud of what we’ve accomplished. Moreover, I’ve made some great new friends in the USA and in Myanmar.
Maybe I’m thinking about this in the wrong way or I’m not seeing something that someone else is seeing. I am happy to hear other perspectives and to consider them.