How Linking the World is changing the way NGOs approach aid delivery across the globe
"Haiti was an absolute disaster that no one expected. No one was prepared for it, and when we hit boots-on-the-ground within a week of the earthquake hitting, there was no coordination or collaboration NGOs, first responders, local municipalities, or locals. It was utter chaos," remembers Mina Chang.
Where others would be frustrated, Chang - CEO and President of Linking the World International - was the perfect candidate to make sense of the chaos. The daughter of two Salvation Army officers, Chang spent her childhood helping others around the world. However, a discerning eye and out-of-the-box ingenuity lead her to disrupt this model even as she started working within it. For disaster situations like Haiti, she knew there was a better way to coordinate efforts and effectively use all potential resources.
Focused on breaking cycles of poverty by offering humanitarian aid, empowering communities and advancing empathy, Linking the World is not your average NGO. Their methods are unique: forward-thinking partnerships that maximize the effectiveness of both parties, and innovative programs designed to render their own company's presence obsolete.
"The old models that are created by charities and donors have put pressure on organizations to raise and spend money to ensure the continuation of projects. Many charities are funding these programs just to be sustained as organizations, with programs that are not really even needed or effective but are sexy to a donor," explains Chang.
After some early success as a recording artist in Korea - which first lead her to become an Ambassador for Linking the World - Chang is now committed herself to turning Linking the World into a highly effective organization. "The inherent decency of an organization shouldn't absolve it from scrutiny," she says.
For her, how an organization treats those that it helps and the lasting impact it has on a community are paramount. No savior complex. No vanity metrics. And no growing dependence on foreign aid.
BREAKING OLD CYCLES WITH NEW PARTNERSHIPS
After seeing devastated communities like the ones in Haiti and the Philippines failed to receive much-needed aid due to the lack of coordination among NGOs (and then become stuck in cycles of dependency once nonprofits begin their work), Chang looked for ways to improve the system. Although she was initially met with resistance, she reworked Linking the World from within after taking over leadership in 2011, focusing efforts on building robust partnerships that played to each agents' strengths in order to improve the overall functioning of disaster response and humanitarian aid.
Some of these partnerships - such as with the Department of Defense - can seem controversial, but Chang stands behind them. "We bring value by not being afraid to explore civil-military operations. There are large, wonderful organizations out there that will never, ever go near or talk to the military because of their stance on neutrality. NGOs all work to preserve neutrality, but we as an organization are looking at ways to make this work because we've seen the value in these kinds of partnerships."
When responding to the crisis in Haiti after the earthquake, it was Linking the World's partnership with the DOD under Operation Unified Response that allowed them to deliver aid quickly.
"Airports were shut down, so NGOs couldn't get their planes in. We had to fly them through the Dominican Republic and drive over three hours across the border. But we had created a partnership with the Department of Defense for access, and to be able to get our goods into the airport. And they also helped us with our convoys to clear roads, and to secure our materials to the areas that we are focused on," says Chang
Linking the World now partners with the U.S. Navy to distribute materials and medical supplies through a program called Operation Handclasp. They've also pioneered the use of drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for disaster response with their HELP AND LOCATE OPERATIONS (HALO). HALO uses sophisticated UAVs to map infrastructure deficiencies in disaster zones, provide valuable imagery in real time, pinpoint where there are needs and generally help coordinate relief efforts.
The precipitating issue: in Haiti, Linking the World had maps from OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) indicating the locations of various mobile medical clinics and NGOs. But upon arriving on-site they would find that no one else had made it yet, because for example, the others have been forced to reroute due to a downed bridge.
But Chang knew that the military and even the media had valuable imagery through their drones. By incorporating this new technology Linking the World improved their disaster capabilities as well as the level of aid they were able to provide.
FOCUSING ON COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY
“I've spent my entire life in this work of aid in disaster and conflict zones. In every disaster I've worked in from tsunami in Asia, to the earthquake in Haiti, to the typhoon in the Philippines, I saw crucial time and donor dollars wasted; and essentially lives being lost because of the lack of coordination among first responders," says Chang.
Where traditional NGOs often refuse to share resources and information out of fear of losing brand positioning and donor dollars, Chang push the boundaries and built something new: an updated model of social good centered around collaboration and partnership. And not just with other large international organizations.
"We have to collaborate," she says. "We must partner with local municipalities, local government, local churches, local schools; we want everyone to have skin in the game. We want everyone to be reinvested into their own communities."
It's not enough - and not a good idea - to go into communities and focus only on your own operations. If you're only trying to increase the level of aid you provide, your liable to trap a community in a cycle of dependency. Instead, source talent and resources locally and build up an invested community.
"We don't want to be an organization that runs around putting Band-Aids on problems while issues faster, which hurts the very people were here to serve," she says. Linking the World is laser-focused on sustainability, not putting together temporary solutions.
DEFINING AND MEASUING SUCCESS
Chang also takes a different approach to measuring impact. She says, “We like to measure our success by how quickly we can get out of an area, out of a community, rather than grow and scale our presence." They also monitor United Nations Developmental Goals such as infant mortality, local economics and business opportunities that are present. Success comes from empowering local leadership and creating a community that can prosper on its own.
And they've seen their results first hand. "We already had two schools in Haiti, and so when we responded to the earthquake we went immediately to help our community and the schools. And it was amazing because the first responders to our schools were the very kids, that we are now adults, that had aged out of the schools or orphanage."
"Nonprofits, and businesses, get rhetorical mileage from pandering ‘scaling’ as the solution."
Although businesses needs to scale in order to grow, Chang insists on effectiveness over your growth. It's important to create a sustainable community as well as a sustainable organization or program.
Linking the World is continuously evaluating their methodologies, new technologies and their applications around the world.
PLAYING TO STRENGTHS
But not everyone has Chang’s background and aptitude for the on-the-groundwork. Despite the current trendiness of social initiatives, and the authentic desire of many entrepreneurs to do good, too many dollars and resources are poured into only partially effective programs.
"Billions of dollars get wasted from well-intentioned leaders that say, 'I want to start my own charity.'" This is because starting a charity comes with its own set of challenges, and the rules of starting and running a business are different than those of a nonprofit. For example, raising capital and gathering donations just don't work the same way. Chang’s suggestion for the altruistic?
"Partner with a charity." And even to charities, "Partner with each other, because we don't want to be redundant in our work. We don't want to compete with each other."
There's also a role for businesses to play, and entrepreneurs who want to maximize their effective giving or professional social initiatives. Rather than trying to build new programs into existing business models, potentially distracting from core goals and competencies, Chang suggests playing to your strengths: Do what you are good at. And then find a partner to support.
Finally, Chang cautions entrepreneurs to avoid initiating any sort of social program just for the PR benefits. “Good intentions are simply not enough," she says. "Know that if you're in it to make money then that's great - be unashamedly in it and make lots of money and become so wildly successful that you can then partner with an organization and help them by leveraging your best practices and capabilities. Don't try to manipulate a feel-good factor thinking it's going to attract more customers."
For those whose strengths lie in other areas but whose hearts are in a similar place, she has a few words of wisdom.
"Extreme poverty globally can't be addressed by just charities alone: we have to partner with businesses. And we have to work together and leverage all of our resources and our reach in order to make a difference. If you're a business owner or entrepreneur - identify an issue that you are passionate about. An issue that resonates with you, your family, your staff and your customer base. If you can identify that and you then partner with an organization that addresses that same issue, and that's a true public-private partnership that can truly have an impact."
For those wishing to learn more about Chang’s model for impact, visit www.linkingtheworld.org