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January / February 2009

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Stayin’ Alive: How To Start And Run A Charity In Vietnam


A series of articles focusing on VVA chapters and the fundraising strategies they have developed

BY STEVE HOUSE

In 1999, Francis (Chuck) Theusch bought an around-the-world airplane ticket. He wanted to go to Vietnam to see the country where he had fought 30 years earlier. Theusch was a mortar-man with the Americal Division. His AO was near Duc Pho, close to the My Lai massacre.

Theusch went to the My Lai Massacre Memorial where he met a tourist guide. She was reserved, and her demeanor showed some hostility. Some of her relatives had died in the massacre, and she did not like Americans. But she was polite, and Theusch spoke with her about other things. He found out her father was a school administrator near the memorial, and they went to find him and talk about the war. The man was a former VC. They talked about the war, and the conversation turned to what the future held for the Vietnamese people.

Theusch already had decided that he wanted to help this country and its people. There had been flooding in the area, and Theusch thought he could rebuild a bridge that had flooded out. His interpreter shrugged and said it flooded every year. What this country needed was libraries, the interpreter said.

Theusch abruptly ended his world tour, cashed in his ticket, and used the cash to start a library.

This was how the Library of Vietnam (LOV) began. In 1999, the first library was built in Quang Ngai Province near Duc Pho. In the last ten short years, the organization has built twenty-two libraries in Vietnam, four in Laos, two in Cambodia, and one in China. And one has been approved by the government of Afghanistan, after the national library in Kabul was destroyed. The LOV also supports four orphanages in Vietnam and has a wheelchair program for disabled war veterans of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos called Swords to Wheelchairs. Another project supports an Agent Orange rehab center for second-generation children born with severe birth defects. We also have developed a young leadership corps to help carry on the mission of the libraries after we are gone.

The library project was an easy and natural first effort. We all worked together; we liked the idea of the LOV. We started small and luck was on our side. We did not create luck, but it came our way and we were smart enough to recognize it.

There are plenty of resources to help you start a project like this. Look up instruction guides on the Internet. Persistence is critical. Developing contact information and developing a database also are critical. Follow-up emails, letters, and all methods of disseminating information are critical. Developing a checklist and following it will help you stay on track.

Some words of caution: Do not burn yourself out. Do not let one priority get too far ahead of another. We took on too many projects all at once and had a hard time making scheduled payments. Although we managed, funding really needs to keep pace with contracts.

The business end of our efforts had to be balanced with the passion for taking on causes. An example of this is the Swords to Wheelchairs project. I raised some funds from a few private donors and the VVA Wisconsin State Council. We had been developing the wheelchair program for disabled veterans in Vietnam, and I wanted to expand this effort into Laos and Cambodia. I sent out some emails asking for financial and logistical support. One response I received was from a Rotarian who had led an effort to build a library in the Vietnamese Delta. He also told me about a National Rotary wheelchair program. I looked at their website and, indeed, they had developed an excellent worldwide program.

However, I decided not to pursue them as a funding source because I wanted a veteran-to-veteran program. They certainly could have helped, but I would have lost that personal approach. I know the veterans we help. I visit them every year; they know our group and me. We have a special bond, and I did not want to see it broken.

Once you have developed a harmonious team, you will want to expand your small group. Others will become aware of what you are doing through fundraisers, presentations, and conversations. Protect your project integrity while inviting others to join in your efforts.

Think of ways to enlist support. We have used high-school and college students who have taken on semester-long fundraising projects for us. We are developing small college participation projects, such as trips to Laos to help build small libraries in one week. That way, you help further your cause and you instill some of America’s finest traditions of charity and humanitarianism. It is fascinating to see people give without expecting anything in return. True humanitarians are worth their weight in gold. Your project should inspire people.

Seize the opportunities to talk with people when you are on long trips, trapped on planes, at bus stations, or even in your hotel lobby. You have a captive audience. If there seems to be interest, draw in a fellow project member and talk to the traveler and get a good conversation going. Remember to stay on track and keep the conversation focused on your efforts. Always trade business cards. Suggest ways in which a fellow traveler could talk with friends back home. Invite your new friends to come along on your next day’s travels; they just may have the time to travel with you.

Remember that two or three hours spent in a van driving to one of your destinations is an opportunity that should not be missed. Again, you have a captive audience. Supply yourself with water and food to make the trip enjoyable. If you think you will need another van, arrange that the night before. I wear shirts with program logos on them. It is a way to spark interest and initiate conversation.

Before you say “mission accomplished,” make sure your efforts will carry on after you by setting up future leaders, such as our young people’s leadership corps. I have adopted and supported a four-year-old girl from an orphanage in the Delta. I will see to it that she gets an education. She and others will carry on our legacy by being involved with our library projects. On every trip, we ask them to come with us to help see that the libraries are managed well. They participate in the oversight of projects. They interact with American students either by email or (in the case of our small building projects) working side by side. It’s an exchange program like no other.

Develop your team, the core group that shares your passion. These people are your general staff. They know and understand the mission and its goals. They are ready to march when the order comes. They will do what they can with what they have.

This group must stay on track. As others are enlisted and more ideas come forward, this core group will control enthusiasm while being careful not to squash it. These people need nurturing; team development is part of the process. When things aren’t moving as fast as you would like, remind the team to hang in there.

It’s worth it.

 

 

 

 

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