Helping People Help themselves: Scott Neeson’s CCF innovating the NFP model

This article originally appeared on Medium: Helping People Help themselves: Scott Neeson’s CCF innovating the NFP model

Among the thousands of charities appealing for support it can be difficult to determine where our donations are best placed. From the outside, many charities look the same; impoverished children and their families need sponsorship for immediate aid, healthcare and the education that (many claim) will break them out of a cycle of poverty. When traditional NFP models too often evoke cliched ‘me too’ child imagery and a rhetorical promise to ‘teach a man to fish’, it’s hard to determine the difference between NFPs that are providing a bandaid solution and those that are really doing something progressive to change people’s lives in a lasting way.

Success not Survival

Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) is a charity that lifts Cambodian children permanently out of poverty by implementing long term education and leadership programs within the community. Claiming — as many charities do — that they are ‘helping people to help themselves’, the innovation of the CCF may not be immediately apparent. But its sophistication comes from founder Scott Neeson’s rejection of the conventional model of helping as many people as possible; CCF concentrate on helping a smaller number but far more effectively, so that those they help then become powerful agents of change in their own community — a system inherently not only more sustainable, but progressive and regenerative. CCF focuses on a single community based around the former garbage dump of Steung Meanchey — but properly, providing the facilities and holistic mentorship for impoverished Cambodian children to achieve education right through to a university level. It recently capped its numbers of students in order to focus on further improvements and innovations in its programs.

“We don’t want to teach a man to fish, we want to teach him to be Minister of the Department of Fisheries.” — Scott Neeson

Scott Neeson started CCF in 2004 after a sabbatical trip to Phnom Penh changed his life forever. It was there that he witnessed hundreds of children scavenging through the Steung Meanchey garbage dump. Soon after his return, he resigned from his position as a top executive at Sony Pictures in LA (he had previously been President of 20th Century Fox International), sold his possessions and ended a 26-year career in the film business to focus all of his energy and passion into keeping Cambodian children off the garbage dumps forever.

Moved by the simple plea of the children ‘Som tov rien’ (‘take me to school’), and driven by a results-orientated mentality from his business background, Scott set up education and basic care facilities in Phnom Penh, but this has since developed into multi-faceted services that tackle the whole system of poverty in Steung Meanchey. CCF provides innovative programs that essentially strengthen its community beyond simply surviving — they create the opportunity for Cambodian children to achieve a very real prosperity and success.

“Innovation is most needed when dealing with social issues,” says Scott. “I feel there’s too much emphasis placed on the capacity of programs as opposed to the depth and understanding of root causes which have a longer and more sustainable effect than the gross number of beneficiaries.” CCF now implements over 65 comprehensive programs that address 6 core areas (access, housing, food, healthcare, mentorship, support) that prevent a child from receiving a quality education. These programs are transforming children who previously scavenged on garbage dumps for money into bright, ambitious and inspired university graduates who will work to transform their own community and country.

ABCD Development

This approach reflects a growing movement in development theory that believes that rather than focussing on a community’s weaknesses, charities should draw upon and build existing community strengths to create more sustainable communities for the future. The approach, known as Asset-Based Community-Driven Development (ABCD), is a way of perceiving a community in need as a glass-half full — with the potential to strengthen and prosper.

University of Newcastle Lecturer and blogger Graeme Stuart writes extensively about the attributes of ABCD Development in his blog Sustaining Community. He says that when communities are labelled as needy and deficient, people living in that community can internalise this portrayal and see their situation as hopeless. “As a community is labelled as unsafe, toxic and deficient, residents stop turning to each other for support and can become scared of their own community and relationships within the community thus start to deteriorate,” he says. While often the best way to obtain funding for a place is to emphasise community problems, this tends to feed a downward spiral of negativity — especially if these external services fail to address a socio-economic problem at its very core.

CCF have implemented a series of on-the-ground programs that reflect ABCD development in action. While it may be a leading international NGO, it has a grassroots impact that aims at strengthening the community from within, building on the communitarian instincts of the Cambodian people, supporting them through programs that provide healthcare and food support, and capitalising on the hunger for education of its children.

“We firmly believe in building from the ground up with an intimate understanding of each individual, each family and the overall community,” says Scott. “When a program originates from a place of understanding then there is generally an inherent sense of dignity and collaboration for all parties which is often absent from a top down approach.”

CCF’s goal is to move Steung Meanchey beyond a dependence on aid, and towards independent sustainability. In other words, Scott will have achieved his core mission only when the CCF services are no longer required.

The CCF Programs

The key pillars of CCF are education and leadership. Resources, support and facilities are provided, not only to Cambodian children in CCF programs, but to their family and the community around them. The goal is to ensure that the path out of poverty is one that is taken permanently.

The education program works with the Cambodian public schools, assisting and strengthening the system rather than working outside of it — they work closely with teachers to ensure high attendance rates and academic performance. The program has a strong focus on developing English, Khmer, maths, science and the arts. But beyond this, Cambodian children are also taught to develop a world view and think critically about their individual responsibility and ability to bring about change. Encompassing the holistic approach that is intrinsic to CCF, education doesn’t end with merely improving classes. Teachers are given resources for improving the quality of teaching, school uniform and study materials are supplied and university fees and transportation are paid for by CCF.

With a focus on building and strengthening community assets, the CCF leadership program is the ‘glass half full’ of the Cambodian community. Children are mentored to become inspired young leaders who can work to transform their own community. They mentor and teach, feed hungry children, care for youngsters and spend time with elders. In return, they gain an in-depth connection to their own culture. And beyond this — they are empowered to believe that they themselves can bring about positive change in their community, fostering an independence and potential beyond the support of CCF.

Consultation is Key

Catherine Brooks is a principal at Moores Legal, a firm that deals extensively in NFP strategy. She says that consultation is key when integrating innovative new aid programs within a community. “Change management should not just be given lip-service and the community (staff, service users, potential new clients) should be assured that any new innovation / changes will only occur if it will have a positive impact for the cause.”

When implementing an innovative program like CCF’s, it’s not just about fostering the strengths of a community, but communicating the strengths of the program itself is also paramount. “Positive communication messaging is key and must be strategically carried out across multiple social media platforms to gain traction,” she says. “We regularly assist with this process and help our clients lead the way when it comes to engagement with staff and the broader community of a NFP.”

Excellence before Expansion

A key innovation of the CCF program is that it has always valued quality over quantity, turning the ‘no child left behind’ rhetoric of the traditional NFP model on its head. While it educates a large number of children, it has always retained its focus on the community, and when it had finally reached as many of those children as it could, it did not seek further growth but instead focused on improving quality and outcomes.

This came about as much from a change in community needs as it did from a change in approach. CCF are no longer growing and this has been a conscious decision. When they started out, the original goal was to help 45 children, but at one point they had up to 2400 because they kept seeing students who were in need. However, because of the success of their programs in reaching local children and in strengthening the community, they are now seeing far fewer new children who need CCF’s services in their target areas; this diminution is a sign of success.

CCF has instead been shifting its energy into further improving the quality of programs and education. A recent testament to this is the newly built Neeson Cripps Academy (NCA). Funded by the Velcro Group of companies, the NCA will focus on Science, Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) education. This reflects a true focus on improving the education that CCF provides, and ensuring its students truly flourish in their time with CCF. The NCA will provide further education opportunities through enhanced learning spaces, new technologies, teacher training with a focus on STEM, but more than this, the modern, state-of-the-art facility injects positivity into the Phnom Penh community, acting as a beacon of hope in that neighborhood.

Blogger and STEM educator Taylor Williams writes extensively about the benefits of STEM education on his blog Mr Williams Stem. “STEM is a collection of disciplines that are very much focused on helping students develop skills of logic and creativity, mathematical analysis and modeling, scientific inquiry, and computational thinking,” he says. “A small amount of time studying computer science can profoundly impact the way students analyse the world around them in the future, regardless of their career choice.” A key element of the NCA facility is that it symbolises an excellence and prosperity that all children deserve, and that Cambodian children can now achieve for themselves in the future.

Innovating the Model

CCF takes on the future-orientated goals of ABCD Development. Its greatest innovation is in Scott’s rejection of understanding ‘aid’ as merely ‘sustenance’. Instead, he has tackled the problem of poverty in Cambodia at its core, building a sustainable community for the future from the bottom up. This is done so through strength-based, positive community development and what Clara Miller of the Heron Foundation calls the The ‘Rumpelstilkskin Effect’; spinning financial donations, partnerships, local resources and infrastructure into the ‘gold’ of lasting social value.

Most importantly, while it currently operates and focuses only within Cambodia, the true innovation of the CCF model is that it’s replicable. Scott’s innovative model can be rolled out in any community where the cycle of poverty exists.“The goal for 2017 will be to record the model and all of its programs,” says Scott. “Having the interdependence of these programs recorded with the parallel funding model will allow the model to be tested in other areas.”

The considerable success of CCF has encouraged Scott’s dream to establish a franchise type model that can apply to the needs of any developing country, as the core mission of empowering communities through education, leadership and support can be effective at any local level. “That’s the beauty of CCF’s model — the nimbleness and awareness of local issues and the preparedness to react accordingly.” From Myanmar to Bangladesh, Scott hopes to soon provide life-changing education across the developing world.

Interview Scott Neeson, CEO of CCF

What is your understanding of innovation in the NFP sector?

For CCF I prefer to look at innovation as defined as meeting unarticulated needs. Rather than take the approach of finding a solution to issues that can be scaled up to a country level, we have instead peeled away layers within a single community. In 2004, we started in Steung Meanchey, the country’s, if not the region’s, most impoverished, dysfunctional community; home to 11,000 people who largely survive on garbage scavenging. The area was still a working landfill with appalling rates of domestic violence, abuse, lack of education, children living and working on the dump, a high maternal death rate and a plethora of social issues.

Focusing on a single community requires enmeshing within it. That is how the construct of a series of interdependent programs, big and small, was achieved.

I firmly believe that the future of international aid will be the replication of community models, as opposed to the top down approach where the priority is on scaling to a national level.

Scaling is certainly most effective when focusing on a single problem with a successful solution, such as the eradication of smallpox. However when dealing with social issues such as girls in education, domestic violence and nutritional deficiencies, the most effective solutions will always be found by a close, intimate understating of the community.

And so with that in mind, why do you think it’s hard for an NFP to prioritize innovation?

The accountability of many NFPs requires them to meet specific goals. For those receiving aid from the larger organisations, this accountability stymies their ability to innovate. The funding is for specific projects and goals, and I feel that there’s less ability to adapt to the changing conditions.

We work within a defined community and learning root causes is an everyday occurrence. We’re required to rethink previous ways of working, sometimes because they’re outmoded, other times because they are ineffective, and most often because the working environment changes. Innovation is essential to our understanding and growth

In what areas do you think innovation is the most needed?

Innovation is most needed when dealing with social issues. I feel there’s too much emphasis placed on the capacity of programs as opposed to the depth and understanding of root causes which have a longer and more sustainable effect than the gross number of beneficiaries. Again, this doesn’t apply to NFPs with a single cause such as eradication of diseases or supply of fresh water, but to be effective on social issues it’s essential that you understand core problems as opposed to presumptive or inappropriate “best practices”.

When a program originates from a place of understanding then there is generally an inherent sense of dignity and collaboration for all parties which is often absent from a top down approach.

CCF firmly believes in building from the ground up with an intimate understanding of each individual, each family and the overall community.

In terms of marketing and digital strategies is there any particular way that CCF is implementing something that’s more creative or a bit more innovative than perhaps other NFPs?

CCF is largely defined by our desire to remain personal and relevant both within our community and externally. We’re funded by private donations which allow us the ability to be more candid about the issues, frustrations, challenges and benefits. It’s not all a rosy picture and we need to present the challenges as well as successes.

There is mutual benefit in bringing a better understanding between the different cultures and between areas of financial disparity. Being able to tell the stories of the people in our community provides perspective to those in developed countries where values, family structures and priorities are often vastly different. There’s still value in wisdom here which I feel has been lost to instant information and “shallow” knowledge in the developed countries.

Also, in terms of fundraising ethics, if you’re going to show a child in need then you’re also obliged to show what you have done for that child. It’s exploitative to show a sad, hungry and dirty child who “desperately needs your help” without also showing what has been done for that particular child. The child is objectified but the message is designed to hit a personal level. They stop being a person with a life story and become only a subject of pity in order to raise funds. People, especially donors, should ask “what happened to that child? What did my donation do to help him or her?”

Another school of thought for innovation is that NFPs can learn and perhaps collaborate with the for-profit sector, implementing a lot of the business strategies that they use. What is your opinion of this? Can CCF could learn from those kinds of tactics?

I came from a hardcore corporate background working as president of 20th Century Fox International. I hadn’t worked in the nonprofit sector and as a result CCF’s structure is more corporate. We’re an organization that requires accountability and responsibility, and where financial and operational measures are applied.

I’ve often been accused of “running CCF more like a business than a charity” I agree with those sentiments when it comes to the infrastructure, staffing and general organizational aspects. However, the focus on those who we serve, whether children, adults, grandparents or the community in general is one of care and tirelessly trying to improve the lives of beneficiaries. The for profit sector can drive better efficiencies, accountability and financial management in the nonprofit sector. This was highlighted this year with CCF’s 100% score from Charity Navigator, an award received by only 51 of 8,500 evaluated NFPs.

It seems to reflect this expansion approach to building an NFP from the ground level, as opposed to just consistently sustaining a certain amount of aid from international sources. So CCF is innovative in its ability to have these long-term infrastructures that are constantly expanding and constantly making the worth of the entire charity tenfold.

CCF’s innovation and ability to change according to the environment are core aspects of our success. Being closely engaged with the community means we are able to learn of problems that would otherwise be impossible for an office in Sydney or New York (for example) to discover. It also allows us to identify the best solutions to the problems. The CCF model of integrated, interconnected programs has wonderful, quantifiable outputs such as education measures where absenteeism has dropped from 55% to 5%, school retention has moved from 58% to 96% and maternal care, once a dire 8–12% (estimated) amongst new mothers has maintained zero deaths in the last 7 years and 1,100 births, since the establishment of the Maternal Care Program.

Being able to first define then replicate this model in other dysfunctional, impoverished or war torn communities is, in my mind, the future of foreign aid delivery.

So how intrinsic do you think your outlook and approach is as an ex-CEO of a huge company?

I came here without a firm vision per se. In retrospect, one of the great advantages was being aware of just how little I knew about Cambodia, the community we were dealing with and how to resolve fundamental and often life threatening problems. CCF started by looking at the most obvious issues of education and need for medical care and has over the years evolved the program and services so that the community is more involved, has greater governance and the empowerment to make decisions. With this, we have set up a structure that has a better educated and higher functioning community and one that will certainly outlast CCF.

Yes so it’s a model for an NFP that can be applied to other places and other charities. It’s a system of really helping from the ground up that can be can be used in the future.

The goal for 2017 will be to record the model and all of its programs. There are approximately 65 programs, projects or services from the large, such as education, to the small such as the daycare drop-in. Having the interdependence of these programs recorded with the parallel funding model will allow the model to be tested in other areas.

For example, I had looked at the Myanmar/Bangladesh boarder as a place to replicate the CCF model. Certainly it is not necessary to replicate every program and much like CCF, whoever is implementing this NFP will have their own challenges and will require their own solutions. That’s the beauty of CCF — the nimbleness and awareness of local issues and reacting accordingly. I’m looking to establish a franchise type model where someone working in a similar environment can open the franchise box that shows them how to replicate the same model as CCF in part or in full and with a guide on the fundraising components, especially as it relates to child sponsorships. I had thought in the early days that once I’d set up CCF I could move to another location but I’m emotionally attached to the people we serve here and feel too old and too tired to do it all over again!

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Camilla Cooke is the Head of Strategy at Catalyst MDC and formerly marketing director at CBCF the NFP ranked #1 for innovation she can be reached at [email protected] or connect on Linkedin.

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