Lessons from my work with Gawad Kalinga

It’s been nearly six months since my last trip to the Philippines, and I still am having trouble synthesizing the immensity of the lessons that I received from that visit. I’d been to the Philippines several times since I received my green card back in 2003, but there was something incredibly different about my latest trip in January 2011.

The visit changed my life, and altered the way I think about the Philippines and about how ordinary people can make an extraordinary impact on society.

Tito Tony Meloto
Gawad Kalinga Founder, Tony Meloto

It all started out on a rainy November day in Harvard Yard. I came to listen to Gawad Kalinga’s founder, Tony Meloto, speak about how his organization is fighting intergenerational poverty in the Philippines. Tito Tony (as he is called by Filipinos who know him and means “Uncle Tony”) spoke emphatically about GK’s mission and vision for two hours, and I was hooked. I promptly sought him out after his talk, and after a few email exchanges, I agreed to do a volunteer consulting project with him and his brand new social innovation office in Manila.

I went to the Philippines because I thought I was going to impart all of my American wisdom on my Filipino countrymen, and what I found was that I was on the receiving end of some of the most important lessons of my life.

The pre-existing social change frameworks that I used were blown up.

I realized that the American way of thinking about social change is very compartmentalized and actually quite narrow in scope — even the largest nonprofit organizations in the States have an incredibly narrow view when it comes to tackling our largest social issues.

On my first day of work I got a crash course on the inner workings of GK. My pre-visit research taught me that GK transforms Filipino shantytowns from slums into beautiful, livable and clean communities with the support and investment of the shantytown residents. Over 2,000 barangays (or villages) have made this transformation and over 200,000 families were affected thanks to Gawad Kalinga. But I thought that was it, and, like Habitat for Humanity, I thought all GK did was build houses for Filipinos.

I was completely wrong. During my orientation meeting, Karl, a member of the GK Center for Social Innovation staff, shared that GK is involved in food/farm development, child and youth development, health care, environmental issues, entrepreneurship, disaster management, government partnerships, tourism, and many more. As I listened to Karl, my understanding of GK became hazier and more cluttered. My American sensibilities doubted that this one organization (with only about 200 full-time and part-time employees scattered across the 7,000 Philippine islands) could handle such a large number of priorities, and I began to wonder about the efficiency ┬álevels of the organizations’s dizzying multi-pronged strategy. How could the organization adequately implement all of these projects? Who was funding this confusing bundle of priorities? How were they tracking the impact of the varying projects across the country? All of these questions immediately surfaced as I learned more.

I think I came off incredibly judgmental that day, and I’m not exactly sure how Karl felt about our fast-paced and intense question-and-answer session, but I was just so fascinated. I later learned that I needed to soften my fast-paced, judgmental American demeanor because Filipinos don’t respond well to it–they much prefer slower relationship-building conversations over San Mig Light (a popular Filipino beer) and enormous amounts of food.

In the back of mind, I kept thinking about all of the traditional American ways to conduct business (even in a nonprofit): have a strong and targeted mission, maintain tight control of your brand, understand and leverage your core competencies, quantify and use data to drive your organization’s efficiency, and most importantly stay focused. While GK borrowed and was influenced heavily by these American lessons, they certainly were not singularly focused on one or a few main priorities. It seemed like they have dozens of missions all working together at the same time. And these missions have a singular vision of nation-building.

This may have been the most important lesson I learned on my trip.

Traditional nonprofit organizations, like Habitat for Humanity or the Red Cross, treat their operations like a business, divided into projects, strategies, competencies, and the like. GK, does that too, but does it through a lens of nation-building. GK is nation-building. I heard this several times during my trip, and I didn’t quite understand it until I traveled with Tito Tony and his team to the small island of Negros, where we met with local businessmen and thousands of GK villagers at a large celebration for GK. The sun boiled the little town’s largest meeting space where thousands of villagers gathered, wearing T-shirts in primary reds, blues, yellows, and greens, which denoted which village they represented. The cavernous and sweltering hot convention center (cooled only by oscillating fans) was adorned with bright banners that read “One Family,” “One Community,” and “One Nation”. The murky philosophy suddenly became clear to me. While traditional nonprofits were busily rallying people around their projects, whether it be to stop child trafficking, fight for gay rights, or reform the education system, GK wasn’t focused on running a “project,” like transforming slums into livable communities. GK was in the business of nation-building; which means every Filipino citizen (whether he is actually in the Philippines or not) is a stakeholder, a builder, a fundraiser, a partner and a steward of not just GK’s mission but of the country.

I learned from Tito Tony that by sharing your vision and following how others may innovate and challenge your vision, partners can become stewards of your vision (and they also become volunteers, fund-raisers, evangelizers). This was radically different from the way I saw American organizations running, which is by and large still operating under the auspices of philanthropy and charity. GK was about patriotism, and being patriotic means stewardship, not charity.

I see a lot of room for growth in the American social sector. Instead of tackling a compartmentalized mission, how can we go back to the days of truly advancing large scale causes that galvanize people to become stewards of that cause–kind of like effective activism. How can we transform our philanthropic sector to also become partners of the vision rather than enablers.

Tito Tony is a visionary. He’s a master planner, but not in a rigid way. He understands that he wants to end poverty, but he’s not mired in the details of what it takes to do that. Yet he boils down GK’s message to something that is both tangible and aspirational. The process of building a nation is easy to grasp, and he uses that to galvanize supporters. He’s an evangelizer, storyteller, and philosopher. I felt like I was spending time with someone who shares the same energy as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. He has a presence that is welcoming, challenging, and inspiring. He has a way of making you feel like you are an incredibly important person. This is how he gets people to join the nation-building movement from all over the world.

He challenged me to keep the Philippines in my heart, and he inspired me to rethink about the way I can make a tangible impact on education reform in the States. Because of this trip, I’ve dreamed up a vision of a national education nonprofit that will innovate low-income schools and and create human-centered networks all across our nation. I’ve written enough on this post, but very soon I’ll be writing more about the launch of this new educational social venture.

Until then, I want to thank again all of the people who supported me and believed in me enough to sponsor such a crazy trip. I also want to think the folks I worked closely with at Gawad Kalinga–Tito Tony, Karl, Shannon, Jerry and many others. And perhaps most importantly, I want to thank my family, especially my Tita Badette, Tito Bong, Jovic, Gelo and Bea, who took care of and housed me while I was in the Philippines.

This was just a small sliver of the lessons I learned from the Philippines, and it mostly centered around what I learned from Tito Tony. I hope to also share the lessons I learned from other aspects of my trip. I’ll end it with one more quote from Tito Tony:

The root of poverty is the perpetuation of a culture of elitism.

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