Creating the Colombian-American Community Foundation

Diaspora Philanthropy by Word of Mouth

Global Giving Matters: What spurred the formation of the Colombian-American Community Foundation?

Catalina Samper Horak: Before we met, we each had the idea of creating some sort of entity that would enable Colombians living abroad to support Colombian nonprofit organizations within the country. The third sector in Colombia is very sophisticated and can use support effectively. Political violence and the weak economy caused many skilled Colombians to leave over the last decade, although the situation is beginning to change now that there's a new government. About four million Colombians live outside Colombia, including around two million in the US. [The population of Colombia is about 42 million, according to United Nations data for 2000.]

Cecilia Mejia: We both have connections with a wide range of Colombians in the US, including some who we felt would want to become involved but would want tax relief to do it. A number of them are already enthusiastically involved.

GGM: How did you get started?

CSH: About two years ago I read an article in The New York Times about an Indian businessman based in Silicon Valley who wanted to donate $1 million to India. But he wanted to know how he could get tax deductions to do so. That article stayed in my mind and I sent it to a friend who I thought would be interested. At the time I was working on a master's degree in nonprofit management at the Milano Graduate School [a program of New School University in New York City]. Then in 2002 I started working on this idea more thoroughly; earlier this year I finished a study on Colombian diaspora philanthropy for Milano.

CM: I had been thinking of something similar. I spend about 50 percent of my time in New York and the other 50 percent in Colombia, so I know what's going on. And then through correo de las brujas -- it's Spanish for "witches' mail" and it means "word of mouth" -- Catalina and I were introduced by mutual friends. So we started talking and discovered that we had almost the exact same idea of what to do.

GGM: Catalina, when you say you "started working" on this project, what do you mean?

CSH: At the Milano School I learned about the Center for the Study of Philanthropy (CSP -- at the City University of New York. CSP has done a lot of research on diaspora philanthropy and I arranged to meet the people there -- Kathleen McCarthy, who's the executive director, and Barbara Leopold --and they were extremely helpful in giving me access to the center's research. They've done a tremendous amount of work on community foundations over the years. I began reading up on as much as I could! We read about various diaspora philanthropy models based in the US, such as the American Ireland Fund, the Brazil Foundation and the American India Foundation, and other community foundation models around the world. I met some people from these organizations. Leona Foreman of the Brazil Foundation was particularly helpful. In fact, our group is now where the Brazil Foundation was about three years ago.

GGM: There's a large Colombian community in New York City, particularly in Jackson Heights, Queens. Were you in touch with this community and are people there involved in philanthropy in Colombia?

CSH: Yes, we're focusing on Colombians in the Tri-State area for our work. We've developed a solid network already of some of the many Colombians living in the region across social classes and economic classes -- it's the correo de las brujas! There's a large Colombian community in Miami, but that's more of a commuting population; Colombians in the New York area are more settled. However, we want to work with all Colombians who are interested in becoming involved, and we will welcome donations of any amount. In Jackson Heights we're also working with some small nonprofit charities that send money back to Colombia. They're often one-person operations driven by a real love and connection to Colombia, and they operate project-by-project, on a shoestring budget.

At the same time, there is a group of Colombians living in the New York area that have played a big role in helping shape the idea of the community foundation and make it a reality. Bibiana Betancourt works on development at CARE international. Andrea Buitrago works at Deutsche Bank and comes from a family with a strong sense of social responsibility; her parents founded an organization in Atlanta to support a community development program in Colombia. And Luis J. Mejia is one of the founding members of the Colombian American AIDS Foundation and has a strong academic background which has proven very helpful.

GGM: Although your organization hasn't officially started operating yet, how do you think it will differ from similar foundations engaged in diaspora philanthropy?

CSH: One thing we plan to do is recruit Colombian professionals who have important skills that NGOs in Colombia badly need, and send them there for a period of time to help out, by consulting or giving seminars. This type of capacity building is critical for Colombian NGOs to survive. Some of the professionals we know don't have significant financial resources, but they want very much to help, and what they do have in terms of knowledge and experience is very valuable.

GGM: Isn't that what the American India Foundation already does --send skilled professionals to work with Indian NGOs (see Global Giving Matters issue 3, January 2002)?

CM: The American India Foundation's program is different in that one of its goals is to enable young Indian-Americans who grew up in this country to experience India for the first time through volunteer work and to cultivate within them a philanthropic culture. Our goal is to make a more explicit match between experienced Colombians and NGOs that need the specific skills that our people can offer. CACF will actually pay for that person to serve as a short-term consultant. So you could say we're a networking and "matchmaking" operation as well as a fundraising and grantmaking mechanism.

CSH: We're also working domestically. Several months ago in Bogotá, I met doctors at a hospital who were about to do 40 heart surgeries for children. They needed help on fundraising to pay for the operations, and I gave them some feedback on how to raise money to do this. I knew about a nonprofit in Jackson Heights called Corazón a Corazón ("Heart to Heart") that raises funds for heart surgery and put the people who run it in touch with Corazón Colombia, which does the same thing back home. The group in Queens is tiny -- the people are great, but they're all volunteers, so we're assisting them with fundraising and helping them in other ways to become more effective. So we're doing some local capacity building as well as supporting organizational development in Colombia.

GGM: What will your roles be when CACF starts operating officially?

CSH: I will be executive director and Cecilia will be our country liaison. We already have enough interested supporters to form a 15-member board of directors.

GGM: What do you think is your biggest challenge with CACF?

CSH: Colombia's third sector is very big and we don't want to re-invent the wheel. We think our most important contribution is to work with the major players who already exist and find out how we can truly add value, both in terms of helping to raise funds and to provide "in-kind" expertise that they may request. To be successful, it's essential to be culturally sensitive, and that's where our know-how comes into play. One organization wanted to use the US direct mail model to solicit funds, but that doesn't work with Colombians. For one thing, they prefer to donate funds anonymously. For another, they prefer personal contact instead of a letter from a stranger. Our knowledge of Colombian culture combined with fundraising experience will be invaluable as we move forward with the new foundation.

Profile of Three Founders
A few months ago in New York City, Catalina Samper Horak, a Colombian living in Connecticut, met Cecilia Mejia, the daughter of Colombians who was raised in both Colombia and the US, and the two discovered that they shared a common goal: to create a mechanism to enable Colombians living overseas to support the substantial, but generally financially strapped, Colombian civil society. Along with a third partner, Maria Cristina de Brigard, a Colombian international management consultant also based in New York City, they have developed the prototype for a Colombian-American Community Foundation (CACF), which at this writing is in the process of incorporation.

Drawing on earlier models of diaspora philanthropy, such as the Brazil Foundation, the American Ireland Fund, the Ayala Foundation and the American India Foundation -- but with its own distinctive qualities --CACF will offer opportunities for Colombians living in the US to provide financial and capacity-building support to nonprofit organizations in Colombia. CACF is slated to be formally launched in the spring of 2004. Global Giving Matters recently spoke with Ms. Samper Horak and Ms. Mejia about their plans for the foundation. Ms. Samper Horak is a consultant on nonprofit management; Ms. Mejia, who travels frequently between Colombia and her home base in New York City, is an international consultant.