GIS Bulgaria – A 1kg Model for Service Goodness – by Ben

Bridget, Carrie, Scarlett, Amber, Minoti, Mitch, Peter, and Amber are eight of the most inspiring and diligent partners I have worked with. Prior to taking on this project with Bridget, I had a variety of service experiences through Rice. In every one of them, I ended my experience doubting the sustainability of my contributions and convinced I benefited more than the community partner. This time, our team exceeded the expectations of our community partners, received constant praise from the Bulgarian Food Bank, and earned a reputation for dedication, analytical skills, and thoughtful feedback and criticism. Throughout the trip, I have questioned what made this trip so successful and why I have not felt the same way upon completing other, and sometimes longer term, service projects through Rice.

Here is a summary of the reasons for success.

First, the organizational model of volunteer placement. Often times, service projects run through Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership and other universities rely on ‘third party providers,’ such as ProWorld, Amigos de las Americas, or Foundation for Sustainable Development. During my Loewenstern Fellowship in Urubamba, Peru for 11 weeks, I worked with ProWorld. I am not familiar first-hand with other organizations, so I cannot pass precise judgement. But the operational model of these organizations is often very similar. The ‘third party’ organization, often an NGO, but not necessarily, charges a program fee to place a volunteer in a local community. How that organization chooses which local communities in which to operate is often unclear, and though these organizations often have locals working for them, there is a large network of foreigners working in-country. There is evidently an incentive for increased numbers of volunteers, meaning more revenue and expanded opportunities for the organization. This prompts questions about the motives of these organizations. Are they purely altruistic, or is there an added monetary/fundraising component? Financial incentives are often positive and effective, but I am wary of the influence they have in NGO work. Furthermore, if the local community has not made a request specifying the number of volunteers sought, and the exact capacities in which they will be working, I am skeptical whether outsiders can have maximum positive impact if they and their partners have not set mutual expectations.

This GIS trip, in contrast, was the product of a transaction-free partnership. The Global Foodbanking Network (GFN) is a NGO focused on spreading and improving the food banking concept in over 35 countries. It has no food bank of its own, but rather operates like a consultancy firm, ensuring that its partner food banks are making the best use of scarce resources. A couple of years ago, representatives of Rice’s CCL (then the CIC) attended the World’s Fare Foodbanking Leadership Institute in Houston (hosted by the Houston Foodbank). After connecting with Anthony Kitchen of the GFN, Rice proposed a volunteer project. GFN then sent a mass e-mail to its partners to gauge interest. One of the respondents, the Bulgarian Foodbank, responded positively to external volunteer help. GFN charged zero placement fees to Rice University, and though university protocol dictated a $1000 donation to BFB (which we were sorry was not larger), all of the funds were going directly to the cause. GFN prompted the BFB to create a detailed volunteer handbook and set clear expectations for both Rice and its partners. Unlike the ‘third party’ model, GFN’s interest in the Rice-BFB partnership was not monetary, but rather an investment in the success of one of its partner food banks.

Second, the quality of the partnership – we were invited to Bulgaria. Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership deserves credit for forging a dynamic partnership with the Globabl Foodbanking Network. This trip would not have been as successful if not for the careful planning of Lauren Caldarera and Madalina Akli of the CCL. Anthony Kitchen, and his team at GFN, have worked behind the scenes to make this project a success for our GIS team, Rice’s CCL, and most importantly, the BFB. Without Anthony, this trip would not exist, and I am in debt to him for his tireless efforts that started two years ago at the Food Bank Leadership Institute to make this project a reality. Furthermore, Danny Flores of H-E-B provided a $4000 grant to our project, significantly reducing the financial burden on our group of participants. So this GIS trip turned out to be collaborative effort with many parties vested in its success. Rice wants to grow its relation with GFN. GFN wants to use the GIS project as a model for future volunteer engagement, and to strengthen its partner foodbanks, and BFB invited us to Sofia because it believed our volunteer labor could help them achieve their mission to feed hungry Bulgarians.

Third, the team element. Participating with 8 brilliant, highly motivated Rice students was fascinating. Along with Bridget, I struggled at times to factor 9 personalities into decisions affecting the entire team. Nonetheless, everybody on this trip served with enthusiasm, dedication, and a positive attitude. After the food drive concluded, Tsanka at BFB commented that because of the slowly evolving culture of service in Bulgaria, the food bank purposefully asked for external volunteers to lessen the burden on full time BFB staff during the food drive. Though we occasionally struggled at times in having too many people try to complete the same task, 90 percent of the time, BFB put us all to work. Working with and learning from Rice students and locals from BFB brought out the best, most efficient ideas in how to execute our service project. For example, Amber, Scarlett, and Carrie recommended that laptops and using Excel would decrease recording time of lot numbers and expiration dates, thus syncing the data more easily with BFB’s software. BFB was receptive, and everybody rallied around a smart idea. Another time, BFB introduced a new ‘crate’ method of sorting goods first by expiration date, and then by weight and lot number. We all agreed Dani and Pepe made a good call, and rallied around to support them. Our efforts really proved the ‘multiplier effect’ – for example, when two people rally around the same idea, their output is greater than the sum of their individual contributions. Yes, we had different strengths of personalities and degrees of assertiveness, but the environment was such that everybody was comfortable voicing their opinions.

BFB also facilitated our stay in a very comfortable fashion. Tsanka was more than welcoming, and Teddy was available constantly if we had any issues or concerns. To facilitate our stay, BFB assigned Maria, an employee and local university student who was around our age, to serve as our local guide and first point of contact. We cannot thank Tsani, Teddy, Maria, Dani, Pepe, and Iliyan enough!

Fourth, strong leadership. Tsanka and Teddy are tireless workers. They are the best representatives of NGO work and are completely invested in their work. Their work ethic inspired our team constantly. The first day of the food drive at Carrefour Mall, Tsani didn’t take lunch until 4:30, and even then it lasted only 20 minutes. As for our team, I owe the project’s success to Bridget. As a leadership team, we adhered to different management styles, but throughout the whole project, we enjoyed mutual trust. And I have the highest respect for Bridget’s personal integrity. She was constantly committed to the project’s main goal – our volunteering and service to BFB. She was naturally comfortable with everybody on the team, and is so comfortable with herself it is amazing. Bridget, I admire your character and am equally glad we lead this trip together. I do not believe our service would have been as successful without your presence.

Fifth, a well-defined scope. This project was just over two weeks. Relatively short term. But its scope was well-defined. Sort items in the warehouse, collaborate with BFB partner organizations, and plan, prepare, execute, and follow up with BFB’s semi-annual food drive (campaign). If the project were shorter, it would have been a shame. Maybe the project could have been a few days longer to finalize the electronic records of the food collected. But extending it too much longer would have decreased our marginal productivity.

Sixth, sustainability. In UNIV 305, we constantly discussed ‘sustainability,’ and what it means. Our team started something very exciting, a partnership with the people of Sofia, BFB, and GFN that we hope will sustain well into the future in many forms. I will define sustainability as a lasting partnership between a volunteer project (this case Rice GIS), partner organizations (BFB, GFN, HEB) and a local community that has a lasting, positive impact on all parties. At a certain point, the impact becomes so successful it spreads in scope, changes cultural and social norms, and renders itself no longer necessary. I realize that’s quite vague. Here is what I mean: GIS in Guatemala has existed for 18 years. Let’s imagine that Rice continues sending a cohort to Bulgaria to work with the BFB over a similar time frame. In that interval, BFB will grow, the project at Rice will gain popularity and notoriety, and the food drive will operate in Sofia, Varna, Plovdiv, Plevin, Burgas, and maybe elsewhere in Bulgaria. More locals will become aware of food insecurity, the culture of service will spread, and the scale of the volunteer efforts will grow so much locally that Rice’s 10 or so students make such a small impact that the costs of the volunteer project far outweigh the benefit to the local community. Thus the project stops operating in its original form. Yes, this is a highly idealized conception, but volunteering is not an innocent idea. It’s not taken for granted in Bulgaria as much as in the U.S., but the intensity of those engaged in Bulgaria exceeds what I have been exposed to in the U.S. And for a country of 7.5 million, small steps go a long way.

I hope these thoughts are the beginning of a long period of reflection and discussion, and I look forward to the post trip activities with my teammates in the fall, and furthering the discussion of food waste, hunger, insecurity, and project sustainability upon returning to Rice in the fall.

Below are some photos that were quite memorable from our trip. It is worth mentioning that the majority of pictures are from our few cultural days, rather than the service itself. I am a bit disappointed by this imbalance, but we were often working so diligently in our service that we may not have thought to take many photos. In addition, certain restrictions and sensitivities precluded photography on other occasions. For example, Carrefour (a European hypermarket and partner collection location in the BFB food drive) prohibited photography inside its stores. Out of respect to those receiving donations and our partners, we also chose not to photograph those receiving food donations from the soup kitchen where we volunteered because it would be improper.

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