What Happens When a Fundraising Copywriter Goes to Nepal…
Plus: Dan’s Top 5 Suggestions for What You Should Do Before Every Overseas Trip
So far in my career as a fundraising copywriter and strategist, the project I’m most happy to have worked on is a human trafficking safe home in Hetauda, Nepal.
We spent about 18 months planning, fundraising, stressing, sweating, and trembling, hoping we’d raise the nearly $500,000 it would take to build the 5-story, 60-bed, multi-purpose facility in the Nepali town of about 50,000.
We made it, but the fundraising journey was the stuff of great drama, enough to write a book about.
The most amazing part happened a few months after the home was finished, when I got the chance to actually travel to Nepal and see the home be officially opened.
I went as part of a group of about 25 other supporters. Paraphrasing those old Hair Club for Men commercials, “I’m not just the copywriter for the Hetauda House project; I’m also a supporter.” (Needless to say, I’m most certainly NOT a member of the hair club…)
What follows is a hopefully entertaining and informative story of my experiences in Nepal.
Why I Went to Nepal
I’ve never been to a developing nation, unless you count Mexico. But I was young then. Other than Scotland, I’ve never been outside of North America.
So the idea of flying to Korea, then Thailand, and then Katmandu, and landing in a place that’s unlike anything you will ever see in this continent isn’t something I agreed to lightly.
But I had to do it. The project meant too much to me. I went as a fundraiser, a donor, and an ally of their cause. But I also went to celebrate, and I got to bring my whole family, including my wife (who was the project manager of the campaign) and my 2-year old son. That’s him next to the elephant.
Hetauda is about 60 miles south of Kathmandu. To a typical American, that sounds like a quick afternoon jaunt.
But in Nepal, on a big bus with 25 other people winding through treacherous mountain roads with cliffs right outside the window, no streetsigns, no idea where we are, and a lot of dust, that 60 miles took us…. 12 hours.
That included a couple interesting bathroom breaks and a big lunch in a tiny town I still haven’t located with certainty on a map.
Seeing the Fruits of Our Labors In Person
There’s simply nothing like being there.
It’s one thing to stand and look at a building that wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t put in so much work the last two years. But it’s quite another to meet the children who will live in it, safe from human trafficking, protected from poverty, and given a chance to get educated and be transformed in every way possible.
We got to do all this and much more.
I loved seeing my son in a place so different from the US. This photo is one of my favorites, sitting between two of the kids who live in the safe home. Kids being kids.
The woman in the photo below next to my wife and me is Lila Ghising, who was born in Hetauda and now lives in the US. She founded the program that’s been rescuing women and kids from human trafficking for many years.
We’ve known Lila for many years, but seeing her joy and satisfaction when her lifelong dream came true filled me with awe. I’ve aspired to do a lot of things in my life, but this lady bought a piece of land in a backwater town years ago with no money and no means to build on it. And that land sat there unused, year after year. Just a parcel of hope that could easily languish there forever, another dream unrealized.
This is what perseverance looks like.
Challenges and Problems
It’s easy to make it sound great. But this was a hard trip. Here are just a few of the challenges we had to work through:
- Over 24 hours of flight time and layovers, with a 2 year old
- New food (even more interesting with a small kid)
- Strange bathrooms that are always wet underfoot
- No traffic lights in the entire country (you will never complain about traffic like you did before)
- Arriving four hours later than planned in Hetauda
- No sense of direction in a confusing city
- My son smashing his teeth in when he tripped over my foot (fortunately no long term harm)
- Getting in a tuk-tuk (think of Uber but with golf carts), but the driver doesn’t speak English and takes you the wrong way – and you don’t know it because you don’t know where you are!
- Facing the fact that Nepalis eat chicken with the bones in – and they eat the bones too
- Schedule implosions due to cultural differences in the value of time
- Language barriers
- Different values in how to raise children
- Cracking my head open by running into a really low doorframe (that broken tile next to my finger? My head did that….)
- The risk of worm parasites in your water (and anything that has touched water, like fresh fruit)
- Dirt…. our 2 year old just dumped it all over himself
When the kids asked us, “Do you know what’s in that dirt?”, we realized the only answer we could handle was in the form of a question: “Stronger immunity?”
We let him dump it. What’s the worst that could happen?
Lessons for Nonprofits Taking Their Supporters Overseas
This particular nonprofit, Friends of WPC Nepal, takes people over to Nepal regularly. Why do it? One reason is because the great majority of people who go are so impacted that they become longtime and generous donors, supporters, and volunteers.
People who have traveled to Nepal now serve on their board, plan their annual gala, volunteer, raise funds online as P2P fundraisers, sponsor kids, and advocate for the fight against human trafficking.
Every organization is different, but there’s simply no substitute for getting people face to face with the people their support has touched.
Here are the key lessons I would impart to you if you’re considering taking your supporters overseas:
1) Plan for Medical Emergencies
On our team, we had five people with some form of nursing, medical, or first aid experience, including one who had interned at a Nepali hospital. His advice when I cracked my head open: don’t go to the Nepali hospital.
And I’m not exaggerating. In fact, so far I’ve undersold this. I was bleeding profusely. It took several hours to stop the bleeding and figure out what to do. They ended up putting super glue in my head to bandage the wound before wrapping it in layers and layers of gauze. I had so many layers I was like Shrek. And this was after going through a painstaking disinfecting procedure that involved lots of gauze, iodine, and all kinds of people touching my head.
But we had all the supplies we needed, even for this. You can’t plan for everything, but with a few trained personnel and the right supplies, you can plan for quite a lot.
2) Anticipate the Unexpected
It will not go the way you plan it. Prove me wrong at your own aggravation. But it simply will not go the way you plan it. If you try to work out a minute by minute, hour by hour plan in a country like this, prepare to rework your schedule multiple times and cut things out you used to think were “essential.”
As it turns out, almost nothing is truly essential. Except lots of gauze.
But your schedule will change, no matter what. Your transportation will fall through somehow. Your food will be different than you expected. Your lodging will be mishandled. Things we take for granted are just different in other places. Expect it, be okay with it, prepare your team for it, and you’ll be fine.
3) Build Time for Group Reflection and Processing
Some of the most fulfilling moments happened back in our hotel with the team when we processed together how each day went. It’s in these times you give meaning to what your team is experiencing. These are the moments that will make it into their journals and inform the stories they tell.
You don’t have to force these moments too much. Just get people talking, ask questions, listen, and let memories build.
If one of your trip goals is to deepen the attachment between these people and your organization, prioritizing times for group reflection is essential.
4) Don’t Let Your Team Retreat to Itself – Force the “New”
Again, specifics are hard because every place and trip is different. But if you want your team to have the most memorable, life-changing experience possible, don’t let them hide out with each other the whole time. Don’t let them stay in hotels and tourist areas the whole time.
Get them out of their comfort zones.
One day, we hopped in a rickshaw and let this guy take us to the middle of Kathmandu. A couple in their 60s went with us in a different one. It was… insane. We’re being walked by this hard-working guy on busy, noisy, dirty streets alongside thousands of motorcycles, buses and cars passing us on all sides.
A U.S. urban safety planner would have had a seizure and been traumatized for life.
And yes, we had our 2-year old with us.
Was there an imminent threat of a bus or car slamming into us from behind and killing us all?
Well… I honestly never saw a single accident or wreck the whole time we were there. By the end of the trip, we were joking at how nonchalantly we thought it when buses drove straight toward the bus we were in, head-on in the same lane, at 35 miles an hour.
It was like in the movie Groundhog Day: “I’m thinking he’s going to swerve first…”
The drivers always worked it out without a hitch.
Those are the moments and insights your supporters will remember. So don’t let them hide away in the safety of each other the whole time. Plan in advance for them to see what you want them to see.
5) Communicate DETAILS Before the Trip
You can’t plan for everything. But you need to make your team feel as if you can by telling them everything they need to bring. How do you handle customs and passports? How does money exchange work? Can we plug our chargers in? Any key language we need to know? Any clothing that’s inappropriate in that culture? Or mannerisms?
In Nepal, it’s common for two men to hold hands, for instance, as a simple act of friendship. It’s quite rare to see a man and woman hold hands, and hugs between strangers of the opposite sex should be avoided.
You’ve got to prepare your team for all kinds of stuff like this.
Our team had four meetings in the months leading up to the trip, and the leaders prepared Nepali food for us at each one and taught us some basic language and cultural norms.
Trips Accomplish What Nothing Else Can
Where else can you get a picture like this?
You’re giving your team experiences that will stay with them the rest of their lives, and will affect future generations too. Our son will have Nepal in his history forever, and he’s got the proof.
And these experiences will bond them to your mission and work in ways nothing else comes close to.
I could give many more tips based on my experience, but those are the top five. I hope they inspire your planning.
Interested in the Fundraising Story of Hetauda?
I mentioned at the start that the fundraising journey of this project was so dramatic, as well as professionally valuable, that you could write a book about it.
If you’d like weekly fundraising and nonprofit marketing tips and resources, get a free fundraising event-planning guide and join the ProActive Insights newsletter here.
Special thanks to Caliopy and Philanthropy without Borders for the opportunity to share my story here.