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Insights from an Unlikely Place

What a nonprofit in Nicaragua can teach your business about engaging employees, serving stakeholders, and focusing its mission.
Roughly half of all startups close within the first five years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and only a third last to the 15-year mark. The results for nonprofit organizations aren’t much different. As a nonprofit startup, Amigos for Christ stands in contrast to those sobering statistics. Started in 1999 to bring water, health, education, and economic development to rural Nicaraguan communities, Amigos has affected more than 30,000 people through hundreds of successful projects since its inception. While its scale and purpose may not match your business, the journey the organization has made since its birth yields six valuable lessons for any business.

No. 1:
Have Visible Goals, Vision, and Passion

Any visitor to the Amigos’ compound in Chinandega, on the southwest coast of Nicaragua, will notice a few things immediately. First, the “WHAT,” “HOW,” and “WHY” driving the organization are literally visible in the form of colorful placards in the cafeteria describing Amigos’ goals and vision.

And while many organizations go through the motions of defining a mission and vision, Amigos has clearly embedded them into the culture of the organization: These defining motivators inform the behavior and attitude of employees and volunteers.

Additionally, a visitor will notice that an infectious passion and enthusiasm for the organization’s mission drives everyone—from founder John Bland to any of the Amigos’ 90-plus staff members—helping them accomplish their work and adjust as a team. Multiple studies over the past five years have consistently shown the correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction, productivity, and profitability. Whether you are a large multinational, or a small startup, having a clearly defined purpose, lived with passion each day, makes a difference.

No. 2:
Know Your Stakeholders and Build Their Buy-In

Amigos for Christ has three major stakeholder groups: the community it serves in Nicaragua; missionaries, mostly from the United States, who volunteer time to help the work of the organization; and its employees. The work of Amigos is structured to offer a “value proposition” for each of those stakeholders. That’s a powerful lesson for any organization seeking to build buy-in.

While the value Amigos provides to its target communities might seem obvious, it runs deeper than the benefits obtained by Nicaragua’s poor. On a typical Amigos project, the community is required to fund a portion of the project and provide the bulk of the labor. Amigos helps with tools, equipment, knowledge, and volunteers.

Once a project is completed, the community has something transformative—such as clean water in every home. But its members also have a sense of ownership and stewardship for the water system they built and own, and for which they sacrificed to finance. They also know people are willing to donate time and money to help them better their lives in a lasting way.

Amigos has structured other projects that enable those served to “pay it forward” to other communities in Nicaragua.That amplifies the “buy-in” of those served because it allows them to contribute to the betterment of others.The second stakeholder group, missionary volunteers, also gains a sense of buy-in through Amigos’ structure.They have the chance to really engage and help people. Living and working with them in a structured and safe way deepens the faith typically motivating their involvement. In this way, volunteer missionaries receive a very real and meaningful experience. This is why so many missionaries who volunteer for Amigos sustain their support and return to Nicaragua to sweat in the sun in support of a higher purpose.

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More than half the Nicaraguan population lives on $2 a day.
The final stakeholder group is Amigos’ employees. As context for the value provided to this group, it is worthwhile to remember that the 2015 per capita GDP in Nicaragua was $1,849. That compares to the United States, with a per capita GDP of $51,486. More than half the Nicaraguan population lives on $2 a day.

Those figures put Nicaragua’s economy in the bottom 30 percent in the world. Employment with Amigos for Christ offers employees the ability to provide for their families; the chance to develop medical, veterinary science, and mechanical skills; and the opportunity to help their fellow Nicaraguans in very meaningful ways.

Amigos teaches the importance of knowing your stakeholders and offering value to each group. By meeting their stakeholders’ needs in ways that deepen their connection to the organization, Amigos for Christ provides a model worth considering for any organization.

No. 3:
Know Your Customers and Your Operations First-Hand

The U.S. television show “Undercover Boss” has been airing for nearly seven years. During the show high-level corporate execs secretly take jobs within their companies to understand how their employees really feel and what the business is like from the bottom rather than the top. While many reasons may contribute to its popularity, business leaders who participate hopefully take away the importance of knowing their customers and operations up close and first-hand. That’s another lesson from Chinandega.

Amigo’s founder John Bland is well-known in Chinandega. He’s on a first-name basis with his team and community leaders in the town of 135,000. He is highly visible throughout the organization: in the compound where the organization is centered, or on any of Amigos’ projects throughout Nicaragua.But the sight of the executive director working with a team for six hours to dig a trench for a water line isn’t a one-time reality show episode. It’s the everyday life Bland has lived with integrity for 17 years. And it’s not limited to John. Rather, it is the culture of the entire organization, where everyone works hard, pitching in to do whatever is needed to complete a project—big or small.

Because of this leadership style and organizational culture, Amigos’ leadership has a very strong sense of what is working and what isn’t at both a detailed project level and a broad program level. Amigos’ working style has also made it a credible and respected part of the Nicaraguan community. This, in turn, has helped it propose and pursue bigger projects that cross communities and rely on government support for success.

The specifics of many businesses don’t afford senior leadership the opportunity to spend the bulk of their time interacting with customers and employees. But making time to stay connected to customers and the details of your operation is critical to making quick and informed decisions and to ensuring you remain aligned with your mission and vision.

No. 4:
Focus, Then Extend

Businesses, especially startups, frequently face distractions in the form of options to broaden their scope and their operations. While product and service innovation are valuable, expanding in a deliberate fashion is key for business leaders looking to avoid the pitfalls of scaling too fast or introducing too many complications too quickly.

This ability to focus and extend is seen in the four main services Amigos for Christ provides to Nicaragua:

Water and Sanitation
At its core, Amigos developed the core competency of running construction projects: drilling wells and building water sanitation systems. Working with the communities it serves, Amigos has created an infrastructure to make water available 24/7 in every home. Amigos also installs modern bathrooms to promote sanitary living conditions using a flush-toilet and shower.

Health Care
Building on the base-level of health provided by water and sanitation, Amigos provides preventive care through family hygiene plans to decrease instances of preventable illness; restorative care, by leveraging the existing infrastructure in Nicaragua to increase access to medical care and medication; and surgical care, by again leveraging local hospitals to provide surgical services to those with no other alternative.

Education and Nutrition
Building on the stabilizing aspect of their first two services, Amigos expanded to get more at the root causes of behavior through a commitment to education and nutrition. Working alongside the community and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education, Amigos is creating the infrastructure to increase the percentage of Nicaraguan children completing primary and secondary school by building schools and feeding centers. Amigos also offers scholarships and encourages extracurricular activities, such as after-school and theater programs

Economic Development
As a sort of capstone on their services, Amigos for Christ seeks to improve the income level of the communities it serves by loaning capital in the form of cash and animals. Expanding on its knowledge of the communities and infrastructure, Amigos arranges agricultural loans, animal ownership, and reproduction programs. Community-based cooperative businesses that help those served “pay forward” the benefits they’ve received.

While that description seems like a well thought out multigenerational plan, Amigos for Christ didn’t come to it through great foresight and planning. Rather, some painful lessons and early missteps led Amigos to refocus its attention on water and sanitation. After stabilizing these services and mastering related skills in construction, project management, and community connection, Amigos could expand into services that used its core competencies. This ability to focus on a core product or service, and expand into related areas, is another lesson other organizations can learn.

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AMIGOS HAS CREATED AN INFRASTRUCTURE TO MAKE WATER AVAILABLE 24/7 IN EVERY HOME.

No. 5:
Become a Learning Organization and Adjust Accordingly

As Irish novelist and poet James Joyce wrote, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” Like every organization, Amigos for Christ has faced challenges and obstacles. Its original approach and set of services had to be adjusted and scaled back. Some results were better delivered by forming partnerships and building on the strength of others. The structure and approach to certain projects had to change to ensure reasonable and repeatable success.

The broader lesson other organizations can extract is how to learn and grow from mistakes and challenges. For Amigos, three elements contributed to this process:

Perseverance Balanced with Humility
Success, whether in business or by digging a trench in the July heat of Nicaragua, requires a certain amount of perseverance and “sweat equity.” But organizations also need the presence of mind and humility to see what’s not working, to admit mistakes, and to learn lessons. For Amigos, this has sometimes involved sorting out a complex mix of human behavior, government bureaucracy, and flawed assumptions—while preventing ego from turning perseverance into blind stubbornness.

Developing Relevant Expertise
The nature of Amigos’ work, and the smaller size of the organization, naturally leads to a “jack of all trades” persona. In spite of this, the organization has pursued specialization and core competencies such as construction, veterinary medicine, nursing and health care, education, and farming. Employees don’t work purely within the silo of a single competency, but each one brings focus and deep knowledge to a certain area, contributing to the organization’s mission.

Learning as a Team
The nature of Amigos’ work lends itself to temporary teams that form, complete work, and then disband or re-form as needed. This accompanies an informal culture where employees and volunteers share perspectives on what is and isn’t working. The result: On both specific projects and broad organizational issues, individuals can learn from each other and influence how work is completed. The ability to learn from everyone and adjust as needed creates opportunity for ongoing improvement.

While there is no exact science for becoming a learning organization, pursuing such a culture yields benefits for your business despite the obstacles you may encounter.

Much of the work is tiring. And dirty. In spite of this, visitors to Chinandega can’t help but be struck by how happy employees and volunteers are.

No. 6:
Bring Joy

The final element contributing to the success of Amigos for Christ is joy. Much of its work is tiring. And dirty. In spite of this, visitors to Chinandega can’t help but be struck by how happy employees and volunteers are. While some of this is tied to the nature of Amigos’ work, it reminds us that when work isn’t drudgery, people are OK with some hardship. That principle anchors a broader part of Amigos’ culture that is reflected by all levels of the organization.

According to studies done by Shawn Anchor, researcher and founder of the corporate strategy firm Good Think, happy employees generate stronger success for their organization because they are more creative, more productive, and better at problem solving. By injecting fun and happiness into the workplace, leaders generate better results, rather than pushing for better results in the hope of creating happier employees.

Typical approaches for creating a happier work environment are evident in Chinandega:

  • The Amigos culture is one of teamwork. People engage with each other and work together toward a goal.
  • Leadership has a good habit of sharing positive messages and expressing gratitude for effort and results.
  • There is a practical emphasis on influencing things you can control.
  • Exercise and physical activity is a daily routine.
  • Employees and volunteers have time to reflect on positive results and improvement opportunities, with a strong culture of listening to ideas.
  • There is a strong sense of fun amid demanding work.

While work environments vary, business leaders in any setting can apply most of these lessons for the benefit of their employees and their bottom line. Whether they’re startups or established companies, businesses face many challenges every day. The complexity of competition and the pace of change make it hard to focus and execute a vision that delivers value to stakeholders. But Amigos for Christ, a successful nonprofit based in Chinandega, Nicaragua, offers six lessons any organization looking to succeed can apply.

For more information about Amigos for Christ go to amigosforchrist.org.

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