Volunteering can also be working in an office! There you also learn all about how a nonprofit actually works
Here we are, in Lima, Peru. It’s a new step for us after 1 year and 2 months traveling around the world. We had been anticipating this moment for a while: even before we left France, we had planned on volunteering with Mano a Mano for a month. During our first stay in Lima, right after arriving from the United States, we paid a visit to the organization’s headquarters. There we had a chat with Sylvie, the nonprofit’s founder and manager. The idea was to introduce ourselves, and most importantly to see how we could contribute using our skills and experience. That is a key point for us: we really want to be truly useful, by helping where we can actually bring something to the table.
After telling Sylvie some of our adventures around the world, our favorite places, and some less fun times, we get to the heart of it: how can we help Mano a Mano for a month? There are clear needs, and important tasks to be dealt with: since we’re nearing the end of the year, they have to close the books, verify all the administrative documents for the current year and prepare for the next one. There are also documents to prepare to obtain grants (in French, English and Spanish to add to the challenge). Then there are databases to clean and update, an inventory management system to imagine and set up, the organization’s communications strategy to rethink… On a more practical note, they also need help with manual tasks like helping the restaurant and bakery (serving customers, helping to cook and do the dishes), helping construction for the nonprofit’s projects to beautify neighborhoods, taking care of sales…
In short: there’s a lot of work to be done! That’s perfect for us because we want to help out! Especially since we really believe in the NGO’s work as we really believe in economic development and empowering the local community, and we seem to get along well with Sylvie. So we agree to come back two months later, after we’ve had some time to rest and visit Peru. Of course, it’s impossible to do all this in just one month on site… Even if we wanted to, if we want things to be done correctly, we have to make some choices. Especially since there are often unforeseen things to be done in an organization like this! But we’ll get into that later 🙂 Naturally we offer our help on the administrative front. There are important deadlines coming up for the NGO, such as closing out the year and calculating the month’s salaries to be paid: since we’re used to this kind of work, it makes more sense to help where we can be most effective and can be quickly operational.
On our first day back, we dive into excel spreadsheets. This also brings us up to speed on the NGO’s management: we quickly understand the context, the projects, what’s at stake, what works… we know exactly what we’re helping with. We have figures for each issue, and can measure our impact. All this understanding doesn’t come in just one day of course, It takes time to understand what this organization has been doing for many years in a country we don’t know well with a culture we can’t fully grasp. Those cultural differences also count when working in an office with files to complete and sort.
At first, with our European thinking, it seemed to us that everything was a bit disorganized. After a month though, we realized that the results are there and that it’s actually quite well organized. After a month, we can tell you at length exactly what Mano a Mano does in these slums of Comas and La Ensenada in the north of Lima.
Working in an NGO is also adapting: that’s what makes twaming rewarding!
Mano a Mano is a Franco-Peruvian nonprofit organization founded in 1994. Its work started with the construction of a “botiquin”, a small pharmacy and clinic in the La Ensenada neighborhood, some of the most recent slums of Lima. Mano a Mano worked back then mainly on health awareness, notably to fight against tuberculosis through health drives.
From that, the organization’s projects grew and diversified. Now, Mano a Mano works more broadly on the area’s economic development, notably by hiring women from the area to implement its projects. The NGO works towards education (through a books and games library, implementing “useful vacations” for children, empowering the neighborhood’s teenagers to help take care of the younger children…), urban planning (beautifying neighborhoods by installing gardens, raising awareness for sustainable development, building areas to play sports…), and health (consultations, psychological help, social work…).
At the same time, to bring in more revenue and employ more locals, Mano a Mano also runs a restaurant, a bakery, and practices responsible tourism.
As you can see, there’s a lot to be done! So not only do we have to adapt to cultural differences, we also have to adapt to how the organization works, especially when it has different activities.
On top of this, the administrative work we mentioned above is just a part of what we did as volunteers at Mano a Mano… Even if it was intense, working from 9am to 10pm, we didn’t do just that. Yep, we were working more than in Paris! We stopped our computers because of the 10pm curfew: the neighborhood we were in is a South American slum, meaning it’s not safe at night, so we respected the rules of the organization and went home.
Except sometimes… when we had to get up in the middle of the night to make sandwiches and make pulled chicken! You can laugh indeed: it’s the story of our trip around the world that seems to fascinate people the most. Why get up in the middle of the night to make sandwiches when you’re volunteering? Quite simply because the restaurant got huge orders (by the hundreds) of snacks that had to leave fresh in the morning at 6h30, and given the restaurant’s small staff (it is just a small neighborhood non-profit restaurant after all), they needed all hands on deck.
We couldn’t refuse these orders from one of the NGO’s regular clients. So we were flexible and did what was needed, even if it wasn’t always easy. It was worth it though: those orders covered the annual salary of one of the NGO’s employees. What more could we ask for? If we hadn’t had our noses in the NGO’s files we wouldn’t have realized our impact and we wouldn’t have been as motivated, implicated, empowered…!
On a daily basis, you have to make yourself available: you have to be able to leave your computer to help out in the kitchen when needed, drop your spreadsheet to pull chicken for a few hours, smile in the restaurant as you’re helping with the service, even if the customers are a bit mean since they don’t know you, stir the compost heap while cockroaches crawl up your arms, pull the nails out of wooden pallets for a whole day under the scorching to reuse the wooden planks, do things you don’t necessarily want to, stay patient at all times… and all that in Spanish please. Sorry, “por favor”.
On the side of these “constraints” (which teach us a bit of humility), we also get to work on more exciting projects. Emmanuel even participated in implementing an inventory management system for the restaurant, and another one to follow the arts and crafts purchases of the NGO (perfect missions for the geek he is). Passion and adaptation are the keys!
What about meeting people in all this? Between the local team, the people of the neighborhood… there are a lot of chance encounters!
Since Mano a Mano is now an organized and mature NGO, it welcomes many volunteers, whether they’re travelers like us, students interning or International Volunteer Service. In short, the permanent team sees a bunch of people come through each year, with very diverse profiles given all the different projects the NGO works on. This diversity is also what makes this experience so rewarding since you get to meet people from all walks of life, people you probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.
In the permanent team, there is of course Sylvie, the director, but also, Marion, an architect who organizes the NGO’s different construction projects in the slums, Pablo and Jorge and their team of “señoras constructoras” who do all the actual construction, the cooks and bakers, Fidela, Enma, Gloria, Rocio the accountant… and of course Socorro, Sylvie’s right hand and one of the original members of the project from the beginning, with a strong character, only matched by her unwavering motivation. Then there are all the temporary volunteers (there were a good dozen while we were there). That makes up a bunch of people to meet and to get to know!
Upon our arrival we quickly understood that we also had to show our mettle and win the trust of the different people there. It’s pretty much the same as when you start a new job: first you get to know everyone, figure out who does what, everyone’s personality…
Then you have to express yourself, identify where you can contribute… In short, you have to be willing to put in some effort if you want to be a part of the team! On top of this, the volunteers live in a tight-knit community since we all live in the same building as the NGO’s offices and restaurant or in a small house nearby. So it’s like a big dorm where each person has to do their part to make sure everything works out. Especially when there are night-time sandwich making sessions, when the volunteers had to organize themselves to alternate the 3am wake-ups. To make it all work, you have to get along well and work well as a team!
So we also took time to chat, be available to lend a helping hand when needed… After a few days, we got to know everyone and started to find our place. After a couple weeks we also became inhabitants of the neighborhood with our little habits, going to one shop for snacks, another for groceries. We also made friends we met up with later on the road like Florent et Marie with whom we trekked in the Colca Canyon a few weeks after they left the NGO.
The time we spent with the permanent team also taught us a lot about Peruvian culture and how things are done in the country. We also learned a lot from these women’s stories, as they often had to overcome many challenges in a country which remains very macho and where alcoholism and domestic violence is still rampant.
These human experiences and interactions are also why we volunteer. It’s for these encounters that change you, these shared moments, these places where you create new bearings for yourself in new environments, these stories heard and lived. And we certainly plan to keep in touch!
To find out more about Mano a Mano, go check out their website!
And to read more about our volunteering experiences, every thing is right here!