A Durango nonprofit that helps underserved rural villages in Southeast Asia has had such success over the past decade, it plans to expand.
The Shanta Foundation, started by Mike and Tricia Karpfen, works with 15 villages in the Southern Shan state in Myanmar, and it plans to expand into a new region after it received five years of funding from the Vibrant Village Foundation, an Oregon-based nonprofit, Mike Karpfen said.
The nonprofit is committed to its work despite the high-profile persecution of the Rohingya, which has led thousands of members of the minority Muslim population to flee Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
“During the 12 years we have worked in this country, we have witnessed many atrocities committed by the government, and recent events with the Rohingya have only served to reinforce our commitment to help these people,” Mike Karpfen said in an email to supporters.
The foundation works with the Pa’O ethnic minority, far from the current conflict, so its staff members are safe, he said.
Vibrant Village is also committed to working in the country and keeping an international presence there to help prevent more conflict like the persecution the Rohingya are facing, said John Stephens, senior director of programs and partnerships with Vibrant Village.
“Hopefully, we prevent situations like that from appearing in other parts of the country,” he said.
Vibrant Village works in about 20 countries, and it is working with Shanta because it develops leadership and governance within small communities and because the nonprofit has a defined exit model. Shanta’s model keeps aid moving into new communities, which is key because there are thousands of impoverished villages in the country, Stephens said.
“Shanta’s really built a efficient and effective model,” he said.
Shanta also plans to expand in its current region and will work to move into a third region with help from a funding partner. It also plans to train other nonprofits that work worldwide to use its community-lead model that makes its projects sustainable.
“If a village says to us, ‘We need a road’ and we say: ‘Gosh, we’ve never built roads before’. We have learned to follow their lead, because they know their economic factors,” Tricia Karpfen said.
For example, the residents of Kaung Khae decided to build by hand a road to their village before working on a water system and school because it would make the other construction projects cheaper and allow them to bring products to market faster, the couple said.
The foundation requires that a majority of the village residents participate in deciding on which projects to build and that the project benefits the whole community.
It also develops a leadership team in the village that includes both men and women of different ages and education levels.
The foundation’s staff typically works with a village for five or six years so that they can work through problems with the community.
“If a village doesn’t know how to solve the problems, whatever program you do will die,” Mike Karpfen said.
The only development project Shanta requires is the creation of a community bank, because it can fund residents’ projects and the interest residents pay can be used to fund community development.
The foundation typically founds a bank with $1,700 donations and requires a $1,700 match from the community. Often it takes a few years for the village to build up the full $3,400.
Once the bank is established, the village decides what the interest rates will be and how loans will be given, with training from the foundation. In six years, a village can build up $12,000 in its bank.
Another key to success is developing the skills of the foundation’s native staff. It has been a challenge for the foundation because the education system in Myanmar is based largely on rote memorization. Even those who have attended school don’t learn problem-solving skills.
The foundation has provided regular staff development over the years to address the problem, and it hired Durangoan Zach Ray, who has worked with the staff for the last two-and-a-half years.
It was Myanmar’s culture that first drew the Karpfens to the country in 2004, when it was still ruled by the military. The attitudes of the people, and their resiliency, still impresses Mike Karpfen.
“Villages have a quality in them that I find very attractive, that we lost long ago in this country and most countries, and that’s a sense of community,” he said. For example, entire villages come together to work on projects that often require hard labor, he said.
The nonprofit’s first project was a school in 2006. It has expanded its work since, with substantial support from Durangoans.
Last year, the nonprofit raised $400,000 – 65 percent of it was from Durango donors. This year the foundation’s goals is to raise $500,000 to help with expansion.
Durangoans have also been generous with their time. Volunteers with Fort Lewis College Village Aid Project have helped build five water systems that protect and distribute water for villages.
“It’s a U.S. village to Myanmar village success story,” Tricia Karpfen said.