I was recently e-introduced to Scott Fifer by a dear friend with whom I have traveled to Haiti, because she said her friend Scott was headed to Haiti again soon, setting up some grassroots volunteer programs generated from within the community, and we both shared a fascination with Haitian voodoo (vodoun) art, including the sometimes disturbing genre that includes plastic babydoll heads. Quirky and committed to service are a couple of high benchmarks in my estimation of folks, so I was looking forward to the conversation.
I, like so many of us would, figured I had to do an internet search ahead of time so I’d know more about who I was going to meet, and quickly became smitten with Scott’s huge undertaking, GO Campaign. Fifer is the founder and executive director of the organization whose mission he sums up: “We partner with grassroots Local Heroes to give opportunity to orphans and vulnerable children around the world.”
Now, tourism and orphanages uttered in the same breath become dangerous territory these days as it has become somehow cynically cool on the web to bash volunteer travel, especially in relation to kids. That’s an argument for which I have little patience, though it is true that there are some nefarious folks out there trying to capitalize on best intentions of travelers and who are creating a nasty “orphanage tourism” scam business model. While I don’t let that dampen my commitment to serving young people around the world, due diligence should be done before any of us lend our dollars or hours to any organization.
GO Campaign, established in 2006, is the real deal. The key is Scott and company’s commitment to work only with vetted “local heroes” who are already fighting the good fight in the communities where they live. This assures there is no foreign “savior” coming in and imposing outsider will on a local problem or issue. This is EXACTLY the sort of project initiative you should look for when volunteering anywhere—locally-generated solutions. The fact that this ethos is built into GO Campaign is a great sign. With GO Campaign, you can fund high impact projects from home, or you can go and volunteer with the hero projects in some amazing locations. The volunteer opportunities pages of the website share links to projects, and define the need for volunteers who might visit.
After the jump, find Scott’s answers to a bunch of Changers Profile questions:
Tell me a little bit about the genesis of The GO Campaign. What possessed you? There must have been easier things to start—why this? I didn’t start it on purpose. I never knew it would grow into what it has become today. I took a volunteer vacation to Africa and spent Christmas with some orphans in Tanzania and when I came back home to California I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I wanted to stay connected to them, to see if I could improve their life in some way, because they had certainly improved my life.
What work or pursuits led you here? Did your youth/upbringing/family life seem to put you on this path, or did you come to it later? My parents always did volunteer work, whether it be on a political campaign, or throwing events for my siblings’ schools, or at church, and they always had a soft spot for homeless and alcoholics that we might pass on the streets of Boston, so even though it wasn’t drilled into us as kids, I think the notion just seeped in… that giving back and helping others was the right thing to do.
What was your awareness and experience with communities of need, particularly internationally, before you started this program? Zero. My first introduction to Africa was the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and after seeing that movie, I felt shame. I thought, “Hey, I was an adult during the Clinton administration, why didn’t I pay attention to this story when it was happening?”
You have a strong focus on serving kids—how did that become a priority? (as opposed to environment or endangered species or health/disease-based initiative, etc.) I met nine orphans on my first trip to Africa and I bonded with them on a really deep level that I wasn’t expecting. I saw so much hope and promise in them. There are so many equally worthy causes, but none more worthy than investing in the future generation.
What obstacles along the way almost stopped you? No obstacles have threatened to stop me. Certainly there are bumps in the road, and plenty of my work I would give up in a heartbeat (the administration, the fundraising, the occasional donors who want personal recognition more than they want to help), but nothing has been insurmountable to the point where I thought I would give up.
In a nutshell—what is the problem facing the communities you serve? Why is the campaign program needed? Poverty. Corruption in governments. Lack of access to basic human rights like education, clean water, medical care, home… and love. And so many big charities have so much overhead, so much red tape. GO Campaign cuts through all that and makes sure the money has a real impact on kids in need.
Does the work of this organization ever end? Is there a measurable result that makes the need go away? The work will never end globally, but it does end at the community level. We have funded projects that are sustainable after we leave, and those kids are better off and they have a chance in life. For example, we’ve built schools that the communities and local leaders now run… they don’t need our help anymore… and this is exactly the goal. To have everyone stand on their own. This is what we try to do, on a very small scale, community by community, child by child.
When deciding to dedicate yourself to this, did family and friends support you or think you were nuts? Thankfully [they were] very supportive. In fact, I think most are jealous, because I’ve found a calling in life, a job that I created out of a passion for helping others. Many people wish they could quit the rat race and do the same thing. But because most people can’t, they donate to GO Campaign and we do it on their behalf. People want to help, but they have mortgages to pay, and kids to put through school. I, on the other hand, live in a rented apartment with a cat. It doesn’t cost a lot to be me, so I can go out and do the work that others can’t.
What is your earliest memory of volunteering or dedicating yourself to someone or something else? I grew up outside Boston, and my mom took me to volunteer on one of the Kennedy campaigns. I’m not even sure which Kennedy it was (there are so many of them, you know), but I liked the energy of it, people coming together for a single cause, it was fun.
On the volunteer trip that first sparked the fire for you, what were you tasked with doing? What is an example of a typical day? I was allowed to create the day as I wanted. It was school vacation, so the kids were at the center, ready to be engaged… I could have chosen to teach them English or do art, and I probably did both of those things at some point, but we spent a lot of time doing acrobatics. They knew acrobatics – they performed around town for tourists to get money – and it taught them to work together. I’m no acrobat, but I had some knowledge – and a book with pictures – so we spent a lot of time on that. And then I would have them teach me Swahili and show me around the village.
Is there an ideal volunteer for GO Campaign? The ideal volunteer for GO Campaign is a self-starter, someone who has ideas on how they can bring their talents to help our organization, help our mission. Someone who really wants to make a difference.
Any advice for others wanting to create a foundation, service organization, or charitable effort? GO for it. But don’t recreate the wheel. Odds are there is already an existing organization trying to do what you want to do, so better to join forces with them and work together.
If not this, what? (What might you be doing if not GO Campaign?) I would still be writing for TV and film. I had a fine career going, but I don’t miss it. I’m content doing what I’m doing.
What has been the best reward for the work you do? The smiles on the kids’ faces. And just knowing that we’ve made a difference, that we’ve changed some lives. That’s the best reward.
What has been the greatest disappointment along the way? Hardest lesson? Some folks that seem like great candidates for funding turn out to be acting in their own interests and not in the best interests of the children they claim to want to help. Thankfully, these people are in the minority, but they are around and we always have to be on the lookout for them. After a few years of experience, they are getting easier to spot. It’s always disappointing when I find one. Luckily our vetting process exists to screen out these people, so they do not become recipients of our grants, but it’s still disappointing to know that some people put their own interests above those of impoverished kids.
What’s next? We have a few cool fundraisers coming up. A couple in the LA area, and one in NYC. Raising more money, to help more kids. Also coming up: Identifying more amazing Local Heroes around the world that we can help and lift up. And taking more donor trips, where donors travel with me to visit the projects we help. It’s so rewarding to bring people to the place where their dollars made a difference – to see the work in action. www.gocampaign.org