March 2023 marks 2 milestones for me: I have now been Executive Director of Mano a Mano for 8 years, and I am turning 40! Very rarely do I post about myself, which is by design: I would much rather highlight the great work our staff and volunteers and communities that we partner with are doing every day in Minnesota and Bolivia. But I wanted to look back a bit and share some of my story over 17+ years with Mano a Mano.
Starting Out – November 2005
I started out with Mano a Mano as a part-time Administrative Assistant in November 2005 – my first (and only!) interview after college. Like many first-timers, I drove past the house that was Mano a Mano’s office/Joan and Segundo Velasquez’ house multiple times…looking for an office. When I initially saw the job posting on the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits site, I had never heard of Mano a Mano, even though it was the type of organization I had actively looked for as a Global Studies & Spanish major at the University of Minnesota in search of local internship opportunities.
When I did find the house/office, I debated whether to skip my interview, worried about what I could really expect for my own career from a job working out of a house. It was just so unassuming; I knew that Mano a Mano had built 50+ clinics and more than a dozen schools in Bolivia and shipped donated medical supplies from Minnesota, but you just couldn’t really see it when visiting the house.
And my first year’s worth of work had very little direct connection to Bolivia: I spent every minute of my first 2 weeks manually entering donor names and addresses with a spreadsheet printout and a ruler into Mano a Mano’s new database. Once that was done, I made pickups of medical supplies around the Twin Cities; I answered the phone and did basic office work; I helped sort medical supplies with volunteers.
My First Trip to Bolivia – November 2006
I took my first trip to Bolivia in November 2006. It was impressive to see the work Mano a Mano was doing – to see all of the supplies we sent from Minnesota being put to use, to see the clinics and schools in action providing health and education in Bolivian communities. But probably most impressive to me was Mano a Mano itself in Bolivia. In Minnesota, we were working out of bedrooms in a house, and in a warehouse with no heat or electricity; in Bolivia, we had buildings, equipment, people, capacity, infrastructure.
Growing in My Role in My 20s & 30s
Over my 20s and 30s, my job grew: from part-time Admin Assistant to full-time, to Manager of Daily Operations, to Director of Communications & Research, to Associate Director. In 2015, I became Executive Director, which I have now been for 8 years.
Mano a Mano Through the Years: From 1994 to the Present
What Makes Mano a Mano Work in Bolivia…
In all of that time, what has impressed me about Mano a Mano remains unchanged. We take a relatively small budget (about $1-$2 million raised in the US annually across all 5 counterpart organizations) and build dozens of projects – clinics, schools, roads, water projects ranging from small water ponds to huge water reservoirs, greenhouses, aviation runways – every year. Through our partnership model, we bring together many disparate groups, in different countries, to complete projects that none of us could do on our own. The same project would cost 1.5x-10x or more if contracted by a private company, with no guarantee that it would be completed by them at all. (On quite a few of our projects, we are finally finishing a project that had been attempted by someone else years or decades before. Sometimes when we have to get competing bids, the response is a simple no because the location of the project is not worth even considering for the company.) Through our partnership model, these projects are sustainable, requested and supported by the communities, and owned by the communities once complete. In addition to building projects, we provide an ever-expanding list of complementary training and education programs. We work in some of the most challenging conditions in the world – isolated rural Bolivian communities, often 10,000-15,000+ feet above sea level, often a 5-20-hour drive through difficult roads – but I know and trust that every single project that we commit to will be completed by our staff in Bolivia (this is objectively true: every project that we have started, we have finished). There are never-ending challenges – funding, rainy seasons and drought, roadblocks, vehicle breakdowns, bureaucratic and legal issues, working bi-culturally across 2 countries with many partnering groups and a relatively flat hierarchy, funding (repeated because almost every challenge would be easier if there were more funding!), and more – but we somehow are always able to work through and around them.
…Presents Some Challenges in the US
In addition to the community-based projects that are our core mission, we also have been able to build our capacity as an organization over the years. One thing that has been pretty constant is staying around 2 full-time staff in Minnesota. Mano a Mano has always been focused on building our capacity in Bolivia; we are in the process of doing more of that for our Minnesota office, but it has been a challenge, for a variety of reasons.
|1994-2005 – Cumulative Totals||1994-2023 – Cumulative Totals|
|1.6 million pounds of supplies shipped from Minnesota to Bolivia (almost all of these supplies were shipped free of charge through USAID programs)||4+ million pounds of supplies shipped from Minnesota to Bolivia (since 2008, with USAID programs no longer feasible for shipping to Bolivia, it costs about $1 a pound to ship privately)|
|59 clinics built||182 clinics built with 1,129,712 patient visits in 2022|
|16 schools built||67 schools built|
|2 fully operational counterpart organizations (Mano a Mano US, Mano a Mano Bolivia)||5 counterpart organizations (Mano a Mano US, Mano a Mano Bolivia, Mano a Mano Nuevo Mundo, Mano a Mano Apoyo Aereo, Mano a Mano Internacional). Each of our 4 counterpart organizations in Bolivia, and our Minnesota-based organization, has their own Board and staff.|
|Working out of co-founders’ home in Minnesota; 1.5 offices in Bolivia||Our own warehouse in St. Paul; our own warehouses and office buildings on shared land in Bolivia; and growing with the Punata Regional Complex that includes a Mano a Mano airport|
|Some heavy equipment and vehicles owned||Multiple planes, dozens of pieces of heavy equipment and vehicles|
|Starting on our first reservoir project in Ucuchi||9 large agricultural water reservoirs, 52 surface wells, 453 water ponds (atajados), and 28 deep wells built that serve 65,000 people|
|A handful of road projects completed||1,500 miles of roads built|
|Aviation program fully incorporated in 2006||4,543+ emergency air rescues|
|No agricultural program||250+ greenhouses & 21,856 people trained in agricultural practices through a fully operational Center for Ecological Agriculture|
|Health Education and Community Heath Promoters training programs||Health education workshops|
Physical therapy treatment and training program
Teacher training program
Heavy equipment technical training
Aviation maintenance technical training
Field placement site for Social Work students
|~20 Mano a Mano staff in Bolivia||~61 Mano a Mano staff in Bolivia (not including the 538 doctors, nurses, and dentists on staff in Mano a Mano clinics whose salaries are 100% paid by sources within Bolivia). All of our staff in Bolivia are Bolivian.|
|…2 full-time US Staff||…2 full-time US Staff (we do have a number of part-time and contract staff in addition, and of course, amazing volunteers)|
Random Thoughts After 17+ Years with Mano a Mano
It is RARE to have been with the same organization this long, and even more so for someone’s first job post-college through their 20s and 30s. There are a couple easy explanations for why I’ve stayed: I’ve always been impressed with what Mano a Mano as an organization is able to accomplish; there has been a lot of organizational change and growth to keep things varied; and I’ve had 5 job title changes in that time for my personal career growth.
My 8 years as Executive Director is the longest tenure for any of my jobs with Mano a Mano. I never had any aspiration or goal to be Executive Director; about 10 years ago I attended a Minnesota Council of Nonprofits seminar with Sean Kershaw, then-Executive Director of Citizen’s League, titled “So You Want To Be an Executive Director?”, and it sounded pretty terrible (Sean’s presentation was very good; his explanation of what it was like being an ED on a day-to-day basis was what was unappealing). I left that meeting thinking that it was something I would never do. And yet here I am as Executive Director, 8 years in. Executive Director is a uniquely weighty and isolating job in a nonprofit, and it isn’t easy to feel responsible directly or indirectly for literally everything everywhere that goes on. Having a decade at Mano a Mano before being ED was huge in why I felt comfortable taking on this position; Mano a Mano is a complicated nonprofit, and it takes a long time to get a grasp on everything that is going on and how all the pieces fit together. Many of the basic US nonprofit best practices are difficult to apply to our community-based partnership model, especially when real-world limitations are taken into account, so it can be tough to onboard new people (both for Mano a Mano, and for new people – it is complicated, and it takes time!).
“The average tenure of a fund development professional is 16 months (Chronicle of Philanthropy), while nonprofit executive directors and CEOs are in their roles for an average of six years, with this tenure expected to decline (Nonprofit Quarterly).”from Nonprofit Leadership Center (2021)
A good chunk of the responsibilities in my previous positions was fundraising, but as Executive Director, fundraising is at the top of the list. Because Mano a Mano has so much going on, it is always a challenge to fully fund each community project, each program, and each counterpart organization – while also building our overall capacity and sustainability for the longer term. At the end of the day, every dollar we receive can only be spent once. We are trying to balance the many competing needs we have: there are always dozens of communities in Bolivia on our active waiting lists for each type of Mano a Mano project, and there are always short-term urgent and long-term important organizational needs that have to be addressed for us to be successful and healthy overall. While priority can’t be plural, for each community, their project is the most important project for them; for each of our counterpart organizations, their programs are the most important programs for them.
Almost every project we do, regardless of how much we have received in designated funds for that project, depends on undesignated/”where most needed” funding to fully complete. Unrestricted funding is always the goal, especially MYGOD money (Multi Year General Operating Dollars; apologies on forgetting where I stumbled across that acronym): to fully fund projects and programs, pay fair staff salaries and benefits, pay for insurance and rent and audits and bills, cover maintenance and repair costs for vehicles and equipment and buildings, improve our organizational capacity, and have some rainy day funds available for when the inevitable challenges pop up. Before I was ED, I was pretty excited if I helped secure a $10,000 or $100,000 donation; now as ED, the vibes are very different: even when we receive a huge donation, I’m not unhappy, but my mind immediately goes to questions like “So how do we cover all the remaining costs for this project that this donation won’t cover? How do we support this new project once it’s complete and these one-time funds are spent? Since we now have some funds, do we commit more energy to this project area or focus on other Mano a Mano needs? How do we keep this donor engaged throughout the process while not taking too much additional staff time from what was already on their full plates? How does this affect our audit/banking/financials?” Etc.
If you’re interested, check out a handful of posts on why overhead is not bad, and unrestricted giving is good (if you’re someone that does not work at a nonprofit or in the philanthropy world, none of this probably resonates with you, but this is an important and never-ending conversation for nonprofits):
- Nonprofit Marketing Guide – “Unrestricted Giving Should be the New Normal“
- Water for People – “The Way You Donate Could Be Limiting the Impact of NGOs on the Frontlines of Climate Change“
- Nonprofit AF (former ED that now speaks and writes about the nonprofit sector, including being the keynote at the MN Council of Nonprofits conference a few years ago; his article here focuses more on overhead, but that is the flipside of the same coin, where many foundation grants specifically limit what your “overhead” costs can be) – “charity:water and other mega-charities, we need to talk about your harmful, archaic views on overhead“
- Inside Philanthropy – “MacKenzie Scott Is Proving What We All Knew: Generous, Unrestricted Giving Works” (paywall)
- Ford Foundation – “multiyear, unrestricted funding combined with dedicated institutional development leads to stronger, more resilient organizations of all structures, sectors, and sizes—and deeper connections to the communities they serve.“
The El Palmar road project is an easier story to highlight publicly than replacing our roof, to demonstrate what Mano a Mano is all about. But for me, it’s the same challenge either way: they are both commitments to fundraise/find 6 figures. And with El Palmar, we had to scramble in the US to replace significant committed funding that was pulled by a funder, and a large portion of the the road we had already completed was wiped out by flash flooding. Getting this project finally complete was a huge success story for Mano a Mano and for the communities that benefit, and the hard work of our staff in Bolivia over years was truly inspiring. It also was one of the times I was the most frustrated as an employee, wondering how secure my own job was when the priority can often feel like everything else. When even just a few things go wrong on one project (El Palmar was a big project, but it was still one of many projects we had underway at the time), the internal debate can quickly shift to making sure we can cover payroll over the coming months. Even when things are going well, you always worry about what could go wrong (because historically, it probably will!).
Working in Minnesota to support our work in Bolivia is challenging, for a variety of reasons. If you know the Mano a Mano story, it makes complete sense why we are based here, because Joan and Segundo are from here. Our most committed donors and volunteers are from here. (I am also from here.) Although we have now had our own St. Paul office/warehouse space for a decade, where it is easier than it used to be to showcase our work to people, there is still the same fundamental challenge I had when starting out working out of Joan and Segundo’s house 17 years ago: it’s hard to see it and to understand Mano a Mano’s impact, when the majority of our work (and our primary beneficiaries) are thousands of miles away. Giving to international-focused nonprofits is a small slice of overall charitable giving in the US to begin with, and Bolivia is not exactly on the tip of many people’s tongues when thinking about other countries. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been strained since 2008. Our best way to bridge the gap is traveling to Bolivia, and hundreds of people have traveled with Mano a Mano over the years; almost every one of our most committed donors and volunteers have been to Bolivia with us. But traveling isn’t an option for many people, and it is also a big commitment of time and energy for Mano a Mano staff in Bolivia and Minnesota.
Despite the lack of an obvious connection, it is amazing how many dedicated supporters we have. We also get significant support in Bolivia (and a few other countries also have active donors to Mano a Mano projects). As our staff in Bolivia will say to explain our partnership model and how we work, the first dollar donated from US donors is “photocopied” by Mano a Mano to add additional “dollars” in support from:
- the Bolivian communities;
- their Municipal Governments; and
- Mano a Mano’s staff and volunteers, heavy equipment, and organizational infrastructure in Bolivia.
Everything is a partnership. Everything is also hard. When I flip through what I post publicly on our website and social media, it does show some of the hard work, but it is definitely a highlight reel (another new clinic! another new water well!), and doesn’t really reflect how much work goes into making those highlights possible on a daily basis. I mentioned a few of the funding challenges on the El Palmar road project for the US office earlier, but the working conditions were very difficult for our staff physically working on the project, who had to combat constant attacks from biting insects, extreme heat, and heavy rains. The project location is so isolated that it would take our staff 27 hours to drive from Cochabamba to the site (14 hours to Tarija and then another day by horseback). We had 8 staff working and living onsite, along with 9 pieces of heavy equipment.
It’s important to celebrate the successes, but it’s also important to acknowledge what goes into those successes. And even with a good track record of success, nothing is perfect. There are so many things that Mano a Mano could do better; I make mistakes all the time, and there are so many things that I wish I was doing better.
I don’t know what the future holds. Executive Director is a job title that tends to have a shorter shelf life; I regularly see fellow EDs transitioning out, even with no new job lined up. I do quite a bit of continuing education (a few better people/sites to check out if you’re in the nonprofit sector: Nonprofit AF, Nonprofits are Messy, ED Happy Hour – there is a vetting process so that it can be a safe space for EDs to vent and compare notes, MINN, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Pollen), and we would all agree that there are a lot of unique challenges working in this sector. (There are challenges working in any sector, of course, but some that are especially relevant in nonprofits.)
But I do know that I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish. Often, it’s hard to fathom how we make it work sometimes, but somehow we make it work. It’s never about what any one person can do on their own, it’s always about what a lot of really committed and capable people working together can do – Mano a Mano.
A Few Photos Over the Years: 2005-2023
My Contact Info
Feel free to reach out: [email protected]
Congratulations on your success. And Mano a Mano’s! It’s been a team effort.
We’ve followed you and your work for all these years, Nate, and have always been impressed with your attentiveness, persistence and positive attitude, plus skills and joy in your work.