Because of quality, not charity

by Sarina on Wednesday, 15 November 2006 Comments
An orphanage’s fight for survival in Cambodia shows why quality is as important to non-profit organizations as it is to for-profit ones.

That night, Phnom Penh was suddenly deluged with rain.

With the rainy season fast approaching in Cambodia, this sort of sudden downpour is hardly extraordinary. What did catch my attention as I was walking back to my hotel that night was that at ten o’clock at night during a downpour the lights were still on in a textile crafts store on the banks of the Mekong. I stopped to read the sign by the door that explained, "Our income is used to support the Future Light Orphanage." I stopped to read the sign, but the real reason I decided to go into the shop was the scarves hanging in the window. The sewing was exquisite and the designs and colors markedly different from the textiles one normally sees on the streets of Cambodia.

The first impression I had of the goods in the store was "high quality," especially the series of silk scarves in the display window. The designs on the scarves were not printed but woven by hand in different colored silk thread. The raised weave makes the scarves more solid to the touch than most, but at the same time they are soft. In order to find out more about the process used to make these scarves, I approached the only person working in the store, a petite, middle-aged woman. From the moment I walked in the store she sat at the small counter, head down, writing. Only when my curiosity became obvious did she put aside her work and strike up a conversation.

Her name is Nuon Phaly, and she was the one who designed the scarves. Her real reason for making the scarves was to support an orphanage called "Future Light." This is the orphanage she founded in 1987 in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand. In 1993 she brought 91 orphans from the camp to Phnom Penh where she built a dormitory and a classroom at the site of what is now the Future Light Orphanage. The orphans range from two to sixteen years old. She explained to me that for the past ten years the number of orphans in Cambodia has steadily increased. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge massacred one fifth of the population. The problem has been compounded by the vast number of land mines still undetected, the short life-span brought on by poverty and the spread of AIDS, earning Cambodia the name "Kingdom of Orphans." Most of these orphans depend on help from non-governmental organizations for support. Future Light is one such organization. Like other orphanages, Future Light has drawn support from various international organizations to meet its expenses. As well, every year they apply to the World Food Program for food, and seek funds and supplies from an assortment of other organizations to meet the basic needs of the children. But there is no guarantee that this support from abroad will continue from one year to the next. Worried about the consequences if one day this support suddenly dried up, Nuon Phaly determined to find a means of self support as quickly as possible.

Inspired by her love of traditional Cambodian textiles, she started planning a textile center that "would on the one hand supply professional training and a steady income for young women and widows, and at the same time provide profit from the enterprise to help with the financial needs of the orphanage." Nuon first trained the girls at the orphanage in the techniques of boiling, spinning and dying silk. She then taught them traditional weaving methods. At the same time, they all started to learn sewing in order to make an assortment of products from the cloth they had made, such as purses and sheets. Irrespective of what they make, Nuon takes charge of certifying the quality of the finished work. She insists that the products have neat, steady stitching and double-sewn seams, that the bags be lined, and that any part likely to wear or tear be reinforced. For their scarves, in addition to giving special attention to texture, quality of ornamentation and design, she also insists that they be color-fast and resist fading. If you place an order with the store, Nuon will tell you that her first condition is that they be given sufficient time to do it right.

The Future Light Textile Crafts Center allows the young women and widows who work there to develop the ability not only to support themselves but also to foster self-confidence and self-esteem. The high quality of their products attracts many foreign customers. Nuon told me that her goal is "to help women to become independent and to help children find hope." In addition to the obvious intensity of her compassion, I saw in her work something else even more thought provoking. I began to think to myself, have ever I bought goods from charitable organizations because of the quality of their products instead of a sense of charity?

Although Nuon’s Future Light Orphanage is not the first charitable organization to support itself with products that it makes, the high quality of these goods is rare for this type of organization. Regardless of whether it is a dollar sewing bag or a thirty-dollar scarf, the quality of the products is striking.

Before I returned to Taipei from Cambodia, my motorcycle driver followed a map Nuon had drawn me, leading along dust covered roads and through green fields to the Future Light Orphanage. There I saw more of their products and many young intent women working with silk. I also saw a few orphans stretched out on the wooden floor reading books, and some other children studying various programs on computers donated by MIT. I saw the mixture of fatigue and comfort in the wrinkles of Nuon’s face, and noted the pride in her expression when she explained that the goods they make are of high quality. She understands that if she wants to support the orphanage with these crafts, she cannot depend solely on pity.

That day at Nuon’s orphanage I spent whatever money I had left on their silk goods. On the way home, it was clear to me that I hadn’t bought them out of sympathy for the plight of the children. If that had been my intent I would have simply donated cash. I bought them because of the attitude of the people who made them, and because I knew that I would use these things. They were not just a generous act.

What is your impression of products made by such organizations? When you buy these things, is it because you really like them, because you think you will use them? Or is it out of a sense of pity, of support, or do you just want to get something in return for your money? And would you make repeated purchases out of these same feelings? I have many friends who support philanthropic organizations by buying their products. We are all pleased to see these organizations attempt to cover their own costs instead of passively waiting for handouts. But if the result is that we buy products we never intend to use, our purchase is, in the end, just another form of handout. And where in the end do these things go? Do they end up before long in the trash? And if we don’t make use of them, aren’t our purchases in the end contributing to a waste of resources? Whether it be a charitable or for-profit organization, as soon as manufacturing comes into play quality is essential because it is at the heart of the manufacturer’s responsibility to the customer.

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