I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

01 January 2015 ~ 0 Comments

A new decade for a localized PEPY



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Today PEPY got a makeover, one that is distinctly more Cambodian.

For the last year and a half the PEPY team in Cambodia and the board of directors of the US registered non-profit organization have been working on a plan to localize PEPY. Papers have been filed and approved with the Ministry of Interior to register a new local NGO, a new all-Cambodia-based board was formed and is now operating, new bank accounts have been opened, many MOUs and asset transfer agreements have been signed, contracts have been shifted from the old entity to the new one, a new logo was designed, and as of today, January 1, 2015, PEPY Empowering Youth, a new local NGO was launched.


This comes just a few days after our PEPY 10 Year anniversary. PEPY was named and our first website was made in December 2004. Last week we had a party to mark the launch of the new local NGO and celebrate 10 years of our work together, and over 100 people were in attendance including current staff and board members, former staff and volunteers, scholarship students, cyclists on the 10th annual PEPY Ride, and friends of the organization. PEPY’s university scholarship students designed and decorated the event and Kimline Nuch gave a presentation about the future of PEPY.


On the one hand, it feels like SO long ago that we first started planning an “educational bike ride across Cambodia” and named it PEPY. This was our first logo:


And our second:


And here was a logo we later made, when we were still in the habit of giving things away:

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From the start, the many friends of PEPY around the world helped in designing, connecting, inspiring, and co-creating the organization, pushing us to learn more, plan more, and listen more. What we finally listened to were the voices, initially externally and increasingly internally, speaking to the power of local leadership. As we wrap up a decade with a board leadership team mostly made up of Americans, I’m eagerly anticipating the work and dynamics that this new local NGO will bring in the coming years.

Congratulations to Kimline Nuch and her team, as well as all the members of the PEPY team who spent many days in the depths of legalese (a language I aspire to never completely understand though I’m so glad we have team members who do). Your work has made this transition a smooth one. I plan to take more time in the coming weeks to share more about this transition, but for now, high-fives and thanks are in order all around.


You can read more about the transition here on our old website: http://pepycambodia.org/ or go straight to PEPY Empowering Youth’s new website http://pepyempoweringyouth.org/ (content still being updated in the coming month).



04 November 2014 ~ 0 Comments

“Where should I study abroad?”

Another question I often get….

I shared my thoughts about a university called EARTH, a top African university, a floating campus, my favorite study travel options, and my general reflections on how to choose in this Huffington Post piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniela-papi/where-should-i-study-abro_b_6071594.html


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11 October 2014 ~ 0 Comments

“Should I go into international development?”

I get that question a lot. Often times, people go on a trip abroad, perhaps a volunteer travel trip or their first experience in an “emerging market”, and they come back wanting to “change the world” – as so many of us do….. and their first instinct is often to go into international development.

I got an email this week from another person with a similar experience. Having gone on a recent trip to Africa, he came back wanting to change professions into one having an impact on the issues he saw on his travels, and he wrote to me to ask if I thought he should change fields of study and go into international development.

I thought I would post my thoughts on this, in case it is useful to others as well:

Thanks for your note! I guess my main thought is you can change/improve the world from ANY job. In [your prior field of] film – look at Participant Media – they funded Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, etc etc….. they are helping to bring awareness and advocacy to areas that are in big need of change. Working in international development can be appealing – but actually we also need to change our own tax laws (go into your own countries politics), trade barriers (become an activist, politician, advocate tax lawyer), environmental justice (become a scientist who communicates our need for change), etc…. you can change the world from nearly ANY type of job.

I really like this quote:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes YOU come alive, and then go out and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I think that quote should be preempted by an assumption that it is being spoken to someone who has just asked the question “How can I do good in the world?” The answer then is don’t go around saying “What does the world need?” because, as you and I both know, the world needs a LOT of things. Instead ask yourself, “What am I good at? What do I LOVE to do? What could I do and get inspired about and be GREAT at?” And then do THAT aligned with an effort to do it IN SERVICE TO A BETTER WORLD. You can align your learning to be the best at doing that, whatever THAT may be.

I hope that helps.
– Daniela

13 September 2014 ~ 0 Comments

Non-profit evaluation (and LEARNING!)

For this summer’s addition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, my friend Karina Kloos and I wrote a piece about nonprofit evaluation called “Lost in Translation“.

This week I was at a wonderful residential with the wonderful Clore Social Leadership team, and I was reminded about the need for a middle ground of dialogue in nonprofit evaluation communication. The impacts of the reality of too many people doing little to no evaluation on how or where they give their money (the ice bucket challenge campaign, which I joined in as well, being one extreme of that) is countered by my fear of the other extreme: the quantitative data is king and all donation decisions should be made on quantitative comparisons.

A trend in assessment/evaluation conversations has moved towards Randomize Control Trials (RCTs) and the extreme antithesis of blind giving. I have seen a number of academics speak about this trend, many in Oxford, with powerpoints showing that XYZ intervention (say giving out water filters for free) has been proven to be more effective than ZYX intervention (say charging people for water filters). I think it’s AMAZING that these studies are being done, even more wonderful that they are being shared so people can learn, and absolutely fantastic that they are being combined and collectively learned from in things like the Cochrane Collaboration (which my brilliant friend and evaluation expert, Michael Cooke, told me about at our last Brainfood Discussions event). When I’ve asked the academics presenting data that “proves” that one way or working is more effective than the other, they usual can not answer my questions about the context of the evaluations “Were equal numbers of filters given away to both groups in the study? Was this rural or urban? Was education provided as well? How was water borne illness reduction tested? Were these areas where water filters were commonly used already?” Though I love that data is increasing becoming available and can be used effectively as a tool in the evaluation and decision making process, I worry when the data is talked about as a black and white answer to very complex problems. For instance, in the “giving water filters away” example above, there is so much more to the “how” that isn’t shown in the data. For instance, what happens when the nonprofits that are giving these filters away run out of money, or change priorities, or move to a new area? What might have been a successful project in the short term might look very different a few years later. Or, when repeated, could lack the educational component that made one intervention more successful than another, etc.

As I realized the piece Karina and I wrote is now behind the SSIR paywall, I thought I’d summarize some of our thoughts here. The impetus of our piece was a Stanford University study, which Karina cofounded, that examined the evaluation discourse online and identified 400 key influencers in the conversation about nonprofit evaluation. A very small number of those influencers were implementing nonprofit organizations. Additionally, the vocabulary and evaluation methodologies discussed were broken into three categories: managerial (the language of business, i.e. returns, investment), scientific (the language of science, i.e. randomized control trials, measurement, data), and associational (the traditional language of the social sector, i.e. mission, values, empowerment, justice) with the first two groups growing in their influence on the sector. It was clear from the study that the trends driving the current conversation around evaluation and the key influencers were no longer the nonprofits themselves.

Our piece concluded by exploring five ways we think nonprofits can take back control of the conversation around evaluation of their work, including:

Talk about purpose: “Our view is that all nonprofits should have a clearly defined theory for how they will create change that connects their strategies and programs to the results that they anticipate.” We contest that if nonprofits don’t clearly state their definition of “success” in their work, they then leave that to their funders to decide, and they might end up drifting from their initial mission by leaving that open for interpretation.

Talk about people: Though the data presented by the academics I discussed above is valid, the stories behinds the “hows” of the work were missing, as well as the lives and people being effected. We need to find a middle ground of using both. “Qualitative assessments that draw on conversations with people are often more consistent with how nonprofits operate, and they are also a methodologically valid form of evaluation.” 

Talk about the big picture: To often nonprofits get so focused on their own work (sometimes to the point of being competitive with other groups) that they overlook how their work fits into the wider ecosystem of change in which they are operating. “In the Stanford study, the influence of competitive, market-based thinking was evident in the prevalence of terms such as “value proposition” (used by 55 percent of entities in the sample) and “expected return” (45 percent).” Trying to focus on “impact” as the specific change from ONE organization is nearly impossible in very complex and changing ecosystems, and by focusing only on one organization’s change without seeking out what is needed across a more collaborative system can leave wide gaps, inconsistent or falsified interpretations of causation, and more importantly, less effective support towards any given mission.

Talk about challenges: Too often evaluations are conducted as a “requirement” by a funder, or to produce in an annual report to donors leading to overly positive reports. “Assessments shouldn’t be about proving if something worked or not, but rather understanding the context of successes as well as failures.” In this way, global nonprofits can work to share the truth about development work: it’s complex! Nonprofit “theories” of how to create change don’t always work, but through constant evaluation and shifting, we can improve…

Talk about learning: … and learn. A key concern we shared was that evaluation conducted solely for the sake of “others” (funders, etc) leads to a waste of valuable learning. If evaluations are not designed to be useful in helping to inform improvements for the projects and organizations to better achieve their mission in the future, than we’re also wasting valuable and scarce resources. We question the term “monitoring and evaluation” and suggest that perhaps “the more appropriate term is ‘learning and evaluation.’ In fact, the bottom-line question in any process of nonprofit evaluation should be, ‘What are we learning from this evaluation and how can that be used to help improve our collective work?'”

I’d love to hear your thoughts – drop me a note or reach out via this blog!

07 September 2014 ~ 0 Comments

Why you shouldn’t start an orphanage (from a woman who did)

Three and a half years ago I wrote a piece on “Hero-worshipping in the social sector”, and I focused on the story of a twenty year old from Australia who had started an orphanage, inspiring others to want to do the same. At the time, the article created a lot of dialogue, and was heated on both sides: half of the readers, many of them living in Cambodia, speaking out about their shared concerns about the growing DIY aid movement and the failings we had seen or been a part of, and the other half defending the young woman for what were very clearly good intentions.

The young woman’s name is Tara Winkler, and over the last three and half years, she has continued to grow her work in Cambodia. About a year ago we met in person for the first time, being connected by a mutual friend who said she thought we “shared some views on non-profits.” It turns out, we do.

Over the years, Tara has moved away from the orphanage model, and she is now very outspoken and honest about her belief that orphanages are not the best place for children, and should be a last resort for their care. We both share similar stories in having looked back on our actions and decisions when we first arrived in Cambodia and realized that, though we had the best of intentions, we no longer believe in those tactics, and we both share a desire to help others who are considering similar paths to learn from our actions.

Tara and I met for breakfast in Battambang, where she works, when I was coming through with a group of teachers who were in Cambodia to learn about development work. It was really nice to be able to connect over shared views, and since then we have exchanged emails and contacts about the overlap of our work, and our desire to share messages about the dangers of heroworshiping in the social sector. In fact, Tara is helping us write a chapter of our book on Learning Service along these same lines.

Tara offered to write a guest post about her thoughts on orphanages and the lessons learned from her work in Cambodia, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share it with you here.  Thanks, Tara! Your honesty, commitment to honoring the good intentions that have led you through this journey, and openness to share your learning journey with others is impressive. Having just read up further about your journey over the last few years through many hard times, I further admire your efforts to have a positive impact on many lives in Cambodia and that you have been willing to share your journey with us here. I tip my hat to you.

Over to Tara…

Guest post by Tara Winkler

Many things that I once believed about charity and aid turned out to be wrong.

I believed that supporting orphanages was a good thing to do. I believed that the children in these orphanages had no parents. I believed volunteering in orphanages was an honorable pursuit, even without any specific skills or training. I hadn’t before considered the effects of forming bonds with orphaned children and then leaving them shortly after. And I believed that the people who looked after the orphans must all be kind, caring, good-hearted people.

On the basis of these mistaken beliefs, I took a trip to Cambodia in 2005 and pledged my support to the poorest orphanage I found.

This part of my story is not unique. Orphanages in developing countries are largely funded by well-meaning foreigners who believe they are helping.

After my first trip to Cambodia, I went home, raised funds and returned the following year to volunteer. I had become a voluntourist.

As UNICEF reported in 2011, the effects of voluntourism are not benign.

Voluntourism is a term used for tourists and travellers who include volunteering for a charitable cause as part of their travel itinerary. It is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, and it is causing serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia – problems that most people are not aware of…

Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create.

It may surprise you to learn that the number or orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that there are far less orphans.

It also might surprise you to hear that the majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope they will find a path out of poverty to a better life.

Cambodia is not alone here. In other developing countries the statistics are the same. A Save the Children Alliance report cited that over 80 percent of children living in orphanages have parents (Csaky, 2009).

Research has found that, at best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.

I believe the dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily is caused predominantly by voluntourism.

It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and we, well-meaning foreigners, are the customers.

How do I know all this? Well, it’s a long story, which has been told in two ABC Australian Story documentaries. Suffice to say, after seven years living in Cambodia I’ve seen it all. I’ve been a donor, and then a voluntourist. I’ve rescued children from an abusive orphanage. I’ve started my own orphanage, only to realise that no matter how good an orphanage is, the best place for a child to grow up is in a family.

I still live in Cambodia and am the director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, an NGO working to keep children out of orphanages, with their families and then enable them to break free from the cycle of poverty. Today all of the children in CCT’s programs are living in a family. Our aim is to empower the next generation of Cambodians so they can grow up and solve Cambodia’s problems themselves. With this aim in mind, we are working towards a time when CCT will be entirely Cambodian run because empowering Cambodia can’t really be achieved with a ‘colonial-run’ organisation.

Seven years of living in Cambodia has made me witness to the increasingly alarming problem of misguided help coming from the West.

Ending global poverty is something we can achieve in our lifetime, but we won’t get there with lazy thinking. I firmly believe we need to rethink how we do charity.

Think before visiting an orphanage – children are not tourist attractions. Visits to orphanages, however well intended, are invasions of a child’s right to privacy. You wouldn’t visit the home of a vulnerable Australian child as part of your holiday – why do it in Cambodia? Instead, when traveling in developing countries you can support social enterprises run by NGOs that give employment, training, and income to local people. There are lots of great souvenir shops, clothes shops, tour businesses, cafes and restaurants set up for this exact purpose!

Think before volunteering overseas. When traveling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train, up-skill, and empower local people. Then, instead of taking their jobs, you’ll be helping them to become more employable. You can also look into educational tourism experiences, which promote the concept of ‘learning before you help’ – like the Learning Service model suggests.

Think before donating to charities that institutionalize children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Instead support organisations that promote family-based care and empower the people they are working to help.

Think before sending donations of goods from places like Australia to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.

My home country, Australia is a compassionate, educated and wealthy nation. If we engaged our hearts, minds, and means we could all play a significant role in creating an abundant and meaningful life for everyone.

The responsibility lies with each and every one of us, but it is also our responsibility to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the way we are helping is not inadvertently causing more harm than good.

Guest post by Tara Winkler – founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust

17 July 2014 ~ 1 Comment

How to Make Hard Choices (and why a universal NGO ranking system is impossible)

I’m sure most of you have viewed your fair share of TED talks. This one is about “How to Make Hard Choices” – and it is certainly worth a view as we all make “hard choices” every day and this perspective might make those choices feel a lot more empowering.

While watching it, I realized that her argument about hard choices relates to why NGO ranking systems are impossible. When we are trying to decide which job to take, which house to buy, or which person to marry, we all want to know which choice is “better” than the other – and many people ask similar questions about the non-profits they should give their money to or places they should volunteer. Continue Reading

15 June 2014 ~ 0 Comments

Lost in Translation

I was lucky to be able to write a piece for this Summer 2014 SSIR journal with a former co-worker at PEPY/PEPY Tours, Karina Kloos.  Karina and I had worked together in 2009 to make Voluntourism101, and have collaborated since on projects and brainstorms around how to further the “social” in the social sector. Karina did her PhD at Stanford, and while there she did extensive research on monitoring and evaluation practices of non-profit organizations. We teamed up on this piece nearly a year ago, working to draw out lessons for how non-profits might reclaim the evaluation conversation.

Check it out and let us know your thoughts! http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/lost_in_translation