Letter from the CEO

Years ago when the Savong Foundation was in its infancy, I came across a blog called Lessons I Learned by Daniela Papi.  At the time she was the director and co-founder of Pepy which was an education NGO working with underprivileged students.  Her raw insights into the world of helping the Khmer people taught me a lot about what worked and what didn’t work.  She wasn’t afraid to say that she had made some mistakes but was determined to move forward and learn from them.

Our NGO is now entering its ninth year and despite all the information I absorbed from Daniela’s blog we too struggled during the early years and I wondered whether our nonprofit would even reach its 2nd birthday.  It did, of course, and I can look back and share some of the rules that I live by.   Some of them may sound cliché or stereotypical but they have served me well and ultimately have benefitted both our students as well as our donors.

Here they are:


Everyone wants something, right?  It’s human nature but when you’re running an NGO and want to keep costs to a minimum, you have to sort out what is really needed vs. just wanted.  In Cambodia, there is cultural twist; what may be needed in the Western World may not be necessarily needed in the Khmer world.  I remember when we were first setting up the Student Center which was going to be a living/learning center.  The students would sleep there but there would also be a classroom where the students would learn English and computers.  A refrigerator was requested which at the time made a lot of sense.  The students need to eat and they would keep food in the fridge.  So we bought a fridge and paid for the monthly electrical bill.  As we later figured out, they didn’t really need it.  Most Khmer people can happily do without a fridge because they buy their food fresh from the market every day or eat from street vendors.  Sure, the fridge was nice and I’m sure the students enjoyed it while they had it but it was a completely unnecessary expense.


You help me and I’ll help you.  In the earlier years, our student vetting was nowhere near as strong as it is today.  If a student needed help to go to school, then we would support him or her and in many cases, we supported students unconditionally.  If they skipped classes, failed their classes or even lied to us then we still supported them because we know they needed the help and like a tolerant parent, we were there to provide it.  This approach only caused us frustration and gave the students a very long leash.  Unfortunately, we had to set up a strict set of standards for our students and let them know that we were happy to support them but in return we expected them to work hard at school and take it seriously.  With this different approach, we had to stop supporting a few students and I’m happy to say we now have the most motivated and successful students that we’ve ever had.


One of the biggest mistakes we made back in the day was bringing toys back from the States to share with our younger students.  It seemed innocent enough; the kids didn’t have anything to play with and we thought it would be a nice gesture.  There were a couple of problems with this way of thinking.  It definitely fostered the idea that westerners are like walking ATMs and money had no value for us.  The other problem is that students didn’t appreciate the free gifts because they didn’t ask for them, they certainly didn’t pay for them and it was easy come, easy go.  One of our board members donated a very large number of electronic skipping ropes one year and I brought them over in a huge cardboard box.  The students loved them the first day, the second day not so much.  A year later, the only skipping rope I saw was on the roof of one of the buildings.  All the others had disappeared.


The Kiss principle.  It definitely applies to any work done in Cambodia especially if you’re dealing with a relatively low budge which we always are.  When I went back to Cambodia for the second time in 2009, I wanted to help with the dire water situation.  Families in the countryside were drinking the most polluted water you could imagine.  Small water pumps were easy to build, relatively affordable and could make the whole family healthier.  But then I realized that a lot of great students were missing out on their education because they couldn’t afford to go to school so we started focusing on scholarships.  We had students at various high schools and sometimes we received report cards and sometimes we didn’t.  Trying to keep track of all the students at various locations was a huge headache.  Then we decided to support the Savong Student Center and we had ambitions to provide free English and computer classes to the surrounding neighborhood.   On top of that, I was trying to find ways of raising more money so we tried our hand at jewelry design and selling tshirts.  There was a lot going on.  Now, we send our high school students to either Future Bright International School or IQ school, both of which have great reputations and keep us well informed about how our students are doing.  The water pump project was discontinued and the student center closed up shop.  The last jewelry was sold off and no more supplies were bought.  I still have some tshirts however if anyone wants to buy some!  It’s important to keep it simple.  Costs are under control, we can manage our students better and we are much more sustainable for the long term.


We are finally seeing our students graduate and start their careers.  This is why we do what we do.  I’m incredibly proud that we have a team of board members and donors who have allowed our students to work hard and achieve a healthy future for themselves and their families.  Without the support, many of them would have followed in their family’s footsteps and had to become farmers, market vendors or very young brides.  Now we have students who will graduate with business, law, pharmacy and global affairs degrees.  I can’t wait to see the long term positive impact.  On the other side of the fence, the Savong Foundation has certainly faced its struggles to get where we are today.  Forged tuition receipts, low donor funds, students dropping out, board member disagreements and most importantly, riding the steep learning curve to understand the Khmer culture have all contributed to our headaches over the years.  Even getting to Cambodia can be a hazardous adventure.  Two years ago, our flight to Asia was cancelled while we were sitting in our seats to take off and we very nearly had to cancel the whole annual trip which had been carefully planned.

I hesitate to use the words “Cruise Control” but the Savong Foundation seems to be humming along nicely and 2019 was a very positive year.  We stayed true to our mission statement and were able to navigate the unexpected obstacles thanks to all our accumulated experiences over nearly ten years.  Of course, we have our big thanks to our donors without whom we never would have come this far.  In a world which is craving for nonprofit dollars for everything from Australian wildfires to Sharks in China, we are humbled and blessed that our donors have believed in our goals and staying by our sides.  Thanks to them, we will continue to grow, evolve and most importantly learn from our mistakes and make the Savong Foundation even more successful in 2020.

Until next year.

Dr. Phil Caldwell

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