Letter from the CEO

“Starting a nonprofit in Cambodia would be easy” they said …

Actually, no one ever said that.  In fact, if they ever said anything it would be more along the lines of “You’re crazy if you start a nonprofit because most fail within the first couple of years” or “How are you going to raise money?” and of course, “Why Cambodia?”. 

These were all valid comments and concerns when The Savong Foundation became a 501c3 nonprofit in May of 2011 but almost thirteen years later, we are still going strong and in a lot of ways, better than ever.  I have a very special place for those donors who have been with us from the beginning –we never would have come this far without their support—but if you are new to our nonprofit or thinking about coming on board as a student benefactor, then here are ten pieces of information that you might find interesting or helpful.

Savong is the name of a man

My first trip to Cambodia was waaay back in 2018 when I took a sabbatical from my job and travelled to SouthEast Asia.  I didn’t want to do just the TripAdvisor lists of what to do and see so I decided to contact a local man who had built a free English language school in the countryside.  I still remember meeting Savong and the half-hour journey as he took me out to his school, feeling very nervous that I was alone with a stranger going to a place I knew nothing about.  Eventually we arrived at a small school as the sun was setting on the humid jungle.  After spending about an hour there, I was inspired by the enthusiasm of the students as well as what was accomplished with relatively little money and a big desire to help.  The seed had already been planted for me to come back and help in my own way. 

Sadly, Savong has since moved on to more profitable ventures, but he was the main reason I decided to make my second trip to Cambodia which ultimately lead to the formation of the Savong Foundation Cambodia.

The symbolism of the lotus

After I decided to form the nonprofit and had the name in place, the next step was to get a logo.  If you’ve ever been to Southeast Asia, you know that lotuses are everywhere.  An incredibly beautiful flower, it has associated symbolism depending on the color.

A red lotus is all about compassion, selfless love and other qualities of the heart.  This seemed perfect for a nonprofit which was going to be founded on generosity with the goal of helping others who needed the help.  Thanks for a friend of mine, a logo was designed that incorporated a modern red lotus.  At the time, the Foundation was simply named The Savong Foundation but later we added Cambodia to the name and the revised the logo since we only work in that country. 

I’m a veterinarian

Whenever someone hears that I have a nonprofit, they automatically assume that I must be helping dogs and cats since this is more in line with what I do during my day job.  Although there was a time when I wanted to launch a nonprofit to do spay/neuter and anti-rabies work (still an important disease in SE Asia), there just wasn’t enough time in the day to do my Savong work and animal work and still make enough money to eat.  I stayed with my student program and eventually other nonprofits formed in the area (and foreign vets moved in) to help out the animals that desperately needed help. 

Whenever I’m in Cambodia, I always make time to visit and support Pagoda Cats.  Founded by Josette Vasseur (whom I’ve known for over 10 years) this is a labor of love helping abandoned or stay dogs and cats that live at a local pagoda.  She relies on donations to help feed and give veterinary care to her group of animals so if you are an animal lover, please check out her work at www.pagodacats.com.  Currently I work full time as a veterinarian in Palm Springs, California. 

We support only a small number of students

Originally, we supported only 6 students and now we fluctuate between 20 and 25.  We will never be a foundation that supports hundreds of students and I’m perfectly fine with that.  For starters, a small number of students keeps the work manageable, and the work can fit into a part-time schedule.  More importantly, a smaller number of students allows us to know all our students individually and we can treat them like family.  We follow their journeys closely as they pass through their high school and university years.

Our selection of our students is based on three criteria.  We want the best students (based on their academic performance) who need the most financial help and who want to pursue a professional career.  For the past couple of years, I interview about ten students, then narrow it down to about five students.  Then I meet with the families and see their homes.  Then roughly two or three scholarships are awarded each year.  It’s a tough process (for both me and the student) but this process has given us the best students we’ve ever had.

Education in Cambodia can be surprisingly expensive

Since we are supporting the best students, we want to find the best education for them.  Despite the fact that the education in government schools has improved, we still send our high school students to private high schools, and this obviously comes with a higher price tag.  In the higher grades, this can be well over $1000/year.  Extra classes and school supplies can push this closer to $2000/year.  When many families in Cambodia still make $200 to $400/month, there isn’t a lot left over for education especially in families with multiple children. 

At the university level, the tuition costs really depend on whether the students decide to go to a private or a government university.  For many of our students, we encourage them to study in Phnom Penh where the educational opportunities are generally superior, but it does add significantly to the costs.  Many professional degrees have tuitions in the neighborhood of $1500/year and we’ve paid up to $5000/year at the American University of Phnom Penh.  If the student doesn’t have a relative to stay with in Phnom Penh and the program doesn’t allow enough time for a part time job, then we supply a portion of the living expenses, whatever the family can’t cover up to $200/month.

Our overhead is very low

Right from the formation of the foundation, I’ve been able to keep the overhead very low.  We currently have five board members and none of them are paid.  We only have one staff member, Rathana who manages our students in Cambodia and he is currently paid $500/month.  We have bookkeeping expenses and wire fees and costs associated with updating the website, but I try to keep these as low as possible.  I normally cover all my costs such as hotels, food and travel when I’m over in Cambodia but for the first time this year, the foundation covered my flight to and from California. 

Of course, overhead isn’t everything in the nonprofit world. There are plenty of articles that state that donors should be more interested in impact than overhead but keeping non program expenses low and focusing directly on the student scholarships is one of the main reasons why we have survived for as long as we have. 

We rely on public donations but we do have a corporate sponsor

When the foundation was first established, I was worried where any money was going to come from.  After I had exhausted my friends and family, who else was going to support students in Cambodia?  Somewhat surprisingly, enough money kept on coming in each month from people who had either been to Cambodia or heard through word of mouth what we were trying to do.  When we first started out, a $20 donation was cause for celebration and in many ways, it still is.  Our budget back then was less than $200/month.

After we had been established for a couple of years, I had a very fortuitous meeting with a rep from iHerb.com.  This is an online company which sells vitamins and supplements, and they already had a presence in Cambodia doing nonprofit work.  They agreed to a monthly support, and they have been an integral part of our success every since.  There is no question in my mind that without their generosity, we could not have continued our work, and we are deeply grateful for their support. 

We normally pair up a student with a sponsor

The original model that I set up was for each student to be paired with a donor.  This approach had a couple of benefits; it was easier to budget for each student and the donor would be able to contact indirectly with their student which (I think) made it more interesting for the donor and the student.  Unfortunately, there were a couple of drawbacks; some students had multiple donors which made it somewhat confusing and once a student graduated, we often lost the donor.  With the focus on direct student support, we found that it was more difficult to raise money for the nonprogram expenses such as money transfers, salary and miscellaneous expenditures. 

Thankfully, we have recently had enough donations without any designations to allow us to shift the money where there is the greatest need at the time.  This flexibility has made a world of difference when students go from high school to a university program with high tuition expenses such as medical school.  I still like the idea of a donor paired up with a student but those undesignated donations can make life a whole lot easier when we are operating on a tight budget and suddenly high expenses come up. 

There are lessons that we have learned …

I would be lying if I said that everything had been smooth sailing since the beginning, and I could likely write an entire book about the lessons we’ve learned.  My biggest mistake many years ago was having an unfocused vision and scattering our help across an “ocean of need”.  When we had some extra money, we started to get involved in different projects.  At one point, we were building water pumps for houses, running a student living/learning center, providing free English classes, and giving out free toothbrushes, mosquito nets and bicycles.  It was too much for a small nonprofit and completely diluted out the impact that we should have been having. 

After some time, it was decided to focus simply on providing scholarships for the best and brightest students.  The younger students would live at home and if need be, we would provide living expenses for university students if they needed it.  I believe that this targeted focus has greatly improved our impact; not only for our students but also for the students’ families.  It should also be noted that we also have a music program which has provided workshops for emerging composers, musicians, and singers.  However, this is funded separately and still falls under our more streamlined mission to provide education for talented and ambitious young students. 

Cambodia is a rich and beautiful country

I hear a lot of my friends say that they would like to go to Thailand or Vietnam.  I remind them that there is an incredible country between those two countries that has a rich and varied cultural history dating back more than a thousand years.  The whole reason I went to Cambodia back in 2008 was to photograph the incredible temples of the Angkor Wat complex which I had wanted to do since I was in high school.  They did not disappoint and every year, I take some time to visit the temples near Siem Reap and learn a little bit more each time I see them.

But Cambodia is more than Angkor Wat even though it appears prominently on its flag.  Cambodia has the vibrant and cosmopolitan Phnom Penh, the backpacker delights of Battambang, the expansive beach beauty of Koh Rong.  It has enough rustic areas that you can feel as if you’re the first tourist exploring an area but if that’s not your thing, you can get pampered in some of the best modern spas and restaurants that I’ve been to anywhere.  Ultimately, it’s the people that have kept me coming back all these years; they are appreciative and kind and if you’ve been to Cambodia, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The Savong Foundation Cambodia is now in its 13th year.  Our mission is to provide underprivileged students with academic and music scholarships.  We are so thankful for your support. 


Phil Caldwell

CEO The Savong Foundation Cambodia

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