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Volunteering Your Fundraising Skills Overseas

September 25, 2012

When the lights went down inside a grand hall in Washington D.C. last winter, Cynthia Benoit-Sarrazin had shivers watching the young, Salvadoran theatre group Es Artes perform before an audience of several hundred cultural dignitaries.

“We said, ‘What just happened here?’ We had chills up our backs. The youth were really powerful,” said Benoit-Sarrazin.

In the previous January, Benoit-Sarrazin travelled to Suchitoto, a picturesque and creative town an hour’s drive from El Salvador’s hectic capital San Salvador, to lend her fundraising expertise to Es Artes. For seven weeks she immersed herself in the arts project, a collaboration between the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Canadian development organization Cuso International and the town of Suchitoto.

Now in its third year, the project’s goal is to replicate in Suchitoto the remarkable success story that began in Stratford, Ontario close to 60 years ago. Today, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is a world-renowned cultural institution, with an annual budget of about $60-million. Started with a meager $225 in a once economically depressed rural town in Ontario, Stratford and its festival are now living proof of the power of the arts to not only create, but transform.

Damaged and recovering from decades of civil war, Suchitoto is trying to duplicate the strategy that Stratford used: strengthen its economy through the arts and provide meaningful work opportunities for its young people.  Youth from Suchitoto are often forced to migrate to urban areas such as San Salvador to improve their economic livelihoods.  Sadly, those who remain usually have no education, no employable skills, and low self-esteem, and therefore are easy prey for delinquency, mafia, gangs and other forms of criminal behaviour.

The idea for a Stratford-like initiative in Suchitoto originated when Cuso International identified the development opportunity and approached the Stratford festival. The town already had an artistic flare with several galleries, a couple of small inns and a month-long festival of the arts.

With strong support from Antoni Cimolino, the Stratford festival’s general director, a rotating group of volunteers from Stratford and across the country have been donating time in the off-season to share their skills and experience in Suchitoto through Cuso International. The centrepiece of the project is a technical school that teaches about all sides of theatre, from onstage to backstage.

When Benoit-Sarrazin, the Stratford festival’s major gifts manager, saw the Cuso fundraising position recruitment notice, she couldn’t ignore it. Having worked on development projects in Southeast Asia, she already understood the transformative power of volunteering and she was keen to share her skills for this special project. “You know your volunteerism does make a difference. It’s very powerful,” she said.

After an extensive assessment process, a five-day training workshop provided by Cuso International, and a seven-week unpaid leave from her job, Benoit-Sarrazin was on a plane to El Salvador with a half dozen others. Cuso also supported with logistics and provided a modest living expense for the volunteers while in El Salvador. 

Unable to speak a word of Spanish, Benoit-Sarrazin’s goal was to help mentor some of Es Artes’ staff on fundraising principles, setting goals, cultivating new donors and securing more funds. “I was really delighted to find that the desire to fundraise was strong,” she said.

Before arriving in Suchitoto, the local artistic director had identified three people she wanted Benoit-Sarrazin to mentor. Each week, she met with them to coach them on basic fundraising principles and on the best strategies to solicit funds inside and outside the country.  At the local level, she encouraged them to use their immediate network to identify donors who could give modest gifts of $25-a-year. “That’s within the realm of the reasonable,” she said.

Benoit-Sarrazin quickly realized that being a foreigner was a fundraising benefit. “We become an excellent door opener,” she said. Potential donors were curious to meet the stranger from a successful Canadian theatre company. Her presence gave the project clout and proved to be a catalyst for setting up prospect meetings.

Months after returning home from Suchitoto, Benoit-Sarrazin is still actively involved. “I’m Skyping with them on a weekly basis,” she said. “The mentoring continues. I knew I wanted to make a difference and I knew I couldn’t do it in six weeks.”

Having had the experience of a lifetime, Benoit-Sarrazin would recommend it to other fundraising professionals. “Cuso International is absolutely amazing,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had this incredible international opportunity without them.  I would go down [to El Salvador] again in a heartbeat. They steal your heart and you want to do as much as you can to help them. It’s about empowering them and in the process it feeds this desire in us to help others and make a difference.”

Cuso International is currently recruiting experienced Canadian fundraisers through AFP International to volunteer overseas in a number of countries. The organization offers a comprehensive volunteer support package, including a thorough pre-departure training program and financial package which covers the costs of being an overseas volunteer.

Working alongside women and men in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world, you’ll see first-hand the kind of impact that international volunteering can have in improving people’s lives. 

Learn more or apply online at:

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