5 Things I learned from starting a Non-Profit Organization helping orphanages in El Salvador


How it all started

I got my first taste of travelling 10 years ago when I took my first international trip to visit my homeland in Vietnam.  I experienced the excitement of getting lost in an unknown city, meeting new people, the sounds of people speaking in a language that wasn’t English, old history and delicious food from street vendors and small kitchen restaurant. That was when I first caught the travel bug and never wanted the curiosity of exploring other parts of the world to end.

Over the years I’ve travelled to many other places since then; Korea, Thailand, Philippines, Japan, Barcelona, London, England, Paris, Trinidad, Costa Rica and El Salvador.  It wasn’t until my first trip to El Salvador where I realized that my travel desires had slowly turned into an interest in  volunteer/missionary work.

On my trips to Trinidad, Costa Rica and El Salvador, I collected toys to bring with me to drop off at the orphanages just to bring smiles to the children’s faces, just to let them know people from Canada were thinking of them. It wasn’t until I really spent time with the kids at the orphanage in El Salvador when I realized they needed more than toys. They needed funds to help with projects around the orphanage, help with the electricity bill, and most importantly,  they needed love. The minute I walked into Remar orphanage in El Salvador, the kids surrounded me; wanting me to hold their hand, pick them up or give them a hug.  They were all welcoming me with open arms and pulling me in all different directions to play with them. They were hungry for someone to give them that one-on-one attention.

Taking action

When I got home from my first visit to El Salvador, I decided that I wanted to start a non-profit to help these kids; providing funds for food, building projects and organized volunteer trips. I called it 100 Smiles Project.

Starting a non-profit, sounds like an easy task right? Nope. The whole process is like starting a new business venture; logo, branding, advertising, marketing, social media, finances, getting a team together (volunteers) to help out, process, paperwork, getting charity status, etc. There was a lot to do, and only so much time I had to do it.  And, there was only one person running the show - me!  On top of that, I was doing this all while working a full-time job.

3 years later, 100 Smiles Project is set-up as a non-profit organization and slowly continuing to grow with more and more people joining the volunteer/surf trips (run twice a year) to El Salvador to provide love and care to the kids at Remar Orphanage and to help out with project builds.

People often ask me, “how do you do this on your own? How do you do this while working a full-time job?”.

Here are 5 things I’ve learned along the way:

100% Believe in the cause and you will succeed

There have been times when I’ve doubted myself that what I’m doing is effective at all. Only because I’ve been asked this question by a few people.  But I know I am because I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I’ve seen a change in behaviour in the kids when I’m there with a group of volunteers and the behaviour in the kids when I’m back for another trip. Never let anyone’s questioning stand in your way. If you have proof that something good you are doing is making a difference, it works!

Do it because you want to, not because you have to

We all become driven and motivated to do something because we really want to do it. You want something so bad or want to make something happen so bad, so you work really hard and will do everything in your heart to get there and hit that goal.

If you’re doing something because you think it’s a good thing, it makes you look good, or maybe doing it for the sake of pleasing others, maybe it’s on your “to do list”; you’re less likely to make things happen or reach that goal because your drive and motivation is not there.

Ask for help

There are 24 hours in a day.  For me,  7-8 hours are dedicated to sleep, 8 hours for work, 2 hours dedicated to breakfast, lunch and dinner, and an hour dedicated to travel. That leaves 5-6 hours to dedicate to running a non-profit.  How am I supposed to do such a thing with so little time?  I decided to leverage the network of friends, family, colleagues on Facebook and reached out for help.  I ended up having more than enough people respond back to help me out with logo/branding, social media, digital strategy and fundraising. All you need to do is ask - help will be provided to you.  It’s not always an easy thing, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.  Especially if it’s for a good cause.

Accept Rejection

I went through the process of applying for charity status, and I was rejected, but given the opportunity to apply again. I was upset, discouraged and felt like a failure. Josh Donaldson (#20 Blue Jays player) lives in my building and I decided to write him a note requesting for autographed swag (to use for fundraising initiatives) and left it on his windshield. He never got back to me. I was bummed I never heard back, but it’s okay, he’s a busy guy.

It’s okay if you’re rejected, or if no one get’s back to you. It’s worth a shot. There were a number of other people I contacted  for sponsorships and freebies, and they said yes.  I’ve gotten free swag, venue space, food (for fundraising events), etc. Leverage your networks, contacts and it will benefit you in some way.

Don’t be afraid to ask for money

As a non-profit, you’re constantly asking for money. It never stops, never ends. It’s an uncomfortable feeling but you have to do it if you’re raising money for a good cause.  If you don’t ask, you’ll never reach your yearly fundraising goals. Don’t be afraid if you get rejected; rejection can result into other opportunities. Therefore, don’t take it personally if people say no.  Most importantly, don’t let it deter you from reaching those goals, especially for a cause that’s close to your heart.

Elly Pham is the CEO and Founder of 100 Smiles, a non-for profit organization that has recently built a bakery for an orphanage to help encourage self sustainability. She balances owning her own non-for-profit organization while balancing a full-time career as she has completed her undergraduate degree in Marketing. She is also an active Muay Thai athlete with her recent participation in the provincial WKF four-woman tournament.