Two years ago, I was walking down Larchmont Street in Los Angeles enjoying my lunch break. Two friendly, yet assertive, fundraisers stopped me. Like most people, I tried to avoid the conversation. “So sorry,” I said, “I have to get back to work.” Which wasn’t even a lie. I was headed back to my car, a completely true and valid reason for me not to donate to whatever cause they were promoting.
“Do you mind if we walk and talk then?”
I’m polite, almost to a fault, and I didn’t have the nerve to say, “No, I’m a 21-year-old living in Los Angeles, I have no money to give to you.” So instead, I begrudgingly said, “Yes, but walk fast because I’m late.” The two of them walked me to my car explaining Plan USA’s mission to educate children around the world. It just so happened that my student loan repayment plan had finally kicked in and I was paying that ugly monthly payment. Perfect, another excuse: “Well, I now have to pay my monthly student loans so I’m not in a position to give right now. To be honest, I’m broke.”
“It’s 20 dollars a month.”
After some back and forth and learning more about the organization, I conceded and decided to give. I was impressed by how adeptly they answered my questions and the anecdotes they shared. This was clearly a cause both were passionate about. It was something I too was passionate about. Understanding not only the mission of the company but putting faces to the organization compelled me to donate.
When I got back to work, racing in ten minutes late, I looked up Plan USA to check their charity score. I was elated to see the consistency behind what the fundraisers had told me. Ever since then, I’ve donated to Plan USA. I was always impressed by this encounter. The two fundraisers thanked me for my kindness and I thanked them for their great attitudes. I couldn’t help but ask, “How often do you guys get turned down?”
“More often than not and people aren’t always that nice about it.”
Marvelous. This man and woman had to face rejection all day long and yet they both maintained positive attitudes and a desire to educate people on a cause they were passionate about. This is the very reason I decided to reach out to Plan in order to talk with someone about her experience with the organization. I was lucky enough to connect with Amy Cournoyer, the Philanthropy Gift Officer who has been working with Plan for the past 6 years. Here’s a look into the work of Plan and how Amy is participating in the fight against educational inequality.
Tell me about the mission of Plan USA and why you decided to work there?
Simply put, Plan’s mission is to build a just world that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. We work in over 60 developing countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. What I really enjoy about Plan is that our work is not invasive. We take a collaborative approach with the communities and children that we work with – THEY identify the issues they would like addressed, THEY work with our program experts to develop innovative and sustainable solutions, and THEY are part of the monitoring and evaluation process to ensure that our programs are effective and impactful. We don’t just work for the communities, we work WITH them.
What is your job title with Plan USA and what are your day-to-day duties?
I am a Philanthropy Gift Officer, which is basically a fancy term for fundraiser! There are a lot of nuances to the role, but day-to-day, I spend most of my time connecting with our wonderful donor base to determine how they can support our mission while still being true to their own passions and philanthropic interests. Pre-COVID, I was on the road meeting them in person, which I miss dearly! These days, it’s mostly Zoom and phone calls, but the conversations remain the same: not only am I giving them information on our projects and seeing what speaks to them, but I also want to make sure that they know they are appreciated, they are valued, and they are VITAL to making the world a better place for countless children across the globe!
What drew you to the non-profit sector?
Growing up, my family always emphasized the importance of using the blessings we have to give back to our community. Volunteering was a large part of my childhood. Visiting senior centers, working at the local soup kitchen, cleaning cages at the cat shelter—the work was different (and sometimes messy), but I never once regretted taking the time to show someone that they are not forgotten and that they are loved. If I could capture that feeling and make a career out of it, why not?!
What do you believe is the most effective way to fundraise?
A lot of people assume that fundraising is a lot of talking, which is partly true—after all, we need to answer questions on our programming and provide timely, informative updates to our donors! But the most important part of fundraising is LISTENING. Asking the right questions and really processing the answers is so important. Not only does listening help you determine where a donor’s passion truly lies, but it also allows you to connect with them on a more vulnerable level. What they have to say MATTERS. What they hold in their heart MATTERS. Our donors are also incredibly smart and are from all walks of life, so I’ve also learned quite a bit just by listening—I’ve had some quirky conversations!
That seems to be the magic behind Plan. The organization isn’t strong-arming change, it’s collaborating with communities. Every good teacher knows that different students possess different strengths and learning styles. There isn’t a blanket method that works to address and insight change. Just as a teacher must consider the differences of students within a classroom, Plan recognizes the differences between communities, addressing each on a case-to-case basis. This is why Plan confronts not only educational inequalities but also problems and circumstances inhibiting education, thereby allowing students to stay enrolled in school and to maximize their learning experience.
Explain how Plan USA is fighting the education crisis worldwide.
When I first started working in international development, I knew that limited access to quality education was a problem, but I didn’t realize just how complex the issue is! Plan isn’t simply building new schools, providing training to teachers, and supplying books and uniforms to children (though these pieces are all important). Plan is educating communities on menstrual health management so that girls will not have to be pulled out of school and fall behind when they are on their periods. We have collaborated with students to design dormitories so that they do not have to walk long, dangerous paths to get to school. We also pursue environmentally friendly energy sources, such as solar-powered handheld lamps, so that children in the most remote communities are able to study after the sun sets!
What other organizations have you partnered with?
When we implement our projects in-country, it’s important for us to partner with local organizations—not only are they very familiar with what communities need, but it’s also important for us to demonstrate that our projects are collaborative in nature and that we respect local norms and customs. That being said, we do also partner with other entities such as USAID, the World Bank, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We also collaborate with corporate partners, such as Kotex, Alex and Ani, and even Red Nose Day!
How have you personally witnessed the impact of Plan USA?
I’ve been at Plan for six years now, and in that time I’ve witnessed a lot of raw emotion in my work. Donors have shown me albums they’ve made of children they have sponsored through Plan, some going back decades. Every update and letter is saved and cherished. Others have teared up upon receiving project summaries, overwhelmed by seeing the results of their hard work and generosity. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit our projects in Sierra Leone. What really struck me is that the children and parents I spoke with did not refer to their sponsors as sponsors at all. They always referred to our donors as their friends. There was a lot of love and trust in these interactions, and seeing this humanity—and that confidence in our work—reminded me that human connection is truly universal, and that opening our hearts to people we may never even meet is meaningful AND necessary.
What would you say to someone who thinks education isn’t a necessary thing?
Education isn’t just about mastering the curriculum and getting a diploma (though these are great feats that should not be downplayed!). It’s about encouraging young people to engage with their surroundings, their classmates, and their communities. It’s about emphasizing their potential and showing them how they can use their talents to create a better world. It’s about building a bright future WITH and FOR them. Young people are often underestimated. Let’s show them they matter, they are capable of great things, and that they have a voice that can lead future generations—and past generations, too!
COVID has impacted schooling nationwide – how have you guys had to adapt to the changing situation in order to continue to promote schooling?
COVID has definitely thrown a wrench in our programming, but luckily it has also given us the opportunity to be more creative! For example, in many countries we have partnered with local radio stations to develop curriculum-based educational programming so that students can study and learn safely at home via radio. We also use these radio broadcasts to promote best hygiene and prevention practices, and work with teachers to assist them in planning and implementing their lesson plans remotely (such as creating and distributing worksheets to students). I was truly impressed by how quickly Plan mobilized and adapted to the pandemic!
What would you say is the current focus of Plan USA?
As you can imagine, addressing the pandemic and repurposing our programs so that they can continue in a safe yet efficient way has been one of our main priorities. We’ve dealt with many humanitarian crises throughout our 80-plus years of work, whether they are natural disasters or political conflicts. COVID has presented us with a few unprecedented challenges, especially since we are a global organization. But we have continued to adapt and persist—so our main concern is keeping that momentum going! The communities we work with are unstoppable, and we intend to keep it that way.
Plan and Amy have both learned to adapt, especially within the unpredictable environment of coronavirus, all the while holding on to that positive and reassuring attitude that I found so compelling two years ago on Larchmont Street. Though Plan’s top priority is the promotion of education, Plan also works fighting for girls’ rights and gender equality across the globe. Despite all the advances they have made, there is still much work to be done.
How do you capture the attention of others in order to gain support for your cause?
What I really like about our messaging is that it is still positive while retaining a sense of urgency, and I try to capture that feeling when I talk to people about Plan. The populations we work with face an incredible number of obstacles. But they are not inherently helpless—as a matter of fact, they are strong, smart, capable, and BRAVE for getting up each day and fighting. Instead of focusing on what these children DON’T have, I think it’s important to emphasize their potential and importance, and the strides that could be made if we just take a moment to elevate their voices and provide a safe, inclusive environment where they can use their own gifts to improve their communities.
What is a book that you think every person should read!
Oh gosh, my bookshelf is overflowing! But I’ll give what might be an unexpected answer: keep a gratitude journal for yourself and read it at every opportunity. Not only does it help you find new ways to express yourself, but it also forces you to take a moment and reflect on the things that matter to you and make you happy. It has also personally helped me discover new ways to thank our donors and make sure that they really feel that gratitude from deep in my heart, and that they are not just words on paper or a well-rehearsed thank you speech. Embrace the rawness, embrace the humanity, embrace all of it—it will show in your work, your attitude, in the beautiful fabric that is your life!
Who is someone you admire within your field?
What I love about this field is that there are too many incredible people to choose from! That being said, I do want to give a special shout-out to my team. Not only are they all amazing at what they do, but they have taught me so many valuable lessons, especially as someone relatively new to the fundraising sector. It’s okay to get emotional about our mission. It’s okay to believe you can never thank a donor too much. It’s okay to have that sixth coffee at 10PM to get you through writing a proposal, and it’s okay if you’re sweating profusely while asking a donor to invest in a six-figure project. I’ve been told that being nervous is a good thing, because it means you care! I’ve shared a lot of personal and professional successes with these women cheering each other on every step of the way, and it’s made me more confident in myself as a fundraiser and as a person. I really don’t know where I would be without their positive attitudes, wisdom, and support.
People are drawn to authenticity and well-intentioned people. Though the work is surely hard and non-stop, there’s something to be said about a person whose work is rooted in a cause he or she is passionate about. Maybe that’s how even through all the rejection, sleepless nights, and long hours standing on streets, the Plan USA employees I have encountered are always smiling and happy to chat. There’s something to be said about human connectivity and helping others. I’ve often found in my life that those who give the most to others are the happiest of people.
Do you have any stories of women Plan USA has helped who have later come back to work with the organization?
We have had quite a few former sponsored children become sponsors themselves! Our website has some lovely articles about former sponsored children and their achievements. For example, this story highlights Fate, a former sponsored child from Cameroon who now lives in the United States as a nurse and sponsors a child with us as a way to pay it forward. We also have many in-country volunteers who deliver letters and survey communities on their needs and evaluations of our programs, and they often are former sponsored children, or involve their own children in Plan’s programming. It’s really awesome to see this cycle of trust and change continues throughout the generations.
What advice would you give to someone interested in non-profit work?
These days, the non-profit sector is saturated with so many worthy causes that it can be overwhelming. Before going into non-profit work, I think it’s important to look inward to see which issues evoke a response from you. Do you find yourself following a lot of animal shelters on Instagram? Do you stop scrolling through your inbox to read an e-mail from a women’s rights advocacy group? Do you wish there was a youth-based mentor group in your community? I find that when you hold a cause close to your heart, people sense the love behind your mission and are more inclined to engage in a dialogue with you about the cause. Passion is a universal language!
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in working for Plan USA?
Never hesitate to reach out to us! Plan is such an emotionally fulfilling place to work, but the culture here is also genuinely welcoming and uplifting. We especially love talking with people who are just starting careers in the nonprofit/international development sector. There is no such thing as a silly question! I also want to emphasize that nonprofit work is not just fundraising. Whether it’s working in IT, data & research, or finance, there is no limit to how you can contribute to a remarkable place like Plan. Every single role is important to our mission, even if you do not see the work firsthand. It feels great to be a part of something much bigger than yourself!
My love of Plan USA is the reason I have to say donate, donate, DONATE! Education is such a crucial part of ensuring opportunities to children of the future. But as Amy said, find what you’re passionate about, whatever it is, and choose to give back. There was a point in my life where $20 was a lot. I had to start budgeting that amount into my monthly expenditures, but I made it work and I never regretted it. It felt good to give back in any capacity and I didn’t have the time to stand on a street, nor the mental fortitude to tackle grassroots fundraising. Which was why I was so impressed. During times of uncertainty and hardship, it’s especially crucial to practice gratitude. Get a journal like Amy. Once you start actively doing that, you will likely realize, that you do have time or resources to share, and in doing so, you will feel greater for it.
For more information about Plan USA, check out there website HERE.