Mireya Vargas has created the first nonprofit management and training center in Venezuela which aims to help local nongovernmental organizations deliver their services more efficiently and effectively.
The New Idea
Mireya Vargas created the Service for Local Support to help stimulate and strengthen local development work and encourage long-term sustainability initiatives, provide direct technical services, and strengthen civil society more generally. It is the first nonprofit training and management entity of its kind in Venezuela, and it now serves over 400 nongovernmental organizations per year, mostly concentrated in five northern states of the country. Approximately 100 new organizations are added to the network each year. To advance the Service's work, Mireya has recruited a professional staff and developed state-of-the art research services to complement the hands-on work at the grassroots level.The Service's client base runs the gamut of the Venezuelan citizen sector–from the very smallest community-based start-ups to the largest and most established nongovernmental organizations in the country. To each client, the Service provides consulting services and assistance in designing long-term strategies for sustainability. It also acts as a liaison between the government and private sectors to help attract additional funding for projects. Though many of these services appear commonplace–even mundane to "first-world" eyes--they are revolutionary in a nation and society that have long ignored the citizen sector.Since the Service's inception, it has played a leading role in building public/private partnerships in Venezuela. It enjoys the support of the nationalized Venezuelan oil company, among other companies, and has long been the In-Country Service organization for the Inter-American Foundation. Seizing upon this recognition, Mireya is now creating the long-term mechanisms that can guarantee the continued strengthening of the Venezuelan citizen sector and ensure that the Service remains the leader in direct support of the nonprofit community. Her biggest remaining goal is to systematize and spread sustainability mechanisms throughout the citizen sector, particularly in the eastern states of Venezuela, where it is presently least developed.
Although the citizen sector in Venezuela has finally begun to grow in recent years, many citizen organizations are characterized by tenuous institutional foundations and limited possibilities for funding and impact, especially given the growing levels of poverty in the country and restricted sources of funding. Over 70 percent of the country is considered "poor" according to figures published by the United Nations, and 50 percent of these citizens live in circumstances of extreme poverty.
In the face of failing political leadership, entrenched unions, and the bankrupt economic model that has long dominated the country's landscape, the emerging citizen sector has become, in the span of a few years, one of the most promising alternatives to the status quo. Communities are beginning to resolve their own problems, to participate in the democratic process, and to assume responsibility for their own development. Grassroots organizations are in the midst of trying to bridge the current gap between existing ambitions to produce fundamental change at the community level and the dearth of experience and tools to make such change a reality.
A study performed by the Service of the approximately 2,000 nonprofit organizations that exist in the country showed that the three most important challenges facing the sector are strengthening organizational management, developing results-driven program management, and achieving long-term sustainability. One out of three nongovernmental organizations in Venezuela receives 80 percent of its funding from national or international funders with little local funding available. Of the organizations surveyed, only two percent receive direct institutional support. Seven out of ten organizations can only count on secure funding for six months out of the year, and that funding is almost always linked to a specific project, thus giving rise to a constant juggling act even to cover basic operating costs.
With the Service for Local Support now firmly established as a key resource for nongovernmental organizations in Venezuela, Mireya has begun to focus on consolidating her team of over 25 staff members. To dedicate herself to her primary role as innovator and visionary for the organization, she is beginning to remove herself from the day-to-day operations of the Service and she is delegating daily management functions to her colleagues. As statistics attest, the greatest challenges which face the citizen sector, according to Mireya, include the need for long-term sustainability and funding diversification, social investment from the private and government sector, and on-going stimulation and support for grassroots initiatives.
Mireya is meeting these challenges with a number of tools and strategies. To focus nonprofits on sustainability and other funding options, she is producing a practical guide that will be implemented through a series of workshops across the country at the grassroots level. She will be distributing the guide and promoting the workshops through the more than 400 organizations associated with the Service, as well through twenty other existing networks that will reach an additional 300 organizations. Mireya is also developing a "Prize in Innovation" for long-term sustainability plans, in hopes of drawing out the nonprofit best practices nationwide and then disseminating them at the local level. The ten most innovative case studies will be published in a national magazine that is subscribed to by over 1,000 nonprofit organizations in Venezuela. These efforts would be complemented by direct, technical assistance to five local community organizations to design and test the ideas and methodologies resulting from the guide and the competition.
To stimulate and train leaders who will be able to run successful nonprofit ventures in local communities, Mireya is currently enlisting the support of Johns Hopkins University to implement a masters' degree program in non-profit management that would be run out of the new Center for Development Research and Learning of the Service.
As the Service extends its work into the eastern states of Venezuela, Mireya is negotiating with the nationalized Venezuelan oil company to urge them to support community-based initiatives in the region and help bolster the presence of nongovernmental organizations. Over the long term, Mireya hopes that capacity-building in the nonprofit sector may help to compensate for the inaction that characterizes the government sector in Venezuela. She dreams that innovation in the hands of local citizens will pave the way for concerted, cooperative efforts to address the overwhelming social problems facing the country.
Mireya's grandmother has been a constant source of inspiration and influence in her life. Mireya describes her as a quiet woman of strong character and forceful personality who raised nine children while working full-time. Mireya learned from her a compassion and perseverance which she has attempted to apply in her work. Though early on in her career Mireya intended to become an architect, these hopes were dashed when she had a serious accident which affected her eyesight. Turning to sociology during her time at university, due to an interest in institutions and social activism, one of Mireya's first acts was to help start an applied sociology department which she ran for several years at the Catholic University.
It was in her experience outside the university, after her teaching position was over and she had begun working at the Ministry of the Family, that Mireya witnessed the inadequacy of the citizen sector in Venezuela. When launching a new microenterprise program in the late 1980s, she attempted to identify nonprofit organizations that could participate as service organizations. When a search throughout the country revealed a grand total of five nonprofits with the capacity to implement the program, Mireya knew she had stumbled upon a serious problem. Soon after, she started the Service for Local Support and has been dedicated to strengthening the civil sector ever since.
In less than eight years, Mireya has become one of the most powerful champions for this emerging civil sector. She commands the attention and respect of Ministers, private sector leaders, and media players, for whom she is the primary source for commentary about a range of social issues and community development. Her impact on the nonprofit sector in Venezuela is hailed by national leaders and international groups alike.