Interview Lotus for Laos

Original language of the article: German

Ms. Ehrat, why don't you start by telling us who you are and how you came to work for Lotus for Laos as Head of Communications today?

With pleasure! I am Isabel Ehrat and live and work in Zurich in strategy consulting. I grew up in Zug and already during my school years, social work was a big topic. I can well remember participating in numerous charity sales over the years for various projects that my school supported. After graduating from school, I started my bachelor's degree at the University of St. Gallen. In the beginning, I focused mainly on my studies, but I quickly missed the charity work. At the same time, a long-time friend of mine, Franzisca Gartenmann, also started at the same university. We got more and more into the conversation that I would join her foundation "Lotus for Laos". In March 2019, it officially happened, at the same time as two other members Franzisca had met in her studies. The foundation needed a new structure with this major internal change. I came to my role as Head of Communications, having previously held a similar role in another student association. Among other things, I have since been managing our media channels and building potential partnerships.

Who is behind the organization Lotus for Laos - who are the founders?

"Lotus for Laos" was founded in January 2014 by Franzisca Gartenmann and three former members to officially launch the project "Scholarships for a Better Future" with the first CHF 10'000. This first donation enabled 15 young Laotians to go to the local university. In the following 5 years the young organization grew in donations as well as in the number of active scholarship holders. Due to studies and friendship, the opportunity arose in March 2019 for Hanna Ekberg, János Benz and for me to join the NGO. The new team set the goal to further elaborate the purpose and values of Lotus for Laos and to define clear growth objectives. With a "fresh" perspective on charity work and an academic background in the business sector, a new strategy was thus developed. In 2020, Margaux Headon and Luca Imesch joined, increasing the organization to six members who put their heart and soul into the project alongside their jobs and studies. While all have clear roles and responsibilities, the team relies on each other and complements each other depending on the situation. Internally, transparency, agility and communication are essential, so that everyone gets involved where there is the greatest need.

According to its website, Lotus for Laos is committed to the education of orphaned youth in Laos. Why is it crucial to help exactly this target group?

The reason why our foundation focuses on Laos is an unusual story. It starts with Evelyne Spargaaren, a primary school teacher, who stays on her honeymoon in a small hotel called "Lotus Villa" in Luang Prabang. The owner is Andrew Brown, who shows Evelyne the local orphanage, which he supported at that time through the turnover of the hotel. Touched by the atmosphere but also the humility, she shares her impressions with the Gartenmann family, who are also traveling through Laos in 2012. Franzisca Gartenmann, the eldest daughter (then 15), was taken to development projects in China at an early age and grew up with her mother's charity work. After another visit in 2013 and some fundraising activities, Franzisca, together with Evelyne and two other women, decided to found Lotus for Laos. The occasion was the granting of the first CHF 10'000, which made the project "Scholarships for a Better Future" possible. In that first year, 15 young Laotians were able to attend university. Since then, the project has grown considerably and we currently support more than 130 scholarship holders.

You mention on the website that scholarships are awarded. What criteria must be fulfilled by the student in order to receive a scholarship?

Scholarship recipients are selected on three levels:

  1. Only half or full orphans and/or young people are supported, who live below the subsistence level even by Laotian standards, and thus all have found their way to the state orphanage.
  2. Lotus for Laos can only support scholars who are able to meet the academic performance requirements of local universities and have demonstrated this by passing the entrance exam.
  3. The final decision maker is Andrew Brown, who is contractually the project manager for Lotus for Laos. Since Laos had a booming tourism industry until Covid-19, some of the students have the chance to gain a foothold there through bright personalities and initial English skills. Andrew's mandate here from Lotus is to prioritize the kids who don't have other opportunities. This leads to supporting many young women who tend to be not only more shy, but whose alternative is not only a life in the rice fields, but also an early marriage with children.
Lotus for Laos is a Swiss organization based in Zurich. It is important for us to communicate clearly and transparently that it is not up to us to make a selection of the scholarship recipients. The final decision lies with Andrew Brown, who has the background information to decide situationally where the greatest need lies.

When awarding a scholarship, it must be ensured that the money is used for its intended purpose. How do you manage that?

Lotus for Laos invests one hundred percent of the donations in the scholarship program. A scholarship costs USD 670 per student per year, which covers not only university costs, but also accommodation and one meal a day. The university as well as the accommodation are paid directly, and the students have to collect their "pocket money" from Andrew every two months. For us, having a project manager on site is central to ensuring expediency, as it is during this contact every two months that he finds out how the students are doing and if they are still actively studying. Franzisca has attended such meetings several times and has seen with her own eyes the effectiveness of the system when Andrew had picked out young people who were not part of the project within minutes. Also central is Andrew's Laotian wife, who through language and cultural understanding can navigate the local system much more efficiently and ensure that funds are used appropriately.

What is the approximate budget of a student in Laos?

A scholarship costs USD 670 per year and covers tuition, accommodation and one meal per day. The fixed costs are paid directly, while Andrew personally hands out the pocket money every other month, ensuring personal contact with the students. Although this is not much by Swiss standards, it is important to note that a local meal in Luang Prabang costs no more than a few francs.

Do the scholarship holders also get to choose which university they go to and what they study, or do you help decide?

What distinguishes Lotus for Laos from many other NGOs can largely be answered by this question. Already at the time of its foundation, a distinction was made between aid and empowerment. Lotus sees itself as empowering and strengthening people in their local context, without intervening in a system from the outside and wanting to change it according to Western understanding. Accordingly, the scholarship holders themselves decide which academic path they want to follow and which studies they want to pursue at which university. As an organization, our purpose is to create academic opportunities, and it is up to the scholarship holders themselves to take advantage of them in order to take the step towards self-determination.

Fundraising is always a topic at fundraiso.ch. What strategy do you pursue and what are your typical donors?

Our foundation receives most of its donations from Swiss foundations, large companies and private donors. In recent years, Swiss foundations or companies have often given us very generous, one-time donations. For the future, we hope to build more long-term relationships with existing donors as well as new ones. We also want to diversify our financial strategy. During the pandemic, donations from individuals dropped significantly, highlighting a weakness in our system. As a result, we are looking for partners to develop alternative revenue streams from commercial partnerships, such as reusing stockpiles that move slowly. In November, our first collaboration with a Swiss company will be announced. The company shares many of our core values. This is very important for us when we enter into partnerships.

On November 20 (13.00) we organize together with the TASNA Association a charity event at Circus Conelli. In addition to the normal event, which is super suitable for corporate events and families, the organizations will present their projects, and any proceeds through the organized market in the ring will be used one hundred percent for the children. Get a ticket now: https://tasna-association.ch/ihre-hilfe/benefizanlaesse/

What is your experience with digital donations and do you see any untapped potential here?

Many of our donations flow in through our website, which is linked to our online banking. In addition, we have also been able to collect donations via Twint since 2021. The QR code can be found on our website as well as on our LinkedIn and Instagram. However, the exploitation potential of digital donations is far from being reached. Through social media and increased future collaborations, be they with other foundations or brands, we hope to see increased revenue online. As the digital world is constantly changing, we must do the same to reach our broad target audience.

Finally - what are the upcoming milestones for Lotus for Laos?

Lotus for Laos has set three main goals for the near future.

  1. Scholarships for a better future: Lotus for Laos is currently supporting 130 students through its scholarship program. Due to the pandemic, countless young Laotians were unable to take the university entrance exam and were forced to forfeit their scholarships. We expect the number of students relying on this financial support to increase significantly over the next two years. The goal is to increase the number of students to at least 140 in the short term, with long-term support for all students who lack financial resources.
  2. Financial strategy: We are working on several potential contracts and aim to close at least one commercial collaboration this year. We are actively seeking companies that share similar values and support high impact projects through their commercial activities.
  3. Decolonizing Aid: In recent years, the legitimacy and effectiveness of development cooperation has been increasingly questioned. A major criticism is the repetition of the past: powerful Western countries imposing their beliefs, culture, and worldview on those who already carry a postcolonial burden. Lotus for Laos presented some thoughts on this issue at the recent International Cooperation Forum hosted by Ignazio Cassis, noting that there is a clear need for a space to facilitate such conversations. The goal is not just to change the traditional image of charity work, but to find better approaches for greater effectiveness.

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