Vt. home to many worldwide development groups
DORSET -- From a converted garage in Dorset, James Hathaway helps rid Afghanistan and Vietnam of land mines. A few miles away in Manchester, Kathleen Colson helps women in northern Kenya start businesses.
They are just a few of the nonprofit, non-governmental organizations that call Vermont home while doing work worldwide in fields as varied as promoting democracy or clean water. Besides working on development projects in some of the remotest and neediest parts of the globe, the organizations are also pumping millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs into the Vermont economy.
"These are people who are willing to think big with small resources. They will go out of their way to make relationships with anyone that they can and to make believers out of all they come across because the passion is so genuine," said Peace Corps recruiter Brian Melman, who earned a graduate degree at the University of Vermont in Burlington and has also lived in Montpelier.
"There are people in Vermont who accomplish amazing things with just about nothing," he said.
While many of the organizations are small, taken as a whole, Vermont’s international nonprofit sector appears to boost the state’s economy.
Though precise figures for international nonprofits are hard to come by, a 2011 Vermont Community Foundation report found that 3,626 domestic and international nonprofit organizations bring $2.5 billion to the state, about 12 percent of the gross state product.
Some groups do local fundraisers. Others attract grant money from foundations while the larger ones work on contracts with government agencies.
The Montpelier-based Institute for Sustainable Communities, formed in 1991, does environmental, health care and other projects in Serbia, China, India and Bangladesh. It’s working with Burlington’s Champlain College to learn more about the international organizations in Vermont.
"There’s a wealth of global experience hidden in our hills and valleys, and most people don’t know it," said vice president Barbara McAndrew. "Putting together a real picture of Vermont’s international footprint helps us build connections between people working in the same regions. It can raise our profile with national and international funders and it helps us attract and retain talented people."
Melman said that the same sense of community and the desire to help that he sees in Peace Corps volunteers is what led Vermonters to form nonprofits, in many cases based on work they did while overseas in the Peace Corps or other service. Vermont, per capita, produces more Peace Corps volunteers than any other state.
Burlington, he said, "was just absolutely awash with nonprofits," Melman said. "We used to joke that there were more nonprofits than people."
One of Vermont’s first international NGOs was the Brattleboro-based organization now known as World Learning. The organization employs 185 people and does work with education, exchange, and development programs in more than 60 countries. It was founded in 1932.
"Even back then, Vermont was attracting innovative, different thinking individuals," said Simon Norton of World Learning.
Norton, who lives in Nevada but travels to Vermont frequently, said there are pockets across the country that have "the same vibe" as Vermont and have many groups working across the globe. He mentioned the San Francisco area; parts of Seattle; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Boulder, Colo.; and Asheville, N.C. In Vermont, it’s statewide.
"People choose to either stay or move to Vermont for those small-town community values," he said.
Colson fits the profile. She said got her first taste of Africa through a program offered by her college and later spent 25 years in Africa running safaris. In the mid-2000s she branched out and started working on a program that helps women start tiny income-generating businesses in areas where opportunities are otherwise unavailable. Now her program, the BOMA Project, has a staff of four.
A native in western New York, she and her husband moved back to the U.S. to raise their children in a small town similar to where she grew up.
Colson now spends about three months a year in Kenya where she travels with an armed bodyguard.
"To be able to be in that place and then come home to Vermont ... all of a sudden you are in one of the safest places on the planet," Colson said.
Many of the organizations are in Vermont’s larger communities, but others are on back roads. Hathaway helped found Clear Path International in the converted garage outside his Dorset home in 2000, where he still works as its communications director. The organization’s main office has since moved to Bainbridge Island, Wash.
Rutland-based Pure Water for the World, which helps provide clean water to communities in Honduras and Haiti, employs three people in Vermont and about 25 overseas. It has a budget this year of $1.2 million, much of which comes from individual donations, said the group’s executive director, Carolyn Crowley Meub.
"I know individuals who have a small NGO they run from their living room and are doing all kinds of interesting work from these seemingly small, sleepy towns that are incredibly connected to the world," said Norton.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.