Sean Byrne, Sid Dante, and Sean McKenna at the dedication of a greenhouse behind the secondary school in Pampas Grande, Peru.
Three years into our existence as the Richmond Global Health Alliance, it is worth reviewing our original mission statement and principles. Each was written with specific intentions, and this blog post will not only explain our initial thoughts but serve as a review of our initial principles as we embark on a strategic planning process led by Mary Grace Apostoli.
To support, financially and logistically, the global health and international service efforts by faculty, students and alumni of the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University.
We opted for a broad mission statement when we started for myriad reasons. First, we had built a successful team through our return visits to Pampas Grande, Peru but we know that our team was special and could do more. By not tying our mission specifically to Peru, we allowed ourselves the ability to build and grow even though organizationally we knew we were committed to our work in Pampas Grande for the near future. Second, one of the roadblocks and frustrations we faced when we started was finding non-profit and administrative support for our project as it transformed from a experiential undergraduate trip to a global health mission. As we grow, we hope to be available to other groups and projects that are establishing and help them while also learning from their experiences and results. Finally, we bridge the City of Richmond as one of the few projects that involves the campuses of both VCU and U of R and we wish to further cement our relationship with both schools.
We are committed in assisting those currently engaged in global health and in encouraging the development of the next generation of global health leaders. We will involve participants of all experience levels and work to recruit those new to aid, development, and international efforts.
The first part of this principle builds on our hope and goal to eventually be able to support other groups and projects. However, the second part is why this principle is listed first. Our project from its inception involved students and was the result of a group of students wishing to help. As our group has become more professional and increased our capabilities, we have kept students as central to our leadership. There are multiple opportunities for mentored work and we have two student positions on our Board of Directors designed to offer a practical experience. Moreover, recruiting both students and those new to aid, development and international efforts not only provides a valuable and novel education experience to those participants but also helps our group. In areas where those of us who have returned to Pampas for many years may have made excuses for our failure to meet challenges or provide services, those new to aid and to our project bring a fresh perspective. This leads to new ideas or novel suggestions, but more often it is their enthusiasm that is infectious and keeps those of us in leadership motivated.
We desire diversity in thought, ideas and action. We will not discriminate based on sex, race, religion, creed, or sexual orientation when selecting our partners in global health. We will not have discriminatory preconditions for our services nor will we engage in proselytizing during our work.
Our non-discriminatory statement is standard and broad but it is fundamentally important to us to have many different views and thoughts. This leads to creative ways to solve problems and different approaches to the same conflict. But it not only lets our projects to succeed, it allows us to learn from the other strengths. In our leadership team we have included physicians and lawyers – two groups that are often portrayed as antagonistic, but in our work we have seen the fruits of collaboration due to different areas of expertise. In the last part of this principle is a commitment that we will seek to help all and avoid preconditions to our service. We do not have expectations of those who we try to help. We will not expect them to sign on to our belief system or meet our cultural norms. This is important – we are foreigners and outsiders where we work and we embrace the idea that our educational experience outweighs the services we provide. As outsiders, we will try and learn from those we serve and allow them to learn from us.
We believe in the dignity of all human beings. We will present our work realistically, avoid exploitative imagery and advertising, and maintain an appropriate standard of care across all our activities. We will seek to strengthen communities with sustainable solutions and not burden them with frivolous requirements.
Our goal is to serve but we must respect those we serve. Images of children are often used to tweak heart strings and increase fundraising, but these images can be exploitative if staged or designed to highlight aspects of poverty. Additionally, this means maintaining the privacy of our patients and avoiding photography in clinic even if it means that showcasing our work with patients becomes more difficult. This also is central to our teaching. We discuss photography and the perils of disaster tourism with our students and ask them to consider their social media posts. Their trip is not help or save but is instead to learn.
Maintaining a reasonable standard of care is difficult on mission trips but there are areas and approaches we must take to meet that. Though there are limitations to the care we can provide due to the medications or technology available, where we can, we must seek to provide the same quality care that we provide to patients in the United States. This means that we must aspire to higher quality care and seek to expand our capabilities every year. This can come in the form of refusing donations of well-intentioned but expired medications. However, at times we may use medications that have an expiration date if our research shows that there is no harm. Our basic principle is that we would never offer or provide any care that we would not do in the United States. If a medication or piece of equipment that is expired is something I would prescribe to a family member because the expiration date is arbitrarily placed by the local pharmacy (as is common on all prescriptions) or on equipment that is structurally safe, then we will use it. However even if it’s the “best” that is offered, we must strive for more. This means more of my time spent fundraising to buy quality medications and equipment rather than accepting cast-off donations.
We value the hard work of our volunteers and donors and the needs of those whom we serve. We will strive to have minimal overhead to our work, a longitudinal commitment to the people and areas where we work, and an open and inviting culture to all our volunteers and supporters.
This is an organizational principle that has only strengthened as our programming has grown. Thus far, we are volunteers with professionals and students and the majority of our fundraising comes from our family and friends. As we continue, we may be able to attract additional sources of funding but we must do it in a responsible manner. Expansion of our programs or missions will be based on need and not based on our desire to travel more. This requires us to commit to our projects not only during our mission trip but also throughout the year. We build projects with many years in mind but also seek to do it in a way that builds the capacity of the town. Finally, we have to recognize that we will not always succeed. Having a multi-year commitment allows us to fail but also gives us the ability to change. To do so, we have to have a culture that allows open and honest discussion and include all in our decision-making process. We have a board but all of our meetings are open and everyone is invited. In fact, we invite all new volunteers or interested supporters to our meetings to see how we work and to actively participate.
We recognize our limits in time, ability and ideas. We will seek collaborations with other groups, learn from the successes and failures of previous projects, and seek oversight and guidance. We will regularly debrief our efforts and submit to critical reviews from our partners and experts.
Finally, we end with an expression intended to demonstrate humility. We may be led by professionals such as doctors, lawyers and pharmacists and our short time has allowed us to develop some small measure of expertise in our work, but we know that much of what we are trying to enact has been done before. Our goal is not to go it alone or build our organization but to learn and do our best. This also means that we have to regularly review our own work and debrief and it means that periodically we have to revisit our mission and goals.
We envision a stable, adaptable and supportive organization that will provide a longitudinal commitment to sustainable projects in international communities.
Our vision follows above. We seek to be stable so our commitment is long-term, try to be adaptable so that we recognize our successes and failures and work to be supportive in not only our service but also to our volunteers and students. Being such an organization means that we can meet the objective of sustainability.
Reading and reviewing this mission statement, I continue to be excited for our strategic planning process. But looking back at our mission statement and our efforts since our founding in 2011 is that we do meet each of this principles as we try to achieve our vision. As a young group, we still have much to do to see if we become the organization we wish to be, but I believe we can and will.
Sid Dante is a graduate of VCU School of Medicine and is now in his second year of residency at the University of Chicago. Sid has been traveling to Pampas Grande since 2010 and is a member of the RGHA board.