When Skills Meet Need
It all came together very quickly. Alex had studied microfinance and at the last minute decided to put his degree to work abroad; ELI had just started a program with microfinance opportunities in its newest location - Cambodia. A few weeks later, Alex found himself in Phnom Penh, in what proved to be a stunningly good internship match for everyone involved.
“I was placed in an education-oriented non profit that was just starting its microfinance program.They asked me to study how it could expand,” Alex says. “But it soon became clear that, being new to the field, the group really didn’t know how it all worked.”
For the next four and a half weeks, Alex focused on the nonprofit’s program, researched microfinance in Cambodia, and wrote up a proposal. His work was independent and self-directed, perfect for someone with his academic background.
“The staff there didn’t really know what I was doing,” he chuckles. “They just saw me working away, and didn’t really know what I came up with until I gave my final presentation before wrapping up my internship.”
The presentation blew them away. What Alex put together was nothing short of a comprehensive game plan.
From showing staffers how to implement and use key business impact measurement tools, and outlining the synergistic and logistical benefits of involvement with other nonprofits, to researching key potential donor institutions, Alex set up the group on a strategic path to growth. He included such nuts-and-bolts details as client and fiscal tracking and specific benchmarks the group had to achieve.
“I got to be the manager, in a way,” Alex says, noting he had to adjust many of his expectations so that they were in tune with the very different way of doing business in Phnom Penh.
“There are cultural differences you have to accept. You can’t just say ‘do this’ and expect it will be carried out right way, or in the way you want it to be done.”
Alex’s work with his former Cambodian colleagues continues to this day, even though he’s been back in the U.S. for a couple of months.
“We Skype every two weeks or so, and I offer advice and encouragement.”
Although he worked hard in Phnom Penh, Alex made time to explore the city. It helped that he lived in a centrally located volunteer hostel in an area popular with budget travelers.
“At the time, there were no other volunteers staying in my hostel, so I would go to other nearby hostels to hang out and meet people.”
On weekends, he hit the road.
“I saw a lot of Cambodia,” he says. “I took the bus to Angkor Wat, and to the beach. I traveled every weekend.”
The lasting impact that Alex has had in Cambodia cannot be overstated. He’s an example of the enormous difference one skilled and dedicated person can make. His advice for prospective microfinance interns?
“Do as much research as you can before you leave,” Alex says. “Ask what the group needs and what they want you to do to make sure you’re a good fit.”
There are many microfinance organizations in Cambodia, he adds, and plenty of opportunities for the well-prepared intern.
Business and accounting students, are you listening?