Employing a Radical Vision
Eugene Cho has a simple idea to combat a complex issue: What would happen if everyone donated one day of their pay to fight extreme poverty? His idea came to fruition last year when he and his wife, Minhee, launched the aptly named One Day’s Wages. In six months, they’ve raised more than $300,000, awarded a grant to an organization in Thailand and fully funded the building of a border outpost between Nepal and India that will help rescue hundreds of girls from sex slavery every year—a project with one of their partners, Not For Sale. Here, we talk with Cho about ODW, the nonprofit trend and the need for passion combined with education.
Could you explain the idea behind One Day’s Wages?
My personal story is traveling to Burma several years ago and encountering these villagers called the Karen people living in the jungles, fleeing from these ruthless government, military folks, and they had this makeshift school in the jungle. I was speaking to one of the leaders in the village, asking him what was the most difficult thing in sustaining this school, and it was paying the teachers’ tuition. His response when I asked him, “How much is their salary?” was “$40.” So I responded, “Oh, $40 a week”? And he snickered and looked at me and shook his head. So I assumed I’d made a mistake and I said, “$40 a month,” and he shook his head again and … responded by saying, “A year.” Forty dollars is not a lot of money. My one day’s wages is about $175. Just the concept of, what would happen if I were to give up a day’s wages, and then start a movement, if you will, based upon that.
Do you think it’s possible to end extreme global poverty in our lifetime?
To answer your question very simply, I would say yes, I do believe it’s possible. I choose to defer to many of the so-called experts and mentors who are in this sort of work that believe in our lifetime, in the next 40, 50 years, this can come to an end. Obviously the answer is also very complex. What’s really painful is what’s currently going on in Haiti is absolutely devastating and painful, but here is something very sobering to all of us: There are Haitis all around the world right now … and people need to not turn their attention away from that.
How can people who want to start a nonprofit move from just being passionate to being educated?
You have to place yourself in a very teachable spirit, to learn, to be educated, to put some substance and merit and depth to the initial passion you have. Ideas are great, but every idea will be tested, and it will be tested through our knowledge, it will be tested through our strategies, it will be tested through our perseverance and commitment. It will also be tested through sacrifice.
I think one of the reasons One Day’s Wages has resonated with some people in our short stage as an organization is because in learning more about my wife and our story, they realize we’re not asking people to do something we’re personally not willing to do. In 2009, we made a commitment to donate our yearly salary to the cause of fighting extreme global poverty. We’re saying, “Would you be willing to partner with us and simply consider donating one day’s wages, once a month, once a quarter, once a year, whatever you feel inclined to do,” and I see that resonating with people.
How can people move beyond the conversation of justice to acting on it?
My hypothesis is that we live in the most overrated generation of our history. The reason I say that is because we have access to so much stuff. I’m not just talking about resources, I’m talking about the mediums in which we communicate some of our thoughts and ideas, particularly social media. While talking about it over those mediums is part of the process of doing good work, my fear is that we stop right there, and then we pat ourselves on the back as people who have great social consciousness. We have to realize our resources, our time, our talents, our treasures need to be inclined toward making changes in our larger system and in ourself.
What criteria does ODW use when looking for partner organizations?
Some of our vetting involves: are they in good accordance with their local government, do they have all their documents filed, do they have a budget, do they have a strategy, what does their leadership team look like, what is a specific project they’re asking funds for, do they have a responsible manner in which they’re going to implement that. What we’re trying to do is not come in and cause more problems by doubling their budget, but seeing how we can help them build their capacity to be able to do more substantive work for their own people because they’re the ones who are really lifting themselves out of poverty. These are what we call the CBOs—community-based organizations.
Our first grant was awarded to a CBO in Thailand doing work with Burmese refugees. Many of these Karen Burmese students, young children, once they flee from Burma because they’re tired of fleeing from the military, they’ll go to Thailand. Then once they go to Thailand, the unfortunate thing is they’re undocumented. They’re basically illegal immigrants and because they don’t have their papers, they’re unable to go to school in Thailand. There’s this woman who started a school system for these Burmese Karen students, and the amazing thing is there’s over 6,000 students in their school system. Their [yearly] budget, last time I checked, was about $40,000. What our grant does is help provide transportation for one of those schools to allow these kids to go back and forth from school.
If some of the folks here in the West get a chance to learn about the amazing work, the laborious work, yet amazing work, that might inspire us even more deeply.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of RELEVANT, currently on newsstands.