by Julia Sharwood
Shanil Samarakoon is the Executive Director of Empower, a development organisation working in Malawi and Sri Lanka and my favourite PlanBig plan.
Shanil’s originally from Sri Lanka, grew up in Malawi, studied in Malaysia, and ended up in Sydney: first as an MBA student, then as a student of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) and now teaches at the University of New South Wales. He was SSE’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010.
Shanil and I first met last year through PlanBig and became fast friends. We talk a lot about cinema and joke about what we’d do if we ran the world (things would be better). Tonight it’s all business. We caught up over a beer in Sydney’s ArtHouse Hotel to talk about Empower, how to get stuff done and PlanBig.
You just got back from Malawi. What were you doing there?
Before I went to Malawi, I was in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was just to scope out a new project there but Malawi was mainly to check up on the project we have running there. In Northern Malawi we’re working with one community, Zatuba Village, and we’re working with them directly so that they would serve as an epicentre for development for 22 villages in the whole area.
The main things we were checking up on were the repayments for solar lantern projects that was part of the community’s vision to have energy access.
Do the ideas for your projects come from within that community?
Yes, the way we work is: we work with the community to set them up as an epicentre for development for the whole region but the vision or the specific projects that happen are determined by the communities in that area.
We work with the community only for five years, after that we pull out completely. Perhaps only having an odd visit or two upon request but the idea is that within those five years those communities set out to achieve whatever it is they want to to be self reliant. But they determine the content of their vision.
I know that you use local volunteers…
Yeah, in fact we actually only have a really small team because we bring in local project partners based on community need. More specifically over the last year we have been focussing on entrepreneurship and the community bank, so we have a partner organisation for that, one for renewable energy, one for sustainable agriculture, one for waste management, one for water purification, so different components.
We’ve had a volunteer project coordinator who communicates with all of them and manages visits that they make and so forth so it’s all coordinated. He’s been a volunteer with us for about a year and a half and we’ve just been covering his admin expenses and things like that but as of 1st March, he’s going to be working with us full-time. That’s a pretty big development for us.
When I was in Malawi I was registering the organisation there, setting up a local board of directors and making sure that Jones [ – that’s his name, he’s also the executive director there. He’s a local Malawian, is also managing the project and is being paid for it so he can focus on it full time.
Were you able to make that position available through fundraising?
Yeah. Through the fundraising we’ve been doing through 2010 and 2011 we’ve been able to allocate a salary for Jones so he’ll effectively be the first person who’s paid to work on our project, everything else has been voluntary to date.
What do you do to fundraise?
At the moment I would say our fundraising efforts have been pretty modest, mainly through events and also through our own networks. In terms of events we’ve run things like cocktail events and dinner events.
We take part in things like the City2Surf and the Sydney Half Marathon over here. So we have teams that raise quite a bit of money. I’d say through running events alone we raise at least about $10,000 to $15,000 a year, minimum.
I’m impressed, how many people have you got running?
Well it depends on the events. So the City2Surf we’d have typically between 20 to 30, then the half marathon is much harder so we’d have 10 to 15.
So what you’re saying is if you want to start a social enterprise, then you may as well have some fit friends?
[Laughs] Yeah. That helps. Or at least people who want to get fit so you have them consistently.
It just so worked out that a lot of the people I know are really into fitness and running so it was quite an organic thing you know, it’s something I recommend to people who are starting up projects as well because it’s already set up for you, the event, it’s something a lot of people want to take part in and if you can attach a cause to it people are more motivated to do it.
It’s worked out pretty well but we’re also looking at local grants at the Malawi level as well as international grants at the Australian level that’ll support us more in the long run.
Why did you start Empower?
First of all, it’s not just me. I have two other directors; I have James [Feng] and Shyamika [Peeligama], who are very close to me so we have a similar mentality. Shyamika and I in particular, Shyamika also happens to be my cousin but she’s Australian, I haven’t spent much time with her.
When I came back here, I was studying my Masters at UNSW; I had previously done quite a lot of work since I was in uni at a relief level, mainly in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. And that was my foray into community development.
And I guess long story short that’s how I discovered that this is what I really want to do in terms of contributing with my skills in some way although I didn’t necessarily know the shape and form.
You’ve talked about the ambiguity starting this project, what was your biggest fear going into it?
I guess a few, what goes through every social entrepreneur’s mind starting a not for profit is ‘how am I going to support myself?’
That’s a very key one for me. I’ve never really been that much of a career or money orientated person so I’ve never really had high aspirations on that front but I guess there’s just the practical aspect of: ‘well, if you are able to earn a salary from it, if at all, it’s going to take lot of time to build that up, and there’s no guarantee, so how are you going to support yourself?’
A lot of it was learning on the job, initially there was that self doubt in terms of: I’m not an expert in international development, I’ve studied business. I don’t know how I’m going to necessarily support myself when I work on all this, and I don’t know whether it’s actually what people want, whether there’s a demand for this at a community level.
How did you overcome that self doubt?
The fact that I wasn’t alone was a big part of it. I had two other directors to bounce ideas off. When there’s self doubt, unless you’re having the same doubts on the same day, which is rarely the case, you feed off each other.
I think it’s about securing small wins as you go, trying not to view the whole thing as some massive end goal but kind of break it into little objectives and securing those little wins: doing our first fundraiser, having our first consultation with the community, mapping out their vision, okay wow, they’re coming up with ideas, this is what they want. Do we have partners to match them up?
Those little stages, little wins, goes a long way to getting rid of that self doubt. Say even in terms of income, let me just be really real about this and say, what do I really need? What really works out? And for me it worked out well. I just talked to as many people as possible and I said ‘look, this is what I really want to do but I want to support myself while I do.’
I even talked to my professors from uni. And then they were like well, you are a really good student, and you’re not that interested in research but I think you’d be really great at teaching. That was just through me trying to be positive and saying okay what can work out to sort my situation out? From last year I started teaching at the uni.
I think the more you stick in your own head and you don’t talk to people about what’s really going on, the more it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy or you stagnate. And it becomes an excuse, a story of why you never start. So in my experience the more people you go to and say ‘this is what I’m passionate about, this is what I want to do’ invariably there’s somebody who can help you in some way, or knows someone who knows someone who can help you.
How can people support your plan on PlanBig and how has PlanBig helped you? (Has it helped you?)
It’s definitely been useful from a social media perspective. Linking in with things like our website, Facebook, Twitter, that’s definitely been useful.
Obviously the encouragement and enthusiasm as well, I notice that whenever I post something as an update there’s always somebody encouraging, you can’t underestimate that. It’s important, especially at the formative stages.
There are a few possibilities in terms of project partners that haven’t eventuated into anything practical yet but could yield things in the time to come. I watched it grow, you do get a sense of it being a growing community and watching plans. There would be lots of space for collaboration in terms of looking other projects that would work in Malawi or in that region, or also just ideas: getting ideas from others.
So is scoring points and being called a superhero.
Did I call you a superhero?
No, I have a badge. [Laughs]
Thanks for your time and being awesome.
Thank you for being awesome and thanks to PlanBig for being awesome.
The Empower team are running in this year’s Sydney Half Marathon and you can donate. You should like their plan on PlanBig, like them on Facebook and follow their tweets.