Finally, my first trade for a NGO in south-east Asia. I found out about Openmind Projects while studying my Lonely Planet ebook, shortly after arriving in Thailand. OMP offers volunteer training, teaching english and IT to trainees and locals. They support various projects in Nepal, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The description sounded really good and it was the first project I found that focussed on computer lessons to provide a better learning experience. I contacted OMP and suggested a few things after studying their web presence and social media activities. I got a friendly reply by Sven (one of the founders) and we bounced a few ideas back and forth discussing the possible to-dos. OMP operate a training centre in the north of Thailand on the banks of the Mekong and bordering with Laos, so that’s where I was headed. Excited to see the north of the beautiful country and to be working from a grassroots volunteer training centre, I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, planning a 2 week stay.
About Openmind Projects
OMP was founded in 2001 and by now supports around 60 projects, from orphanages to national parks, local communities and health projects. Many volunteers visit the centre – a former gym – in Nong Khai, get a cross-culture training on language and customs and then head of to their placements, like teaching english in a village in Cambodia or marine conservation down in Phuket. Volunteering with OMP costs a fee (check pricing here).
I like the story behind this project and guess many organisations are born from a good idea matched with the right people, leading to a chapter of humble beginnings. OMP was no different. It all started with Sven – a multilingual swedish-french-nomad entrepreneur and former business consultant, well travelled and full of ideas – and Toto aka TT, a young Thai from a small village, with great self-taught computer skills and inspired to create change. They both agreed that giving underprivileged and remotely located people – mostly kids and youths – a foundation to learn by themselves and to keep improving knowledge with IT and language skills, would improve their chances on jobs, studies and surviving in general (experienced first-hand by TT). Given that many of the south-east Asian countries are strongly driven by tourism, the ones with the english skills will often find work more easily then others. And there’s the internet and the endless opportunities that come with online learning. Starting with bringing computers to TT’s small village and testing ways of teaching to locals, 10 years later things are now very different. Local schools are involved, trainees live and work at the centre in Nong Khai, volunteers come and head of to placements.
It was interesting to find out that the project started without even thinking about volunteers. The focus was laid on helping and educating locals and volunteers came later. Sven and TT learned that it was a great way of providing a good experience to travellers and all kinds of visitors, while funding the organisation.
Today, operations have grown and I could see a lot of good things happening and a real OMP “family” of friends, collaborators, trainees and volunteers in place.
Wanting to make a difference
My own research about volunteering and big organisations asking for a lot of money for placements, the general commercial approach to the so called “voluntourism”, led me to be thoughtful and aware about which organisations I work for. I read articles in The Guardian or Al Jazeera America, and opinion stories like Pippa Biddle’s on Maptia. Generally looking at volunteering as a really good thing, some of the things I read made sense and I decided to simply do my homework before joining an organisation, specially not to come to be a drop on the hot stone, but to try to make a difference.
Before my arrival, I produced a first assessment being still in the south, and on my first day at the centre I wrote a thorough list of things we could achieve and that OMP needed. The possibilities ranged from website fixes, to search engine optimisation and organisational tools. I worked hard and during my stay at the centre I spent most of my time in the AC-cooled main office, including some late nights with the great company of TT. I met many of the trainees and volunteers, exchanged thoughts, tried to help wherever I could and had the opportunity of passing on some coding tips for some of the kids. My stay was free of charge and included the great meals that everyone cooked together in the outdoor kitchen. Sticky rice, I miss you!
Website improvements, SEO measures and a communication strategy
The main “do” on the OMP list was “improve visibility”. Directly related to the boom in volunteering businesses run by big networks, small organisations sometimes struggle in finding volunteers. The “big players” have a budget for advertising and a marketing team, so being found online becomes difficult. One of my main tasks was to get some ongoing search engine optimisation (SEO) measures into place. I created a good content collection of imagery and text, and filtered out some great volunteer experience stories. By starting a list of all volunteer platforms, referrals, related blogs and online magazines, I laid the foundation to promote OMP’s content. I also worked on mobile optimisation for the OMP site, SEO landing pages and rewrote the code for all contact and applications forms on the main site. Last but not least, I produced a 13 page communication strategy, giving tips and hints on how to communicate online, introduced them to Mailchimp and the great organisational tool Workflowy (thanks Benji), to keep track of to-do’s in a team. After my other past projects on the road, these 2 intense weeks in Nong Khai focussed a lot more on strategy and planning, which was very holistic and a great shift of focus.
Nong Khai and the “dancing shrimp”
My passport was waiting in the Indian embassy in Bangkok (yes, a little timeout India was next), so although the Laos capital Vientiane was only an hour away, I couldn’t cross. I still had lots of fun in Nong Khai and TT, Sven, Joiy and the others took me around the area.
We visited one of the rocket festivals, the famous sculpture garden displaying the many stories and lessons in the life of Buddha and I was introduced to the dancing shrimp (watch below). Good stuff!
I fully support OMP’s work and my stay was inspiring and strengthened my confidence that some people are doing the right thing. I will try to keep advising my new friends in website-related issues and contributing to a great cause.
Do you use free resources for online learning in english that I could suggest to OMP? Please let me know in the comments.
Read more, see dates for the next cross-culture training and read about placements & opportunities on openmindprojects.org. As usual, some more photos below.