What Being a ‘Jewish NGO’ Really Means

300-liter water tanks with water filters.

By Benjamin Laniado

Most NGOs operate under a scarcity paradigm: the rent, the wages, and the operating costs are always getting in the way of the cause. Even when we do make ends meet, we are so in love with our idealistic poverty that we fail to notice the wealth of potential resources at hand.

CADENA, the Jewish humanitarian agency which I helped found, has impacted the lives of more than 800,000 people. But you wouldn’t know it, from visiting our offices: we work in a donated school space and have no more than ten professionals working full time. Yes, we have a warehouse stocked with humanitarian essentials, but we don’t own any transportation infrastructure, not even a car.

And yet, we’ve reached the most remote corners of the globe in record time; helping thousands of people in Indonesia, Nepal, Kenya, Siria, India, and many more countries make their way out of a disaster condition.

How have we done this? By taking advantage of our most valuable resource, the Jewish Diaspora.

For centuries, stateless Jews survived by establishing a network of global connections, a series of nodes through which information flowed. This was a survival mechanism, essential when making decisions to fight or to flee. Luckily this network still exists and can be used for good.

Let me give you one example. After Hurricane Irma struck Puerto Rico, we contacted the Jewish community of the island. Instead of deploying our own staff, which was almost impossible, they became our eyes on the ground, telling us what was needed and where.

After we secured the basic needs through donations, we had to solve the question of how to get help to those that needed it. Puerto Rico is an island, and we don’t own transportation infrastructure that would allow us to get there. Once again, we contacted the local Jewish community, this time, of Cancún – a nearby port. And, within a few days, someone had lent us his yacht and navigation staff. In a couple of hours, we had expanded both our “staff” and our “fleet.” Most importantly: we had achieved our goal.

Another case in point is our mission to India. Last year, the southern Kerala district sustained the worst flooding in centuries. We wanted to help, but we had never done a mission in southern India before.

Luckily, one of us knew someone in the small, centuries-old Jewish community of Cochín, Kerala’s capital. It was through this community that we were able to establish an alliance with Aarogya Charitable Foundation, which helped us buy and transport the water containers needed to help 40,000 individuals. Once again, our virtual resources had expanded, and we achieved the goal at hand.

Our success as a humanitarian NGO has derived from this nimble form of alliance-building, which allows us to broaden the scope of what’s possible, beyond what we “own” or “rent.” We operate with the knowledge of having an extensive and disseminated network of potential warehouses, transportation infrastructures, government, and humanitarian contacts that help us get to our goal. In this sense, we are a lean start-up: able to mobilize resources we didn’t even know we had.

This is mostly the case in urgent situations in which people feel immediately compelled to act. The challenge is to articulate a long-term view that allows you to communicate with local gate-keepers and keep them engaged.

In this aspect, storytelling is vital, and we have built a story that fits with a Jewish sense of purpose: our belief in Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world.” It is this concept which has resonated across borders and helped us keep in contact with those far away.

So the next time someone talks of the poor NGO struggling to make ends meets, I would suggest we take a step back and reflect on the potential resources we have at hand. In today’s globalized world, the sense of community is equally globalized.

Connecting across borders is easy: what’s hard is articulating an identity, as an NGO, that allows us to get to those people who are far away and are eager to help our cause.

Benjamin Laniado is Secretary-General at CADENA Foundation, a Mexico-City-based Jewish NGO providing humanitarian aid to people affected by natural disasters, wars, and all sorts of catastrophes.