Guatemala's corruption rennaissance

Morales at his UNGA speech on 25th September. Morales shall leave the presidency in 2020. Source: Reuters

Morales at his UNGA speech on 25th September. Morales shall leave the presidency in 2020. Source: Reuters

Pionero Philanthropy’s New York Ambassador, Estefania Palomino, attended this year’s UN General Assembly with business cards in hand but unfortunately didn’t meet anyone representing Guatemala nor the country’s President who gave a speech on the 25th September.

Thanks to his speech, President Morales didn’t win any pro-UN friends claiming that despite the UN backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) strengthening Guatemala’s democratic institutions, it interfered in the country’s internal affairs and used excessive force. After 12 years in operation, the president did not extend CICIG’s mandate as it had “encouraged corruption, selectively pursued criminal cases based on ideological bias and sown “judicial terror”. No evidence has been presented to back his statement. 

CICIG and Guatemala’s recent history of corruption

The CICIG was created in 2006 when the United Nations and Guatemala set up the Commission as an independent body charged with investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in Guatemala.  

Following the end of the 36-year civil war ending in 1996 and the signing of the Peace Accords, there was overwhelming popular support for the commission, a fact still true today - 72% of the population support CICIG.

Supporters of CICIG demonstrate in Guatemala Sept 2018 (UN Human Rights/Twitter)

Like in many post-conflict nations, applying Peace Accords is a complicated and uncomfortable process requiring deep, structural changes within usually weak political and judicial bodies. In Guatemala, these changes were necessary due to the extensive infiltration of organized mafia-like networks within judicial, legislative and executive branches meaning that such interests pose grave threats to the population’s wellbeing. Today these networks still exert a strong influence on state institutions and continue threatening human rights defenders and official legal investigators.  

The CICIG was born in 2007 from extended lobbying by Guatemalan civil society, concerned about the effect of the criminal networks on Guatemala’s democracy and population. In 2006, the Guatemalan government asked the UN to help establish an initiative that would assist in investigating and dismantling such networks.  The commission was built on the concept that “Guatemala was not simply outsourcing its justice system, but rather relied on the expertise of the CICIG to work hand-in-hand with the country’s prosecutors and police, helping to build their capacities in the process.” 

Despite anti-CICIG proponents claiming that the Commission endangers Guatemala’s sovereignty, this may to a certain degree be true. Of course, having a foreign-funded, unelected body intimately involved in a country’s legislative and judicial structure is highly intrusive and undemocratic. However, CICIG did not have prosecutorial powers and could only start investigations upon approval of a judge. CICIG’s position was only that of co-plaintiff with the Attorney General’s office and again, “the aim of the commission was to bolster, rather than supplant, the capacity and legitimacy of national institutions.”  

CICIG’s successes:

What changed?

Despite Morales’ original 2015 “Not corrupt, not a thief” anti-corruption platform and immediate extension of CICIG’s mandate upon taking office, his relationship quickly soured with the commission. Many suspect this is because CICIG’s mandate started hitting too close to home. So what happened? 

First, CICIG’s 2015 discovery of a customs scandal – known as La Línea – blew the cover of many high ranking offcials profiteering from charging importer fees in exchange for fraudulently lowering taxes on goods brought into Guatemala. In the words of Professor Jo-Marie Burt, a Guatemala expert at George Mason University; “Cicig-backed investigations revealed how counterinsurgency military officials and their economic backers transferred their power and privilege from the war years into new clandestine parallel powers through organised crime and corruption.”  

After following the money, it was discovered that elite business owners were involved in illicit campaign financing in return for political favors and public contracts. Not long after, in August 2017, CICIG alleged that Morales and his party had failed to report almost $1min funds during the 2015 campaign. CICIG was unsuccessful when appealing to Congress on 3 separate occasions to strip Morales of immunity so he could be investigated which shed light on how entrenched illicit interests lie within both government branches. Congress not only maintained Morales’ immunity but also passed a bill to lower penalties for illegal campaign funding. Thankfully, the population’s outrage pressured the legislation to be rolled back.

 Shortly after, Morales expelled the CICIG commissioner from the country which the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional and then a fraud trial began surrounding Morales’ son and brother in additional to later allegations of illicit 2015 campaign funding. His family members were cleared of fraud and were charged with misappropriating public funds.  Morales vowed to “disobey” rulings he considers illegal, which according to political analyst Luis Solano, would constitute a “technical coup”.

 All the while, the US government has remained quiet with regard to confronting Morales given his support to Trump administration’s policy on moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem…challenging the Maduro regime in Venezuela” and more recently regarding his support for declaring Guatemala a “Safe 3rd country”. However, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “privately, U.S. officials sharply questioned the action as contrary to the U.S. bipartisan policy of supporting anti-corruption and the rule of law in Guatemala.”

What now?

On the 3rd September 2019, CICIG formally left Guatemala and released a report; “Guatemala: a captured state” that summarized its key findings during its 12-year tenure. Key findings and case studies include illicit political party funding, the degradation of the political elite, press assassinations and the subordination of legislative and judicial bodies to pass laws to benefit private interests.

A Congressional Commission composed of partisan Morales supporters has been established in Guatemala that is investigating and determining the existence of illegal or arbitrary actions of CICIG and whether they endangered the human rights of Guatemala’s inhabitants. At the time of writing, the Constitutional Court has presented an Executive Order stating the illegality of such a commission. 

Is the future looking brighter?

The CICIG’s departure was a gigantic step backwards in Guatemala’s development and a validation of the continued strength of the same civil war elite networks that call the shots to the detriment of the broader population. But let’s look at the reality and facts consistently reported from international and national nonprofits, civil society groups, independent ombudsmen and simple day-to-day citizens. Corruption is apathetically accepted as the norm in Guatemala at every level of government, institution and society.   

CICIG is crucial in order to continue its great strides in strengthening judicial institutions, the rule of law and anti-corruption policies. Without CICIG, Guatemala risks reversing the progress made in reducing homicides, strengthening institutions and consolidating the message that corruption is no longer tolerated in Guatemala. Even after 12 years of CICIG’s presence, the country is not yet prepared to fully unravel decades of engrained networks and corrupt practices, it still needs an independent body to support it on its journey. 

The incoming 2020 president, Alejandro Giammattei has signaled his support for creating an Anti Corruption Commission and shall be visiting the US and seeking international support and donors for such a commission. It is unclear how the commission shall operate and the extent of its independence in comparison to the CICIG. Nevertheless, he isn’t supportive of directly reinstating the CICIG to its former format.

Two indigenous women crossing the Plaza de Constitución     Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Image

Two indigenous women crossing the Plaza de Constitución


We shall see what the future holds however what is certain, is that Pionero Philanthropy shall continue supporting and promoting the nonprofit community organizations who throughout all the political turmoil, are constantly fighting and working on the ground for a more just, equitable and flourishing Guatemala.

Déjà vu US immigration rhetoric - an important history reminder

By Nicole Stankewicz

“We should build a wall of brass around the country” (John Jay 1750s). “It is not beyond possibility that the day might come — and may God forbid it — when an organized hyphenated vote in American politics might have the balance of voting power to elect our government” (President Warren Harding 1920). 

“Americans must rule America” (American Party slogan 1850s).

“Europe is vomiting! In other words, the scum of immigration is viscerating [sic] upon our shores” (1890s newspaper).  

A Chinese “invasion” was the talk of immigration rhetoric over a century and a half ago in the US.

A Chinese “invasion” was the talk of immigration rhetoric over a century and a half ago in the US.

Any of these inflammatory statements could be pulled from the headlines in the last few years and the debate about immigration in the US has increasingly intensified particularly since the 2016 election. Many have claimed the current immigration situation is unprecedented but in reality, the United States’ complicated relationship with immigration began even before it became a sovereign nation.  

Negative commentary about immigrants began before the United States achieved its independence from Britain.  For example, in the 1750s, founding father Benjamin Franklin lamented the large numbers of German immigrants noting that signage contained multiple languages and expressing concern that these immigrants could become numerous enough to outnumber the English settlers.  From that time to now, the United States has embraced immigrants even as it has vilified them.

Among other descriptions, the word invasion has been used to describe groups of immigrants from, among other places, China, Japan, Korea, India, Latin America, and Catholics.  

Italians, Germans, and Irish have historically been told to go back to where they came and the United States strong-armed governments in Eastern and Southern Europe to cooperate in preventing their citizens from immigrating to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Immigrants from nearly all countries have been blamed throughout American history for a collection of evils including stealing jobs, increasing crime rates, and infiltrating the United States to wrest control from its citizens.  

The immigrants’ country of origin has changed depending on era, but the rhetoric to describe them has remained remarkably consistent. SOURCE:

The immigrants’ country of origin has changed depending on era, but the rhetoric to describe them has remained remarkably consistent. SOURCE:

The United States was, in fact, built entirely on immigration.  The oldest city founded by Europeans in what is now the United States was St. Augustine – founded in 1565 by the Spanish.  The British followed with their first (ultimately unsuccessful) colony at Roanoke twenty years later. From there, the growth of the country has been fueled by immigration. As of 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were approximately 45 million immigrants living in the United States – about 13.7% of the population.  In comparison, that percentage was 14.4%, 14.8%, and 14.7% in 1870, 1890, and 1910 respectively. These percentages changed in subsequent years after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 – the purpose of which was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.    

In truth, the more you read about the history of immigration in the United States, the more you realize it’s the same story told at different points in history.  In years gone by, immigrants made the journey on ships. Now, that journey is just as likely to be made over land. In both instances, the trips often were – and are – expensive, frightening, and perilous.  These individuals seek an escape from poverty and, with increasing frequency, from violence.  Doctors Without Borders has described the route immigrants have taken from the Northern Triangle of Central America through Mexico as the world’s second most dangerous migration route.  Despite the danger facing them, many immigrants accept the risk to flee to the shores of a country that has had an oftentimes hostile relationship with immigration. But, for those fleeing violence, the danger of the journey outweighs the danger of their homeland.  

Historically, each wave of immigration was seen as catastrophic and, over time, those fears have been unfounded.  Throughout history, each new wave brings renewed fears that the newcomers will cause chaos and threaten the very fabric of the United States.  For example, a cartoon from 1855 depicted Catholics immigrating to the US as an invading army of foreigners led by the Pope.  An 1891 cartoon depicted a man informing Uncle Sam that “[i]f Immigration was properly Restricted you would no longer be troubled with Anarchy, Socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!".  In the late 19th Century, countless political cartoons took aim at the Chinese immigrants coming to the United States including mockery of their physical and cultural traits.  The political cartoons of the past have been replaced with the memes of today. But the message is much the same.

Certainly, these grim tales do not represent the views of all Americans – either today or through history.  However, as the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

People rally with flags at Brooklyn Borough Hall as Yemeni bodega and grocery-stores shut down to protest US President Donald Trump’s travel ban. (AFP Photo)

People rally with flags at Brooklyn Borough Hall as Yemeni bodega and grocery-stores shut down to protest US President Donald Trump’s travel ban. (AFP Photo)

Today’s tales of fear and discrimination are not new.  The struggles of those pursing hope for a better life are not new. Reasonable people can disagree on what form immigration laws and enforcement should take.  It’s a difficult topic with no easy answer. However, truth should be respected.

The lessons of the past should be learned from. Most importantly however, history has shown us that in the debate on immigration, one basic fact seems consistently overlooked Immigrants are not a political question or subject for a meme – they are people.


The lessons of the past should be learned from. Most importantly however, history has shown us that in the debate on immigration, one basic fact seems consistently overlooked; Immigrants are not a political question or subject for a meme – they are people.

Guatemala is not even a safe country for its own people

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The news regarding the relationship between Guatemala and the US has been impossible to ignore in recent weeks.

To summarise, Guatemala’s President was blocked by the Constitutional Court to sign a “Safe 3rd Country” agreement with the US on July 15th. Shortly after, Trump threatened Guatemala with sanctions on remittances, imports and travel bans as punishment for not cooperating.  The threats worked and a few days later, an agreement was signed in the Oval office between Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart.

According to Susan Fratzke, who worked in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, these Safe Country agreements “require migrants and refugees to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach”.  However, in agreement with Anita Isaacs, ex- consultant at the State Department on corruption and organized crime in Central AmericaGuatemala is not a safe country for Guatemalans, let alone for anyone else”.  

It is painfully ironic to call Guatemala a “Safe Country” when the largest proportion of immigrants (over 1/3) at the US southern border come from Guatemala in the first place.


Let’s look at some facts:

To compound the above ,the police force are distrusted and feared by the public and are inefficient, corrupt and abusive – as much as the criminals. They are underfunded, poorly trained and..frequently incapable or unwilling to confront criminals and gain the public trust needed to build a state based on rule of law.”

To add more insult to injury, even if the US were to considerably support Guatemala’s efforts to set itself up as a “Safe 3rd Country” with funding the necessary infrastructure needed, no-one should be under any illusions that such funding will go wholly where it is needed. One only needs to look at Guatemala’s recent track record of politicians who effectively steal from the public and private purse. To name just one example, the current president, elected under the “Not corrupt, not a thief” slogan, conveniently and without warning expelled the independent, UN backed anti-corruption commission after they found evidence rather too close to home of illicit campaign funding. 

Guatemala’s current president was voted in with his “Not corrupt or a thief” which has been dramatically been put into question upon his expulsion of the Anti-corruption commission following their investigations into his background.

Guatemala’s current president was voted in with his “Not corrupt or a thief” which has been dramatically been put into question upon his expulsion of the Anti-corruption commission following their investigations into his background.

Despite the signing of peace accords in 1996, reforms failed to purge corrupt officials who reigned in wartime. Furthermore, 25% of donations to Guatemala’s political parties come from organized crime networks and the other 25% from the elite meaning that the country continues to operate at the mercy of a small number of interests rather than in favour of the general population.

We shall be keeping a close eye on the developments in the coming weeks and months however many of Pionero’s partner nonprofits are understandably concerned.  Guatemala’s resources are already stretched and services are subpar, even for its own population. For example, Guatemala’s hospitals cover 17% of the population  and poverty rates increased from 55% in 2000 to 60%in 2014, in sharp contrast to the significant reduction in poverty, both in Latin America in general and in Central America in particular

We are keeping our fingers crossed from Guatemala and hope that similar agreements shall not be echoed in the neighbouring Northern Triangle countries.

8 Reasons why Pionero Philanthropy’s work is Invaluable

My self-deprecating English nature has got me in trouble lately with some of Pionero’s US supporters.

One board members exasperating said Harriette, you don’t realise how much your work is of value!” A publicity expert also barked at me for apologizing when my earphones fell out and for, in fact, apologizing EVER.

So, seeing as I am an English girl operating in the US philanthropy environment, it’s time I write a post that is in line with my most recent mantra; “More bullish, less british”. In other words, “Stop this British humility nonsense and start (rather uncomfortably) being unashamedly confident in what you are doing”.

So here goes, an unapologetic post explaining why what we do is of such great value.

1.)    Pionero is the ONLY specialized and impartial source on nonprofits in the region.

No professional nonprofit evaluator or consultancy exists that focuses on Guatemalan (and in the near future, Northern Triangle) nonprofits. It is impossible for foreign philanthropists to find impartial, specialized guidance regarding launching philanthropy programs in the region with grassroots nonprofits. 

© Eduardo Perez/Newscom

© Eduardo Perez/Newscom

2.)   Pionero plays a key role in addressing the immigration crisis at the US border

Although the immigration debate is complicated and multi-faceted, Philanthropy plays a key role in assisting vulnerable Guatemalan communities who are likely to be forced to migrate.

With US aid cuts and little information for Philanthropists regarding how to address the root causes of forced migration, Pionero connects donors to grassroots projects that tackle these issues. These nonprofits are high impact and help families to stay together and thrive in their own communities.

Pionero team visiting a local afterschool nonprofit in a crime red zone

Pionero team visiting a local afterschool nonprofit in a crime red zone

3.)    Pionero inspires donor trust

1 in 3 people in the US don’t trust national non-profits, so we imagine the ratio for trust in grassroots nonprofits in Guatemala isn’t any better.

Pionero increases trust in Guatemalan nonprofits by providing a professional, diligent and transparent service so philanthropists can donate with confidence.

There is a hole in research regarding the Philanthropy environment in Central America so our research department is working on finding the trust ratio through this survey with US donors  (take part!)

Family homes with 1 room and dirt floors are very common in Guatemala. Gender roles are also still very separate in rural areas.

Family homes with 1 room and dirt floors are very common in Guatemala. Gender roles are also still very separate in rural areas.

4.)  Pionero is culturally attuned and in the loop

High calibre consultants on the ground in Guatemala understand foreign donor and nonprofit needs. They know the culture and what projects and ideas will be most effective based on a deep understanding and awareness of local realities. Pionero is able to forge close relationships with nonprofits here due to its committed presence.

5.)   Pionero can act in real time on the ground

We identify outstanding nonprofits and support them in real time.  If a donor or nonprofit for example needs assistance in areas such as monitoring or implementation, we act quickly and effectively – boots on the ground!

Pionero staff Harriette and Daniel scoping out the local neighbourhood of a nonprofit in Quetzalenango.

Pionero staff Harriette and Daniel scoping out the local neighbourhood of a nonprofit in Quetzalenango.

6.)   Pionero has a relevant methodology and academic prowess

Our methodology was created and tested over the course of a year to ensure no reinvention of the wheel whilst ensuring it is workable to the Guatemalan context. We boast outstanding scholars and practitioners on the team who have vast experience with nonprofits and donors alike.

7.)   Transparency – we walk the talk

1 of the 5 pillars we use when evaluating nonprofits is Transparency. Pionero equally holds itself to the same standards. We have annual reports online, impact reports and shall have 990s and financial statements online when we have our 501c3 status through. We are also transparent in how we operate and charge for services.

We do not take a percentage fee off the nonprofit donation – we ethically disagree with this practice. We instead charge the philanthropist simply for the time we spend supporting their vision. 

8.)  Pionero has non-profit status and low overheads

Pionero Philanthropy is a nonprofit organization itself. We charge fees for our services in order to cover our costs, not to make a profit to please investors or shareholders.

As we are based also in Guatemala, our operation costs are comparably smaller than nonprofits located in more developed countries.

 So there you have it, 8 reasons why Pionero Philanthropy is of great value and service. Contact us if you have any questions or are interested in collaborating!

Investing in grassroots change makers is a better solution to the immigration crisis

I was recently invited to attend the Global Philanthropy Forum which was a huge honour. I was hobnobbing amongst Philanthropy Industry superstars such as Bill Clapp from the Seattle International Foundation, Charles Koch from The Charles Koch Foundation and Peter Eigen, Founder of Transparency International.

I was eager to learn more from peers, grantmakers and academics in the field regarding the Philanthropy environment in California as it is a key area from which Pionero Philanthropy is seeking donors to support grassroots nonprofits in the northern triangle.

Panelists in the discussion “Taking on Immigration at the Border” at The Global Philanthropy Forum 2019

Panelists in the discussion “Taking on Immigration at the Border” at The Global Philanthropy Forum 2019

On the second day, I keenly attended a Keynote discussion titled “Taking on Immigration at the border”. Admirable panelists took the stage such as Johnathan Ryan from Raices, Maria Moreno who runs Las Americas Newcomer School for recently arrived immigrant children and Carolyn Miles from Save the Children. I agreed with their sentiments and that the conditions with which immigrants have to encounter when they reach the border and throughout their journey are abhorrent at best.

Harriette Rothwell leading discussion at her table talk session regarding Philanthropy’s role in the Immigration Crisis.

Harriette Rothwell leading discussion at her table talk session regarding Philanthropy’s role in the Immigration Crisis.

The discussion however, failed to meaningfully address the root causes of why people are fleeing the northern triangle in the first place. Surely, addressing the cause rather than treating the symptoms is the wrong way to go about making meaningful change? If the purpose of Philanthropy is to support these communities and the humanitarian issues surrounding it, the root causes of their suffering must be dealt with. Simply giving a helping hand once the damage has been done, trauma sustained and families torn apart doesn’t in my opinion, cut it.

Furthermore, I believe that in the long run, welcoming more immigrants from the region makes the overall situation worse in the countries from whence they came.  

As Roy Beck demonstrates with his impressively effective gumball demonstration, The 1 million immigrants that the US does take in every year are those that if they did not emigrate, would be the agents for change to improve the fate of their home communities. Every year, balancing births and deaths, there are 80 million more people in poverty. The US could take 5 million extra a year but it will never get ahead of the problem, not in this century.

I emphatically believe that the true heroes are those who have the wherewithal to emigrate to another country but instead STAY in their communities to apply their skills to help their fellow countrymen. These are the true champions and unsung heroes that I see and work with day in and day out. These are the courageous community, business and nonprofit leaders who tirelessly work (usually for peanuts) to stimulate and support their communities so that they can lift themselves out of poverty and not have to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their family and emigrate.

People like Allan Ortiz in the video below from one of our many outstanding nonprofit partners, Caras Alegres. Thanks to Allan and his small team, he has helped lift many families such as that of Maria out of poverty (see below video for the full story). It is people like Allan in which Philanthropists need to support in order for long term sustainable change and improvement in these communities.

Immigration will never be an effective way to deal with suffering of people in the world. 99.9% will never be able to emigrate to rich countries.

The only place they can be helped is where they live, Let’s empower and support those community leaders and grassroots initiatives that are already working in local communities so even more impact can be made.

Pionero Philanthropy partners with over 60 nonprofit partners in Guatemala who are the community change makers that Philanthropists must support in order to improve the current situation both at the border and in central american countries.

To find out how you can support these changemakers, contact us today for a free consultation.

Venezuela’s Crisis: Memories of a Neglected Border

By Estefania Palomino

The city where I was born and raised now seems to be on international news every single day. One morning during a coffee break at work, I picked up a newspaper and noticed the name of my hometown and a photo of Colombia’s President standing next to the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaidó, in a neighborhood I don’t exactly remember, but that can be easily situated minutes away from my home and my elementary school. They are wearing light shirts to overcome the overwhelming heat of Cúcuta’s afternoon sun. They are surrounded by cameras, reporters from many different countries, locals, and people who traveled from other towns to watch a concert organized in support of Venezuelan people to bring awareness to the humanitarian crisis in neighboring the country.

Estefania Palomino’s Family

Estefania Palomino’s Family

The photo, together with the images I see every day on T.V. or social media come with mixed feelings. On the one hand there are the common places, the corners, the bridges and roads I can identify; the faces of people that look like my family, like me. The breeze that smells like recently cut grass, like trees. Despite being a very sunny, hot and somewhat dry town, Cúcuta has always maintained its trees, and it was under the shadows of those Ceibas and Mango trees that I learned to walk, read, and smile. I can see those tired, familiar faces next to the President, excited and in awe to be there, to see him, even though Colombian politicians, especially the head of the central government, were never known to care about, like, or even visit remote areas of the country. But this day is different. I felt confused in seeing the images of so many important stakeholders gathered in this small city of hard-working people, of resilient people, that never seemed to matter much to anyone else except to its next-door neighbor.

 For many decades Norte de Santander (Colombia) and Táchira (Venezuela) only had each other. Like two abandoned children, we walked hand in hand though civil wars and scarcity, and coup d’eats, and decades of political turmoil. When supplies coming from the center of Colombia were either unaffordable or simply unavailable in Cúcuta, my family would make a 15-minute, hassle-free trip to either San Antonio or Urena, where we would find everything we needed. Having an open border was good for our communities, it was good for our businesses, and was even good for families who, like mine, had members living on both sides. My Colombian family often would visit my aunt and uncles in Venezuela, and they in turn would drive to visit my grandmother in Colombia. We would make a stop during our drive, not because the trip was long, but because we wanted to eat fresh cheese or strawberries, feel the cold air of the Venezuelan Andean mountains, and perhaps buy a loaf of sugary bread to bring back to Cúcuta.

Estefania (centre) with her brother and father

Estefania (centre) with her brother and father

 One of my earliest memories of these weekly international trips was asking my parents “are we in a different country now?” They would say “not yet” but I would continue asking incessantly, until the car crossed over the international bridge. Only after driving pass the Venezuelan flag would they say “now we are in a different country” and I would start giggling loudly and the entire car would laugh with me. I kept the same joke of asking my parents if we were in a different country well into my early teens. I kept it even though guards allied with Chavez’ government started enforcing border controls; their faces looking harsher, more violent, more xenophobic. I kept asking the same question on my mind, until it wasn’t funny anymore, until uttering these words out loud, next to a Venezuelan soldier, would reveal my Colombian accent and get us all in trouble.

 Chavez’ military aggressions and human rights violations against Colombians trying to cross the border were a common occurrence. Still people would try to visit their family members, trade with Venezuelan business, or get affordable gas for their cars in the Venezuelan stations. Love, family, and access to basic supplies are compelling needs, too difficult to ignore just because a government has decided to shut its doors to the outside world.  

Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia  Source: Fox News

Venezuelans crossing the border into Colombia Source: Fox News

Now most people are crossing the border the opposite way, dragging their malnourished  bodies from Venezuela to Colombia. Since the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, and the scarcity in food, medicines, and work, millions have traveled to Cúcuta, with others who have more resources or energy continuing their journey south to Peru, Chile or Argentina. For many, especially those from the most remote regions of Venezuela, Cúcuta is a promised land, a place with red cross responders, clean water, and food. However, the reality that those Venezuelans who cross the border to Cucuta find is somewhat disappointing. In large part to the uncoordinated humanitarian response by the Colombian government, many are unable to obtain the basic humanitarian aid that they were desperately seeking and what brought them to Cucuta in the first place.  

The Venezuelan government has tried to hide the jaw-dropping deprivation that it has subjugated upon its people. It denies the mere existence of a humanitarian crisis, the lack of essential vaccines and medicines even in major hospitals of Caracas. It denies its human rights violations, the people eating garbage on the streets, the dirty water now being consumed by Venezuelan children. Maduro would have even denied the blackout that left most of the country without electricity if it wasn’t because it interrupted his endless hours of verbiage on national TV. These are the hours that he spends trying to convince the Venezuelan people who cannot access outside, non-biased state-controlled media that everything is alright and that everything bad that is happening in Venezuela is due to a plot orchestrated by the United States. 

Venezuela is now at a decisive point in its history or at least we, the people who support change and democracy, hope so. National Assembly Speaker Juan Guaidó has been recognized as interim president of Venezuela by the governments of Argentina, Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and the United States. Guaidó seems different to previous opposition leaders; a self-made politician with a humble background and a life story that most middle-class Venezuelans can identify with. Still, Maduro’s government wants to make him appear as an oligarch and a traitor, a puppet serving U.S interests.

 The Latin American left distrusts Guaidó and the people around him. Many see him as a self-proclaimed leader with no democratic backing, regardless of the fact that declaring an interim President in extreme circumstances of democratic disruption was included in the Constitution crafted during Chavez’ government and tailored to its needs. Others fear a military intervention. They oppose the entry of humanitarian aid because they see the trucks loaded with essential medicines and food as trojan horses to initiate a possible U.S backed revolt. Many people fear more of the same old war, but now with Russian or U.S soldiers in their back yards. They fear the massacres, the violence many of them have already been through on both sides of the border under the grip of paramilitaries, guerrilla, or the Venezuelan regime. Who can blame them?

 The partisan connotations of the humanitarian aid recently sent to Venezuela are very clear and I can understand why so many people are weary of the good intentions of U.S politicians and world-renowned billionaires that a few years ago didn’t even know Cúcuta nor most of Táchira’s cities excited. I share those concerns and I wish there was someone ready to bring change to Venezuela and support all the necessary reforms without some ulterior motive. I also fear that after a transitional government takes over, all that it’s going to be left of Venezuela’s vacant institutions is the same hunger and misery befallen amongst its most vulnerable people. Only now, it would be called democracy and there would be more suits roaming the streets of Caracas, like in “good ol’ days” of Rafael Caldera.

 But there is something more profound in me that needs to speak out, something more powerful than my fears and apprehensions, something that perhaps most of my friends from Bogotá or New York cannot feel. It’s a yearning for change and hope. And not a hope that is pure and devoid of corporate and political evils. It’s a hope to embrace change as flawed, as uncooked, as unplanned as possible, because any, and I mean any, change is better than Maduro’s status quo. I see Maduro dancing to salsa music while most of the trucks carrying humanitarian aid are turned away, detained at different ports of entry. I see a soulless leader, one that regardless of his political ideology sincerely couldn’t care less about its citizens. A person that would dance, eat, laugh, and embezzle millions of dollars while the majority of its people are either fleeing or slowly dying next to him. I cannot stress enough the incredible importance of what a democratic transition would mean for Venezuela right now.


About the Author

Estefania is a global health lawyer and advocate who managed the Latin American portfolio of the women's rights and health division at the Wyss Foundation. Estefania worked as a staff attorney at one of the largest law firms in Colombia, Brigard & Urrutia, served as a visiting professional at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and co-founded the public interest law firm, IVO Legal.

Estefania holds a law degree from Universidad de Los Andes, an MA in International Law and Settlement of Disputes from the United Nations University for Peace, and an LL.M in Global Health Law from Georgetown University.

I may feel this because half of my heart is Venezuelan, or maybe its because I have all these wonderful memories, some of which I had the humbling honor of sharing with you. But I also believe that this gut feeling, this pressure I feel, comes from my unwavering commitment towards democracy and human rights. Because it’s easy, if you are on one side of the political spectrum to talk about impeaching leaders that violate human rights, separate families at international borders, and seek their personal gains while producing human suffering. So, it should be just as equally easy, equally important, and equally pressing to speak out against Maduro’s murderous regime, to demand the freedom of the Venezuelan people, and to unite around values such as compassion and empathy for those who are hungry, desperate, or dying of preventable diseases.

Why Pionero Philanthropy's partner nonprofits are exceptional!

We have searched across Guatemala to find the most outstanding nonprofits that are making a real impact in their communities.

Pionero works grassroots nonprofits that would not otherwise not be reached by donors due to their small size and limited resources.  

In fact, 20% of our partner nonprofits have an annual operating budget below $50,000, and 77% have no fundraising staff abroad.

A small tailoring business that receives microloans from a nonprofit.

A small tailoring business that receives microloans from a nonprofit.

Our partner nonprofits:

A health nonprofit that provides affordable healthcare to rural communities.

A health nonprofit that provides affordable healthcare to rural communities.

  • Have grassroots local leadership

  • Are integrated, in touch and trusted in the communities they serve

  • Have a real understanding of the cultural context in which they are operating, and where relevant, local indigenous languages

  • Implement services that are relevant to their community

  • Operate in remote communities where international organizations are not present

We work with nonprofits operating across 9 areas of need: Health, Education, Women, Community Development, Human Rights, Animal Welfare, Youth & Children, Crime, Environment & Conservation.

How Pionero evaluates nonprofits

We have created a database of nonprofits built on an academically and experientially backed methodology that is contextually relevant and impartially applied. We thoroughly evaluate all nonprofits against our five pillars evaluation criteria:

1.Impact Evidence

To assess each nonprofit’s impact we ask if they conduct social impact evaluation for their programs and ask for reports, statistics and data to backup their claims. We ask about the ways in which projects are developed, analyzing community involvement, methodology of community needs assessments, and relevance of service provided. In addition, we contact local governments and ask about the most high impact organizations in their municipality.

2. Evidence of Need

We list all issue areas targeted by our partner nonprofits per municipality and collect government data on the evidence of need for each service provided. For example, if we are analyzing an organization that provides scholarship in one municipality, we collect data on education indicators in the region including: literacy rate, percentage of population that completed primary/middle/high school, school retention rates, school attendance per gender, etc.

3. Transparency

We assess the transparency of nonprofits by analysing the amount of information made public. We look for audited financial statements online, list of board members, privacy policy, evidence of legal nonprofit status and annual reports in each organization’s website.

4. Efficiency

We analyse the efficiency of financial management of each organization by assessing their administrative expenses as a percentage of their total expenditure, number of employees, number of beneficiaries and yearly operating budget.

5. Sustainability

The analysis of sustainability is twofold: we look into financial sustainability and empowerment of local staff. Firstly, we collect data on a nonprofits funding model: what are their different sources of funding, the number of fundraising staff within the country they operate in and abroad. Secondly, we assess long-term plans and local engagement: the percentage of local staff in leadership positions, HR policies towards local staff and whether employees receive full benefits according to labor laws, and the possibility of an exit strategy where programs are fully run by local stakeholders.

This thorough evaluation process means we confidently recommend our partner nonprofits and donors have full assurance that their donations will be used for the right purpose.

Contact us for a free consultation to find out how you can impact the lives of others working with one of our outstanding partner nonprofits.

Nonprofit Spotlight - Niños de Guatemala - The unique challenges of Mid Size Nonprofits

By Maribeth Waldrep


It all started with a pair of shoes.

When a Dutch backpacker befriended a little girl without shoes outside Antigua in 2006, he teamed up with his Guatemalan Spanish teacher to do more than just donate a pair of shoes. More than ten years later, that one pair of shoes has evolved into 500 little pairs of feet - representing all the children who study at Niños de Guatemala’s three schools each day.

Niños de Guatemala, or “NDG”,  is an international nonprofit dedicated to education, empowerment, and entrepreneurship. In a country where the government spends just 3% of the national budget on education, access to quality learning is a challenge for the majority of Guatemalan children. Without proper education, children can not access higher-paying jobs or opportunities, continuing the inequity and poverty that cripples so many futures.

NDG’s three schools provide more than 500 children, from pre-kindergarten through middle school (adding a high school certificate this year), with quality teachers and classes, a nutritious daily snack, and ongoing family support. Social workers and psychologists partner with families to educate and understand each family’s needs, improving trust and student performance. We are proud of our high retention and graduation rates, and proud that many of our students are the first in their family to finish elementary school, middle school, and more.

Giving Tuesday 9.jpg

With the launch of the “Skills for Success” program this school year, NDG is focusing on providing students with the tools they need long-term. These include emotional intelligence, Spanish literacy, mathematics, technology and English language skills - key components for success in school, work, and life.  

After more than 10 years of rampant growth and successful programming, 2019 is a pivotal year of quality for NDG. With a new Country Director and experienced management team, NDG is ready to bring Skills to Success alive.

Niños de Guatemala, much like many mid-size nonprofits in Latin America, faces many unique challenges and opportunities in the coming years.

Philanthropists often see the struggles tiny nonprofits face; the one (wo)man show, where the few, passionate employees do it all - answering emails, planting gardens, filing legal paperwork, teaching students, fundraising. It’s not easy.

But midsize groups face similar challenges, even if they aren’t quite as visible upon first glance.

The common factor? Infrastructure.


With the exciting growth of programs (yay serving more children!) comes the need for even more infrastructure and “behind-the-scenes” support. From databases to track student progress to employees with the expertise and knowledge to implement more advanced programming, mid-size nonprofits, too, need investments in people and tools to survive long-term. More than expansion, organizations like Niños de Guatemala need investments to stabilize and improve quality for the best outcomes for our children.

Additionally, medium sized nonprofits need the expertise of committed long-term volunteers and partners. Volunteers can have a huge impact on an organization’s effectiveness. Passionate individuals willing to devote free time as Board members can help plan strategy and assist with fundraising for sustainability. Companies and groups can step in to help with day-to-day program needs or infrastructure projects. Even one or two additional committed individuals can help take the weight off staff and improve program impact. By partnering with staff and learning the genuine needs of the organization, volunteers can help mitigate some of the underlying infrastructure issues that continue creeping up on growing nonprofits.

With so many goals for our students, from incorporating daily technology to providing more intensive, ongoing training to all teachers, it’s critical to partner with the community for support.


At Niños de Guatemala, we need partners to:

  1. Sponsor a child’s education, ensuring each of the 500 children have a champion, advocate, and long-term partner supporting their education.

  2. Volunteer to support dual-immersion English programming and technology courses.

  3. Invest in infrastructure like servers, databases, and staff training.

  4. Bring committed groups to visit and understand our mission and long-term vision.

    Together, we can make sure that all 500 children in our schools go on to share their own stories of success. Hopefully, they, too, will be able to give back to their community as partners one day.


Maribeth Waldrep is the Head of Fundraising at Niños de Guatemala. With over eight years of experience directing fundraising efforts at educational organizations in Colorado, USA, she is committed to raising awareness about the needs of the nonprofit sector. A dedicated advocate for education, children, and families, she loves making connections with people and sharing her enthusiasm for Niños each day.

4 Small Nonprofit Challenges that Major Donors should understand (a Latin America lense)

Over and over again whilst working in collaboration with different nonprofits in Latin America, the same 4 challenges for small, local, organizations presented themselves. It is therefore essential that Major Donors understand these challenges if they want to be responsible and committed to making long term sustainable change in the region.

Supporting small nonprofits in Latin America has many benefits including higher comparative impact due to lower overhead and running costs and higher local community involvement and sustainability prospects. Nevertheless, before doing so, take into account the following challenges before taking the plunge!

Challenge 1: Visibility

A little girl at one of our Education nonprofits wearing traditional dress

A little girl at one of our Education nonprofits wearing traditional dress

With over 1.5 million nonprofits in the US and 10 million worldwide, it’s no surprise that those with the loudest voices and biggest marketing budgets get noticed first. Furthermore, donors are bombarded more than ever in history with advertising. For example a city dweller 30 years ago saw 2,000 ads a day, compared with 5,000 today. This means that gaining donor attention is even more problematic for small nonprofits with already stretched resources. For Latin American small nonprofits, the geographic and cultural distance on top of other challenges make their visibility even smaller.

Advice for donors:

Do your research before deciding on where to direct your giving. Don’t go with the shiniest looking nonprofit (even if your best friend recommends it). First, analyse your values and identify which themes are important to you (eg Health, Education, Human Rights etc). Then research online or hire a consultant specialist to make recommendations based on these factors amongst others such as length and level of involvement etc.

Challenge 2. Nonprofit Lack of Donor Understanding

Another School nonprofit. Here is Harriette getting to know the kids. This girl was telling her about her pets!

Another School nonprofit. Here is Harriette getting to know the kids. This girl was telling her about her pets!

For small nonprofits run by locals who are trying to attract foreign donors, it is usually very difficult to attract them due to a lack of knowledge regarding donor values and drivers. For example, during the evaluation process when my Philanthropy Consultancy vets nonprofits in Guatemala, a few nonprofits were surprised and uncomfortable when we asked about financials. One of the reasons for this is because there isn’t a very transparent or strict accountability system for nonprofits in comparison to more developed countries.

This lack of knowledge on the nonprofit side regarding foreign donor expectations means that they don’t appreciate the importance of transparency measures such as publishing annual reports or having a semi-professional website. As a result, these nonprofits are likely to be passed over by potential foreign major donors.

Advice for donors:

If you want to work with a small locally run non-profit located in a developing country, make sure you do your homework beforehand. You need to understand that your expectations may be different to what the nonprofit thinks they are so ensure from the start that you communicate your expectations clearly. You will need to ensure that the nonprofit is transparent and competent at reporting it’s expenses and how they use your donation. It is worth the effort collaborating with small foreign nonprofits as they are more likely to make a more community led and sustainable impact but you must also be patient and understanding of the nonprofit context too.

Challenge 3: Low Trust and High Corruption


A general lack of trust in Latin American communities is extremely high due to historical, political and cultural factors. Public institutions are rife with corruption meaning that even services designed to protect citizens such as the police cannot be relied upon.

This hugely stifles nonprofit progress and growth. For example, “an idea arose to create a database to control and track drug cartels, but the lack of trust among officials rendered it inoperable because they could not find people to run the program.” This is another factor that translates into a low level of transparency and visibility regarding nonprofit income, for fear of extortion.

Advice for donors:

Bear this important culturally ingrained factor in mind when dealing with latin American nonprofits. Corruption within public bodies is one of the reasons why so many nonprofits exist in the first place so when involving yourself with public bodies, go in with your eyes wide open regarding the sad reality that they may let you and/the nonprofit down.

Challenge 4: Covering Operating Costs and low unrestricted funding sources

A microfinance nonprofit helped this lady with the set up and initial operating costs to start a garment making business.

A microfinance nonprofit helped this lady with the set up and initial operating costs to start a garment making business.

Operations are large, essential costs that all nonprofits need help with and 48% of the nonprofits that Pionero Philanthropy represents said that staffing costs are what they most need funding for. This simple fact, typically puts off naive donors who prefer to see where their money goes such as towards material items rather than into unrestricted funds which can be used at the nonprofit’s discretion. Nevertheless, as Kevin Starr for the Stanford Social Innovation Review says; “Unrestricted money makes an organization work smoothly, enables innovation, and provides fuel for growth. It unlocks potential and allows people to get down to business”.  

Advice for donors:

Seriously consider having your donation cover essential running costs of the nonprofit. Think of it this way, when buying a cake, you wouldn’t stipulate that you pay only towards the eggs and sugar and another customer will have to pay for the electricity and staff salary. See this article for further elaboration on this point. There is no problem asking for an expenses and progress report regarding how your donation is being put to use however an element of trust also needs to exist when donating to operating costs. If you have any doubts regarding how your donation is being spent, rethink your nonprofit choice or employ a third party consultant on the ground to impartially verify that everything is going to plan.

If you keep these 4 factors in mind, there should be no surprises (well, fewer), if you choose to direct your Philanthropy towards the Latin America region. Even though giving locally or nationally may be an easier, more convenient option, the Latin America region only receives 6.3% of US Foundation Giving with a mere 0.6% going to Central America.

What does this mean? Well, there is a lot of impact to be made if Major Donors are informed and dedicated to long term change.

So, are you up for the challenge?  

Contact us today for a free consultation to get you started on your Philanthropy Journey in Latin America!

Stopping the Caravanas. Philanthropy’s role.

Here at Pionero Philanthropy, we want to make something clear about the Caravanas coming from Central America; simplistic reactionary measures such as increasing border law enforcement or cutting aid are simply, not credible or long-term solutions.

We are also not pretending that there are simple solutions either but by looking at some of the reasons why it is occurring, we hope, we can give some insight into some possible ways that philanthropists can help.

According to immigration lawyer Jennifer Harbury, who does pro bono work at the border for asylum seekers, “These people have the most horrifying stories I have ever heard”.

Most are fleeing for their lives, a situation that many in the developed world can not even begin to comprehend. See below video from the Washington Post to see a selection of these stories.

According to Customs and Border Protection data, Guatemalans accounted for nearly half of all migrants who sought to enter the United States and having lived in this special country for over three years, I have a greater understanding about why people choose to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their families and risk the US crossing.

I see and hear the hardships, inequality, corruption and lawlessness as well as the sheer courage and determination of many earnest citizens to make things work. At Pionero Philanthopy too, we work with incredible people and nonprofits who are making daily efforts to help resolve complex issues from empowering women and making more nutritional corn, to providing affordable healthcare and education to the most impoverished.

However, don’t take my word for it, here are some figures to illustrate the situation:


I could continue however when presented with these facts in addition to hearing horrifying stories by regular Guatemalan people, you realise that those who are trying to cross the border are not chancers, but desperate to survive because staying in their own country is less safe than fleeing. The Supreme Court ruled that out of 73,000 credible-fear claims, 76 percent were found to have a credible fear of return.

“But they aren’t our problem” I hear you cry. Well, as long as the US shares a land border with Mexico, migrants will continue to be an ongoing issue, wall or no wall, unless reasons and opportunities are created for Latinos to stay in their own countries.

Here’s a thought: Maybe it’s patriotic to direct aid and philanthropy efforts towards Latinamerica? If these efforts create jobs, opportunities and security, then central americans will want to stay in their own countries and not want to take the risk in leaving. Foreign aid actually protects US interests and as by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said;  "Our aid to #Honduras & #Guatemala isn’t charity. It helps us more than them," "By seizing drugs before they enter U.S. & kill Americans."

Foreign Government support is an important element in order to strengthen state systems and processes such as the The UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala which investigates and prosecutes serious crime in Guatemala. However, from a private Major Donor standpoint, there are some organizations that you can support that form part of the ecosystem of supportive civil society.

Here at Pionero Philanthropy, we have a comprehensive database of outstanding NPOs that play a key role in the community that help create opportunities and brighter futures for Guatemalans. Every organization has an important role to play from strengthening Women’s Rights education and representation so domestic violence sufferers are able to get the support they need, to after school education programs with at-risk youth which lowers the likelihood of gang violence, another reason why people leave for the border.

Contact us about your part for a brighter future for all Americans in both Central and North America.


What do Guatemala nonprofits most need funding for? You may not like the answer....

When asking philanthropists “how and where do you want to help?” many respond with “where it is most needed.”

However, despite this initial and well-meaning sentiment from donors, when we asked our nonprofit partners “where is funding most needed?” 48% responded with an answer that isn’t much to many philanthropists’ liking:

Operations and Overhead.


These costs include utilities, supplies and rent however almost half of the most requested area of operations funding (48%) is for salaries and staffing (see left).

These costs are not tangible, not “Instagramable”, not something where you can see a clear before and after. As a result, many donors don’t get the same “buzz” out of funding these essential costs in comparison with, for example, handing over school books to 100 smiling kids.

This article wants to urge philanthropists to seriously think about directing their contributions towards this crucial area of much needed funding if they are serious about making a long-lasting, meaningful and sustainable impact.

It’s time to get real and accept that overheads and operations are the foundation for nonprofit (NPO) success and a funding area donors should be proud to support.

So why contribute towards Operations funding, and more specifically, staffing?

  1. People Power is everything in small nonprofits

Our Services and Operations Manager in a nonprofit partner’s office in Xela, Guatemala

Our Services and Operations Manager in a nonprofit partner’s office in Xela, Guatemala

The lifeblood of nonprofits is its people. During our NPO evaluation visits here in Guatemala, Pionero staff travelled up and down the country and met individuals who hold together whole nonprofit operations on a shoestring.

These heroes are fueled solely by exquisite Guatemalan coffee and their unwavering belief in their work despite the obstacles and weight of responsibility in their communities. They need investment, support and capacity building, without which the NPO would become inefficient, unstable and ultimately unsustainable.

We at Pionero believe that in order for NPOs to perform well in all 5 key pillars of sustainability, impact, efficiency, transparency and relevance, investment in additional, better trained or specialist staff is the foundation that needs fundamental maintenance in order for everything else to fall into place within the organization.

This may mean that Pionero makes it a condition of funding that philanthropists invest in nonprofit training in areas such as Strategic Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation and other key skills that the NPO fundamentally needs in order to give it a fighting chance at long-term stability and sustainability.

It may also mean that Pionero strongly urges recruitment. Too often, Pionero staff encountered overstretched staff heroically holding things together whose nonprofit would benefit most just from another person sharing the load.

2.) Just because Operations isn’t visibly satisfying, doesn’t mean it isn’t important

Manual labourers at a reforestation NPO in Xela

Manual labourers at a reforestation NPO in Xela

Just because philanthropists may not physically see their contribution to Operations and staffing, doesn’t mean that the impact doesn’t exist or cannot be measured or expressed.

In this regard, it is the responsibility of those measuring and evaluating impact to convincingly express it in compelling ways. This reporting service is something that Pionero can provide to donors should the nonprofit not have the resources to do so.

To give a simple example, one animal welfare/rescue nonprofit we partner with desperately needs an administrator so that the directors can escape the back office and focus on their mission of raising awareness about animal welfare issues in the local community. In reflecting this impact, many quantitative and qualitative measures can be installed to fully reflect the sizable impact made to the donor.

For example, a time and opportunity cost analysis using attractive graphics could reflect how the directors were spending their time before and after employing the administrator. The directors would for example be able to increase the number of community education campaigns, neutering clinics and numbers of rescued animals. Mix these figures with photo evidence and you have a compelling impact report for the donor - and all this impact because they invested in an Operational cost.

3.) Many funds are “Restricted” and Operations Grants are extremely limited

Medical supplies at a Health nonprofit is Sacatepequez, Guatemala

Medical supplies at a Health nonprofit is Sacatepequez, Guatemala

Many NPOs reported that a large proportion of their funds are restricted to very specific areas. For example, if an NPO runs a campaign to raise money for medication, any excess raised cannot legally go towards anything other than medication. Similarly and more importantly, Grant-making foundations prefer to fund specific projects and capital expenditures, rather than general overhead and operating expenses.

To give another example, one NPO education partner said they relatively easily found funding for large scale school construction projects. The problem they now face however, is how to sustainably employ staff to run the schools themselves. We challenge you to find a grant or donor that solely wants to fund day to day ongoing operational costs!

We at Pionero feel we have the responsibility to shed light on the findings of our NPO evaluation visits and to clearly communicate what our nonprofit partners truly need. Donor education and awareness raising regarding the importance of funding Operations is imperative if Pionero is to also stay true to its values.

So let's break the old fashioned notion that overhead is bad. Let’s be PROUD to fund essential bread and butter NPO operations that make nonprofits better fulfil their missions.

Contact Pionero to find out how you can support our outstanding nonprofits better serve their communities

Make a complementary consultation appointment with our friendly and passionate team!

Living our Values, Walking the Talk

Pionero Philanthropy has had an extremely positive, eventful and exciting month!

We welcomed a new Donor Relations Manager, Head Researcher and Communications Manager in addition to taking new client calls and making new Nonprofit partnerships in more remote areas of Guatemala.

With all these encouraging developments, I also felt it was time to take a moment, reassess, and revisit the strategic plan because “of all the contrasts between the successful and unsuccessful or between the leader and the follower, the single most important differentiating factor is strategy” (Olson and Currie 1992).

Furthermore, in addition to going through the Strategy process, I personally felt it was just as important to, as a team, reflect on ensuring that the company is walking its talk and living its values. It was time to hold a mirror up to Pionero and ensure it is meeting or exceeding the same high standards it expects of the NPOs it collaborates with.

The team spent 4 days in Antigua, Guatemala, at Pionero HQ revisiting and fine-tuning our values, vision and mission and making a Strategy Map which broke down these bigger picture elements into goals, objectives, measures, targets, and actions with deadlines.

So what did we decide in order for Pionero to deliver maximum Impact, Efficiency, Transparency, Sustainability and Relevance? How can we lead by example and be true to our expectations of others? Below is a selection of the objectives we committed to put into action for 2018/2019 based on the 5 pillars we evaluate our NPOs on.

1.)    Transparency

  • We shall publish comprehensive Annual Reports that shall be published online which go into more detail than what is required.

  • We shall publish our 2019 Strategic Plan online.

  • We shall always be open and honest in our communications to both NPOs and Donors in order to keep both parties satisfied.

2.)    Impact

  • We shall publish comprehensive Impact Reports using a variety of Monitoring and Evaluation tools for each collaboration and project we are involved with.

  • We shall increase impact year on year as we grow and collaborate with more donors and NPOs

  • We shall incorporate as a 501c3 Nonprofit in the USA so donor funds can be sent to (typically smaller) NPOs that aren’t registered in the US via the Pionero 501c3. This will ensure greater overall impact for NPOs and the wider community because it means that smaller NPOs won’t be overlooked because the US donor is unable to get a tax benefit

3.)     Efficiency

  • We shall incorporate a new CRM system and processes for efficient working and communications.

4.)    Need/Relevance

  • We shall evaluate how Pionero can be of greater assistance to NPOs and communities by carrying out a Needs Assessment of different Latin American countries in order to make the most informed decision regarding additional country expansion.

  • We shall be carrying out Feedback and Satisfaction surveys to both NPOs and donors to ensure that our services are relevant and exceeding expectations.

5.)    Sustainability

  • For sustainable operations, we are focussing on slow and steady expansion of the company going into 2019.

  • We have committed to dedicate 2019 to verifying all processes and systems so that they are water tight, efficient and effective before scaling up to the next country expansion in Latin America.


Stay tuned for us putting these objectives in action soon!

The Objective vs. Subjective Process of Selecting the “Best” Non-profits for Donors

Pionero is continuously improving, reassessing and updating its evaluation methods of nonprofit organizations (NPOs). This is, after all, the core of Pionero’s mission to promote the most outstanding NPOs and present them to the donors who are seeking them.

Our Programs Coordinator, Isabela carrying out Stakeholder analysis of a small NPO

Our Programs Coordinator, Isabela carrying out Stakeholder analysis of a small NPO

It is however, not so simple to get a truly accurate reflection of an NPO in all our 5 criteria areas; Impact, Efficiency, Sustainability, Need/Relevance, Transparency.  In areas such as Efficiency and Transparency, it is somewhat more straightforward as we can analyse data sets such as annual reports and operational budgets to get a clearer picture. However, in other areas such as Impact and Need, some would argue that it is impossible to give a definitive answer given the subjectivity of factors at play.

Nevertheless, Pionero is committed to creating systems that accurately and impartially reflect NPO strengths and improvement areas whilst also being open and transparent regarding subjective areas. There is a delicate balance to be struck when advising donors between giving the accurate impartial facts and the subjective pros and cons regarding an NPO.  What Pionero therefore strives for, is a very comprehensive insight into each individual donor’s values, beliefs and philanthropy goals afterwhich Pionero will then present a shortlist of appropriate NPOs that are in line with the information provided by the donor. Ultimately however, Pionero leaves it up to the donor when making the final decision regarding which NPO to support.

NPO evaluation of medium sized NPO, Niños de Guatemala

NPO evaluation of medium sized NPO, Niños de Guatemala

To give an example of the subjective nature of choosing the “best” NPO for the donor, given the choice between a small and a medium-sized NPO, both organizations’ merits and shortcomings may be seen differently depending on the donor. A larger NPO will likely have higher transparency levels but higher administration costs compared to a smaller NPO. The smaller NPO is more likely to send a higher donation percentage directly to the project and have closer community links but on the other hand, may have less transparent reporting structures due to lower staffing capacity. No NPO is perfect therefore it is ultimately up to the donor to use the detailed and impartial information gathered by Pionero to make the final decision.

Nevertheless, no matter what NPO is chosen, any of the NPOs on Pionero’s approved database is verified and meets the strict criteria set out by Pionero. Pionero has a selection of both small and medium-sized NPOs within the same thematic area. This is because even though the same issue area may be dealt with by several NPOs, each NPO will have its own solution style and approach to solve similar problems of which can be tackled in numerous ways.

To find out more about our 5 pillars criteria click here

To find out more about our services click here

For a FREE no-obligation consultation, click here

Disaster Relief Philanthropy in Guatemala Volcano Crisis

Source: National Police of Guatemala

Source: National Police of Guatemala

On June 3rd, Guatemala witnessed the worst eruption from Fuego (“fire”) volcano ever recorded. 70 fatalities have been recorded[1] and 192 are missing[2]. These numbers are sure to increase over the coming days.

Pionero Philanthropy’s base is in Antigua, approximately 9 miles from Fuego and we have seen a large variety of Philanthropic efforts taking place on a local, national and international scale.

When searching for “Guatemala Volcano” on, a staggering 545 campaigns appear. One page has raised over $70,000 and the majority, at least a few thousand dollars. Some of these pages are raising funds that will be transferred to reputable non-profit organizations (NPOs), whilst others are using the money to buy supplies such as medicines, food and clothing to carry out their own efforts.

The village of El Rodeo before and after the eruption. A whole village wiped out. Source: Meteorología GT

The village of El Rodeo before and after the eruption. A whole village wiped out. Source: Meteorología GT

Other actors include local and national companies, from cafes and hotels to nationwide Pharmacies and chains setting up Donation drop off points whose items are distributed through intermediary NPOs.

Local NPOs, including those whose expertise isn’t in disaster response, are utilizing their local networks to coordinate the distribution of materials and their broader network and donor bases abroad for monetary support through Social Media channels.

Given that Pionero’s mission is to connect donors to outstanding causes and that we are here on the ground, we felt it necessary to provide some reflections and pointers on what we believe every donor needs to keep in mind in order to best support Guatemala at this tragic time.

Pionero’s 5 pillars for selecting the most impactful NPOs are; Impact, Sustainability, Efficiency, Relevance/Need and Transparency and although we are currently in this period of great uncertainty regarding which NPOs are fulfiling these criteria best, there are regardless some key questions every donor needs to consider:


Local volunteers forming human chains to distribute material donations

Local volunteers forming human chains to distribute material donations

1.) Material or Monetary donations?

This depends on where you are located. If located abroad, then money is indisputably the best method of supporting aid efforts.

There is no point sending, shipping or travelling to Guatemala.

There is no postal system, private couriers are expensive, and carry on luggage and plane tickets are an inefficient use of funds. Your money goes further by donating to a reputable and effective NPO who can source products at the best price in-country. Furthermore, the flow of money supports the local economy rather than adding to international couriers and airlines' bottom lines. If you are a local resident of the area affected, material items, so long as they are relevant and given to a responsible NPO is another possible option.

2.) Do your due diligence before donating.

Donate to organizations that have a good reputation in the local and international community. Unfortunately, during times of crisis and goodwill, there are also people who take advantage and set up fundraising pages and campaigns that are fraudulent.

Locals, volunteers and first responders at Alotenango where survivors take refuge. Fuego volcano smoking in the background.

Locals, volunteers and first responders at Alotenango where survivors take refuge. Fuego volcano smoking in the background.

3.) Donate to Natural Disaster NPOs or trusted NPOs you have confidence in

Although the country hasn’t experienced such an event with this volcano for over a century, you ideally want to donate to organizations that already have experience and processes in place for effectively distributing the resources. In times of crisis when the situation is constantly changing, you want to trust organizations that have tried and tested processes in place and networks with important actors such as government agencies so that distribution of resources can reach those most in need in the shortest time.

However, we aren’t living in an ideal world here in Guatemala and other than the Red Cross that is working with CONRED (Guatemala’s national civil protection authority in disaster management), it seems that there are very few to no specialized NPOs operating in disaster relief at the time of writing. There are however, many other NPOs who specialize in other areas such as health and housing who are utilizing their networks and resources to take action. If a donor has trust in a particular NPO with whom they feel confident, then donating to these NPOs could be an effective and fast-acting option.

San Miguel Los Lotes, a village in the path of the Piroclastic flows. Source: Getty Images

San Miguel Los Lotes, a village in the path of the Piroclastic flows. Source: Getty Images

4.) Think about HOW you want to help – long term or short term?

Sure, everyone’s knee-jerk reaction is to donate items for immediate relief, but what happens once the media circus leaves town? Think about whether you want your funds to be used for the short term or the long term. For example, once communities move out of temporary refuges, they will need help with housing, roads and ongoing health care. It doesn't matter within which area you want to help, but at least bear in mind that natural disasters, although quick to take place, take years, if not decades to recover from.


We hope this blog entry has shed some light on the unique situation that is happening here In Guatemala and leads donors to think a little more before they donate. It is definitely worth it if you want to make the biggest difference possible.




Field Work Fun

The team has been visiting and evaluating a variety of incredible small to medium sized NPOs these last few weeks in the Sacatepequez region of Guatemala and what an interesting and mission affirming time it has been for Pionero!

Isabela (Guatemala Program Coordinator) and Harriette (Director) carrying out their NPO evaluation with NPO Niños con Bendición.

Isabela (Guatemala Program Coordinator) and Harriette (Director) carrying out their NPO evaluation with NPO Niños con Bendición.

Evaluating awesome Education NPO, Niños de Guatemala.

Evaluating awesome Education NPO, Niños de Guatemala.

We have visited causes related to education, youth leadership, women's rights, skills acquisition and even a project that takes vulnerable mothers and their children out of dangerous situations in order to rehabilitate and prevent them from putting the children into orphanages.

As expected, we have met some impressive NPOs doing incredible work on the ground but who need a little helping hand with promotion and cheerleading to prospective donors abroad! Well, that’s where Pionero comes in!

So how do we decide what NPOs to evaluate and visit? What process are we using to ensure that we are selecting the most impactful, efficient, relevant, transparent and sustainable NPOs? Here is the process:

  1. First we investigate what NPOs to consider by building an initial list. We ask contacts of ours, stakeholder groups, government records of registered NPOs and specific NPO websites that advertise NPO information.
  2. We send a preliminary email to the NPOs with a short questionaire to ensure that they meet minimum standards such as registration, constitution, accounting practices etc
  3. We organise NPO visits where we meet directors, stakeholders and beneficiaries. We ask targeted questions and seek further information regarding our 5 pillars; Impact, Need/Relevance, Efficiency, Transparency, Sustainability.
  4. We make a final report based on our findings that is signed off by the NPO for accuracy. This report is presented to targeted donors who are seeking NPOs that meet their requirements.

Stay tuned for the next instalment from us as we continue our visits going into the Lake Atitlan region this week!

Tuc Tuc Transport.... somewhere in the Sacatepequez region!

Tuc Tuc Transport.... somewhere in the Sacatepequez region!