Phil Caldwell's involvement with Cambodia began well before he met Savong. Phil has been involved in numerous projects, mostly to do with building wells and delivering much needed clean water to rural communities. Then in 2008 he met Savong and since then, while still helping with the well-building, Phil has become a really strong supporter of Savong's projects - for example in getting the toilet block funded and built at the orphange, and funding the majority of the first fish-farming pond which has greatly helped the orphan center to provide much of its own food. Recently we asked Phil about his involvement, and about the creation of the Savong Foundation.
Phil, there is an ocean of need in Cambodia, what drew you to Savong's work?
In November 2008 when I first met Savong, I saw how much success he was having with his English language school. At the time, there were 300 students enrolled at no cost to them and he was having a huge impact in the community. It was obvious that Savong was honest, hard working and very thankful for the help he was receiving from the visiting foreigners. He told me of his desire to help even more people, both children and adults, and I wanted to be a part of this ambition.
A school, an orphanage, a medical clinic - Savong has taken quite a holistic view to helping people in the district. Does that direction appeal to you - or does it run the risk of losing focus?
The goal is to serve the community so the holistic approach seems to make the most sense. Currently, we have the school, the orphanage, the medical clinic and we would like to expand our outreach projects which will directly help families in the community. This is very exciting work and it has never felt as if we have spread ourselves too thin.
How did the fish farm come about?
During my second trip to Cambodia in 2010, I had collected generous donations from friends and family. Savong and I had discussed possible uses for the money and the fish farm project was at the top of the list; not only would it help reduce the amount of money spent on food for the orphanage but it was also sustainable. It was incredible how quickly it was built. In the blazing hot April sun, the workers constructed most of the foundation in a couple of days and the fish arrived about a month later. Unfortunately, I won’t be in Cambodia to sample the first harvest but I’m sure Savong will send me pictures.
Obviously you're a busy individual. So it takes quite a commitment to establish a charitable Foundation in the USA. What was involved? What compelled you to invest this time, and I imagine, the big expense!
This was my first time setting up a charitable foundation so I’ve had to do a lot of research and rely heavily on the advice of my lawyers. It has been a long road and unfortunately, I still don’t see the light at the end although I know it’s there. I started in August of 2010 and filed papers to incorporate The Savong Foundation in California. At the same time, I started the process to make the foundation into a 501c3 entity which allows contributors to make tax deductible donations. The incorporation took a couple of months and that allowed me to set up a business bank account. I’m still waiting on the 501c3 status which could arrive tomorrow or take several months more. The time it takes depends heavily on the government work-load so I’m anticipating several months more! Yes, it has been expensive and I never imagined that it would take this much time but the rewards of making a difference in Cambodia have made everything worthwhile.
Going right back to 2004 when Savong first talked about his dream, the decision - or rather philosophy -of having it run out of Cambodia, rather than via an internationally run NGO was a subject of discussion. It was a pair of Japanese supporters who felt strongly that it should be Cambodian run. The flipside is, that the "locally run" model gives overseas supporters less control or say over the day to day running. How will the Foundation consult on those matters? Put another way, how will a sponsor know how the money will be spent?
I feel that The Savong Foundation should be a collaborative effort. Savong has a very clear idea how to help the community and as he is a member of the board, he will have a large say as to how the donations are spent. On the other hand, other members of the board are bringing their experience and expertise and their input must also be valued. Together, we hope to make the best use of the resources. Sponsors will be kept up-to-date on the various projects and year end reports will be made available to make it very clear how their money was spent. I am determined to make The Savong Foundation completely transparent in how it operates.
One thing that has surprised me is how, in the internet age, people feel more connected to things like Savong's project. People find their cause - whatever it is - but then connect very closely with it. How will the Foundation tell its story? Do you envisage big publicity somehow? What's the plan?
I agree with you that causes are very popular nowadays. Websites such as crowdrise, razoo, MissionFish and now Jumo have sprung up and everyone seems to care about something. But how do we get people to care about Cambodia and more specifically, The Savong Foundation? Spreading the word through the internet is the easiest and most effective way of telling the story. Not everyone can jump on a plane and fly to Siem Reap (even though I think everyone should) but a lot of people are curious about foreign cultures and Cambodia has an exotic flavor that appeals to those with an adventurous spirit. Through the internet, we can share photos and stories which will help people realize how much Cambodians need their assistance and how grateful the Cambodians are when they get it. Right now, I’m trying to keep the facebook page and my blog as updated as I possibly can, I have shared videos on YouTube and eventually, I hope to have a website. At some point, we may put together a documentary. I only wish there were more hours in my day.
Publicity is inexpensive and fun but fundraising, for me anyway, can be more of a challenge. Once the 501c3 status is approved, it will be easier to approach both individuals and corporations and fundraising websites will also become available for use. Being in Los Angeles, I also have plans to approach celebrities for donations and I am also helping to set up a clothing business where part of the profits go towards the foundation. The goal, obviously, is to achieve a steady flow of income because our projects are only limited by the funds that come our way.
What, for you, has been the most rewarding part of being involved in Cambodia?
I get to fulfill my lifelong dream of being Indiana Jones! In all seriousness, I first came to Cambodia because, like most people, I wanted to experience the temples of Angkor Wat. Three trips later, I still love wandering through the ruins but I return to this country because of the people. If you have ever been to Cambodia, you know what I’m talking about. The Cambodians are friendly, generous, beautiful people and despite the hardships they have been through, they are easy-going and have open hearts. At the guesthouse where I stay, they consider me part of their family. At the orphanage, I feel like I’ve adopted 36 children. In the bars and restaurants, they have welcomed me back as if they had known me their whole lives. It has been an enormous pleasure to help the Cambodian people and I hope as many people as possible will join me on this path.