Tannya's interview with Thinh Nguyen - Founder of Better Life Vietnam.
Introduction of the founder
Tannya: What incident/event made/influenced you to set up this organisation?
Thinh: After taking a course on human rights at university, I started looking at social issues from a human rights perspective. I believe that underprivileged children have a right to an education, better healthcare and better living conditions. I wanted to do something to help those who unfortunately do not enjoy those rights yet. One day, I took a trip to a rural village accompanying a German family who went to visit their adopted Vietnmese child’s birth family. On the way, as we spoke we found that we shared a passion to do something for the underprivileged community. As for the German family – the Walter family, they wanted to find a way to thank to the country that gave them a child.
Education is not free in Vietnam, families have to pay part of the school fee. They also have to buy textbooks, uniforms and other educational materials themselves. School fees range from VND 360,000 (19$) per year for pupils who live in rural and mountainous areas, to VND 1,800,000 for pupils who live in big cities. These costs are a big burden to families who live in rural and mountainous areas as their average income is often less than 20,000 VND (1$) per day.
Better Life Vietnamese (BLV) started firstly with my wish to provide underprivileged children textbooks enabling them to study at school. I remember speaking to my American professor regarding my desire to help these children and he advised me start fundraising to make this wish come true. This is how I first learnt about NGO work. My professor introduced me to his friends and colleagues, I shared my desire to help the community with them and discussed the need for children to have textbooks. I raised $1000 which allowed the provision of books to 300 children in a rural village in Bac Giang. Each set of textbooks only costed $3, and the child is able to use this for their whole school year. A textbooks delivering ceremony took place where we were able to talk to the children and their parents about the importance of education. We were so happy to hear from so many parents about the impact of our project and loves to hear that it also encouraged their children to study harder for a better future.
Keen to keep going, after this initial success, I spoke again to the Walter family and with their fundraising support, we were able to expand the book program to other rural villages in the Bac Giang province in the North of Vietnam.
Tannya: Tell our audience about what the organization does. What are the key initiatives you are driving under the umbrella of BLV?
Thinh: Education is important to end the poverty cycle. Since its establishment in 2010, I have focused on BLV’s activities relating to improving education conditions for the underprivileged children who live in the rural and mountainous areas in Vietnam. Our projects so far include establishing free textbooks libraries for elementary school children and providing scholarships to underprivileged children allowing them to gain an education. In 2019 we launched the Youth Encouragement Scheme, this includes a variety of training workshops that equip youths with vocational orientation, English speaking skill, softskills such as public speaking, social entrepreneurship, insights into start-ups and gender related knowledge. All these programs help prepare youth for their success in the future. In order to sustain Better Life Vietnam, we have also launched two social businesses:
Tours For Books and Coeurs De Papier.
Tours For Books organizes tour and provides travel services for foreign tourists in Vietnam. We operate like any other travel agency where tours are booked with Tours For Books. By booking via Tours For Books, the tourists help fund BLV’s education programs.
Coeurs De Papier is an e-commerce platform that sells handmade artwork such as quilled crafts made by youths with disabilities and women in difficulty. This social venture aims to provide employment opportunities to the disadvantaged youth in Vietnam, helping them to achieve independence and an improved quality of life. The income achieved via the sale of artwork also supports the BLV vision and initiatives to improve educational conditions for underprivileged children and youth in Vietnam.
Tannya: What are the key indicators by which you measure your impact across each of the initiatives?
Thinh: We measure out impact by recording the number of the children and youths who receive support from BLV’s programs and we monitor their achievement through the years. For example, in 2017 we sponsored six high school students and in 2019, three of the students passed the national exams which meant they were then able to study at their chosen universities. Recently, we receved more good news from another student who passed their national entrance exam for their chosen university too. We are very pleased to see the progress each student has been making. Those who are selected for the scholarship program are smart, and have the capability but are in financial difficulty. They know the important of studying hard and are eager to do so so that they can be successful in the future and can then be in a position to help their families overcome poverty.
Tannya: What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered, and are perhaps still encountering, while setting up and driving these initiatives?
Thinh: Like many other non-profit organizations, funding is always a big challenge. Thanks to small grants from the US Embassy, private entities such as Hilton Hanoi Hotel and international organizations such as Sauve Scholar Foundation, we have been able to maintain our activities up till now. The success of Coeurs De Papier and Tours For Books will allow BLV to be sustainable in the long term, allowing us to continue to provide financial support to the under priviliaged.
Tannya: How do you manage and run your organisation? How much decision-making authority and autonomy are given to employees?
Thinh: Better Life Vietnam is a volunteer-based organization. Currently we have about 150 like-minded volunteer members globally who have been supporting different aspects of our organization such as web designing, marketing and business development etc. On the ground, we also have volunteer members who help with field trips and coordinate activities. Thanks to the help and support of all these wonderful members, we are able to maintain our work with low staffing costs.
When I created the BLV Online team platform, I wanted for it to be a mutual benefit platform. Not only is it a place for like-minded people from all over the world to volunteer with us, but it is also a place where you can make genuine friends, and to learn and share knowledge and experiences. We are open to all experience levels, whether you have a lot of experiences or are a students seeking opportunities to develop your own skills, we welcome you all. I believe is able to learn something from each other, that we all have value and by working as a team and spending our time in a meaningfully we are able to help children and youths have access to education.
So we don’t really have “employees”! Members are welcome to lead activities, share expertise and help out according to their availability and duration. I always encourage and want our members to be happy while volunteering with us. Our Team motto is: “Once BLVer, Forever BLVer”.We do not see our members as just volunteers, we think of them as people who have kindly contributed their time and effort to us develop as an organization and progress. Without their help, we would not be able to develop this far! I personally would like to thank to all the BLVers for making me realize that I’m not alone in this long journey of making an impact on the young generations of Vietnam.
Tannya: Who are the NGOs in the same space or in general whom you consider as role models or benchmarks?
Thinh: It depends on which program. For example, the Books Library program, I think of the Center for Knowledge Assistance and Community Development (CKACD). They started the Books for Rural areas initiative and quite successful with the “Classroom library project”. We have learnt from this model and actually have partnered with them to provide books to more schools in rural villages. The Founder of CKACD and I have talked about collaboration in applying the English Online Learning program in the whole country too.
Regard the vocational training program for disadvantaged youth, we look at KOTO (Know One Teach One) as a role model. They provide free vocational training to disadvantage youth to enable them to work in restaurant. They have their own restaurant where they can place the trained youth in work after the training. This way they can really help the disadvantaged youth is a sustainable way. Since we have the tourism business, we have organized occupational orientation workshops that help prepare students to work in tourism and hospitality industries. Our pilot program provided training to the six high-school students through the BLV Scholarship program. Two of the students expressed their wish to join the tourism and hospitality industry in the future. One student is now studying Hotel Management and another student is learning about Food process safety management at university. Our sponsor and also partner, Hilton Hanoi Hotel, expressed to support the students further by giving the students internship opportunities at the hotel and open for the job opportunities at their hotel after they graduate from university. This is definitely a long-term impact that we hope to make on each of selected students’ lives.
Tannya: How can our viewers contribute to this amazing concept of empowering youth and children in Vietnam?
Thinh: We welcome help and support in many ways:
- Join our BLV Team as an advisor or a Team member who can help make our mission possible!
- Book a tour with Tours For Books if you ever visit Vietnam
- Collaborate with us to distribute beautiful handmade artworks in your countries or purchase the cards for your loved ones!
- Or just simply help us promote our work, spread the words out and connect us with potential partners or distributors who might be interested in collaborating with us !