Rich Johnson is the co-founder of Spark Ventures, a nonprofit focused on international community development in Zambia, Mexico, and Nicaragua. Along the way, Spark Ventures began to facilitate engagement trips for the mutual benefit of supporters and partner communities abroad.

In this episode, Rich discusses his past challenges, fundraising, creating a separate business venture called Ignite, Board development, trends in impact travel, voluntourism, and more.

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Rich Johnson Reading List

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change The World by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

Rich Johnson Show Notes

  • In 2006 Rich Johnson was hanging out with two friends when they decided to go to Africa
  • They went to Zambia and found a community organization there called HOPE that was helping children affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis
  • Previously, Rich had been doing marketing consulting with Fortune 500 companies
  • Shortly after, Rich returned to Zambia with 16 students at the university where he worked
  • HOPE lacked resources so Spark began to raise funds back in the US
  • “What is it do you need? How can we support you?” they asked HOPE
  • Spark Ventures helped HOPE with strategic planning, leadership development, and capacity building
  • A friend become a major donor
  • They organized a fundraising bar night where 300 friends showed up
  • They raised $25,000 at the event
  • “What systems and process can we put into place?” They started with weekly calls, monthly reports, quarterly visits, annual audits with their community partners
  • In Nicaragua, they spent too much money on buying land that they ran out of money to start the farm project they had intended to start. They struggled because they lacked expertise in agriculture
  • The farm in Nicaragua now has 70,000 plantain trees and 40,000 cacao trees. Disease has been a problem
  • Rich was running Spark Ventures part-time for four years before it became full-time
  • In Nicaragua, many children were devastated during the civil war. Las Tias was an organization that helped them in the city of Leon.
  • Las Tias didn’t have just one leader. They used a co-leadership model with 3 leaders.
  • During their ten year anniversary, Rich did an internal asset audit and re-examined trends in the social impact industry
  • Over 500 people had traveled with Spark during its first 10 years
  • Companies and friends wanted to participate in impact travel, adventure, and cultural exchange
  • Rich Johnson created Ignite, a separate business that specializes in impact travel.
  • The separation prevents mission creep and also allowed him to invest more into marketing and sales
  • A portion of the trip fees for Ignite go to support the partner organizations
  • 60% of the trip fees are poured into the local economy
  • Ignite raised money in the beginning to make the initial hires
  • Some nonprofits are better geared for grant fundings. Others are more geared towards corporate funding or government funding.
  • Many grassroots organizations working in international development aid, like Spark, focus on individual donations
  • Spark has learned to focus on their major donors
  • More than 50% of the funding for Spark comes from events and individual donations
  • Spark supports students in Zambia who can’t even afford the “free” government schools
  • Ezran, a child in Zambia, walked two miles to school every day and passed a cemetery where his relatives who had died of AIDS were buried. Spark recreated that 2-mile journey in a warehouse in Chicago using images and provisional buildings
  • The event raised $40,000 through ticket sales and donations
  • The Board of Directors at Spark has played a critical role
  • Many Board members want to be engaged with the mission and not only in the fundraising. The challenge is, the work is being done in another country. Spark encourages Board members to travel to partner countries.
  • Spark has a Board job description that requires attendance to three meetings and one major event. They also have fundraising expectations
  • What started as a “friends and family” Board evolved over the years
  • Rich Johnson was reluctant to use the word “volunteer” because it is loaded. There has been a backlash against volunteering and voluntourism. Some of it is well deserved.
  • Spark doesn’t try to go in as western saviors. It’s always been about partnerships and learning as much as giving
  • Rich’s preferred word is “community engagement.” It’s more about joining and learning.
  • He uses the word “traveler” instead of “volunteer.”
  • Volunteering can sometimes disrupt a partner organization
  • Rich mediates each morning and exercises. He goes on retreats to the ocean or for hiking
  • Rich Johnson uses Insight Timer for his meditation