Most foreigners who visit Indonesia end up at the beaches of Bali. But not Adam Miller, a young conservationist from St. Louis. While volunteering at a pet shop at age 10, he came up with the vision of one day working in Indonesia to help the animals there. His vision quickly became an obsession. Many years later, Adam found himself in a remote village in Borneo, Indonesia. It’s a part of southeast Asia facing the fastest rate of deforestation in the world and the second highest number of endangered species in the world.

He lived there for six months on a total budget of $1,000 and built up a nonprofit organization called Planet Indonesia.

In this podcast episode, Adam discusses the challenges of working in a country with a culture that is vastly different. When he goes running, random fathers in the community might stop to offer their daughters as wives. And you will find out what Adam means when he says that in Indonesia, “host families will love you so much they might kill you in the process.”

Adam also talks about grant writing, donor relations, using behavioral economics and incentives to promote conversation, and overcoming serious differences in the way people communicate in Indonesia.

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Show Links for Adam Miller

The Franciscan Sisters of Mary

Mulago Foundation

Dan Pallotta’s TED talk: The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong

Poverty Inc. Documentary

Show Summary for Adam Miller

  • Adam was volunteering at a pet shop at age 10 in St. Louis, Missouri
  • He saw a bird from Indonesia that sparked his interest
  • Adam Miller was known as a “bird nerd” growing up
  • Adam Miller’s dream was to become a conservationist researcher
  • He began to feel inadequate just doing research, as just publishing articles didn’t feel like it was making enough of an impact
  • Adam Miller had an early life crisis and so jumped on a plane  to Indonesia
  • He ended up in Indonesia teaching English as a Fulbright Scholar
  • Learning about the culture, language, and the people led to him starting Planet Indonesia
  • Indonesian culture is very difficult to adapt to for a westerner
  • Conversations are much more indirect, longer-winded, and unclear in Indonesia
  • A donor foundation had a very strict reporting requirement and the finance team for Planet Indonesia kept assuring Adam that things were being done properly. Adam later found out that the team wasn’t doing the job as required by the foundation. They were not being honest and direct about their inadequacy
  • The Indonesian government is very unclear about requirements and permits for NGOs
  • When Adam first moved to Indonesia, there were very few foreign NGOs present
  • The Indonesians watch western TV and movies and romanticize the culture
  • The local Indonesians love to follow and take photos of foreigners
  • When Adam goes for jogs, fathers in the area ask him to marry their daughters
  • Indonesian cuisine is one of the best in the world. Especially lactose intolerant people like Adam and me!
  • Host families in Indonesia won’t let their guests do anything or go anywhere alone, especially for female guests
  • “Indonesians will love you so much that they’ll kill you in the process.” – Adam Miller
  • People live with their families and don’t go off to live independently as much as in the western culture
  • Now there are more nonprofit organizations in Indonesia
  • There are more than 85 nonprofit organizations in the area in Borneo where Adam Miller works
  • Indonesia food is usually rice, tempeh, chicken, vegetables, curries
  • Sambal is Indonesia’s popular hot chili sauce
  • Adam had dinner with a good expat friend in Borneo and in the conversation realized that it has been so hard for him to have long-term friends because expats come and go so frequently
  • Working for an NGO in Indonesia is not for everyone, according to Adam Miller
  • Meals in Indonesia cost $1.50-$2.00
  • Adam once lived for six months in Indonesia on a total budget of $1,000
  • Adam is a minimalist kind of guy and lived in a remote village
  • In Jakarta you can find anything you can do and buy in Europe
  • Very few cities have a bar or alcohol scene
  • Karaoke is a popular weekend activity
  • Men play a lot of indoor soccer (futsal) in Indonesia, Adam plays 3 times per week
  • Much of Planet Indonesia’s work is done on the weekends because that’s when community members (farmers and fishermen) are finally home
  • Dating in Indonesia is difficult and intense. By week two, marriage is already on the table. People have a lot of lovers on the side in Indonesia, before marriage.
  • Adam’s Fulbright proposal did not feel realistic on the ground
  • Adam met Novia Sagita, the co-founder of Planet Indonesia
  • Before starting Planet Indonesia, Adam had been offered other job options
  • A lot of the nonprofit work being done was not making a real impact because there was a disconnect between the NGO offices and the on the ground communities
  • Novia Sagita has worked in the NGO industry for 15 years and studied in Denver, Colorado. She has lived extensively abroad and can juggle different cultures
  • Novia Sagita started this weaving cooperative to empower village women
  • The weaving cooperative started with 21 weavers and now has 1,500 weavers
  • With four people (a conservationist, an NGO worker, a teacher, a fiction writer), Planet Indonesia began
  • A lot of people criticized Adam Miller for starting an NGO with people who didn’t necessarily have the “right” experience or resumes
  • Planet Indonesia starts communal business groups and trains them and invests in assets to kickstart the businesses of the business groups
  • For people to join the business groups, they are required to sign and follow conservation policies
  • Planet Indonesia provides the services and loans to encourage conservation practices by their nearly 24,000 participants
  • Another organization provides healthcare in exchange for the community members cutting back on their logging. The less loggers a community has, the bigger discounts the community gets in the health clinic
  • It’s important to listen to the communities
  • Planet Indonesia uses behavioral economics and incentives to change community behaviors
  • During year one when funding was low, Adam Miller had to spend $600 getting the 501 c 3 IRS status and then $1,200 to get the equivalent in Indonesia
  • Adam Miller only had a $500 limit on his credit card so he couldn’t even use it
  • Adam’s Fulbright cohort organized a secret fundraiser and raised $3,000 to help Adam start Planet Indonesia!!!
  • Novia Sagita said they needed $12,000 for the first year. Adam went back to the US and raised nearly $30,000!!
  • The help from The Franciscan Sisters of Mary has been critical for Planet Indonesia
  • The Franciscan Sisters of Mary was involved in stopping the Dakota pipeline case. They were the first Catholic organization to completely divest in fossil fuel
  • Adam was giving a talk at a Rotary Club and someone in the audience put him in touch with the Franciscan Sisters of Mary
  • The Franciscan Sisters of Mary causes little hassle for Planet Indonesia in terms of reporting requirements. Not every foundation is the same!
  • Mulago Foundation
  • Running a nonprofit organization in the developing world is VERY challenging and when a donor is trying to control you on top of everything, it can be heartbreaking for the staff
  • Out of the last four years, the past month has been the HARDEST, all time low for Adam…!
  • Novia Sagita and Adam kept fighting together despite all of the hard moments. They are so united.
  • They all work 20 hour days sometimes
  • The energy level of the staff dropped when the donor tried to control them so much
  • Adam and Novia gave a speech to the staff during that all time low to give them inspiration and to stay true to their vision despite the periodic lows
  • Adam hopes that other NGOs can one day adopt Planet Indonesia’s model in other countries
  • The Franciscan Sisters of Mary sent 90 personal letters thanking the Planet Indonesia staff, miraculously when they were at their all time moral low
  • The people in Adam’s office go through ups and downs in their morale. They are humans!
  • 1-2 staff members move in to live in the communities Planet Indonesia begins to work with
  • Adam Miller encourages nonprofit organizations to be honest with their donors, with their successes and failures
  • 80% of Planet Indonesia’s funding comes from foundation grants. 20% comes from peer to peer
  • Adam Miller is the primary grant writer for Planet Indonesia, especially because he is the only English speaker in his staff
  • Many people in the nonprofit and development aid industry is scared to talk about their failures
  • Once, the seedlings that Planet Indonesia bought were bad and a bunch of trees died
  • At first, they didn’t understand why the locals were capturing and selling the threatened and endangered animals
  • Dan Pallotta’s TED talk: The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong
  • An expat could live comfortably in Indonesia for $15,000 and $25,000 for a family
  • Many of the best people in the grassroots nonprofit industry get poached by the larger organizations because of the better pay
  • Poverty Inc. Documentary
  • It took Novia Sagita 2-3 years just to convince the women to start weaving again, a tradition that had largely disappeared in the area
  • Novia Sagita identified a local market to sell the textile to. 70-80% of the sales are domestic
  • Novia Sagita built a textile museum in the area to explain the cultural importance of the textile
  • There were many risks involved, going for an unexpected market and building a museum, etc.
  • Now they are starting the textile products in Australia
  • There are many unexpected challenges in the NGO nonprofit world
  • Adam Miller gets stage fright before his public speeches and almost went down cold recently
  • Planet Indonesia offers internship positions to college students
  • Adam gives out a heartfelt shoutout to Novia Sagita and then to his family