BGR Approaches its Tenth Anniversary
By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
This year will mark the tenth anniversary of Buddhist Global Relief. Over the course of these ten years, BGR has grown from a nebulous dream in the minds of a small group of idealistic American Buddhists into a solid, stable, well-governed organization that has been quietly but effectively uplifting the lives of thousands of people around the world, rescuing them from the dim fate of chronic poverty, hunger, and despair. The support we provide, taking the form of food aid, education, training, and encouragement helps people to help themselves. It empowers them to overcome adversity and begin to carve out lives of hope and purpose for themselves, their families, and their communities.
The seed for the birth of BGR was planted in 2007, when I was asked by the North American Buddhist journal Buddhadharma to contribute an editorial essay for their autumn issue. After pondering the choice of a topic, I decided to write on a theme that had been weighing on my mind for several years: the lack, in American Buddhism, of a sufficiently developed sense of social conscience manifesting in concrete action. Despite the efforts of a number of Buddhist groups to articulate socially relevant forms of Engaged Buddhism, most Americans who took to Buddhism seemed to regard the Dharma almost solely as a path to inner fulfillment. This, I feared, would lead to a narrow conception of Buddhism as a teaching that prioritizes personal well-being over effective action intended to promote the wider good of humanity.
In writing the essay I had no idea of forming a Buddhist social service organization. But after it was published, under the title “A Challenge to Buddhists," several of my friends and students who had read it told me that it had reminded them that something was missing in their lives as Buddhist practitioners. They not only expressed their appreciation for the essay, but even more, told me that they wanted to do something to take up the challenge it posed. One thing led to another, and by early 2008 we were holding preliminary discussions about establishing a Buddhist social service organization. It soon became clear to us that to determine our direction we would have to bring together a larger, but still limited, number of people at a face-to-face meeting.
The meeting was scheduled for May 3, 2008. At this meeting we discussed an assortment of ideas about forming such an organization, exploring the opportunities, challenges, and obstacles that lay ahead. Initially, we thought the organization could address the plight of people everywhere suffering from social oppression, violence, and natural disasters, but it quickly became apparent that such a mission was too broad, far beyond the capacity even of a UN agency, let alone a small group of mostly middle-class Buddhists. Based on my experience living in Asia for many years, I suggested that we set ourselves the more specific aim of providing assistance to people afflicted with chronic hunger and malnutrition, especially by supporting local efforts by those in developing countries to achieve self-sufficiency through improved food productivity.
At the conclusion of this first meeting we scheduled a second meeting for the middle of June. At this meeting we agreed on our mission, gave a name to the organization, appointed a group of board members, set up some committees, and began the process of registering Buddhist Global Relief as a corporation in the State of New Jersey, where most of our team members at that time were living. Our Certificate of Incorporation, registering BGR as a New Jersey nonprofit corporation, is dated June 24, 2008. Thus that date marks the official birth of BGR.
Once the basic organizational structures were in place, the next major challenge we faced was how to get started fulfilling our mission. Through the generosity of a few well-wishers, we had accumulated assets of a little more than $18,000, which was hardly enough even to begin tackling the overwhelming amount of hunger and malnutrition in the world. We faced another challenge as well: we did not have people on our team who could run off to impoverished countries in Asia and Africa, set up operations there, and begin the complicated process of providing hunger-relief. So we had to find an alternative route to fulfilling our mission. The approach we decided upon was to work through partnerships. We would find organizations in the countries we selected, either indigenous or U.S.-based, and collaborate with them in assisting communities struggling with hunger and malnutrition.
We began with three small pilot projects. One was in Sri Lanka, in partnership with the Sarvodaya Women’s Movement, which helped poor women start home industries. A second was in Vietnam, in partnership with the Vietnam Red Cross, providing meals to poor hospital patients; this project continues even today. And a third in Myanmar, which had just been struck by a devastating cyclone, provided food relief to cyclone victims through Save the Children.
Once word of BGR and our projects spread through the internet, and we launched our newsletter, Helping Hands, more donations started to arrive, enabling us to gradually extend the number of projects we could launch each year and the amount of funding we could provide through these projects. Publicity about BGR also attracted capable people willing to volunteer their services. Although our board and core team remain small, we are grateful to the many people over the years who have volunteered their help and thereby become an integral part of our mission. Many of these people—too many to mention by name—stake out time to offer their services in lives claimed by full-time jobs and family responsibilities.
During our first two years, funding proved a perpetual problem, since we had to rely almost entirely on the good winds of chance for people to find out about BGR and make donations. In 2010, however, we came up with an idea about how to expand our fundraising efforts. We decided to hold an annual “Walk to Feed the Hungry” that would appeal to those in the greater New York area to join the walk, and to potential benefactors elsewhere to provide funds to support the walk. We began with a walk in New Jersey, attended by about 50 walkers. Once news about the walk was published in our newsletter, Buddhist groups in other parts of the U.S. decided to hold parallel walks to raise funds for BGR. Thus the autumn walks spread—first to Michigan and the South Bay of California, and then to still other locations. At present, we hold approximately twelve walks each year, including solidarity walks among our partners in other countries.
Another benefit event was added in 2011. Dan Blake, a professional jazz musician and now a BGR board member, decided to organize a “Concert to Feed the Hungry” as a fundraising event. Such concerts have since then been held annually. The seventh will be taking place on April 29, in connection with our tenth anniversary celebration. Tickets and further information are availiable at http://www.concertToFeedTheHungry.org
The growth of Buddhist Global Relief over this ten-year period has been steady and strong. Beginning in 2008 with three projects, we are now sponsoring 29 projects in fifteen countries. From a start with $18,000 in assets, we now operate with a budget that allows us to devote roughly $600,000 to projects annually. Greater assets have also allowed us to support more multi-year projects, which enable our partners to pursue long-term goals. These include the construction of a boys dormitory at a school in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, the equipping of a new school for poor children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a program promoting nutrition for pregnant women, new mothers, and infants in Côte d’Ivoire.
This growth has all been made possible by the hard work of our small staff, our capable board members, our many volunteers, and above all by the generosity of our donors. We hope that your support will be steady over the coming years, ensuring that BGR can continue long into the future embodying compassion-in-action by helping some of the most impoverished communities in the world. Your help is truly saving lives. May all blessings be with you.