In 2010, moved only by a need to find a job (having been unemployed for more than five years), I accepted the position of executive director of a 40-year-old company called United Way Philippines Inc. (UWPI). At first, I thought it was some pharmaceutical or pyramiding firm. It turned out to be a nongovernment organization, or NGO.
I had no managerial skills, no flair for administrative work, no background in social work which, I later learned, was essential in an agency such as this. But I charged head-on, come what may! All I ever wanted at that time was enough money to feed myself.
So I spent the first couple of weeks digging into the old filing cabinets. I skimmed through the files and folders, leafed through volumes of references, and mustered all the powers I could to learn the ins and outs of the NGO. I scrutinized every page, receipt, and record. I lingered over old photos of men and women celebrating grand occasions or engaging in outreach programs and projects for needy communities: health care, livelihood, disaster relief.
It was not easy but I eventually learned the ropes, including the arduous task of complying with the yearly requirements imposed by government agencies and monitoring bodies. I also came to realize that NGOs are more effective and direct in accomplishing positive changes in the lives of local people.
How it began
In 1970, Community Chests and Councils of the Philippines (remember the Red Feather?) was formed. It was a small group of businesspersons and community leaders leading 19 affiliated community chests nationwide that raised and allocated funds to other sociocivic organizations addressing social welfare issues.
Seven years later, its name was changed to United Way Philippines Inc., an affiliate of the US-based United Way Worldwide. With several provincial chapters, UWPI was able to generate millions of pesos annually from membership fees, donations, grants and proceeds from fund-raising activities. The funds were allocated to its programs in the countryside. The roster of leaders and members was dotted with such names as Fidel V. Ramos, Cecilia Muñoz-Palma, Lourdes R. Quisumbing, Jorge L. Araneta, Pilita Corrales, Alejandro R. Roces, and Leticia R. Shahani, among many others.
In its heyday, UWPI established a school for the children of marginalized families as part of its formal and nonformal education programs. Scholarships were granted to poor but deserving college students. Through its social lending program, it provided capital to small-scale businesses all over the country, and to beneficiaries who were able to renew their loans four or more times a year. Livelihood and community development projects were initiated in various provinces: goat- and duck-raising, construction of deep wells, improvement of schools and day-care centers, building of “economic gardens.” Networking with other donor organizations abroad also became part of its task.
In partnership with other institutions and foundations, UWPI launched in 1999 “Operation: Make a Wish”—a project for children 12 years old and below which aimed “to grant the last wishes and simple dreams of the poorest among the poor children with terminal illnesses.” Later called “Munting Panaginip” (A Small Dream}, the project began with five children afflicted with cancer whose wishes for musical instruments, play stations, bicycles, and life-sized stuffed toys were granted.
The number of beneficiaries rose yearly and reached as high as 96 in 2007. Eventually, however, limited funds constrained operations to include only provisions for monthly financial assistance, solely to be used for medicines and lab expenses. At present, with generous sponsorships, there are only 42 beneficiaries; the number rises when the funds allow, notwithstanding the backlog of applicants.
Through Munting Panaginip, UWPI finds unlimited pleasure in helping sick children, especially if a “warrior” is healed and becomes cancer-free. But there are cases of relapse that end in unexpected deaths. At first, I relished those times when ailing children came to the office with their parents to receive their monthly assistance. Some of the children were quiet and withdrawn, most probably because of their health conditions. It gave us joy when others seemed just fine, greeting us warmly like small “superheroes fighting big battles.”
One day in 2012, while enjoying a free vacation in an island resort, I received a text message. One of the children, a 10-year-old Egyptian Filipino boy afflicted with leukemia, the only child of a single mother, had passed away. I was quiet for a second, and then burst into unabashed tears in front of my baffled companions. A 61-year-old is not exempt from the grips of sorrow, right? I have since tried to learn the art of keeping detached and mastering the act of expecting the unexpected.
Undying Wishes of Pinoys Inc.
Also in 2012, United Way Philippines Inc. became Undying Wishes of Pinoys Inc., keeping its initials intact.
Now governed by like-minded men and women whose lives are marked by empathy, if not generosity, UWPI continues to achieve its vision and accomplish its mission of “effectively mobilizing its resources for the welfare and growth of the Filipino family in a marginalized society.” Although not as huge as before, UWPI plays its role to the hilt as a registered and licensed NGO—one of 60,000 in the Philippines, according to the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations—and manages to conduct medical missions in depressed barangays in Metro Manila.
It regularly holds gift-giving activities and extends financial assistance to improve the lives, albeit in a small way, of the elderly, women, children, and youth. It reaches out to help persons deprived of liberty, orphans, out-of-school kids and street children, as well as victims of natural disasters.
With its provincial chapters gone, UWPI is not without seemingly insurmountable challenges. Membership continues to dwindle and grants are rare. But the funds generated are enough to sustain operations, thanks to its prudent financial managers.
The pandemic posed the greatest challenge to UWPI early in 2020. Due to strict quarantine measures, whether enhanced, modified, granular or general, UWPI was in shackles and could not extend a helping hand, much like the rest. No children could visit us to say hello. Virtual meetings and online transactions were deemed the most appropriate solutions then. But as has been proven several times, there would always be a way if there was a will.
When UWPI ended its 50-year corporate existence in 2020, an amendment was filed to make it perpetual, which was approved in 2022. Still under a committed 11-member board of directors, and supported by benevolent donors, UWPI partnered with kindred agencies to meet the needs of jeepney drivers whose main source of livelihood was halted during the lockdowns and who were forced to beg for alms. Cash donations were deposited in the bank accounts of entities that organized community or food pantries, maintained isolation/quarantine facilities to decongest hospitals in the surge of Covid-19 cases, and supported health workers and frontliners.
For the benefit of others
Truth be told, UWPI exists, not for its own benefit, but for that of others. But the executive director, whose management and leadership skills are crucial in sustaining an organization, is unsure if he has been successful to this extent. He is likewise unsure if there is good karma in all this; the money being used is not from his own pocket, anyway, and he is being paid for doing the job.
As it is, UWPI is not unlike an ageing man struggling daily to survive in an ever-changing world, not living in the past, not anxious for the future, merely trying to focus on the here and now.