June 03, 2022

Just Peoples is a leader in locally controlled change

Christey West, PL Douglas Mwangi and Johanna Peek in the Mathare slum, Kenya | Just Peoples

Christey West is a co-founder of Just Peoples, a unique charity organization that allows donors to directly invest in small but impactful projects in developing nations. What she offers is unique.

Unlike more recognizable organizations, Just Peoples does not act as a middleman, organizer or leader of local communities; instead, West and her co-founder, Johanna Peek, allow the leaders of local projects to speak for themselves.

West and Peek meet kids in Korail, a slum area in Bangladesh. | Just Peoples

Donors to Just Peoples invest in a single project, and meet the local project leaders via group Zoom calls. Small donations of under ¥200,000 ($1,600) can do amazing things, such as expand the only school in a slum or offer healthcare to hundreds of Maasai kids with disabilities. After funding a project, donors stay involved and watch as it achieves its goals.

West calls this personal, intimate and incredibly fulfilling process “locally led change,” which after seven years has funded over 125 projects in 14 countries. And while she now calls it “the best job ever, with her best friend ever,” her path to starting Just Peoples wasn’t an easy one.

‘Voluntourists’ beware

The co-founders meet with PL Charlot Magayi, aiming to support her clean cooking stove factory in Kenya. | Just Peoples

West started her journey into international development as a student volunteer working in Hanoi. There she had signed up to work in an orphanage managed by a local woman and a monk. What she discovered after arriving was heartbreaking. Not only were she and the other “voluntourists” (her term) sleeping in dilapidated, infested rooms, but the organizers were in fact keeping most of the service fees for themselves.

“They were intentionally keeping the kids poor,” she said. “They’d keep the kids in rags so that they’d attract more donations. It was all going into this scam that was harming kids, while that monk was buying thousand-dollar handbags.”

She didn’t give up on international development, and went on earn her degree while focusing on human trafficking in Vietnam, the Philippines and eventually Singapore. And while she did manage to help many, a sense of despair and helplessness seemed to be universal among her fellow aid workers and activists. Together with Peek, her best friend and fellow graduate, West came to a sobering conclusion: “It’s not up to us. We don’t know the nuances of these places. We might care … but that’s not enough. In all of these places where we had worked, there were local fraudsters like that monk, and there were giant Western organizations telling the local people to work on massive projects. But also there were always these genuine local people who understood the problem and knew how to help.”

Now graduated, the two best friends hit upon an idea. “We set up Just Peoples to connect the local leaders who have the solutions with the people around the world who really care but don’t know where to start.”

A new model of connection

Meals for Cambodian kids | Just Peoples

After experimenting with different fundraising models, the two women have now settled on a simple structure: a small, personally vetted group of project leaders (PLs) in the developing world, and a growing network of donors supporting them. “We see ourselves as facilitators, not as marketers,” she said.

The biggest draw for her donors is access to the local project leaders. “All of our PLs are incredible people,” she said. “Some of them grew up as orphans. Others come from wealthier families. But whatever their background, they are so inspiring.” The Zoom events, which are called “Connections and Conversations,” happen about once a month. “Speaking to someone from Kenya, it’s a special conversation. The donors are inspired, they know the impact they’re going to have, and they stay involved and connected to see the project completed. It’s an amazing thing.”

Now in their seventh year of operation, West and Peek have been running Just Peoples from different locations the entire time. For the first five years it was a labor of love. “At first we had no overhead fees. We set up our founding 50, people who paid a small fee monthly for our overheads. Then we grew, we got more project leaders, and it simply became too much to organize part time. So now we use 12.5% of donations to cover our own operating costs.”

Dinner and a movie

The first charity dinner held in Tokyo aimed to celebrate the International Women’s Day while raising money to fund one of the projects selected by Just Peoples – Yulia Skogoreva

Now living in Tokyo after her spouse took a job here, West is experimenting with a new funding event: charity dinners where a set meal and drinks includes a ¥10,000 donation. After dinner, attendees watch a few project videos, then choose which one to fund. “The first dinner was able to fund a ¥260,000 project,” West said. “We showcased a project helping to solve period poverty in Tanzania, one to support single mothers in Vietnam and one to support a cooperative business for Indigenous Mexican women.”

She smiled at what happened at the end of that night. After the winning project was chosen, the two others were also funded individually. It turns out that while there may be bad in the world, there is also much good. Along with her best friend and amazing people from all over the world, Christey West is helping that good find its way to the neediest people in the world.

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