Okay, you’ve decided to go on an adventure and volunteer abroad as a Lean Volunteer to make your trip richer and “more funner”.   This next step may be the hardest for most people to envision – finding a good social enterprise partner in some far off land. It can seem like looking for a needle in a haystack, so let’s see if we can make that just a bit more straightforward.

Before you start thinking about candidate enterprises, first think about what you feel strongest about doing, and be honest about what doesn’t matter so much to you. This is the first part of Step 2 – Find Your Partner Social Enterprise expounded upon in the book (sign up here for a discounted copy when I release it!). Today I present my thinking in doing Part A for my upcoming Central America trip:  identify what kind of social enterprise you want to work with.     Other parts of Step 2 follow weekly.

What Type of Social Enterprise Do You Want To Support: For-Profit or Nonprofit?

As I talk about in the book, a social enterprise can organize either as a for-profit aiming to make a positive impact with their products or services, or it can organize as a non-p profit trying to earn revenue by selling a portion of their products or services.   Both exist to serve a community, or ecosystem, and both types need your expertise.   Some volunteers don’t want to work with for-profits, because they don’t like the idea of giving their free expertise to someone who may profit by it. I understand this, but my main concern is that a lower income community benefits in a real way by an organization’s efforts, so I personally don’t care if someone else profits by it. In fact, if someone CAN make a profit by providing really healthy, beneficial, sustainable products, then they stand a good chance of doing so for a long time.   On the other hand, small nonprofits are easier to find and you don’t have to worry about someone profiting off your volunteering.

For this criterion, for this trip, I’m choosing nonprofits because I like my chances of finding a good nonprofit faster with online resources. And I’m supposed to be leaving in a month. However, if I come across a good for profit, I may go for it. I’m just going to focus on nonprofits to make this process easier.

Which Country and Region Do I Want To Go To?

Remember that scene in the movie Dr. Doolittle – the older Rex Harrison version, not the Eddie Murphy version – where he spun the globe and stabbed his walking stick at a random spot as his next destination?   Well, maybe you don’t  (it WAS a movie made long ago), but this is partly how I’ve made my decisions about where to explore in the past. For this one, however, I pointed my figurative walking stick to a region where I’d never been before: Central America.    Central America attracts me for several reasons:

  • I’ve never been there
  • It’s not far from my family in the US, just 2.5 hours flight from Houston
  • I like the idea of having friends come visit me while I’m there too (and when I announced this trip, several claimed “I’m coming to visit!”)
  • Since it’s winter in North America, and I don’t do cold & grey well, why not wait out winter in the tropics?
  • It’s also cheaper to live there than in the San Francisco Bay Area.  To see how much cheaper, I used Numbeo which says that rent prices are 88% cheaper in one of the coastal towns of Costa Rica, and food prices are 48% cheaper.  I can save money by not living in San Francisco!
  • I can read/write Spanish reasonably well, although my speaking is shaky.
  • Finally, from a more intuitive / less intellectual place, I spent some time on Google Earth, and clicked on photos and lodging options.  As I explored, I felt my adventure mojo getting agitated, in a good way, so I knew this was a good move.

Now, Central America has 7 countries, 8 if you include southern Mexico. So which do I want to explore? All have their plusses and minuses, but I’ve always had a curiosity about Costa Rica and it’s very high literacy rate of 97.8% (4th highest in all of Latin America behind Cuba, Uruguay and Argentina).   They also don’t have a military, and in this day and age having both at the same time just intrigues me. I’ve read about Costa Rica and most travelers report that it’s a very nice place to visit, and even live: safe, beautiful, a choice of oceans, mountains, and home to a few of the most highly biodiverse jungles in the world. I’m also interested in Belize (hear there’s great diving there!), and Panama (supposed to be an up and coming country for visitors). Both also seem like good opportunities for an ex pat like me to retire to or just have a vacation / income property, which is also something I’m curious about.     So I’ll keep Belize and Panama as my Plan B’s and come back to them if my search for an enterprise in Costa Rica doesn’t pan out.

As far as a region of Costa Rica, I think I’d like to do my project near an ocean. For no other reason than I like Jimmy Buffet, I like scuba diving, and I like water. And I want to see some of that jungle biodiversity, so it would be nice to have one nearby that I can visit while I volunteer. The central areas may have more Lean Volunteer opportunities, because that’s where more locals tend to live, so I‘ll check that out too if I don’t find what I’m looking for near an ocean.

To get more specific, I talked to a few people who have visited Costa Rica, with a map in hand, and asked them to describe the various places around the coasts. It’s not a big country, still some communities seem slightly more intriguing than others. I’ve narrowed it down to 2 communities: Guanacaste in the northwest on the Pacific Ocean, and Puerto Viejo in the Southeast, on the Caribbean sea.   If these don’t work out, then I’ll look at a couple others, including Domincal and Quepos, along the southwest coast, which I’ve also heard good things about.

Guanacaste has a volcano! 

Puerto Viejo has a beach!







Political Stability

From a pretty cursory bit of research, it seems that Costa Rica is one of the most politically stable and politically safe countries in Central America. Panama looks pretty good too. In a country where there is strife, this could be a deal killer, and make me look to another country, but since everything looks safe, I’m okay here.   I don’t worry too much about local petty crime, since that sort of stuff goes on anywhere I’ll want to go – it’s a wash. I’m more interested in heavy duty corruption, and political unrest that could turn violent that is systemic around a country. Costa Rica looks good!

Also, to check out the prevalence of public corruption, I did a quick check at transparency.org and found that Costa Rica is ranked in the top 1/3 of countries for low corruption (top of the list is Denmark, bottom of the list is Somalia).

Usual Travel Issues

In some countries, getting to a social enterprise site can prove difficult if not impossible due to infrastructure issues, timing issues, or just plain cost.   Plus, some countries – like China or Vietnam – make it tricky to spend longer than just a few weeks. I want to know two things about Costa Rica. Do I need a visa to stay for 60 days?   And can I get to where I need to go easily?

I’ll start with the very nice Wikipedia entry on travel visas. It has a good description of different kinds of visas issued around the world. But for the final word, go to an official government site, such as the Embassy or Consulate site in the US.   I only trust the official sites in learning about travel visas, because so many other sites have old information, or are just plain wrong.

In looking at the official Costa Rica Embassy site, I learn that

“1. Americans do not need a visa to enter Costa Rica. However, they must have a current valid passport and a return ticket to exit Costa Rica. (Either to return to your country or to go to another country). US passport must be valid for a minimum of one day from the day you enter Costa Rica.”

I also find out that since I’m traveling from America, I do not need a Yellow Fever vaccine, which is nice.

Also, I discover that Costa Rica allows US citizens 90 days’ stay with no visa. Since I’m planning on staying 2 months, that should be just fine. Flights to Guanacaste are easy from the US through a local airport at Liberia, and it looks like the drive from the capital airport at San Jose to Puerto Viejo is 4 hours, but with bus service.   So it looks like I can get to either place easily.   A quick check of airbnb and hotel.com shows plenty of options if I need a Plan B once I get there.

Which Sector Do I Want To Work With?

Okay, now that Costa Rica looks like a winner for me, I move on to deciding which sector I want to support. A sector (or market) has to do with what kind of business or service the enterprise makes its impact in. Could be health, water, education, medical, etc.   Honestly, for this trip, I don’t care. As a Lean Volunteer, my work will be on the back office processes, and I’ve learned as a consultant that with a little learning, I can add value to any kind of business. The other criteria are more important to me for this trip.   If pressed, I’ll choose education as my sector, since I’ve been working in education for a long time.

Which Population Do I Want To Help?

If I can, I’d like to help lower income women who run small businesses. Similar to the entrepreneurs you might find on Kiva.org.  My motivation is to help an organization that supports them, so that the organization can be more successful, and therefore all of their clients and their families can enjoy the benefits that just a bit more income can provide. In my past experience, that means better school access, better health care, and even, sometimes, more protein in their diets. I do not want to help the women entrepreneurs directly, because Lean Volunteers work behind the scenes on the value chain processes and I will have more leverage by spending my time helping the organization than by helping individual clients.   I fully expect to meet some of these clients, but I will push to focus my efforts on building the organization’s capacity.


These are the kinds of entrepreneurial women in Costa Rica that I want to help.  I’ve loaned to these women through Kiva.org. Now I want to help others like them, perhaps by doing a project with one of the organizations they get their loans through. I like to envision the faces of the people my work will eventually help.


Create your Social Enterprise Ask Profil

My next task in Step 2 is to find a few candidate enterprises and for that I’ll help myself by being as precise as possible when I do online searches and ask people for advice. I found that having a Social Enterprise Ask Profile really helped them help me. It’s just a summary of the decision you made above, so here’s mine.


Click to make bigger.

The Social Enterprise Ask Profile will give me a consistent message when I do online searches, and when I ask smart people for any leads they have. It speeds the search up to ask “do you know any education nonprofits in Costa Rica that help women entrepreneurs?” instead of asking the more general “do you know any good social enterprises in Central America?”.   If you’re not that picky, and are willing to toss the dice in selecting a nonprofit, then the latter might be marginally faster. (Of course, most knowledgeable people will come back to you with: well, what are you looking for?)   If you have any preferences at all, then it helps to do the thinking up front and come up with your own Social Enterprise Ask Profile.

Now that I have this much figured out, I’ll move on to Step 2, Part B – Find 3 Candidate Enterprises. Tune in next week for that!

For much more useful insight into how all this works, please sign up for a discounted copy of my book when I release it, The Lean Volunteer: Traveling The World While Doing Good With Your Business Expertise.


Any questions or comments on how I’m doing this?

Next Post, Step 2B, is here



Photo Credits:  Since I haven’t been to Costa Rica yet, I’ve used fellow travelers’ photos, who kindly make them available for use, with attribution.

Graphic of Social Enterprise:  http://www.socialenterprise.net/services.html

Photo of Capuchin Monkey:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/royluck/14825787537

Photo of AlVolcano:   http://www.panoramio.com/user/145048

Photo of Puerto Viejo:  http://www.panoramio.com/user/4720906

Photos of Entrepreneurs:  http://www.kiva.org/