Life Solomon Islands

Fundraising for Mercy

November 18, 2017

For the past few weeks I have been helping to fundraise for the building of a block of classrooms for Mercy School in Burns Creek.

This has been a learning experience.

Some context: Burns Creek is one of the poorest settlements in Honiara. The communities who have settled here are mostly illegal settlers, many of whom are Malaitans who were displaced during the 2014 floods. Mercy School is placed smack bang in the middle of Burns Creek and has one of the lowest school fees in Honiara. Average yearly school fees in Honiara sit around the $1,000 SBD mark; fees at Mercy are only $250 SBD.

One of the groups I am involved in, ITG (a group of accompanying partners who get together for various volunteer projects and cups of tea), has done a lot of volunteer work with this school including fundraising, building classrooms, getting furniture built, providing sanitary kits for the girls, and teaching English to the kids.

This is where I come in: I don’t even like kids, but somehow I have found myself going in every week or so to read and teach English to a class of Year 1 kids. Nek minute, I’m part of the fundraising committee. 

Here are some things I learnt about fundraising for a school in the Solomon Islands:

Businesses, most of them, are generous.

For the past two weeks, a tenacious friend and I have been going to businesses begging for donations for the school’s fundraiser raffle. Solomon Islanders love themselves a good raffle but getting prizes for it is hot and disheartening work. However, the businesses who have supported us have been very generous in their donations: backpacks, soccer balls, grocery vouchers, boxes of canned tuna, sacks of rice, gas bottles and burners, solar lights, mobile phones, and even a grass cutter. Our first prize was an incredible return ticket for a domestic or international flight from Solomon Air.

Not all prizes are appropriate.

Mercy School caters to one of the poorest communities in Honiara and some prizes were not as useful as others. In a village where they share one electrical plug, compare the impact of winning one solar lamp which can double as a usb charger to winning an electric desk fan. We also ended up turning down a full car servicing because not everyone has a car and even canned goods came under scrutiny because that would assume that everyone has can openers. Good thing SolTuna comes with easy-open pull-tabs.

Selling raffle tickets can cause moral dilemmas.

Do I sell to locals only, or can I sell them to foreigners too? Is that racist? But foreigners have so much money with which to build many classrooms. But then, I don’t really want a foreigner winning all the prizes do I? And if they did, would a foreigner appreciate winning a month’s worth of canned tuna and a 20kg sack of rice? (I would). In the end, I thought I’d sleep better if I went for the racist option and kept my raffle tickets for locals to buy.

Some thieves aren’t smart.

Within the first 30 minutes of arriving at the school on fundraiser day, calamity struck – the guard that had personally asked us to be given the responsibility of guarding the raffle prizes had run off and stolen the three new mobile phones! Because the “guard” lived in the village and was known to everyone, the phones were retrieved within an hour by threat of local justice. Better planning next time eh, Mr Robber.

Solomon Islanders don’t do sweetie popcorn.

Bags of popcorn here are commonplace and you can get them at a market for a few dollars. I stayed up late on Friday night popping bags of popcorn as an extra money maker to sell alongside the sausage sizzle. I wrongly assumed because Solomon Islanders love sweet things, that the popcorn here would be sweet so I made all my popcorn with icing sugar. When the local teachers realised the popcorn the foreigners had made was sweet, here’s how they marketed it.

“Sweetie popcorn! Like you have never tried!”

Turns out they only ever do salt or chicken-salt popcorn so I think I just opened their world up to an alternate universe.

How to bale sale, seriously.

Along with our raffle prizes, we also had three donated bales of clothing along with a bunch of other miscellaneous items donated from friends and friends of friends. All of this we dumped into a classroom which turned into a chaotic contest of who could grab stuff the fastest. The technique to this shopping is to arrive an hour before anything starts, push and shove to grab an armful of stuff, mark territory by sitting down on the floor, and then sorting into ‘Keeps’ and ‘Discards’.

Business plans are illogical.

We were donated $1,000 ($178 NZD) which was allocated to do a sausage sizzle. I quickly did the math in my head. So if we buy 200 of the cheapest sausages for $800, that leaves $200 to buy loaves of bread. And if we sell each sausage for $5 that means we will make $1,000 exactly providing we sell all 200 sausages. This leaves us a profit of… jack all, really. It was obvious to me what we needed to do.

“Just put the $1,000 straight into the kitty and not have a sausage sizzle.”

“But then people would have nothing to eat!”  

“So… we’re doing a sausage sizzle knowing full well we are making a net loss?”

Duh, silly me. What kind of a fundraiser would it be without a sausage sizzle. Of course Nid would love to spend six hours standing in front of a hot BBQ when it’s 30 degrees out so that he can contribute towards the net loss of said BBQ. It got worse the next morning when we discovered that someone bought fancy bread.

“So, instead of buying loaves of bread for $9 which has around 15 servings, someone bought bags of $3 buns? $3 per bun?!”

Sometimes the Solomon Island logic escapes me.

Solomon Islanders LOVE sausages.

Once we stopped trying to sell sausages with a piece of bread and dropped the price to $5 SBD, sausages started flying off the grill. That’s right – we just sold sausages by themselves. We initially anticipated not being able to sell even 200 sausages, but we probably ended up selling twice that. Unfortunately, whoever was in charge of the sausages gave them to us frozen solid meaning we had to cook them in batches, letting them defrost on one plate and then cooking them on another. Despite this, people were not deterred from wanting sausages even if they weren’t cooked. Yet another moral dilemma: Is it ok to sell uncooked sausages when customers know they are uncooked? In the end, we sold-out of sausages and had bags and bags of unaffordable buns left over. The moral of the story: Just sell sausages, no one wants your fancy bread.

Scrunched up raffle tickets improves your luck.

I don’t know this for sure, but someone sat through scrunching 1,800 raffle tickets without thinking it was a waste of time. This meant I also had to scrunch up my 80 tickets I had sold so that all the tickets were consistent. This is the only reason I could come up with for why someone thought this was a cool idea.

Winning a raffle prize is a big deal.

If I win a raffle prize, I go from having lots of stuff, to having one extra stuff. The effect of me winning a prize, compared to a local who might not have lots of stuff, is ten times greater. We had about 40 prizes of pretty useful stuff. One kid walked off with a solar lamp valued at $1,200 SBD, a boy walked off with enough tuna and rice to feed the wantok for a month, and a local girl walked off with the Solomon Air return flight. More use in their hands than mine.

Don’t expect a thank you.

It’s not in their culture to say “Thank you” and that’s ok once you know that. Something not to get upset about because you will get rewarded with good karma and feel-goods.

At the end of the day, I have no idea how much we raised but am pretty stoked it’s all over. Lots of energy to begin with, frustrating lows, hot weather with not enough naps, some wins, dwindling motivation, last-ditch spurts of effort, and then finally, relief. Watching everyone win the raffle prizes, especially the pikinini, made it totally worth the hot and bother, and Mercy school is that much more closer to getting their new block of classrooms. It was an eye-opening experience and we learnt a lot. So much so, that we’re going to leave it to someone else to do next year.

Thanks to everyone who donated, my husband for manning a hot BBQ on a hot day and giving up his Survivor Island weekend trip, and Wonder Woman. Really, you did all the work I just came along for the ride. Pity the mortals who try to do it next year without you.