Maria Russo is the executive director of Humanity Unified International, a non-profit organization she co-founded with her husband, Anthony, in 2015 with the goal of lifting vulnerable populations out of poverty through education, food security programs and economic opportunities. She recently took time from her busy schedule – she’s also editor of The Culture-ist – to answer my questions about HU Int’l’s beginnings, programs and plans.
Why did you chose to work in Rwanda? What compelled you to establish your organization?
We actually didn’t choose Rwanda, it sort of chose us. We first visited in November 2014 with an NGO based out of Atlanta that was working with coffee farmers in a rural region of the country. At the time, I was thinking about forming a nonprofit, so I knew the trip would be a great opportunity to lean how small organizations operate on the ground.
While there, my husband and I branched out a bit and started visiting with local NGOs. There was one in particular that was making a significant impact in the lives of women living in poverty. After meeting with the founder, I felt this instant connection and desire to want to work with the organization. They became our first partner, and we are currently working with them on a farming cooperative project.
Why did you decide to focus your programs on empowering women?
Our programs actually focus on empowering entire communities, but we first start by empowering women. There is a proven trickle effect that happens when you facilitate economic opportunities for women. They are 10x more likely than men to invest in their families and communities.
What are your current priorities?
We are currently running a farming cooperative project for 100 women living in extreme poverty. The project is providing education in gender-based violence, family law, nutrition, mental health, cooperative management, breast cancer awareness, and savings management. An on-staff agronomist and field officer will facilitate the women (over the course of one year) in implementing proper farming techniques to ensure that yields are tripled. The project will also provide a storage facility (to protect the crops), tools and an irrigation system. Our local partner, in collaboration with the cooperative, is currently building relationships with buyers to ensure that the women have viable markets to sell their crops.
What about your model sets you apart from other NGOs?
Each NGO has a unique model, but what sets us apart is that we create self-sustaining income generating opportunities for the communities we work with. We do not provide aid in any form. Our local partner is their to facilitate the project, but the work and overall outcome MUST be fostered by the community. I like to think that our organization invests in the dreams of communities, and the ROI is the community’s self-driven success. We also attack poverty from three angles: education, food security and economic opportunities.
What is next for your organization?
I would like to continue working with our current partner in Rwanda, and explore different project opportunities in Greece (working with Syrian refugees) and other parts of East Africa.
Do you have any advice for others who want to start an NGO?
Don’t be afraid of fundraising, it’s actually a door to creating incredible relationships with people. Partner, partner, partner – you’ll never get anything done alone. Last, but most importantly, you better be outrageously passionate about your mission. Running a nonprofit is no easy feat – it requires an incredible amount of oversight, dedication and perseverance.
Oh, and you won’t make any money in the beginning. Like all great things worth pursuing, the fulfillment lies in the journey and when you actually get to see the successes in each project, you realize that there is nothing more meaningful than serving others.