Celina de Sola is accelerating community development by tearing down walls between government, business, and community groups, building a new culture of shared responsibility and cross-sector collaboration, rooted in trust.
The New Idea
In a context of poverty, violence, and underdevelopment in Central America, where significant investment is made with limited outcomes, Celina is transforming the development sector to achieve greater impact. She has developed a methodology that breaks down systemic barriers of distrust between communities, corporations, and government, enabling sustainable collaboration across these sectors to create social impact.
For years, El Salvador and more generally Central America, have struggled to overcome the challenges of poverty, violence, and underdevelopment. Decades of civil war, gang violence, and economic insecurity have left a legacy of problems -- poverty levels are 64.5% in Honduras, 53.7% in Guatemala, 34.5% in El Salvador, and 52.3% in Mexico and violence in the region is only growing -- but at the root of these issues, the region suffers from broken trust and social disintegration. Social inclusion in the region is fragmented, wealth is highly consolidated at the top 10% of the income distribution, and trust in institutions, especially political parties and the legislature, is extremely low.
The consequence of this type of mistrust and unwillingness to cooperate is that instead of achieving solutions to transform the region, stakeholders are unable to move forward on even simple initiatives because one or more parties cannot agree, understand the needs of the others, or work together. The lack of productive communication is perpetuated by all sides; business defines its own interests too narrowly, government is often corrupt, and communities, frustrated by a legacy of paternalistic aid patterns in the region, become jaded and refuse to get involved. All of these issues are exacerbated by strong traditions of class separation and an uneven distribution of wealth, which can lead to tendencies to dehumanize the “other side.” Misconceptions have become standard; with different groups or parties seeing one another as foreign and starkly opposite to themselves.
The lack of trust also has repercussions for private sector investment and the way corporations do business in the region. Although a significant amount of foreign aid funding has been directed toward Central America in recent years, these funds are not matched by local partners or governments. The lack of local market for investing, especially investment in the public sector, means that many foreign aid projects are temporary or even left unfinished, lasting only as long as the outside government funding source remains. The corporations that have brought business to Central America have failed to take a stake in the communities where they work and invest in building relationships, further perpetuating the lack of trust and communication across sectors.
Glasswing is working to transform patterns of trust and interaction across El Salvador and the region. Since its founding in 2006, the organization has focused on developing a clear and concrete model for interventions in communities, and is now beginning to see results beyond the time periods and locations where the organization is directly present.
When Glasswing works with a community, the first step the organization takes is to conduct an ‘actor mapping’; evaluating all the potential stakeholders in the community’s development. Glasswing’s approach is assets-based, rather than needs-based, so instead of starting with the problem, the organization starts by seeing who could be involved in positive change for the area. Many times, one of the largest local assets is human resources, volunteers from corporations and the government as well as from the communities themselves. Glasswing then works to coach each party in stakeholder engagement, essentially, how to communicate as truly equal actors and how to focus on overlapping interests rather than points of contention.
Once the actors have been identified and some preliminary workshops conducted, Celina’s strategy is to involve all of them as soon as possible in a tangible, achievable project. A key element of Glasswing’s success has been Celina’s belief that action is a better catalyst for collaboration than dialogue alone. The first initial project – often an “Extreme School Makeover” or the building of a health clinic – facilitates a shared experience across actors, where the CEO of a multinational corporation may work side by side with one of her most entry-level employees, the local mayor, and the parents of the children attending the school. This project humanizes the actors and sets the stage for shared accountability.
Once this project has been completed, Glasswing capitalizes on the momentum and brings the actors together to build more permanent consensus and design a concrete roadmap for further actions. At this point, the stakeholders return to reviewing their diverse interests and resources, and finding places where overlap could generate lasting positive change. Glasswing helps the stakeholders to look for win-win-win opportunities and to drop any give-take rhetoric.
At this point, Glasswing phases itself out of the process. By providing a transparent third-party intervention, the organization creates an initial space to catalyze collaboration. The way Glasswing works, however, to generate direct relationships which will be able to function without relying on Glasswing as an intermediary. Once the initial steps have been taken, the community can rely on their strengthened relationships and an inventory of resources that can later be called upon for other investment in its development. Furthermore, Glasswing is working to engender a mindset shift that extends beyond just the communities and corporations with which it works directly.
Glasswing chooses which community to work with in one of two ways; either the organization reaches out to communities with particularly high indicators of fragmentation and social exclusion, or a corporation comes to the organization looking for support in public sector investing. The organization’s goal is developing a critical mass of changed communities sufficient to challenge and change the entire pattern for cross-sector interaction in El Salvador and Central America. In the beginning, Glasswing sought out projects, but it is now more common that one of these entities approaches the organization. Communities or governments typically approach Glasswing with a need, while private sector companies usually are looking to invest in a specific sector in order to strengthen their ties with the local population or to fortify their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
Already, many of the corporations that Glasswing works with have, after seeing the results of the Glasswing approach, adopted the same model in other countries without the organization as facilitator. Four years after Glasswing helped design the original collaborative proposal, Hanes brand today runs volunteer after school programs in the communities where it has its factories across El Salvador and Honduras, and is now expanding the strategy to the Dominican Republic. In another case, Glasswing worked with SAB Miller, local governments and communities to design programs for youth life skills development and under-age drinking prevention, training of community leaders on alcohol-related risks, and training bartenders and vendors of alcoholic beverages to make responsible sales to adults and zero-tolerance for sales to minors. Glasswing implements this comprehensive program in El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, and has also trained community members and vendors directly (as trainers) for them to replicate. The last component with vendors has since been incorporated into SAB Miller's vendor training programs throughout Latin America, without Glasswing's involvement.
This continued work can also be seen in communities. In the municipality of Jose Villanueva in El Salvador, the actors identified the need for day care/pre-school, and with the help of Glasswing they divided the work. The mayor rented a space, a private company paid to rehabilitate the infrastructure, a local NGO provided the necessary training, volunteers from the company and the community revitalized the center. Community members will be rotating every 3-6 months to be trained on early childhood development and will replicate the training in their villages while the mayor pays the ongoing costs. This type of ongoing and active collaboration can be seen throughout the region and continue to work after Glasswing´s direct intervention.
Celina believes that in order to understand the local context, Glasswing should have local staff presence in the countries where it is working. Thus, in addition to its headquarters in El Salvador, the organization has opened offices in Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, and Honduras. An additional two-member office in the United States works on foreign partnerships and fundraising/networking. As a result, Glasswing has been able to foster close relationships with local and national governments, the private sector (both local companies and large multinational corporations) and the community members themselves. The organization has close contacts with a number of international institutions working in Central America, including the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations Development Corporation, as well as private corporations and individual foundations. Glasswing also regularly conducts field visits to local communities to keep up-to-date on their evolving needs and resources.
Glasswing’s $7 million budget is financed through a variety of funding sources, including private sector partnerships, USAID, individual donors and foundations, and in-kind donations. Only 5% of Glasswing’s funds go to overhead costs; the rest go directly to the projects themselves. As it expands across Central America, the organization is simultaneously expanding its regional funding bases, with “Glasswing Ambassadors” in the United States and Europe helping to secure more resources. More importantly, Glasswing’s work attracts additional funds, often from local governments, for public investment which would not have been invested without the organization’s efforts. While Celina is just beginning to measure this form of impact, the organization has already leveraged about $3 to 4 million in additional funding for communities.
In the seven years since its founding, Glasswing has mobilized more than 60,000 corporate, citizen and public sector volunteers and has reached 500,000 beneficiaries. It has worked in over 400 communities, where it has revitalized 450 schools, trained 6,000 people in emergency response and engaged 15,000 people in community health programs. 25,000 students have participated in community and corporation–run after school programs, which help prevent them from participating in illicit activities, and trains them in skills such as computing, debate and carpentry. It has worked with more than 50 companies; 90% of which have decided to repeat or augment their involvement with Glasswing. As Glasswing looks toward the future, it is considering expanding to other regions facing similar levels of polarization and fragmentation.
Celina de Sola was born in El Salvador, but during the civil war in the 1980s her family fled, first to Guatemala and then later to the United States. Her mother, a psychologist, raised Celina with a strong social conscience which, with the encouragement of her middle school teachers, rapidly transformed into a strong passion for community service. Celina became the head of her student council’s community service club, and organized projects to help with the Special Olympics through her school and to support premature babies in the local hospital. During high school, her family returned to El Salvador and she started a program there called Teens United for Health, which got students involved in community service locally and focused on health issues such as underage drinking and smoking.
Throughout her education, Celina pursued multidisciplinary subjects which she felt could begin to address the social problems she had seen. She studied Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and then completed a fifth year Master’s in Social Work. After graduating, Celina decided to work for Americare in immediate-response disaster relief, to put her multidisciplinary skills and her passion for social issues to work. Celina’s job at Americare was demanding and transformative. Whenever and wherever humanitarian crises struck, she would be on the ground within 48 hours, organizing all the logistics to make emergency relief possible. On her own and often not speaking the language, she learned to quickly identify and mobilize existing community resources. It was working for Americare, Celina says, that she learned to truly listen, to hear what people had to offer and to see what they needed. Her job demanded constant creativity, connecting unlikely partners in order to make relief happen.
Throughout her time at Americare, Celina was struck by the way that different groups could coordinate to provide relief and rebuild in times of crises. She asked herself whether this type of collaboration was truly only possible during humanitarian disasters. At the same time, she found herself increasingly frustrated with the temporary nature of disaster relief work, and also began to feel called to return to her native El Salvador to work on the social issues she had experienced growing up. In 2005, Celina left Americare to pursue a Masters in Public Health at Harvard University. Following graduation, she returned to El Salvador and, in 2007, founded Glasswing, drawing heavily on her experiences listening and learning to pull together resources from across sectors. Since its founding, Celina has since expanded Glasswing to five other countries in Central America.