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Podcast Transcript: Starting a New Service Corps: Scott Beale of Atlas Corps

Below is the transcript for our podcast Starting a New Service Corps: Scott Beale of Atlas Corps. You can listen to the show here.


AMY POTTHAST: I'm Amy Potthast and this is The New Service Podcast from Idealist.org, moving people from good intentions to action. Today's guest is Scott Beale, Founder and Executive Director of Atlas Corps, a service and exchange corps for professionals in the NGO sector. Also known as a two-way Peace Corps, Atlas Corps brings rising professionals from nongovernmental organizations in the global south to the United States to serve for a year. U.S. professionals also find opportunities to serve in NGOs in Columbia, India, and soon elsewhere.
Fellows must have three to eight years of experience in the citizen sector of their own country. In 2008, Atlas Corps earned $100,000 in online fundraising contests. This spring, Atlas Corps will be finishing out its second year of a two year pilot phase.


AMY: Hi Scott, welcome to the show!

SCOTT BEALE: Thank you, Amy!

AMY: I was hoping you could start by introducing yourself and Atlas Corps.

SCOTT: My name is Scott Beale and I'm the Founder and Executive Director of Atlas Service Corps, referred to as Atlas Corps. Atlas Corps is a new, international nonprofit organization. Our primary program is to take nonprofit leaders from around the world and have the volunteer in the United States for one year to learn best practices, to share their perspectives, and then go back home. And we also send some U.S. nonprofit leaders to volunteer abroad as well. Some people call what we do a "reverse Peace Corps," but when we described it as that to a guy in India, he asked, "why are you against peace?" We're not the anti-Peace Corps; we're more of a two-way professional corps of nonprofit leaders working around the world to promote best practices.

Right now we have a small pilot group of 12 fellows and we don't see a reason why we couldn't have 100 fellows, or 500 fellows, or 10,000 fellows from around the world, where we become the premier program to train and build the capacity of nonprofit leaders while providing a unique support to nonprofit organizations and strengthening the nonprofit network.

Just like how the private sector has benefited from the globalization of ideas and people, a guy goes from India to Seattle and works for Microsoft and invents hotmail and we all benefit because we can email our family and friends for free. Things like this are done in the private sector all the time. Just like in the academic sector, the government sector, and the religious sector, good ideas cross borders. In the nonprofit sector it has been very limited with very few exceptions of Americans or the West going to the Global South or to the developing world. This one way flow of people, knowledge and ideas is good. It's great that we're working across borders, but it's missing a different part of the circle where the Global South leaders come to the United States. Where we work across borders; and especially in the nonprofit sector this is at least as important. Because issues like HIV/AIDS, Global Warming, the treatment of women, and the development of youth, are very global issues even if there done in a domestic way. So this globalization of the nonprofit sector, that Atlas Corps is trying to help facilitate, has almost no limit for growth.

AMY: I was wondering if you could say more about how the program works and what impact it has on the people who participate in that as fellows.

SCOTT: There are a lot of great service programs out there and it wasn't in our interest to try to recreate the wheel in any way. So what we tried to do was to create a program which was focused on mid-career leaders; people who are at least four or five years into their careers in the nonprofit sector. And also focus on Global South leaders coming to the United States or at least a two-way exchange of leaders. A 28 or 29 year old leader from India or Columbia who wants to come volunteer in the United States is going to have trouble getting a Visa. It's very, very difficult. Even to come as a tourist is almost impossible. So we provide that opportunity to help them come in an organized program to network with other leaders and to learn while they're volunteering at these organizations. And give them the opportunity to go back to their countries and to strengthen their programs back home.

This experience, like many service programs, is an opportunity for people to get out of their comfort zone, to try new experiences, and to take the lessons they've learned from the context of their own country – be it working on human trafficking in India or youth development in Columbia – and use those skills and experience in the United States working on similar issues. They often find that many of the best practices from their own country do work in the United States and in some cases they don't because the context is different, but through that process they become stronger leaders and the U.S. host organizations also become stronger from learning the skills from overseas's leaders. And after a yearm they go back home and find that they are more empowered through this network and through this experience and through the academic component to do a better job at what they were doing in their own country.

AMY: When and how did your idea for Atlas Corps come about?

SCOTT: In 2005 I was in New Delhi, India working for the U.S. State Department. I was working to coordinate the U.S. Governments efforts to fight human trafficking in India. I was meeting incredible nonprofit leaders. Previously I had worked for Ashoka and had got to know a lot of Ashoka fellows as well. And I met some young men who were developing what they called an "Indian AmeriCorps program." I knew a little about AmeriCorps from my time in the United States and it got me thinking if India had a Peace Corps. And it got me thinking about international service and the Peace Corps, and, what is it? What does it mean? And we started having these amazing, dynamic, really inspiring dinner table conversations with folks from the Foreign Service and USAID and the Indian Government and nonprofit leaders and developed this idea for Atlas Corps. And I decided that I would leave my job with the State Department and start this program. I thought, there must be someone that's doing this, there must've been some entity that was taking nonprofit leaders from abroad and taking them to the U.S. But the truth is that the the visa was so complicated and the financing is so complicated that it was a difficult program to launch. Since I had worked for the State Department I knew how to work the visa. And since I had worked for Ashoka I had some ideas on social entrepreneurship and decided that I would give it a go.

AMY: And so once the fellows come to the United States from abroad, where exactly do they serve? Are they all in Washington, DC? And what kind of host agencies do they work for?

SCOTT: We are completing the second year of our two year pilot phase right now. And in this pilot phase - both in years one and two - we've had overseas fellows in Washington, DC from Columbia and from India. They've been placed in nonprofit organizations like Grameen Foundation or Ashoka's Youth Center, or Techno Serve, or Global Giving, or Free the Slaves. A lot of big international nonprofits and some smaller domestic nonprofits as well. And they're placed within those organizations precisely because that's where their experience was overseas. If he's doing human trafficking work in India, we may place him with Free the Slaves. Doing microfinance work in Columbia, we'd place the fellow at the Graameen Foundation. They're there for a year and they learn from those host organizations by essentially volunteering full-time. We only pull them out once a month for training. And over the course of the month we provide them with other opportunities to learn and experience cultural enrichment and those types of activities.

AMY: So you mention that you've been in a pilot phase for Atlas Corps. I'm really curious to know what you learned during the start up time and how you think things will change moving forward?

SCOTT: This two year phase has been very exciting for us. We launched with our first class of six fellows and then we doubled the size of our fellows to 12 in our second year. It was a very exciting and ambitious growth. We also added a new component in our second year, where we took U.S. nonprofit leaders to volunteer in Bogota. So we now have a two-way exhcange of leaders. We also have been working to increase the sustainability of the program through the host organizations. Essentially the host organizations pay us a program fee for each fellow. In the first year it covered 40% of our expenses and now it covers about 60% of our expense. So it makes Atlas Corps a very sustainable organization. Overtime we expect the sustainability to increase. As we grow we become more sustainable because of the value of the fellows and the host organizations pay for it. We also intend to breakout of the U.S., Columbia, India pilot that we've been in. Next year we're recruiting fellows from Africa and East Asia and will continue sending fellows to Bogota. In the near future I expect we'll send our fellows to countries such as India and eventually we hope to have a sound south fellowship.

AMY: Why Bogota? You mentioned that you got your start when you were in India, but what's the connection to Bogota?

SCOTT: So the short answer is that my wife is a Foreign Service Officer and she served in Bogota right after I left India. While I left a secure job with the U.S. Government I was very blessed that my wife retained a very secure job. The longer answer is that we chose Bogota because we wanted to try a country in South America and we wanted to go to a country that had a positive opinion of the United States and a strong nonprofit center and Columbia fit that bill. There's a very strong Ashoka office there. It's good ties for us. A very large embassy. India and Columbia have been fantastic countries to launch this program in. In fact, the Colombian government has funded Atlas Corp the last two years. They see the value of training their nonprofit leaders and building their sector there. So they've given a modest, but in our world significant, grant to support our program.

AMY: That's great. I'm curious about other support that you've received. Paul White of the Wagner School has said that social entrepreneurship is pursued through networks and teams, not just by individuals who are more traditionally recognized for being social entrepreneurs. And I noticed on your website that Atlas Corps had received a variety of support from a number of different boards: the board of advisers, the senior advisory board, board of trustees and then you also have many funders and partners. It's very impressive considering the amount of time that your program has been around. So I was wondering if you could talk a little more about the support that Atlas Corps gets? Not just financial, but moral support and connections and things like that and what roles they've played in Atlas Corps's success.

SCOTT: Well thank you. It's been impressive and it's been impressive precisely because of what the network of individuals have done. I should say from the onset that I am eternally grateful for the literally hundreds of people who have contributed hundreds of hours to Atlas Corps to make it into a success. Some people go to other countries for to months just to help Atlas Corps out. There have been many, many people, some of whom are close friends of mine and others who I'd never met before, who have stepped up the past two years to make Atlas Corps a success. We have really tried to approach this from a network strategy. We've been very good at getting a little bit of support from a lot of sources. We have difficulty getting a lot of support from little sources but we're working on that. As I said, we have some Colombian government sources, we have government resources. We've had humanity sources. We've had Humanity United support our efforts against human trafficking these first couple years. We've had corporations like Dupant, as I've mentioned before. And almost 2,000 individuals have supported Atlas Corps. Last year we were quite honored to win the Giving Challenge where almost 17,000 people contributed to Atlas Corps online over a six week period. We raised $33,000 in the process and won $50,000 from the Case Foundation contest. This is only possible because of a large network of people who believe in this idea. Who believe that no one society has a monopoly on good ideas. Who believe that the only way we can address these problems is through global cooperation through the strength of our leaders and the strength of our cooperation's we're all better off. So we've been very luck and a great network of senior advisory members and even local friends and people around the world who have stepped up to make Atlas Corps a success.

AMY: Why is Atlas Corps important right now?

SCOTT: I believe we're important because of two forces which are in play at this moment. The first has been happening for well over a decade: the globalization of the world, the globalization of the sector, the privatization of technology. We need to find a way in the nonprofit sector to promote best practices and find a way for leaders to cooperate and not compete. We cannot keep doing things the way we've been doing them for decades and hope that eventually we'll be able to fix the same old problems that have been around forever. We need to find new solutions. Which brings me to my second point: with this economic crisis that we're facing right now, which is only going to get worse before it gets better, the nonprofit sector needs to focus on solutions that are sustainable. Focus on solutions that strengthen leaders, communities, organizations, networks and promote cooperation. We can't afford to keep doing business as usual when the world isn't as it usually is.

AMY: Can you talk a bit about your own career path and educational background? You've talked a bit about it.

SCOTT: My career path has been kind of erratic and some people have looked back at it and said it was brilliantly well planned, but in reality it was just about finding opportunities and getting lucky along the way. I went to Georgetown University. Both of my parents were teachers so I was able to go on a Grant Scholarship and was very much involved in government and politics and worked for the Governor of Delaware for a while in Washington, DC. Then worked for President Clinton for awhile in the White House. When that came to an abrupt end 8 years ago I transitioned into the nonprofit sector and began to work at Ashoka's Youth Center Program. I love my experience there and learned and was trained in social entrepreneurship. I got my masters at the University of Delaware along the way--Master's in Public Administration--and then decided to jump back into Government and went to work for the State Department overseas. So I have bounced between government and nonprofit jobs that have been focused in the empowerment of others. and trying to use my talents to make a difference in the world - be it in the public or the nonprofit sector. So it's been a fun ride along the way.

AMY: It's really common, I think, for career paths in this sector to be sort of ziggy-zaggy. And for people to not know where they'll end up when they start out even if you have a goal, it's sort of a bumpy ride. It's great that all your experiences have been able to serve you so well in your current role.

SCOTT: Thank you.

AMY: So I'm wondering if you can tell listeners where to learn more and get more involved?

SCOTT: We really encourage people to get involved with Atlas Corps and to be part of this organization. We really need all the support and help that we can get and we're very open to volunteers. The best way to learn about our program is to go to AtlasCorps.org. And our website is very complete. There's a lot of information there. We also have a lot of videos on youtube, which is Youtube.com/AtlasCorps. People can apply to be volunteers and support our work in their local communities. They can apply to be fellows. We take American nonprofit leaders with 3-8 years of experience to go volunteer overseas in Bogata; speaking Spanish is a requirement in that sense. Nonprofit organizations could become host organizations. They could help us place a nonprofit leader from overseas. There are a ton of ways to get involved or just to learn more. Go to AtlasCorps.org, find out more about what we're about, how we're trying to promote best practices in the sector, and get involved in our organization.

AMY: Do host organizations have to be in Washignton, DC if they're from the US?

SCOTT: So right now we're working with host organizations primarily in Washington DC and we may be expanding to New York City next year. Probably in future years we will go to work with organizations all across the United States, so if you're in Portland or San Fransisco or Miami, then go to our website and sign up for our list serve because we'll be expanding to cities all across the United States soon, but for right now we're focused primarily in DC and a little bit in New York.

AMY: That's great, I really really appreciate your time, and wish you all the best as AtlasCorps progresses.

SCOTT: Well thank you Amy, I've been a big fan of idealist.org for years, I think that you guys are doing fantastic work, and I appreciate the opportunity to tell people more about AtlasCorps.

AMY: Thank you.


Read more about AtlasCorps at Atlascorps.org. You can also read more on the New Service blog: www.idealist.org/thenewservice. This show was produced with the help of idealist.org's Douglas Coulter for production. I'm Amy Potthast. Thanks for listening. To find more good things to do, go to at www.idealist.org. If you have enjoyed our podcasts, please show your support by going to iTunes and leaving a review and a rating of this episode or others you have liked. You can also send us feedback to podcasts@idealist.org.