Tab Barker – The Minimalist – PW#5!

weekly philanthropy features

“Do as little as possible.”

You might expect this as the mantra of a sax player from Austin who bummed it in Europe for three years–staying with random new friends, sleeping on the beach, and riding trains until he felt like getting off–but not from an economics grad turned Fulbright Scholar who started his own non-profit eight years ago and has helped build five schools and two permanent water systems in remote and difficult-to-reach areas of rural Nicaragua, all while working in his own bookstore or in other side jobs to support himself.  This week’s Philanthropist of the Week, Tab Barker, happens to be both of these people.  His program is minimalist to it’s core, designed to achieve small and slow progress and have as little negative side-effects as possible.  Meet Project Schoolhouse.

School building in nicaragua
A little girl I met in Nicaragua. She’s proud of her education – look at the wall above her bed 🙂

“The alternative is to not make big change”

In the ’70’s and ’80’s there was a big push by Western countries to decrease the deaths per thousand of live births in Africa.  Vaccines had been developed and had proven to be incredibly effective at eliminating Polio and other diseases.  The West saw the need, felt the people’s pain, made a plan, and went to work.  The vaccines were incredibly effective, yet in the long-term poverty was only worsened; there was a population explosion the economies couldn’t handle, resulting in famine, recession, and, overall, a deepening of the region’s poverty.  Tab explains the impact this had on him, “It was a lesson in what happens when you go into a development situation trying to fix a statistic as your goal, because you want to have measurable results, which I don’t think are the most important thing.”

Tab has designed his program from day one with negative side-effects in mind, trying to avoid the mistakes he’s seen in other philanthropic organizations.  “Do as little as possible” is his mantra to not pursue big-picture change, but slow, small change that doesn’t upset the whole system.  His program is built to answer “voiced need,” only giving people things they want, ask for, and work for.  He tries to find things others want to do first, then manage and fund them in doing so – like getting kids an education.  By being conscious of the negative side-effects of philanthropy, he has developed a lean, effective, and culturally sensitive program that reaches for long-term change.

Voiced need

“This wasn’t my idea,” Tab says, and he’s glad it wasn’t – he believes in responding to “voiced need” rather than pushing his own plans on others.  After returning from one of his year-long jaunts in Europe, he went to Costa Rica, where he had taught English a few years before.  He offered to help by building them a basketball hoop, but they asked for a school instead.  He realized he was good at it, enjoyed the experience, and decided to continue that work, finally ending up in Río Blanco, Nicaragua, where he has operated ever since.

“I found that I was suited for it, somehow, especially when it comes to building schools in rural communities.  I’m from one, I grew up training horses, I’m from rural Wyoming, I understand ranching, farming, my language skills are good . . . for whatever reason I’m ideally suited for this work, so I keep doing it.”  He also saw how difficult the learning environment was for many children in developing countries, with too many kids in small classrooms that were often wet from rain and under-supplied.  He could do something about it and people asked him to – that’s the only motivation he needed.

School building in Nicragua
The foundation of a new school, with the old school in the background

The program

In the eight years of managing Project Schoolhouse, Tab has learned some valuable lessons.  What follows is an insider’s look into how a minimalist program can be operated, touching on everything from how to select communities to how to raise funds.

1) Water first.  After building two schools, Tab realized clean water took precedence and looked for a permanent solution rather than the temporary systems he had used before.  “[A school without water] is handicapped because you can’t clean it, the kids have to bring their own water . . . you don’t fix all the problems you need to fix to have a good learning environment.”  In a lucky stroke, his in-country coordinator, María Ines, had a brother who happened to be the best clean-water system engineer in the country.  The mountainous region is rich in clean-water sources, perfect for gravity-flow spring-fed water systems.  Each water system costs about $10,000 to $15,000.  Each school costs $35,000.

2) Selection process.  “You can’t give something for nothing.  People have to do work, show engagement, and jump through a bunch of hoops, even if it’s just to make sure that they want to do it.”  One of the big difficulties any non-profit will run into is finding the right people and communities to support.  If not done in the right way, a lot of problems can be created.  Tab cautions that you need to make sure you’re not just rewarding the people you know or the people you see first – you risk upsetting the locals, creating jealousy, and helping people who don’t really want it.  Tab’s projects all require a large amount of continuous work from the communities they help, from selection process to school-building to ongoing maintenance.

  • Application – Project Schoolhouse doesn’t go out and solicit communities to see if they want a school.  They need to apply, give their plan, say why they need it, and Tab responds to the ones who solicit the hardest; they want it the most.
  • BuildingProject Schoolhouse provides three workers—one foreman and two skilled-laborers—and each community is asked to feed and lodge them while providing six to eight workers each day themselves, for a total of about 10,000 community-given hours of work for each school.
  • Maintenance – Each household commits to donate to the maintenance of the water system and school, a few córdobas from each family each month.  Manuel, the Chief Builder, inspects each water system once every three months and María meets with communities on a regular basis.  This ensures that each project is self-sustainable so Project Schoolhouse can move on to build in other communities.
Part of a completed water system

3) Keeping buy-in.  “Every year they quit working, and every year I would get really mad . . . I’ve kind of given in to the fact that it’s human nature and there’s going to be a song and dance every year where we threaten to quit the project, we take a week off, they say ‘OK, OK, we’ll work.’  We’re trying new things to get 100% participation, but it’s hard. . . .  They’re into it, but if you’ll do it they’d rather you do it for them.  I try to make it as hard on them as I can, but finding out where that is and trying to keep them motivated is a big struggle.”

4) Administration.  “I realized I can’t be the authority figure in Nicaragua . . . because then I leave and no one is in charge.  So, I learned to defer every decision to [María] and then we talk about it and I tell her what I want and then she delivers the decision.”  There are three or four employees on the payroll in Nicaragua when schools are being built, otherwise María is the only one being paid.  Without her, Tab doesn’t have a project, he says.  She receives a wage slightly above the average wages for the area – $400 a month.  Tab tries to give each of the employees wages consistent with the changing economics of the area to make sure they’re paid fairly.

5) Fundraising.  This is Tab’s least favorite part of running a non-profit (many of us share the feeling . . .).  For the first seven years Tab provided half of the funding himself, though, and he wants to grow his project to help more communities, hoping to be able to build two schools in 2013.  He needs more donations to make that happen and dreams up different approaches each year, changing it up to keep people interested and make sure it’s fun.   His current approach involves a once-a-year dinner “pre-party” for around 40 main donors with admission starting at $500 a couple, with a big party afterwards that everyone can attend – live music, an open bar, and a good time with friends.  Tab even joins in on the sax sometimes.  “I prefer to throw a party, have people pay 20 bucks to get in, and then we’re done fundraising and we have a show, and I don’t try to get after them anymore.”

6) Responding to petitions for help.  When you enter an area as a philanthropist, every action has consequences, especially deciding how to respond to petitions for help.  Tabs approach?  “I want people to think of me as the stingiest gringo they’ve ever met.  I’ve gotten really good at saying ‘no.’”  When asked for money or help, he points to his projects as the way he’s helping, not wanting to become a person everyone petitions each time he visits.  Tab agrees that there is a lot of need, and a lot of legitimate work to be done in mitigation projects like clothing people and feeding the hungry, but there is only so much money available; he decides to put funds towards long-term development.

Escuela Los Cien Amigos

What’s next?

Project Schoolhouse will stay small, lean, and efficient, but hopes to expand their work to construct more schools and water systems each year.  Tab is also working on a scholarship program to help send kids to High School and College—again responding to voiced need as locals have continually asked him for this—and is currently working on an application process that would make it fair and avoid some of the problems he ran into when he tried it a few years ago.  He’s also looking for an Economics grad to intern in Río Blanco and study the area and Project Schoolhouse’s impact so he can provide much-needed statistics not currently available in the region.

Would you like to learn more?  Ask Tab anything you want in the comments below and he’ll answer.  Check out their Facebook page and toss ’em a like to stay up to date on events, check out their website, and consider a donation or a fundraising project.

A personal aside

I met Tab in Granada on my last trip to Nicaragua while they were on their way out and I was on my way in and had the great opportunity to visit some of the schools.  You can read a little about what it was like to wake up in their community, deep in the mountain jungle.  Stay tuned for more posts about that soon.  María Ines, Manuel, and the whole family are some of my favorite people of all time – hard working, very fun, loving, and happy.  María is the one who helped me find “La Viejita” and Jader, two of the recipients of donations you gave through me.  She has a big heart and is one of the keys to Tab’s success in Río Blanco, a perfect community connecter.  I’m glad to be able to work with Project Schoolhouse and can’t wait to return in November and introduce Britney to the area.

Don’t forget to subscribe to this blog (top right-hand side) and “like” my facebook page for weekly philanthropist features, in-depth looks into the common problems and great models of philanthropy, and to follow my trips to Central America!

Read about more featured philanthropists here.


Tab Barker

11 thoughts on “Tab Barker – The Minimalist – PW#5!”

  1. Jeff! What an amazing read. Thank you for sharing Tab’s story. These are the type of stories I LIVE FOR! I have been reading your blog and enjoy it every time. You are a talented writer and I appreciate the time and effort you put into this blog. Keep it up!
    🙂 Nora

  2. It seems very thoughtful to consider what people want rather than what you want for them, and to carefully consider negative impacts of the best of intentions. Thanks, Tab, for your example.

  3. Jeff, Project Schoolhouse is amazing. What a great organization and founder!!! Made even better by your excellent, concise, and descriptive writing skills. I didn’t know “his” Maria was the one you stayed with while in Nicaragua.

    I have a question for Tab: Since he lived in Costa Rica and traveled in Europe as well, what brought him to eventually focus his non-profit efforts in Nicaragua? Does he plan to extend to other countries as well?


    1. Well, what I meant was that your STORY is about a great organization and founder… and the STORY is made even better by your excellent, concise, and descriptive writing skills. (Which skills… I apparently lack!) Ha!

    2. Rea, I picked nicaragua for the simple reason that it was near costs rica, which is what I knew, and that it is the poorest country in Central America. I would like to expand, but that would require a bunch of funding I don’t have yet. Thank you for the question.


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