The Cause and Effect of Philanthropic Endeavours

On a peninsula straddling the Venezuela-Colombia border, by the coast of the Caribbean Sea, live the Wayuu people. As native Americans, the Wayuu have experienced severe economic and social disadvantages: in 2002, child mortality reached one death per day. The Wayuu have few to champion their cause for a better future but the Wayuu Taya – a foundation dedicated to the education and welfare of the Wayuu people – is aiming to change that.

We spoke to Wayuu Taya’s founder, Venezuelan supermodel, actress and businesswomen, Patricia Velasquez. She explains what led her down the philanthropic path and tells us it doesn’t matter why we do good, only that we do good.

You are a supermodel, actress and businesswoman. What made you take such an interest in philanthropy and education?

I come from a large family: six brothers and sisters. My parents are educators and when I was a little girl, my father was called to work with UNESCO so we lived in Paris then Mexico for a few years. When his contract finished we went back to Venezuela and my family faced some difficult times financially. When we fell on these hard times, we were struck very strongly by what it meant to have a good education. I am so grateful to my parents to have placed so much importance on it. At the age of 17 , while I was studying at college to become an engineer and an accountant, I was asked to take part in the Miss Venezuela contest. It seemed to go against everything I stood for: my education, my intellectual family and my studies. But the opportunity to help my family and make our indigenous community proud was too good to pass up.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: An Interview with Patricia Velasquez, Founder, Wayuu Taya
Image courtesy of Wayuu Taya

It changed my life. My exotic indigenous look was unusual and became of interest; there had never been a model with my features. I was asked to go and model in Milan, Spain, Japan, France, New York and all kinds of exotic places. I will never forget how I was suddenly able to inspire confidence in young girls who had features like mine. Modeling allowed me to reach higher and to help my family through a difficult time. At the time, $30 would provide water for the whole building my family lived in.

When did you start expanding your philanthropic activities?

I started getting close to different causes. First I got involved with the Pediatrics Foundation in New York. Then in 2002 my cousin drew my attention to the Wayuu village on the border between Venezuela and Colombia where my mother was born. She told me that one child a day died in that village. The Wayuu poverty and disadvantages have been considerable so I gathered a few friends to think of a way to address the problem. Supermodel Iman was particularly supportive and hosted our first fundraiser. Hilary Clinton helped us, and so did Katie Ford the owner of Ford Models; she gave me my first big donation. With that money we were able to put a water pump in a Wayuu village. That’s how the foundation started. Child welfare was our chief concern so we decided to unify the goals of fighting famine and the lack of education by setting up schools where the children would learn and get two meals a day. We started with a pre-school that allowed 30 children. Today we take care of more than 3,500 children in different schools. We still manage the original school directly – we have almost 600 pupils.

When did this become a serious part of your life? When did you become a philanthropist?

You’re never the one to start calling yourself a philanthropist. Others do and eventually that is what people say and write about you. From the beginning it was overwhelming how many people wanted to help. Setting up a proper institution meant giving back to our donors. We made sure we were structured in a way that meant trust and transparency.

Did it bother you when people would donate just for show?

I learnt an important lesson as a celebrity and that is if you want to really effect change you have to leave your ego at the door. When you’re walking by a homeless person and you give them some money. You can either walk away thinking “how great am I that I gave them money” or you can think, “I hope this coin makes a difference in their life.” You have to be a channel for good.

We have donors in New York that had given us money and they couldn’t care less about what it was for. It was just for show. And then others who are entirely engaged. It doesn’t matter as long as it goes to the right cause and it affects real change. I have donors that have helped us year after year, but they have never visited the indigenous communities in South America. On the other hand, people like Katie Ford have travelled with me many times to the Wayuu villages. I feel very thankful. We are thankful either way.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: An Interview with Patricia Velasquez, Founder, Wayuu Taya
Image courtesy of Wayuu Taya

How do you balance out the different character traits required for fame and philanthropy?

There’s one very basic truth: people have demonized money but money is not the enemy. Money is a means to an end that allows us to make change. So when you see someone who’s very rich, very powerful, wish them more! Money isn’t bad or good. It is what you do with it that matters.

I know that’s the trick for successful businesses as well. When I started my beauty products business Taya, I wanted to create a business that helped the foundation. I initially approached it the same way I approached the foundation – I wanted everything to benefit everyone. But my business partner taught me that you had to start by guaranteeing quality and sales. So we changed the path and went about producing beauty products from sustainable, organic and environmentally friendly ingredients, sourced from the indigenous communities in the Amazon. We do not support animal testing and everything is packaged in recyclable bottles. That for me became the way to do business. Everyone benefits from it. It’s not charity, it’s sustainability.

What are the skills you require to run a foundation or any philanthropic initiative?

It’s about authenticity, honesty. The reason you win at anything is because you are authentic. Don’t copy anyone else! Find out what it means to be yourself and what you truly believe in. That is your path. The foundation has definitely helped me a lot in defining who I am. It makes me ask everyone I meet “What is your cause?” Your cause does not have to be big or even visible. If things are not going right and you are not getting what you want, just go out and help somebody. We saw how a little effort could change many lives. Now I want to be a more successful actress and businesswoman because the more success I have, the more people I can help.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: An Interview with Patricia Velasquez, Founder, Wayuu Taya
Image courtesy of Patricia Velasquez, founder of Wayuu Taya

How do you measure the foundation’s progress?

We measure efficiency by controlling costs. We are keeping administration spending within 10-20%; that’s the best indicator for us that we are doing well. We have kept Wayuu Taya low key on purpose and it hasn’t grown over the past few years. We find it better to maintain our projects rather than expand them because of the political situation; if we make too much noise, the kids are going to suffer because our aid to them could be obstructed. You have to base these decisions on the best way to fulfil the goal of the foundation. Bigger isn’t always better. Another important measure of success for us is sustainability. We have been around since 2002 and we have had the same donors throughout that time. Retention is a good indicator of how sustainable our efforts are.

Wayuu Taya is based around your personality. What happens when you leave?

There are two foundations, one in New York and one in Venezuela. The foundation in Venezuela does not depend on me one bit when it comes to making decisions. We have over 60 volunteers and social workers and they do the fundraising work on their own. We have tried to separate my name from the fundraising work here in New York but I still have to get it to a place where it’s sustainable without me. Getting the right talent to run the foundation is very important. You have to allocate resources to that which is hard sometimes because you want to focus on the cause. You don’t want to turn away people in need but it is equally important to hire someone who can run things properly and sustainably. We want to be here for many years to come.