The Vincentian Solidarity Office (VSO) is a program of service of the General Curia of the Congregation of the Mission in Rome, Italy. The VSO was established by the Superior General and the General Council of the Congregation of the Mission on June 15, 2002, and opened for service on January 1, 2003. The goal of the VSO is: To assist the Congregation of the Mission with obtaining funds for its evangelization and service of the poor.
We interviewed Fr. Joel Bernardo CM, executive director of the VSO, during a break in the General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission taking place in Rome:
Fr. Joel Bernardo, Executive Director of Vincentian Solidarity Office (VSO), what is the mission and the vision of VSO?
The vision of the VSO is to build a sense of Vincentian solidarity towards improving the mission developing projects for the poor, enhance quality of life, integral development and social transformation.
The mission is to assist our Congregation in delivering these services, mobilizing resources for these projects, building capacity and accountability, especially for the resources being mobilized for these projects.
How does the VSO work?
It’s like this: VSO serves like an international development office of our Congregation, for worldwide projects. It coordinates all the projects, it links our different mission units to development partners, it mobilizes resources for the projects. It is similar to a development NGO of our Congregation.
And what is the approach?
Our approach is based on the principle of solidarity and subsidiarity; subsidiarity is building capacities from below, we assess and then we develop the capacity to deliver specially services to their ministries. Solidarity is mobilizing support to build on capacities from below, those principles work hand in hand. So we do a lot of building connections, we do a lot of keeping and sustaining good relationships. It is not about money, it is not about funds, it is about relationships at different levels from the grassroots, from below up to the highest levels of networking with development partners.
What is the Vincentian Solidarity Fund and the micro project grants?
That is a good question because that links to our approach, so if the principle is building connections and solidarity support, one essential mechanism used is through leveraging resources. It is partnership in terms of sharing in the cost and the resources for the development projects. We have this mechanism called VSF (Vincentian Solidarity Fund), whereby the different provinces of our Congregation would contribute, especially those provinces that have more resources will contribute regularly to build up the fund, and that fund will help the other provinces with less resources in their missions and in their development projects. We also use this VSF to leverage resources with other donors or development partners. So we do not actually promote, asking and begging for everything. It’s like leveraging. So we share our resources, we try to match your resources. Actually, there is another mechanism that we use. We called it the matching fund scheme. So the VSF serves us as our leverage to match funds with other partners. Now, the microproject is, I would say, a very special mechanism that we use. We set up a window for small micro grants for small projects. That’s why it’s called Micro, which is at the range of $5,000 and below. So it’s different from the typical project because it’s smaller, it’s faster, it involves direct services or projects that directly benefit the poor and it’s easy to deliver. But then there is a strong potential for scaling up. So we consider the micro projects as catalyst projects that can help build their capacity, that’s subsidiary building the capacity from below. And then once they build the capacity, they’ll be capable of moving up. And as catalyst projects, we are envisioning these small scale projects from below, not as isolated projects, but to build up the impact towards when we consolidate or build up the impact that can create transformation. And actually our vision is towards what we call a systemic level of change whereby we could address the structural factors why poor are still poor, the poverty traps and all the social structural issues and injustices. So we don’t underestimate the capacity of a $5,000 worth of a project because these micro projects can catalyze change. So we encourage our confreres to start with a micro, don’t go big right away. So it’s building capacity, solidarity, based on subsidiarity gradually, gradually, and so far for the past 20 years at least, on average, every year we deliver probably an average of 16 to 20 micro projects a year in different sites using the contributions of provinces in the VSF. So that’s how VSF micro project and matching fund scheme interface.
Last question. What’s the challenge of the future?
Now that actually this year we are marking the 20th year of VSO. So VSO has turned 20 and we’re looking forward to scaling up towards more strategic direction. In practical terms, we would like to focus more on regional development agenda issues that really affect the poor, like global agenda of climate change, homelessness, displacement, even war and violence. All these structures and issues. And we would like to also scale up our partnership with development partners, bigger development partners. Of course, also build the capacities of the grassroots. So we are trying to negotiate for a paradigm shift in partnership. Not just partnership based on small scale or individual projects, but partnership based on more long term agreements on pursuing a common or shared development agenda. And there are some partners that have opened up to this kind of scheme, more strategic long term partnership towards more impact projects and development for the poor. So this is our task starting this year. But of course not forgetting what we have started and done so far. But it’s more a scaling up and it’s not easy. It’s easier said than done. But given the momentum that we have so far built on for the past 20 years and with God’s providence on hard work and St. Vincent’s guidance and our brand of— I don’t want to brag– the Vincentian brand of organized mechanisms, not just random way of delivering services with this heritage, and option for the poor, I guess there’s no other way but moving forward.
Thank you very much, Father.