Behind the Scenes

Some nonprofits exist to boost other nonprofits. Their work receives less publicity, but is just as important.

From homeless shelters to health care facilities, hundreds of nonprofit organizations scattered throughout the Islands have programs with tangible results. The former drug addict who has a new life. The child who overcame disability. But several charitable organizations exist in the background, helping other nonprofits open doors. The Hawai’i Alliance for Community Based Economic Development (HACBED) is one such organization.

Bob Agres, executive director of the Hawai’i Alliance for Community Based Economic Development, helps communities to grow. Many of the programs he works with focus on the social and economic concerns of Native Hawaiians. photo: Jimmy Forrest

"It’s hard to tell our story," says Bob Agres, HACBED’s executive director. "It only comes to life when you hear the stories of people in the community." Agres, native to Maui, joined HACBED in 1999. The founders of the organization, primarily Native Hawaiians, were longtime opponents of certain types of development. As high-rises, hotels and shopping centers began to pop up during Hawai’i’s boom years, HACBED founders decided this type of development was inconsistent with their cultural and community values. Today, Agres and his staff of four provide like-minded nonprofits with opportunities to foster community-based development.

One example is in Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio (MA’O Farms) organic farm, run on 5 acres of Wai’anae land. Through internships on the farm, Native Hawaiian youths learn about healthy living, acquire leadership skills and move toward self-sufficiency. The young farmers sell their produce to open markets and local restaurants such as Alan Wong’s and Town.

Wai’anae’s Aloha ‘Aina Café, an offshoot of the farm, uses MA’O Farms produce while offering locals an alternative to the many fast-food joints scattered on the Wai’anae coast. Students develop culinary skills and learn about business and management.

"We are our community," says Gary Maunakea-Forth, founder of the farm. "One hundred percent of people on our board and employed by our organization live in the Wai’anae area." This sense has steered the development of MA’O Farms. "We took into consideration what the community had been saying about what kinds of development they wanted." This plan took first place in the Hogan/Bank of Hawai’i Nonprofit Business Plan Competition and, on a national scale, runner up in the Yale Business Plan Competition for Nonprofit Organizations.

"This is their way of nurturing and taking care of the ‘aina in a way that’s respectful," Agres says. As the mission of the farm fell in line with that of HACBED, MA’O Farms was invited to participate in an eight-month training program to learn about business planning and feasibility analysis and receive technical training. "The training was critical for getting everything off the ground," says Maunakea-Forth. Additionally, MA’O Farms obtained the lease to its 5-acre farm with a connection made through HACBED.

Participants "just talk story," Agres says of the casual atmosphere of the training sessions. Bankers, legal advisers and legislators offer advice and speak on upcoming and pending bills. At the same time, nonprofit leaders get a chance to tell legislators about the challenges they’re facing.

For communities to succeed, "they need to realize that they’re not at the mercy of external forces, they have the ability to dream and aspire." The responsibility of supporting these goals lies in the hands of everyone else, he says.

For example, when the Moloka’i community was given the chance to decide what to do with the 50,000 acres of land Moloka’i Ranch land that were turned over for economic development, HACBED jumped at the opportunity to help with the planning process. "They are willing to wrestle with each other at that deep level where it gets to that issue of what they hold sacred," Agres says.

"[HACBED] only exists because things in the system are not getting to the issues of environmental, social and economic justice," Agres observes. But the convergence between the system and the communities is coming around, he adds. "When it all hooks up, Hawai’i is going to be even better than it is now."

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai’i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai’i’s people.
For information: