I was a graduate student at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Over spring break I went to Belize on an Anthropology course with Dr. Sarah Meltzoff. In only 3 weeks, this first visit to Latin America completely opened my eyes and changed my perspective on life, western society and the true meaning of personal satisfaction. How could people who had possibly so little be so happy?!
When I returned from Belize I was filled with a need to delve deeper into this newly discovered world of awareness so I immediately signed up for Dr. Meltzoff’s next trip to Latin America. It happened to be a trip to the Galapagos Islands. I knew little about its location apart from it being somewhere ‘off the coast of South America, in the Pacific south between California and Hawaii.’ Little did I know that this would be far from the last thing that I was going to properly learn (Galapagos is actually south of New Orleans!) about this unforgettable place.
Needless to say we had a spectacular time in the marvelous world that is this archipelago. So the story begins… As a graduate student attending Sarah’s undergraduate course, she allowed me to freely choose a topic to investigate, which focused on the current issues affecting the Galapagos Islands. I chose the ‘Socio-economic impact of declining fisheries in the small town of Puerto Villamil.’ With her encouragement, this paper turned into the baseline for my later graduate thesis: ‘Establishing a non profit organization to benefit education and conservation in the Galapagos Islands’
The thesis had a 140 page annex that was practically the business plan for an NGO that focused on educating fishermen in the transition from the fishing to the tourism sector. In April 2006, even before I graduated in Miami, I used this business plan to start this great foundation – IOI. Initially I worked with an Ecuadorian University that wanted to establish the ‘biggest and best oceanographic institute in the tropical eastern pacific’ – the Isabela Oceanographic Institute. In order to make this happen, I established and ran their corporate responsibility program.
After working with them for over 15 months (from their base in San Cristobal) it had become clear that unfortunately we had very different objectives for the project so I felt that it was time to move on. In November 2006 I went to Isabela to say my goodbyes to the people that I had worked with so closely. The oceanographic institute would continue, but unfortunately, without my outreach ideas.
Fate and good fortune apparently had other plans however. During my “goodbye weekend” people put me in touch with another Ecuadorian university’s visiting professors and the local priest. That university had exactly the agenda we were looking for and the priest had an abandoned mission right in the center of town. The rest is history.
In that one weekend I had found a new partner and new facilities. IOI became an independent institution following only its educational conservation mission. Although we never picked up the oceanographic side of our initial partner we remained the Isabela Oceanographic Institute until April 2013. As part of a complete re-branding for the foundation we finally had the resources to actually change our name to the current and more appropriate kind of IOI – Intercultural Outreach Initiative.
After renovating the abandoned mission in 2007 and keeping the organization alive with odd jobs ranging from trucking across the US to being a chauffeur during the Miami Superbowl in 2007 I realized that my modest fundraising efforts were not going to be enough and we needed a more sustainable income source. Remembering how much my study abroad experience had given me, I decided to open IOI’s doors to study abroad groups in Christmas intersession 2007/08.
Income was modest at first and donations dropped to next to nothing with the housing crash in 2008. Escaping sudden death for a second time we got a break in 2009 when we scored a big contract with the University of Miami for an entire pilot semester in spring 2010. Since then study abroad is our most important source of income and we were fortunate enough to grow substantially throughout the entire economic crisis benefiting from the efforts of a phenomenal staff of 11 professionals from 6 nations.
In 2012 we started the re-branding campaign I mentioned above, leading amongst others to our new name, logo, website and me writing this story (June 2013). Operationally, it came with a severe shift in professionalization of the foundations structure. Amongst me handing over operational responsibility to a local Director, the restructuring also defined our areas of intervention more clearly and we developed standard procedures for our processes ranging from salary standardization to support project application formats.
Personally I am currently based in Miami and my responsibilities have shifted to more strategic, legal, fiscal and developmental tasks. I am confident that IOI will continue to grow as we are very well anchored in the community as well as with our international partners. Under the guidance of the new local administration and with the power of our excellent staff, IOI will reach new heights with its re-vamped structures and will more than ever provide life changing experiences for international students and researchers visiting us in this stunning place, as well as support and advance conservation and social development for our community in Galapagos.
Johann Besserer Co-Founder/Executive Director