A Brief History of the Sonder Project
The little-known story of an extraordinary nonprofit...
It began as an idea. In early 2015, the 360 Blue executive team of Ashley Horsley, Jason Sprenkle, and Jeremy Sprenkle were looking to embark on a project that would channel the company’s resources in an effort to help those most in need. The concept: A nonprofit that delivered the greatest impact at the lowest cost, with the company paying all administration expenses. This meant that 100 percent of every donation would go directly to providing aid. The vision was as simple and profound as that. And so, The Sonder Project was born.
No one, however, could have anticipated where it would all lead.
One of the nonprofit’s first moves would be to partner with buildOn, an international nonprofit that constructed schools in remote corners of the world. Within a few months, a group of volunteers— many were 360 Blue employees—traveled from Santa Rosa Beach to Burkina Faso in western Africa to do just that.
It was here, in this impoverished sub-Saharan country, that they first met with Ahmed Kere, the in-country trip coordinator for buildOn, and Martin Nansia, the project’s Burkinabe translator. This initial overseas foray would set the tone for what was to come. The volunteers were awed by the Burkinabe culture and the gratitude of the people. They were also stunned by the country’s scarcity of food and clean water.
During their short time in Burkina Faso, the group also grew close to Ahmed and Martin. Shortly after their return to the States, they flew them both to Santa Rosa Beach to keep the ball rolling on a new slate of projects that included the construction of another school and the drilling of clean-water wells in various villages throughout the country. By day Ahmed and Martin took up surfing and swimming, and by night they set to work on plans. A few weeks later, Ahmed and Martin were back in Burkina Faso. With momentum building, a second trip was planned for Santa Rosa Beach volunteers to begin construction on the next school in late January of 2016.
But that trip would never happen.
JANUARY 15, 2016
It isn’t every day that events in Burkina Faso make international headlines. But there would be nothing normal about January 15, 2016. That evening, some 8,000 miles from Santa Rosa Beach, Ahmed and Martin were at a restaurant in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, having dinner with another group of buildOn volunteers and employees. During the meal, gunfire broke out, with gunmen indiscriminately shooting into the crowd.
Most of the buildOn volunteers and employees managed to take cover in one of the restrooms. Ahmed, however, was one of the exceptions. In an attempt to appeal to the attackers, he stood up and tried to talk to them.
Meanwhile, a standoff with government security forces ensued as the restaurant was engulfed in flames. The surviving buildOn crew managed to escape, but the casualty count was horrific, with 29 people killed and more than 120 wounded. Ahmed was one of the 29.
The news arrived in Santa Rosa Beach days before The Sonder Project was scheduled to leave for Africa. While the trip was canceled, the attack would deepen The Sonder Project’s commitment to its mission in Burkina Faso.
To demonstrate that commitment, they hired Martin as Sonder’s in-country project manager to directly oversee the impact of The Sonder Projects’ future efforts. They would also raise the $11,000 necessary to drill a clean water well in Ahmed’s home village of Loanga. In February of 2017, The Sonder Project would establish its first field office in Burkina Faso.
And so The Sonder Project’s work continued— sometimes in ways, no one could have imagined.
In October of 2018, the nonprofit’s attention would be drawn to a tragedy unfolding just a few miles from home. Although never conceived as a hurricane recovery agency, The Sonder Project was about to become one—at least temporarily. On October 10, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Panama City as a Category 5 hurricane, devastating the city and neighboring communities. The storm killed 59 people and caused over $25 billion in damage in the U.S. alone.
Over the next few weeks, the 360 Blue offices were transformed into a major staging facility for relief efforts, with over $611,000 in donations coming in from local communities. Sonder would facilitate over 6,600 volunteer hours, serve over 2,600 meals, and impact 233 households. Sonder volunteers brought electricity to homes, cleared debris, tarped and replaced roofs, and rebuilt three homes.
A RETURN TO THE ORIGINAL MISSION
The following year, The Sonder Project would transition its focus back to Africa, where the organization could make the greatest impact at the most efficient cost through high-impact, sustainable development.
“There are plenty of causes worth supporting,” says Chad Zibelman, CEO of The Sonder Project. “But research shows that if you want to make the greatest impact, touching the most lives, then your donation is best spent in the developing world.”
In 2020, The Sonder Project expanded its operations to Malawi in southeastern Africa. The following year, Sonder introduced a Student Sponsorship Program where donors in the U.S. can sponsor a student at one of Sonder’s schools for as little as $225 per year or $19 per month. These Sonder students are identified by teachers and community leaders and interviewed by Sonder staff. Once selected, they receive all necessary school and exam fees, a uniform, and school supplies. Sonder staff then continue to offer support throughout the year.
“We take a holistic approach,” Zibelman says. “Can a student really benefit from an education if they keep missing school because they are sick from the local water source? Can they concentrate if they only have one meal a day? The answer to these questions is no, and so we focus on all three—education, clean water, and food security.”
Among its accomplishments over the past seven years, Sonder has drilled 31 wells, providing access to clean drinking water for 49,910 people, and built 13 schools, allowing 3,629 students to attend class every day. The nonprofit has also developed a community farm.
As mentioned, 360 Blue pays all administration costs for The Sonder Project. This means that every donated dollar goes directly to the organization’s programs on the ground. Want to get involved? Learn more at thesonderproject.org.
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