Only 25, she's a model of service ethic


February 28, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

While many of us beat our breasts and complain about the apparent lack of a service ethic among the younger generation, Leslie Davis is carving out a career in the nonprofit sector.

What makes the 25-year-old Baltimore native so unique is that, straight out of college, she founded her own nonprofit organization. The organization, called Teach Hungary, provides critically needed English-speaking teachers to Hungary. Her vision is to soon expand into neighboring Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

As an indication of Teach Hungary's effectiveness, the Soros Foundation, a well-endowed foundation started by billionaire financier George Soros, is only able to place about 20 teachers in Hungary each year. Davis places 70.

"This is something that is needed and I can do," reports the energetic Davis. "It was my idea, and I made it happen. It's definitely a good feeling."

The idea came to Davis after a stint abroad while a student at Beloit College in Wisconsin. The former Baltimore Friends School graduate now places people ranging in age from 22 to 66, providing them with housing and a modest salary for teaching English in a Hungarian school.

"Our program gives Hungarians a knowledge of English, which will help them and their country in their development. It gives Hungarians contact with American culture and expands their business and cultural network," Davis said.

"For the American teachers, it gives them an opportunity to do good, and gives them skills in the growing field of teaching English to non-native speakers. I also think it's important for Americans to get experience living in another culture."

Characteristic of any entrepreneur, Davis is looking at ways to diversify her revenues. Uncharacteristic of start-up nonprofits, her operating expenses are entirely covered by placement fees. She is only now beginning to explore funding from foundations and corporations in order to expand services and programs.

At present, Teach Hungary operates under the nonprofit umbrella of Beloit College, which offers Davis an office and a part-time salaried position. Her plans are to incorporate as an independent entity, a challenge she relishes.

Challenges are no stranger to Davis.

To start Teach Hungary with no money while teaching English and French in Hungary herself, she took her credit cards to their limits. When Hungarian government regulations threatened to sabotage her program, she found a legal way to circumvent them by contracting directly with local schools. The local school guarantees a salary and accommodations and must do all the bureaucratic paperwork to get the teacher there.

To begin her recruitment process, Davis sent out batches of letters to American colleges and to Hungarian school districts. In her first year, she placed 25 people in 17 Hungarian schools, an incredible accomplishment. To do so, Davis had to learn the art of dealing with East European bureaucracies.

Another challenge came in the form of the Peace Corps.

While the Peace Corps also places teachers in Hungary -- and at no cost to the local school -- schools still prefer to use Teach Hungary. With Davis' program they are guaranteed a placement for as long as they wish, as opposed to the Peace Corps' sporadic placement program. Also, the present Peace Corps contract expires in 1995. That will make Davis' program the only major supplier of English teachers.

Davis believes that more of her peers would opt for a career in the nonprofit sector if they were exposed to field experiences. "When I think about a career, I can't think of anything unless it reaches out in some way to help others. If I were in retail, I'd think, 'What kind of joy could I get from that?' Retail can be a helping career for some people, but it wouldn't be enough for me."

People interested in Teach Hungary can write Leslie Davis at Beloit College, 700 College St., Beloit, Wis. 53511-5595, or call her at (608) 363-2619.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore 21202. 783-5100)

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