Trailblazer Foundation’s Approach to Rural Community Development


Even though our first project back in 2004 was to build an elementary school, providing clean and abundant water quickly became our first priority. If your goal is to help a community shift from survival to sustainability, water is a great place to start. Clean and abundant water allows rural Cambodian villagers – our constituents and beneficiaries – to safely drink and bathe, as well as irrigate their crops. Once these water projects are in place, Trailblazer focuses on the next level of community development: improving food security, education, and economic opportunities.

We adopted our four program areas (Health, Food Security, Education, and Economic Development), because we believe they represent a well-rounded strategy toward developing sustainable communities – in Siem Reap province, in Cambodia, or anywhere in the world. We provide our constituents with the products they need (ex: water filter, well, or latrine), and the skills development they want (ex: horticulture training).

Equally important is our commitment to not just giving these communities a proverbial fish, but rather helping them learn how “to fish”, or live, on their own, in ways that are self-sustaining by the individuals and communities we serve. Success for us is when a rural village no longer needs our products or services, because we helped them work their way from a state of poverty (where they struggle to merely survival) to a lifestyle that is self-sustaining.

Throughout our rural community development efforts, Trailblazer Foundation strives to preserve the cultural integrity of the villages where we work. To accomplish this, we use a participatory model of community-based development. Specifically, we choose our projects based on an annual local government assessment of village needs, called the District Integrated Workshop. 

This process occurs each November, when the chiefs from the many communes in the Siem Reap province come together to pitch the infrastructure needs of their villages. This needs assessment starts at the villager level, and works its way through the process to where Trailblazer Foundation signs agreements to work with certain villages to complete certain projects in the coming year.

We are honored to be one of only a handful of NGOs invited to this annual meeting. Through this bottom-up process, the villages themselves identify their needs, and those requests direct our annual activities. Trailblazer Foundation chooses which requests to fulfill in which villages, and signs agreements to complete these projects in the coming year. We place a priority on supporting those villages we’re already partnering with, so we can provide their villagers with the products and service they desire, before moving onto a new village. The commitments we make become our annual work plan.

We then set out to find the funding necessary to complete these projects, and that is where our institutional, individual, and corporate supporters play a critical role. By working within this established government process, Trailblazer Foundation’s work can be tracked, monitored, and documented for inclusion in Cambodia’s national development records.

​Of equal importance to preserving the cultural integrity of our village partners is our commitment to building self-sustaining families and communities. To this end, we pursue two strategies: [1] training users to be self-sufficient in maintaining and repairing their new products, and [2] providing skills development trainings that offer culturally and economically appropriate improvements to their traditional practices.

Next, for each product we deliver, and each training we offer, we require the recipients to “put some skin in the game.” Specifically, we ask villagers to pay a small contribution, as an investment into the development of their families. Trailblazer Foundation does not keep this money. Instead, we direct our constituents to put their contribution into their local “Village Fund” – a microloan program we help their village establish. Loans from these Village Funds are given to villagers to support such enterprises as buying livestock or fertilizers for their crops, securing medical care, starting a small business, or purchasing a motorbike or bicycle so they can have better access to work and school.

 Finally, the bulk of our program work is conducted by our Cambodian affiliate Trailblazer Angkor, which we helped launch, and whose staff of twelve are all locals. Our partnership with this indigenous NGO is representative of Trailblazer Foundation’s agreement with a basic tenant of the international development community: that “development” is most effective when it involves and enhances all aspects of the recipient country. We consider our relationship with Trailblazer Angkor an unofficial part of our Economic Development program, one that enhances the effectiveness and credibility of our work overall.

Trailblazer in Action:

A Case Study on Effective Rural Community Development  

In recalling her observations of the first rural village where Trailblazer worked, co-founder Chris Coats has written:

“When Trailblazer first arrived in Sras village in 2004, the situation was dire. There were few sources of water, and those that did exist were filthy pit wells. There was no commerce to speak of, and few villagers had either a garden or livestock. Most homes were made of thatched palm leafs, some were simply a tarp-covered wooden floor. Their clothes were in tatters, the kids were dirty, and many men just drank all day. Malnutrition was obvious, as many of the villagers had distended bellies, bad teeth, and parasitic infections. Adding to the tension, because the area had been one of the last strongholds of civil unrest, no other NGO was willing to work in Sras. For the first year, every time we visited the village, we were escorted by armed guards.”

Trailblazer had been asked by officials at a district office – the equivalent of a county in the States – to build a school in Sras village. Yet, during their first visits to the village, Chris and Scott Coats saw that access to clean water was the village’s biggest issue. So, while the school was being built, Trailblazer began drilling wells, and eventually provided enough wells for all 207 families. Within a year, Trailblazer began installing bio-sand water filters to further purify the water, again eventually providing enough for all 207 families.

With this new abundance of water, villagers started asking for help with agriculture. Chris and Scott helped establish some fish farms, started a community garden at the school site, provided seeds to others, and taught farmers about drip irrigation.

When construction of the new school was completed, Trailblazer deeded it to the government to operate, and the first group of 57 students began going to class. Within a year, the school was full, and a second six-classroom building was needed.

Trailblazer also worked with the villagers to address two needs related to the opening of the school: school uniforms, and food for the students. We started by enlisted two women to sew uniforms, and provided them with the materials to do so. One of the women started a sewing business. Next, Trailblazer provided cooking materials to another woman, who became the school’s “lunch lady,” getting paid for her meals by the students. Finally, a man opened a small shop nearby with school supplies. Trailblazer helped launch another small business unrelated to the school, a beauty shop that employs at-risk women.

Eventually, these improvements in health, food security, education, and economic development led to other people moving to Sras village (an influx driven initially and primarily by the new school). In a four-year period, Sras village had twenty-seven new families, a 13% increase in population. To accommodate these new residents, existing villagers sold parcels of their land, creating an influx of funds that led to a 615% increase in the number of homes that had metal roofs (instead of palm leaf roofs).

The steps Trailblazer took to help lift Sras village out of poverty now constitute our rural community development strategy: providing clean and abundant water, ample food to feed their families, quality education facilities for their children, and opportunities to make a living. This work is inherent to our four programs – health, food security, education, and economic development, where we not just give our partner communities a proverbial fish, we help them learn how to live in ways that are self-sustaining.