Who We Are

What does CEN do and why was it started?
What are the fundamentals of your philosophy?


What We Do


Who We Help

Get Involved

How can I volunteer?
How can I contribute financially?


What does CEN do and why was it started?

CEN (Community Empowerment Network) is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping rural communities in developing countries build habits, skills and mindsets conducive to self-reliance. We don't do the work for them or give them any material aid. Instead, we engage them in activities that build the skills and attitudes required to overcome the challenges they face. We are currently working with local partners in the Brazilian Amazon to foster sustainable livelihoods within isolated communities in the region and to help them establish their own enterprises. The aim of our work is a lasting march toward progress within these populations that will continue long after we have disengaged.

Microsoft veteran Robert Bortner was inspired to start this initiative after working on the Rio Tapajós Telecenter Project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which was completed in 2004. Under this program, isolated communities in the Amazon received computer and Internet access. Bob realized, however, that the inhabitants of these communities lacked the basic skills, habits and mindsets needed to make effective use of not only this new technology, but a host of other resources that could help to better their situation. Bob founded CEN in November 2004 to address this problem, applying knowledge he gained from working with activists in Brazilian Amazon communities to compose our methodology.

Read more about our history

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What are the fundamentals of your philosophy?

We believe that if the cycle of poverty is to be truly broken, it must be conquered on the terms of those who strive to do so. While billions of dollars are spent on foreign aid every year, the living standards in developing countries are growing at slow rates. This is because populations in need are not given the opportunity to learn how to use new resources to solve their own problems and depend on the guidance of outside parties. Thus, we concentrate not on giving communities the solution to their problems, but on training and educating them in what they need to generate the solution for themselves.

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What are basic skills, habits and mindsets, and why are they so important?

Basic skills include a capacity for problem solving and the ability to evaluate approaches through critical thinking. Even with these skills, problems can only be approached with the proper mindsets. Self-confidence, the capacity for a sense of accomplishment, and intellectual engagement are necessary for progress. Without these basic tools and attitudes, communities collectively become trapped in an "I can't" mentality. If people don't believe in themselves, they can't make any steps toward their own success and happiness; they can only rely on others to dictate the priorities and objectives they should be deciding on their own.

For more information about why basic skills and mindsets are so important, click here.

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What kind of programs do you implement?

We are currently at work implementing a multi-year program called Creating a Culture of Learning and Empowerment in the Amazon Region (cCLEAR). At the crux of this program are activities and courses that build basic skills and habits, making use of critical thinking, patience and discernment. By working with local partners, community entrepreneurs are opened to new markets, capital and the means to build local value chains. These participants are mentored as they work to build their proficiency with technology, entrepreneurship and business. By the end of the program, these skills will have solidified to the extent that they will be self-sustaining over future generations.

For more information on cCLEAR, click here.

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What recognition have you earned?

Many development organizations have recognized our efforts. In 2005, we were a finalist for the World Bank Development Marketplace program, and in 2006, we were a finalist in the Stockholm Challenge program, which rewards efforts to counter poverty with ICT resources. We were also a semifinalist in the 2008 Echoing Green Fellowship competition, which recognizes efforts at pushing social entrepreneurship as an agent for change.

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What kind of people do you collaborate with?

Rather than employ a large internal staff, we conduct our work with the help of volunteers, from college students to professionals to retirees, all with diverse experiences. Many of our board members and volunteers have spent time in developing countries and have backgrounds in sociology, cultural anthropology, community and adult education, microenterprise development and more. Regardless of the nature of our experiences, we all share a common interest and passion for bettering the lives of residents of impoverished communities.

Our projects are implemented through a growing network of locally based organizations with the trust of our client communities. We also work with nongovernmental organizations, local and national government agencies, universities, and corporations with a vast knowledge of technical skills, market development, micro-credit, shipping, and other aspects of the product value chain.

Some of our past collaborators include:

Acumen International - A U.S.-based consulting firm owned by CEN founder and Director Robert Bortner. Acumen provides the technical capabilities for the installation and implementation of telecommunications technologies and renewable energy in the communities where we are working.

Link Social - A group based in Brazil that works to bring practical social application out of academic theory. This organization works toward change by bringing academic prowess to slums and impoverished communities. Aside from locally supporting the development of the cCLEAR program, Link Social's methodologies provide a framework for the testing and implementation of cCLEAR.

Teachers Without Borders - A nonprofit organization founded in 2000 that focuses on building educational leaders in developing countries.

Youth Action Nepal (YOAC) - A Nepalese community group that seeks to engage the youth toward empowerment. Through education and training, YOAC offers young people a venue to learn about and develop concrete methods to contribute to social development.

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What is the role of your partner organizations?

These organizations coordinate the execution of our programs. We don't go into our target communities on our own to conduct our work, but we train our partners in our methodology and manage the projects they conduct. This method of applying our projects is useful in several ways:

  • We are able to draw from pools of knowledge built up from the experiences these diverse organizations have in their fields.
  • Our local partners are knowledgeable in the operations of international governments and have built up trust within the communities they work with.
  • Working in conjunction with government agencies and corporations puts resources that we are unable to gather on our own at our disposal, and provides the necessary permits for our work to be carried out.
  • By eliminating the need to maintain a large staff and reinvent the wheel by doing work that others are already capable of performing, we are able to reduce waste of resources.  
  • Local partners can replicate the work they did with us on their own with other communities they serve, which improves the sustainability and reach of our projects.

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What distinguishes CEN from other nonprofit organizations?

Our approach to development sets CEN apart from many other nonprofit organizations. Many organizations go into communities and say things like, "Here's your problem: You are spending all your time producing the wrong crop and can't earn enough money in today's market to buy everything you need. Here's how you can solve that." CEN feels that we shouldn't be dictating to people. Instead we give them training and resources and get them thinking about how to improve their lives. What we want to do is equip communities to be able to make their own decisions

Also, while many organizations help build resources, such as energy and telecommunications, build skills in technology and business, and provide business services like micro-credit, few incorporate them into a holistic approach to combating rural poverty. We take what is still an unusual approach of establishing key basic life skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, awareness and persistence, and then build on that foundation by working with residents to improve their livelihoods, local education, health care and the direction of community-managed development initiatives. Read more.


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What are your plans for the future?

January 2013 - Mid 2014

Mid 2014 - Mid 2015

Mid 2015 and beyond

  • Continuation of the Eixo Forte/Juá Community-Based Tourism Project (est. through 2019)
  • Identification and execution of potential projects related to community-based tourism and basic skills development in the Brazilian Amazon, as well as other parts of the world
  • Host regular tours to the Brazilian Amazon and potentially other parts of the world

After this time frame, we hope to partner with other local and international organizations in order to expand to communities in other regions, such as South Asia and Portuguese-speaking Africa.

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What do projects such as evaluating rotating savings funds (Banco da Mulher) and the Micro-hydrokinetic Electricity project have to do with the transformational approach CEN talks about?

While we are continuing to work towards addressing the core causes of poverty, transformation that takes a long time. Meanwhile community residents have immediate needs, and so we are also undertaking smaller projects that can create a big impacts in people's lives today. Furthermore, empowerment also requires the reduction of key systemic obstacles, such as access to capital and electricity, otherwise gains cannot be sustained.

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What are your criteria for selecting the communities you help?

Together with local partner organizations, we target isolated communities that are semi-traditional but still capable of accessing fundamental living necessities such as food, water and health care. We don't work with the most deprived communities because those who are fighting for their basic existence do not have the energy to address long-term strategic problems. Even though our client communities are a rung above the most desperate level of poverty, they're still quite poor and earn less than or between $1 and $4 a day.

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What resources do these communities need?

In order to thrive economically, our target communities need access to a number of tools and resources, both tangible and intangible. Among the most prominent are the skills and mindsets necessary to evaluate and execute new strategies. The lack of access to information about economic opportunities is also a major detriment, as are systemic obstacles such as lack of energy and limited access to business-building capital and markets to sell products. Strong mentors who can serve as role models to build confidence are also necessary.

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Why not work with impoverished communities in Africa or the U.S.?

While the problems we work to combat are certainly not exclusive to the Brazilian Amazon, CEN currently finds it most effective to pool our limited resources in one specific area. We began our work in the Brazilian Amazon because of our staff's particular familiarity with that region, and through the realization that empowered local communities in the region can become effective stewards to the region's environment, and a powerful counterweight to economic interests that threaten the region's critical eco-system.

While we do not currently serve impoverished communities in other parts of the world, many of the innovative practices we develop could be applied to similar problems in other parts of the world. As more resources become available to us, we hope to expand the scope of our efforts to other regions.

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Where are you working now?

CEN is currently working in several communities in the Brazilian Amazon and worked in one in Nepal. In the Amazon, we are assisting the communities of the Eixo Forte to build sustainable livelihoods based on community-based tourism. In Suruacá, we completed a proof of concept program for cCLEAR, and are currently pursuing the funding necessary to expand it to more individuals and communities. We are also assisting the school in Suruacá to expand the capacity of their photovoltaic energy system so they can power additional computers available to students, as well as power a freezer so they can provide nutritious meals to all students.  Learn more about the communities we serve and our programs

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Why do you work with rural communities in developing countries? 

Contemporary development thinking focus on poverty reduction as much as economic growth, as reflected by the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals. According the U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development, at least 70 percent of the world's extremely poor people – those living on the equivalent of less than US$1.25 a day – reside in rural areas of developing countries.

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What progress have you seen in these communities as a result of your work?

Our work has yielded comprehensive results. Among entrepreneurs in client communities, we have seen better management of resources, more sustainable business practices, and higher incomes. Dialogue between previously isolated communities has been opened thanks to the creation of online social networks operating through e-mail, chat rooms and Skype. The quality of education has also risen, with new communication infrastructures set up between educators to be put to use in new English classes and a newly constructed school.

For further detail on these achievements and their far-reaching effects, click here.

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How can I volunteer?

We have a number of open positions for people willing to devote their time and experience to our cause. Learn more about open positions here.

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How can I contribute financially?

We are always grateful for the contributions of donors. Because we don't have an office and paid staff to cover, your donations will go directly toward helping communities in need. You can make a donation through PayPal, check or cash. For donation instructions, click here.

We have also teamed with Capital One Card Lab Connect. By applying for a specially designed CEN credit card, you can donate to our cause. One percent of every purchase you make is automatically donated to us.

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