Is it risky to invest in community leadership?

Is it risky to invest in community leadership?

This past weekend, on April 15th, the book I’ve been co-editing with Jennifer Lentfer for the past 5 years, was printed! It is now officially available for pre-order!

The book is a collaborative effort with 22 authors from 20 different organizations from seven countries, representing a variety of viewpoints on the international development and philanthropy sectors.

Is it worth the risk?

On her blog this week, Jennifer explained how this group of authors, all who saw the importance of working directly with people at the community level, came together:

When people in the aid and philanthropy sector learned about our approaches to making small grants at the international level, there were always questions that revealed how “risky” this seemed to people:

How do you find the groups? (In other words, “It’s much easier for us to fund the same, usual players in the capital cities who talk like us.”)

“How do you measure your results?” (In other words, “Small grants are too insignificant to make a real dent in any social issue.” or “Hard numbers are the only way I know if I am getting a return on investment.”)

How do you keep your overhead costs down? (In other words, “It’s too expensive to fund at the grassroots. It costs me the same amount of money to make a US$5,000 grant as a $50,000 grant.”)

We didn’t get it. For us, not investing in the wisdom, experience, and leadership of people most affected by poverty was an opportunity cost we were unwilling to bear.

In our minds, placing our relatively small amounts of money in the hands of people who are already doing something to address the challenges in their own communities was actually one of the least risky things we as funders could do, and also one of the smartest.

Youth learn about their rights and about healthy relationships at a workshop hosted by CIFORD Kenya.

The least risky way to support lasting change

Investing in these local leaders and grassroots organizations is the heart of our work at Spirit in Action. Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, Community Initiatives for Rural Development Kenya (CIFORD), Samro Schools, and so many more community-based organizations are dedicated to working for positive change in their communities.

They do this by using their local knowledge and their connections with local officials, encouraging others to join them, and fostering a sense of solidarity and camaraderie that plants the seeds of change.

There are so many wonderful people and organizations supporting these grassroots partners. So many who honor the role of faith in their work and partnerships. We know that investing in local leaders is worth the “risk.” “Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems” is dedicated to reframing the idea of “risky” grants; to instead look at the opportunity of small grants.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what we and our co-authors have to say!

Making friends around the world

Making friends around the world

Last week, twelve Girl Scouts (ages 10-12) took the first step toward making new friends. The girls from Santa Barbara, CA wrote letters to their new pen pals: students at Samro School in Eldoret, Kenya. They sent the letters and now they wait to hear back from their new friends!

The idea for the cross-cultural sharing came from one of the girls. Last spring, her 6th grade class had the opportunity to Skype with students in Rwanda. This sparked an interest to continue this international communication. As an avid pen pal myself, I was really happy to make the connection between her and the students I know in Kenya.

Girl Scout Troop in Santa Barbara having fun together.

I was probably about her age when I got connected with my first pen pal from Russia. It was set up through my elementary school and I remember how exciting it was to hear about this girl’s life and to see what commonalities we could find. This pen pal relationship didn’t last long. However, it does represent a milestone along my path towards work with Spirit in Action. This fascination and curiosity about how other people do things contributed to my interest in international issues. I envision that this new California – Eldoret pen pal connection will also stir curiosity and foster connection outside of all the girls’ everyday environment.

Samro Students performing at the 8th grade graduation in October, 2015.

Del, Scout Leader

I am also happy about this connection because SIA Founder, Del Anderson, was a dedicated Boy Scout troop leader. In 1949, he started leading Troop 123 in Oakland. He liked the way that this scouts brought together boys from both the poor and rich areas of the city.

When Del and his first wife Bebe (who died in 1972) traveled around the world in 1956, they visited representatives of the International Boy Scouts in many different countries. As an avid letter writer, and a supporter of the scout program, I’m sure Del would be very happy to hear about this new international pen pal connection!

Del with boy scouts

Del and Bebe greet Scouts in Japan in 1956.

Do we have the courage to act?

Do we have the courage to act?

Reposting this post, originally posted January 20, 2015, to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. It is also renewing the call to stand up for the rights of the oppressed people in your country and around the world.

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  -MLK, Jr.

Yesterday, Boyd and I took our lunch break to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail aloud to each other. Reading it in its entirety, rather than in a series of quotes, I was impressed by frequent references to God, Jesus, and Biblical figures. There are many deeply moving quotes from King about the arc of justice, about how we are all inter-connected, about expressing compassion to each other, about love and hatred. These are quotes that stem from and refer to the deep truths of his Christian faith without always mentioning his faith.

King’s letter quoted Amos and made more than a few references to Paul and the early Christians. He seemed to take courage from those first Christians who were radical in their faith and who didn’t settle for the status quo. Churches today, King lamented, were afraid to be labeled as “nonconformist” and were shying away from the important work of challenging injustice and structural prejudice. He asks: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

This letter is a call to action, now. Not to wait. Not to be afraid to be different or radical or uncomfortable. People of faith must be people who stand up for justice, for moral rights, for the inherent dignity of all people.

Sometimes action means listening. Small Business Fund coordinators listen to the stories of the successes and challenges of the entrepreneurs in Uganda.

We may not be able to help everyone. But we are not waiting until we can to solve all problems before we serve one person. We are not waiting to be a perfect organization before we dive into action to co-create with God for a better world.

Spirit in Action is not just a “spirit” organization. It is also an “action” organization. We see light and value and hope and possibility in the poor, in people of distant communities. We see that organizations that do not allow people to be actors in their own future, in their own prosperity, perpetuate an unsettling hierarchy of those who are helpers and those who need help. Action is confronting people who make statements that lump all of Africa into a uniform culture, who distrust all people who are poor. I know that is my great privilege to serve others, to give and encourage so that they can realize their own dreams for a better future.

Thank you for joining me on this path, in this action, in this service, and in using the power of God for good.

I sign off my post today with the same words as Martin Luther King, Jr. used in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

Yours for the cause of Peace and [Sister/]Brotherhood,
Tanya

Receiving the gift of a chicken from a Small Business Fund leader in Kasozi Village, Uganda, 2014.

Relying on our network

Relying on our network

This is Part 2/2 of excerpts from my presentation about rigorous humility. Part 1 is here.

In 2016 Spirit in Action celebrated our 20th Anniversary. It was 20 years ago that Del Anderson – then aged 90 – a retired businessman, realized that he wanted to do more to support businesses in developing countries.  Del was a man who really practiced rigorous humility and was always learning.

Let me share a favorite quote from Del: “I am not the Del I was yesterday. I can’t eat yesterday’s stale manna. Yesterday’s manna is not good enough for today. Manna has to be fresh. It’s an ever-changing world.”

Expanding the vision

Spirit in Action started with Del writing letters to people. He had been a successful entrepreneur and he wanted to help other entrepreneurs around the world. The first grants were given to people in Del’s personal network; people he knew well from years of correspondence. We are still working with some of those people.

Since 1996 we have expanded a lot, and we are currently supporting hundreds of people through community organizations in African countries.

  • We have started almost 700 Small Businesses through our Small Business Fund program which provides $150 grants to families, and also provides them with training and a local mentor;
  • We have also impacted thousands of people through 26 grassroots organizations in over 8 African countries and 2 South American countries and 2 in southeast Asia.

Giving up the role of expert

So with this growth, how do we stay connected? We place a greater emphasis on relationships than 5-year plans. This focus on the long-term relationship gives room to work towards the best results, expecting the best each person can give. And it also leaves open the door for faith and personal growth. Humility comes when we embrace the mystery of social change.

Another aspect of rigorous humility is “giving up the role of expert.” That means I don’t have all the answers. It means that the network is stronger than the individual.

The Small Business Fund program is designed to allow for local context and local adaptation. The local coordinators in Malawi, Uganda, and Kenya each tailor the workshops and the meetings in a way that makes the most sense in the community. We like the local coordinators to work directly in the communities where they are living. And when that is not possible, we have coordinators form partnerships.

Women from 8 SBF groups in Korogocho. Wambui, the local coordinator stands behind Tanya. Josephine is pictured left of Tanya.

For example, we have a wonderful coordinator in Nairobi, named Wambui, who wanted to work with the very poor families living in the information settlement of Korogocho outside Nairobi. She didn’t live there but she knows someone who does – Josephine. And so Wambui and Josephine are working as a strong team. Wambui has the training skills, which she uses in her career of peacebuilding and healing-from-trauma workshops. And Josephine is known in the community as being a mentor and a “mother” to many of the women. Wambui can help me get the reports I need. And Josephine helps Wambui get the access to the community. This teamwork is vital to Spirit in Action.

Practicing Rigorous Humility

Practicing Rigorous Humility

The excerpts below are from my presentation to the congregation of the First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond in November.

Being open and willing to say “I don’t know” is one of the key characteristics of what my good friend Jennifer Lentfer calls rigorous humility. This is a concept that she finds central to being truly effective in the fight against poverty. This humility is about listening effectively and balancing power between grantmakers and grant recipients; between those giving, and those asking and receiving.

In my job as Executive Administrator I have many, many opportunities to practice and deploy rigorous humility.

Let me give an example. A few years back I had this great idea to be in contact more with the local SIA coordinators on the ground. I wanted to build a stronger relationship with them, and there were also some donors that were wanting more feedback and more reporting on how the things were going on the ground. So I figured that I would just start writing more emails, even weekly, to the coordinators in an attempt to spur more connection.

Considering from the other side

Of course, I hadn’t really thought about what this would mean for our partners. I hadn’t thought from their perspective. For me, sending an email is a simple as typing and then hitting “send” from the comfort of my own home. For Canaan in Malawi, it means traveling dusty (or muddy) roads to the nearest internet café, paying for access to a computer, paying to scan any documents, etc. You get the idea.

Coordinators walking on the muddy road.

SIA partners walking on the muddy road in Kenya. It was too muddy and steep for the van to take us on this part of the journey.

And so even when I sent more, I didn’t get more back. Because I hadn’t taking that extra time and money into account. So, the questions became: How can I rebalance the power so that it’s not my demands that are disproportionately impacting others? Also, how can reports be designed to give feedback to the coordinators and entrepreneurs, as much as they report to the SIA office? How can reports be mutually beneficial?

It was a moment to acknowledge that I hadn’t fully understood and that I’m always learning. How can we do this better? Who else has ideas to try?

Listening for Solutions

Even after I realized that more emails were not going to be the solution, I kept searching and trying things. I created a group email for the coordinators. I created a phone list. Nothing panned out. And then the solution came Jeremiah Mzee, Nairobi coordinator.

He wrote: “Kindly can you create WhatsApp Small Business Fund group. I feel that most of us will be comfortable to learn from each other as far as reporting and management of SBF is concerned.”

Of course! Yes! Let’s do that!

What is WhatsApp? (Read my blog post about it!) It’s an application available for cell phones, which facilitates cheap international texting. So rather than paying high costs per text, we can text for free. The app can use wifi or data. But it takes very little data and it widespread (more widespread than email, for sure) throughout Africa.

cell phones charging

Grace’s shop in the Manyamula Market is connected to the new electricity lines in town and so she provides phone charging services for a small fee.

Another amazing feature of WhatsApp is that it can send files too. So now, a coordinator, instead of having to pay for internet time and scanning fees, can simply take a picture on their phone of the report and then WhatsApp it to me, and I receive it immediately! Amazing!

For now, we have found a mode of communication that really does foster connection, without being burdensome for anyone to use.

The waiting; the listening; the faith I have in my partners’ expertise brought us to this new place of connection. This happens with rigorous humility.

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