Bottom Line: Generosity and Micro-Grants Reduce Poverty

Winkly with pigs

Winkly and Jane with their pigs in Malawi.

By the time I launched into my opening story about Winkly and Jane in Malawi the classroom at Illinois College was pretty full. About 60 students and faculty were there for my discussion of micro-finance and my passionate defense of micro-grants as the best pathway out of poverty.

In the three minutes before I remembered to press record on my iphone, I started with some thank yous to Joe Genetin-Pilawa (who invited me) and IC’s Leadership Program (for sponsoring the evening).

Then I launched into the story of Jane and Winkly, who live in Manyamula village in Malawi. They are a hard-working family but they lacked access to credit. I flipped to the powerpoint slide of their old house (with mud bricks and a thatched roof) and talked about some of the problems with a thatched roof, which has to be replaced every season…

Over the next 45 minutes I talk about micro-loans, crowd-funding, indebtedness, sharing the gift, and generosity. Feel free to listen and/or look through the slides!


IC Microfinance Slides


IC Talk Audio

Ripples of Change

Have you seen this map? It shows just how BIG Africa is. It’s easy to lump a lot all together under the label of “Africa.”

And yet, Africa is an entire continent – one that could fit the United States, India, China, Eastern Europe, and a number of western European countries, all within it’s borders! Africa is 20% of the world’s landmass and has 54 separate countries.


Traveling in Malawi, just a tiny sliver on most maps of Africa, I was in awe of the vast countryside to see, so many different languages to hear, and all the people to meet within Malawi.

Besides providing good party trivia, what is the point of thinking about the enormity of Africa? It can be overwhelming to think the really big problems such as pollution and political instability in so many African countries.

A ripple of goodness

Spirit in Action is working in Africa to start small ripples of change, which can reach much further than what we can do alone, reaching to those big challenges. I may not be able to influence the government in the Central African Republic but I can start to poke small ripples of goodness in the pool.

When things seem so great, I look around to see what I can do, what small thing I can give, to make an impact in just one other person’s life. And it turns out, that making this small impact can start to make larger inroads.

Grace is excited to continue high school!

Grace is excited to continue high school! Read her family’s story here:

Here’s what we’re doing:

1 Individual = receives a letter with encouragement and self-help materials (gardening, composting, starting savings groups) from Spirit in Action; (Read example)

1 Family = receives a $150 grant from Spirit in Action to start a business and improve their house and send their children to school; (Read example)

1 Community = receives a Community Grant from Spirit in Action to start a chicken-rearing process and a local village savings and low-interest loans group. (Read example)

Sharing the Gift

Then, 1+1+1 = Once people receive, they are encouraged to give forward to someone else who they see is in need; Sharing the Gift, we call it. (Read example)

That gift is shared over and over again. Then, this is my prayer, the gift ripples all the way to the country and regional level. Maybe that person who convinced the Malawian President Joyce Banda to sell the $13.3 million presidential jet and rebuild international relationships to help Malawi’s poorest was touched by part of the Spirit in Action ripple.

Or maybe, someone who realized that they were feeling small in the midst of the great world took a step to help someone by putting a Spirit-filled ripple into action and helped you.

Thank you for making our ripple big enough to reach more individuals, families, and communities than we can know or count.

Margaret talks with one of the support groups

Margaret Ikiara (center) talks with one of the support groups at CIFORD Kenya.

Moving, and Meeting Angels

This is an excerpt from a talk that I gave at Bonny Doon Presbyterian Church, sharing my personal journey and about my work with Spirit in Action. ˜ Tanya

If you’ve ever moved to a new place, you know that it can be really hard. New places can be uncomfortable; they force you to encounter new things and new cultures, even within different regions in the US. You have to find a new grocery store, a new bank, new friends.

SIA faces of compassion

And yet these moments when we are lost and lonely are moments when we are perhaps most likely to be touched by one of God’s angels on earth. Rachel has been one of those angels for me. A kind colleague of Boyd’s invited us over for dinner one Friday night. She gave me something to look forward to, she cooked a wonderful meal, and she gave us tips for things to see in the city.

Simple; but her smile makes me feel like we’ve already been friends a long time. And to me, that’s the blessing of moving. That’s experiencing God’s grace and love. If we’re standing in the same place all the time, it’s harder to meet new angels.

In a way, these angels, even though they are not the ones moving to a new place, are being emotionally moved. There are many times in the New Testament where we hear that Jesus was moved with compassion for people.

Del Anderson founded SIA, at the age of 90, as a manifestation of his drive to do good works in the world. He had lived a life filled with challenges – being a bi-racial man growing up in the early 1900s – and also a life filled with blessings.

Del was moved to compassion for people around the world who were lacking basic needs, like food, shelter, and a livelihood. He was moved by his conviction that people had the skills and drive to help themselves, and all they needed was encouragement and tools to get started.

He began his ministry by providing information to people – information about growing more food, making soap, planting fast-growing trees that could be used for lumber, fences, or shade. And sometimes he provided a small grant to help people pursue their dreams and improve their lives. (For more from Del on Compassion, read from his journal here.)

Through this work with Spirit in Action, I am continually inspired by people who are moved with compassion for their community.

guardian's group with CIFORD Kenya.

Women in the guardian’s group with CIFORD Kenya.

For me compassion is embodied in an older woman we met in Kenya. She is a member of a self-help group within the local organization CIFORD Kenya. She is also a grandmother, taking care of five of her grandchildren whose parents died from HIV/AIDS. When I met her, I saw in her the loving kindness that comes from compassionate acts.

She was moved to care for the grandkids even in her older years. And she was at the self-help group (where we met her) because that’s a stressful job. How will I buy school uniforms so that my grandkids can attend school? Who will collect water so that we have clean water to drink?

The blessing is that this group of 20 to 25 guardians is there to support her. Their cooperative movement means that they are all there to support each other emotionally, and also economically, with a small loan fund within the group. And their movement, their action, means that the children are cared for by relatives rather than be sent to terrible, overcrowded orphanages.

As these examples show, being willing to be moved is to embody generosity and to allow yourself to be an angel to someone else.

Why I Serve

I went to a great “story swap” last night, where I and other non-profit professionals heard and shared our personal stories about what drives us to work for social change. The exchange of such inspiring stories left me yearning for more time to contemplate my motivations, core goals, and professional “origin story.”

So until I have more time to reflect (during my family’s backpack trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains next month!), I’ll take just a bit of time and space now to share some thoughts on why I serve, based on five points from the volunteers at

1. Serve to discover abundance: the radical shift from me to we

Serving with people all across the globe opens my eyes to the great abundance of our world. There are people out there that have so many diverse experiences and unique stories. I’ve always loved to travel and see and experience new places; wanting to explore that abundance held in the world inspires my correspondence and world service today.

Happily serving the world: Jack, Canaan, & Tanya

Happily serving the world: Jack, Canaan, & Tanya

2. Serve to express gratitude

I am so grateful that I understand technology and actually enjoy figuring technology things out. Because I am grateful for this talent and I want to put it to good use, tinkering with Spirit in Action’s website is a natural outpouring of gratitude. When I was a child my dad always told me to say thank you “loud enough so that they can hear you.” Now when I think of that reminder, it’s not just about speaking louder – it’s also about letting my actions, as well as my words, show my community that I recognize what I’ve been given and I’m giving back what I have to share.

3. Serve to transform yourself

When I worked at an insurance company I put in my hours each day and when I got home I rested. Working for Spirit in Action pushes me each day. I believe in our work and our programs, and I honor our partners, and so it’s not just enough to skate by in my work. I feel the need to constantly be learning new things, better ways to do things, to communicate, and to relate in the world. It’s only because I care about those I am serving that I push to transform myself.

4. Serve to honor our profound interconnection

Each small act of service is an unending ripple that synergizes with countless others.
Paying it forward, Sharing the Gift – these are such simple and inspiring practices. That ripple keeps going and it becomes larger than I can know or understand. Being a part of the unending ripple of goodness and caring is why I serve. When I serve my friends by playing with their fun, energetic toddlers, I am honoring interconnectedness in the larger human family – across familial and generational lines.

 5. Serve to align with a natural unfolding

This phrase so clear brings to mind the first line of “God Calling…” by Del Anderson, “By My grace, you have the privilege to be used as My yeast, My salt, to be My quickening Spirit manifested . . . now.” For me, seizing this privilege to be God’s yeast in the world is part of the natural unfolding of expanding compassion in the world. As Martin Luther King, Jr. often quoted “”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” and serving for me is reaching up and grabbing that arc and bending justice a bit closer to the now.

 *What inspires you to serve others? Please share in the comments section!

Positive Change in Uganda

Did you catch the hype and fury around the KONY 2012 video about Uganda last week? The video, by Invisible Children, Inc. told about the violence in Uganda in the recent past. However, many people in Uganda are presenting their own responses to the video.

“How do you tell the story of Africans?” asks Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger, “because if you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless… you shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on.”

Ugandan Coordinator trains new business members

Godfrey shares the growth of SIA in his community.

How people and organizations present their work is as important as the work itself. Is the grant recipient downcast, child-like, and dirty? Or are they smiling, confident, encouraged?

Meeting all our Spirit in Action Small Business Fund Coordinators last summer in Kenya confirmed for me that THEY are the work of Spirit in Action. Our coordinators are not voiceless or hopeless – they are leaders working to make their communities better places to live.

Today I want to share some excerpts from my interview with Godfrey Matovu, SBF Coordinator in Uganda, about his work to uplift and empower his fellow community members. I hope that listening to him tell his story will also confirm for you that Godfrey, and all of our SIA partners, have the power to change their communities.

Godfrey Matovu:
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: One time a local leader asked and I had to explain about Spirit in Action and what it is doing. I explained to him: SIA is bringing people together in Uganda.

Ugandans learning how to weave baskets

Ugandans learning how to weave baskets

COMPASSIONATE WORK AT THE CROSSROADS: “I organize and I train [people] and people know they are welcome to learn or to work. So these things come through Spirit in Action. One of the local leaders said, “this thing that you are sharing, is very good. Why don’t you start over there [at the crossroads] – they are drunkards.” So we are targeting the youth at the crossroads. I started teaching them how to start a business; the handicraft work [like weaving, pottery, and brickmaking]. I tell them “you can make this, you can make this.” We started to gain respect. So far we have trained thirteen people. I am planning more small workshops, for the school dropouts, and those who have lost their parents to come and to start doing this quality work. So that is why I give.

ON DEL ANDERSON, SIA FOUNDER: “I tell people that Del Anderson came from a poor family. So he decided also to help the poor. I tell them and they understand.

HELPING THOSE WITH HIV/AIDS: “There are people who are not involved in these programs who are suffering. So what do I do? I just care and counsel them, just give them advice when they are sick or suffering with AIDS. What do I do? I just counsel them; tell them how to handle the sick.

DEALING WITH PREJUDICE: “Sometimes, most especially in Africa, when you are suffering from HIV/AIDS, some people they fear to touch you, they fear to be near you. So I go there and I am preaching the word of God. I again talk to them and the members who are around, tell them not to avoid him or her, just to get friendship with him.

Godfrey Matovu (Uganda) and Tanya Cothran in Kenya, August 2011

Godfrey and Tanya in Kenya, August 2011

DEFINING CARE: “I remember I went to one family and met with a man who was sick. He had skin that was [bad]. He was not doing much bathing or washing. So I started helping, that is what I call care.

GIVING THANKS“So I have to thank you for this brotherhood of workers. It is not easy but I am doing very good. They are doing very good. We have the groups there [in Uganda] and we are doing good.”

Thank you, Godfrey, and all SIA partners, for serving God by empowering others! We are honored to support these committed change-agents.

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