A grant that gives hope

A grant that gives hope

Last week, I had the great pleasure of sending out the congratulations letters to the groups that received SIA grants at our last board meeting. I work with each of the grant applicants to more fully understand their projects and to refine their proposals. After weeks and months in communication the happy moment arrives when I get to let them know that SIA approved their application!

“Overwhelmed by joy”

Below is the reply I received from Vincent Atitwa, leader of the Matungu Community Development Charity cooperative in Kenya. They received a grant to start a table banking program to provide their members, mostly small farmers, with low-interest loans.

“First, I must say that I am overwhelmed by joy and happiness after learning that SIA funded our project. I say BIG THANK YOU to you and the entire team of SIA, together with their donors who made all the process possible. May God bless you abundantly so that you continue blessing others too.

“To me, this is not just a grant, it’s a grant that comes with a lot of hope and inspiration to our community.

“Finally God has answered our prayers. I believe that the SIA grant holds a key to unlock a lot of business opportunities for marginalized small scale farmers in our community. The businesses will create both jobs and wealth. I am happy to be associated with SIA and its activities, and I look forward to continuing working with you even in future after this grant.”

A Smart Risk

This grant partnership is a great example of Smart Risk #1 from the forthcoming book, that I co-edited with Jennifer Lentfer, about small grants.

Smart Risk #1: Investing in local expertise. 

Vincent and the rest of the team at Matungu Community Development Charity know the context of lending in rural Kenya. They know about the farming cycles and the challenges associated with the climate and markets. They know the community members and can talk to them when they have trouble repaying the loan. For all these reasons, we believe that it is worth investing in local groups.

Follow along this week on our Facebook page for all five Smart Risks! 

Not a corporate board…

Not a corporate board…

The Spirit in Action Board of Directors met over the weekend to approve new grants, receive reports and review our program, and also pray for our partners and donors. We also joyfully welcomed Wendy and Terry Silverthorn of Camino, CA to the board! They are longtime supporters of SIA and are happy to get more involved with our work.

I bet it won’t surprise you to learn that the SIA board does not operate like your average corporate board! After reviewing each grant proposal, we take a few moments of silence to reflect and listen in prayer. Then, we each share our thoughts about the proposal and any guidance that came to us in the silence. This listening prayer and consensus model really does help the meetings flow more smoothly.

New Grants!

Over the course of the day the board approved some very exciting new grants! We funded 23 new Small Business Fund grants, and also grants for a LGBT workshop in Uganda, a savings and loans cooperative in Kenya, a bead work and carpet-making workshop for women in Nairobi, and more! Some of these grassroots organizations are for long-time partners, and others are new to SIA. In all cases we remember Del Anderson’s commitment to building relationships, and his openness to sharing knowledge with each other, and learning what we can about poverty reduction and local needs from our partners.

At the end of the day, and before meeting up for dinner, several of us took a walk in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. After the intensity of the meeting, I reveled in the stillness of those ancient trees and the lush greenness of the resilient undergrowth.

Me next to a giant redwood tree!

During the meeting, board member Barbara Deal shared about her experience of meeting Mother Theresa many years ago. Mother Theresa remarked that the reason she served others, including the most destitute, was that it was an opportunity to “serve Jesus in all his most distressing and glorious disguises.” At Spirit in Action, as we serve alongside our wonderful partners, we also have this opportunity to co-create with Jesus.

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.

Spirit in Action Gratitude List

Spirit in Action Gratitude List

1. For each of our Small Business Fund Coordinators, who volunteer their time to implement the program in their community and help families start small businesses.

2. For prayer partners around the world who remember Spirit in Action, the USA, and me in their prayers.

3. For Del’s wisdom and vision for helping each person reach their God-given potential.

4. For volunteers who help with technology stuff.

5. For WhatsApp, which facilitates easy, quick communication, no matter where we are in the world!

6. For cameras on cell phones; for photos of small businesses owners in front of their shops.

Women cooking together in Malawi. They are taking part of a Nutrition and Health workshop.

Women cooking together in Malawi. They are taking part of a Nutrition and Health workshop.

7. For grant partners who know their local context and can navigate challenges with their cultural knowledge and expertise.

8. For my sister who checks the SIA post office box regularly.

9. For a focus on relationships, in addition to 5-year plans.

10. For women who welcome orphans into their home, providing and caring for them.

11. For enthusiastic SIA Board members who are willing to learn and be engaged to make us a better organization.

12. For “God Calling…” written by Del and read at the beginning of each SIA Board meeting.

sia_collage_10-14
13. For all the wonderful, generous people who donate to SIA! Including 14 people who donate to SIA monthly.

14. For the churches who include SIA in their mission/international outreach.

15. For community leaders who have plans for improving economic opportunity and increasing justice.

16. For Marsha and Dennis Johnson who have dedicated 20+ years to Spirit in Action in more ways than I can list here.

17. For this blog, which allows me to connect with our SIA network and highlight the amazing change taking place.

Even though it's blurry, I love the camaraderie and joy that is evident in this scene. A moment of downtime in the midst of visiting Small Business Fund groups in Uganda in 2014.

Even though it’s blurry, I love the camaraderie and joy that is evident in this scene. A moment of downtime in the midst of visiting Small Business Fund groups in Uganda in 2014.

18. For trips to eastern Africa; for being able to shake the hands of grant partners and congratulate them on work well-done.

19. For Small Business Fund Coordinators who encourage and train each other.

20. For flexibility in our grant-giving, so that we can respond to local needs, priorities, and contexts.

Living my values through SIA

I apologize that the music videos didn’t show up in the email last week. If you want to watch them, click here!

“I believe that the whole world about me is full of beauty, joy and power, even as it is full of God, and that I can share it and enjoy it if I attune myself to my Divine Plan and am inwardly open toward God and outwardly helpful toward [others].”   ~ Glenn Clark, The Divine Plan

I have a tendency to get caught up in the details of work. I’m an organizer and I like to plan next steps, moving from task to task. And sometimes I lose sight of the bigger picture. When I read the quote above by Glenn Clark, I was jolted back into considering how all the work I do for Spirit in Action is part of my fuller life. It’s inseparable from all other parts of my life.

The quote captures it perfectly. I have been blessed to see a world of hope, beauty, goodness, and possibility around me. And when I stop to be grateful I am reminded to thank God (“inwardly open toward God”) and share this vision and hope with others (“outwardly helpful toward others”).

I love this movie poster like photo! Can you tell we mean business? Slyvestor, Canaan Gondwe, Winkly Mahowe, walking with me down the dusty road in Manyamula on the way to our site visits.

I love this movie poster like photo! Can you tell we mean business? Slyvestor, Canaan Gondwe, Winkly Mahowe, walking with me down the dusty road in Manyamula on the way to our site visits.

Values at work

“How did you get into this work?” a student at Illinois College asked me after I presented about SIA. As in, how does one come to want to work for a non-profit?

When I started working for SIA six years ago (2016 update: now 9 years ago!) I had just left my job at an insurance company. It was after the switch that I realized the importance (for me) of working for an organization that has emotions, learning, and faith built into its very fabric. At SIA, those things I value most – including the desire to spread goodness – won’t be pushed aside.

This alignment of values and work doesn’t only happen in nonproft organizations. I can trace my desire for passionate work to my artist parents and my professor husband. When the sole focus isn’t on profit organizations, universities, and businesses can afford to spend more time focused on people and relationships.

Giving Nellie, who started a school in Manyamula with a Small Business Fund grant, some puzzles from my nieces.

Giving Nellie, who started a school in Manyamula with a Small Business Fund grant, some puzzles from my nieces.

Job+ throughout SIA

I’m not the only one at SIA who feels and knows this job+ concept. Our inward/outward vision is also built into the Small Business Fund program.

The families that receive our $150 grants also receive emotional and practical support from the local SBF coordinators. In line with Glenn Clark’s vision for a good life, each is encouraged on their individual spiritual journey (“inwardly open toward God”) and asked to pay-it-forward through Sharing the Gift (“outwardly helpful toward others”).

Working together with so many people to improve ourselves and serve those around us is a blessing that is more than just work. Thank you for joining me in this good, full life.

This was previously published on the SIA blog on February 11, 2014.

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