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!

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! 

Sparking hope this Christmas!

Sparking hope this Christmas!

Pictured above are members of the Namayiana Women Group. The group is based in Archer’s Post, Samburu County, Kenya, and has a membership of 25 women. The women make beaded jewelry and accessories, wooden artifacts, and souvenirs for tourists on safari. The Self-Help Group received a grant from Spirit in Action to build a roadside shop. Through the shop they will generate income for their families and provide assistance for more girls to attend school.

The store will be located close to the entrance of the famed Samburu National Reserve. The women are prepared to take control of their financial situation in a collective effort to improve the lives of their families and community at large. This new business venture comes from their realization that self-employment creates self-empowerment. The decision to start their own business was sparked by their community’s participation at Pastoralist Child Foundation workshops and learning about the importance of formal education. The construction will start next week.

Merry Christmas!

We are honored to spark hope and support the self-empowerment of these women! This Christmas, let us celebrate the good that can happen when groups of committed individuals come together to work for change.

Merry Christmas from Spirit in Action and our international partners!

Five years in the making…

Five years in the making…

Reposted from my co-editor, Jennifer Lentfer’s How Matters blog. “Co-editor?” you ask. Read on…

This is how it began…

From: JENNIFER LENTFER
Date: Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 5:29 PM
Subject: invitation to join “Small is Big” Writing Collaborative
To: Tanya Cothran

Dear Tanya,

As people making small grants internationally, you are part of a growing number of people that specialize in offering direct funding to local initiatives and community leaders.

You have vital expertise to share with the aid and philanthropic sectors as many are wondering  what more can be done to enable grassroots movements to emerge and gain strength.

Therefore I am inviting you to share your experience via the “Small is Big” Writing Collaborative, which aims to gather varied grantmakers’ approaches and experiences as a collective source of knowledge to share widely via an online or printed publication. In the collaborative, you and/or your staff will be engaged in a reflective learning process with my support and that of participants from other organizations…

***

5 years, 22 contributors 

And five years, 22 contributors (and many other supporters and friends along the way), here is where we ended up…

smart risks book cover

Coming April 2017

from Practical Action Publishing!

In a rapidly changing world and after decades of failed international aid, it’s high time to build the dialogue about how international actors can build their own skills and institutional processes to accompany and support community-level leadership and systems, rather than overpower or co-opt them.

Luckily there is a growing number of small NGOs and foundations that specialize in offering direct, responsive funding to grassroots leaders and small, often “informal” initiatives, groups, and movements. And over twenty of them have come together to write this book!

Compared to the old-school, donor-controlled, large-scale, project-based international aid funding, the authors use the concept of “smart risks” to build upon existing human and social capital to unleash people power and social innovation. International grassroots grantmakers are adept at keeping their minds (and perhaps more importantly their hearts) open to the possibility of results when the common good is tapped in unimagined and unanticipated ways.

People in poor countries or communities who want to make change should no longer tolerate an charity-modeled system that makes them struggle and wait endlessly for funding to trickle down to them, marred by burdensome requirements and restrictions from donors. Pushing the sector forward needs smart risk-taking, and the authors’ experience is an untapped resource for the international aid and philanthropic sectors as a whole.

Smart Risks contributors came together because they each have a professional – and perhaps more importantly a personal – resolve to build solidarity with people not as passive recipients of aid, but as whole people and active leaders of their own lives. We know that radical shifts in thinking, attitude, and practice are required and we hope that this book can contribute to shifting the power and charting new paths ahead!

Tanya’s note: It has been my honor to contribute to this process and co-edit these inspiring essays. I also wrote three essays about Spirit in Action that are included in the book! I’ll keep you update on our progress in the next few months!

Factory jobs in Nairobi: It’s complicated….

Factory jobs in Nairobi: It’s complicated….

The mission of the Mathare Dressmaking and Tailoring Training Centre in Nairobi is to train women and men to use the industrial sewing machines to enable them to get jobs. And, as I reported in June, 124 of the 181 trainees have managed to secure employment with Ruaraka Clothing Industries, a large employer in the area. In most cases the trainees are only able to get the skilled machine operator jobs because of the training centre.

Studying factory jobs

I consider this employment a great success! And so I was interested to read this study that looked at the effect of low-wage manufacturing jobs on workers in Ethiopia. Now, this is in Ethiopia, not Kenya, and I do not know if the workers are taking the same sort of skilled jobs that the Mathare trainees are able to secure.

What did the study find? “It turned out that for most people, working in a factory didn’t significantly improve their income relative to the people in the control group. But getting cash to help start your own business did.”

The researchers, Chris Blattman and Stephan Dercon, summed it up like this:

  • Most people who applied for these factory jobs didn’t like them or intend to stay, rather the jobs were low paid and unpleasant and used as a safety net of sorts, while people looked for other entrepreneurial activities or less difficult wage work
  • But the health risks of industrial work were high and there’s evidence that serious health problems doubled if you took the factory job
  • When you gave them $300 cash [instead of the factory job], they started a small business and earnings went up by a third.
Students in the Samro Poly tailoring classroom in Eldoret, Kenya. Many are wearing clothes that they have made in the class.

Students in the Samro Poly tailoring classroom in Eldoret, Kenya. Many are wearing clothes that they have made in the class.

What does this mean for SIA?

I wasn’t sure what this all meant for SIA partners. So I emailed Jeremiah Mzee, who is director of the training centre project. He wrote:

“I completely agree with the writer of this article.

“It is true that when a factory establishes in Kenya, it creates new jobs for both the skilled and unskilled laborers. A majority get low wages and there is nothing they can do. Most of them try to work in these factories for low pay with a hope of getting something better. In Ruaraka these factory jobs are considered to be for women simply because they pay low wages, though to the women they believe these factories provide valuable employment opportunities for them. I AGREE.

“Most people working in these factories get wages enough only to meet basic needs and it is true that entrepreneurial women running small businesses in Ruaraka have better income and financial independency.”

It is always useful to get this kind of feedback. It is the great benefit of our long-term partnership with grassroots leaders who know the reality of the situation on the ground. Luckily, Jeremiah Mzee is one of our newest Small Business Fund coordinators. He is already working with these women to help them become entrepreneurs. Another five business groups received their $150 grants last month. And the Mathare Dressmaking and Tailoring Training Centre will continue to train people to be able to apply for the higher paying jobs at the factories, until they can find something better.

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