There is Power in Community

For the last post of 2012 I reflect with gratitude on the amazing community of Spirit in Action. Below is an except from my sharing with the Point Richmond First United Methodist Church last month about the power of community.

Dorothy Day says, “The only answer in this life, to the loneliness we are all bound to feel, is community. The living together, working together, sharing together, loving God and loving our neighbor, and living close to God in community so we can show our love for God.”

Who’s your community? How is community formed? I’ve seen recently in the news how disasters can create community. People come together to pitch in and help people they’ve lived next to for years but never met. Those extreme situations, like Hurricane Sandy remind us that we’re all connected. For myself, I’ve realized how I have a need to feel connected, to learn, to share my skills with others, to be a part of a community.

Cutting the cake at Sunny's Surprise Baby Shower during one of our knitting sessions.

Cutting the cake at Sunny’s Surprise Baby Shower during one of our knitting sessions.

Two years ago I lived in New Haven for just 8 months, while my husband had a scholarship at Yale. Knowing my need for community, I set about looking for where I fit in. Almost right away I found a group of women who were also all looking for connections – spouses of international students.

We started a knitting club and we soon formed a tight network. People gave and received in this group, invited people over for dinner, helped each other learn English, looked over each other’s job applications. And this is what’s special about community – people give because they receive, and they receive because they give. That reciprocity and openness is the core power of community. We’re willing to open up to this flow in community.

Giving to Your Neighbor

I recently learned about a concept called Horizontal Giving – it describes the act of giving and receiving from your peers, as opposed to Vertical Giving, or receiving help from above. The study I read found that in North Carolina the giving that happened between people is so much more important for people’s day to day lives than their receiving from the government or even from organizations.

People described how they helped family members by giving to them, or how an elder in their community mentored a younger man. New immigrants to the US helped each other navigate the new bureaucracies.

One of the Latino participants shared: “You get to make friends here, and sometimes just a phone call or whatever – that’s a big help. In my case, since I don’t know many people around here, I find it very depressing just to be locked in [my house].” I can definitely relate to that. The researchers confirmed what we know, a simple act of reaching out encourages us, helps us, and brings us closer together in community.

Of course, community doesn’t just exist here, or at Yale, or in North Carolina. SIA, recognizes the strength in communities. Peter Laugharn of Firelight Foundation says, “Community is one of the strongest, well-distributed assets in Africa.” Communities in Africa are already giving and receiving and SIA supports that and gives grants to help those local projects get started.

Don’t just help; Serve

CIFORD Kenya engages support from the whole community to support education for girls.

CIFORD Kenya engages support from the whole community to support education for girls.

SIA supports grassroots organizations to be the support for people in need in their community. And there’s so much need in Africa. There are basic needs (shelter, food, education) and there are basic emotional needs (recognition, encouragement, the need to be loved). SIA taps into communities and works to foster the horizontal giving – that peer to peer – that we know is already occurring, and which we know is powerful.

CIFORD Kenya and MAVISALO in Malawi are just two examples of people coming together, collectively addressing local needs, and working on giving at a horizontal level.

Why is giving in community so strong? Why does it make such an impact? In part, I think it’s because in a community, the interactions are all about serving others.

Rachel Naomi Remen who wrote Kitchen Table Wisdom, writes about the power of serving in her essay, “Helping, fixing or Serving?” She says, “Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequity. … When we help, we become aware of our own strength. But when we serve, we don’t serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves, and we draw from all our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve. … Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power.”

SIA doesn’t have Americans going over to help these communities in Africa. Remen, also says, “We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.”

popout_siaAnd so I see that the way SIA works – empowering communities and community organizations – is so strong because it builds on that power of people serving those who they already know and who are close connections – their neighbors.

Working through community organizations like MAVISALO and CIFORD, SIA is able to serve, and I am able to serve, more honestly. We are not seeing Africans as a group weak, in need of helping or broken, in need of helping. We are seeing them as models of service – people acting to serve their neighbor, to make life better for the community.

Wholeness in Community

Singing in Malawi

Singing in community. MAVISALO in Malawi.

Let’s rejoice, believing in the power of community. Let’s start recognizing the power of communities in Africa; that power from God in us that moves us to serve; that power from serving those who we are intrinsically connected to.

Serving is the wholeness in me serving the wholeness in another. Del Anderson, who started SIA at the age of 90, started the organization with the intention of serving the “whole person” – serving body, mind, and spirit. It was a bigger version of service, one which honors each person’s complexity and need. The way to help the world is to stop helping and instead use the power of community to reach and serve those families and children, and parents, and grandparents, in need.

Let’s remember the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Our daily bread. And as we pray this I encourage you to open us this season to notice how you give and receive. And why you give and receive. What communities are you active in? How are the needy (whatever their needs) served? How do you support community? Can you start seeing Africa as a network of communities serving their neighbors?

Why we give grants, not loans

It used to be common sense that micro-loans were the only way to ensure the sustainability of a micro-finance program and that the act of paying back the loan would instill the sense of “ownership” in the grant recipients. How could a micro-grant – labeled a “hand out” – do anything but create a sense of entitlement on the part of the grantee? We’ve thought that loans were better than grants because they promoted long-term, individual responsibility; but in some markets, loans wreak havoc with indebtednesshostile payment collectors and inflexible repayment schedules. Grants, unlike loans, can create independence and cultivate sustainable development in a community.

A new pottery business in Uganda.

A new pottery business in Uganda.

In 2006, just as the Grameen Bank and Kiva were becoming household names, there was a rush to start new micro-finance organisations and benevolently provide money to the poor. Unfortunately, those funds come at a great cost and with inconclusive effects. Interest rates of 40-100% of the loan principle and travel costs to get to and from the bank mean that people are stuck from the moment they get the money.

Why grants?

A loan is just a financial arrangement in the business of making money for a bank, but a grant creates space for positive relationships and an empowered individual. Spirit in Action provides $150 micro-grants to groups of 3-5 people throughout communities on the African continent. Instead of a debt-collector, we have local coordinators who train grant recipients in business planning, marketing, and basic accounting. The grant cohort also forms a support group.

Receiving a $150 grant – rather than a loan – means that the first $150 in profit from their successful enterprise can help group members go to school, improve their house, or pay for medical care, and is not used to pay back donors. And through our program, some of the additional profits are gifted to others in the community, generating goodwill and further development on the local level. (Read one family’s success story here.)

We are Grant Recipients

Sharing the Gift in Malawi.

Sharing the Gift with a cash grant in the community (Malawi).

Our model for micro-grant sustainability reflects our home-office organisational practices. We recognise that since Spirit in Action relies purely on donations from individuals for our funding, we also are grant recipients. Our supporters don’t ask us to pay them back – they ask us to pay the gift forward to help people as defined in our mission and programmatic plans. By asking our Small Business Fund grant recipients to pay it forward to a neighbor or community member rather than paying the organisation back, we are asking them to do only what we ourselves do. Paying it forward starts with our donors and passes on to many more throughout the world.

Becoming a Giver

Our paying it forward program, Sharing the Gift, suggests to grant recipients that they have received the gift of a grant from Spirit in Action and asks them, “How can you share this gift with others?” The actual form of sharing varies among groups, with input from the local coordinators. Some tithe a percentage of profits toward future groups, others contribute seeds or baby animals to a new group, and sometimes business groups come together to support a project that benefits the whole community.

Sharing the Gift of a pig in Uganda.

Sharing the Gift of a pig in Uganda.

After receiving a grant, people are empowered to be givers in their communities. Fundraisers know that people receive genuine happiness from giving to others; the Small Business Fund and Sharing the Gift enable people who have grown up with very little to have more to share with others and to be respected for their gifts to neighbors.

Unlike loans, which create an immediate indebtedness in the community, grants and a “paying it forward” mentality make development sustainable in the communities where we have funded small businesses. Even without additional grants, local growth comes from small business owners themselves. The development of their community originates with their desire to pay forward what they have received. Grants are not a hand out; they enable people to invest in their communities in a grassroots manner.

**I originally wrote this post for the WhyDev blog. WhyDev is an online community for individuals passionate about development, aid, and other global issues.

Money is not our competitive advantage

SIA Coordinators in Kenya 2011

Local leaders are part of our kindness advantage too!

When you compare non-profits supporting development in Africa Spirit in Action is not at the top of the list for total amount of money given. Our grants can’t match the “small grants” at some large NGOs that range from $10,000-30,000.

That said, I think we have a lot of other points going for us, and I think that these points add up to more than just the amount we give away in grants each year.

“It’s very heartening to read your very kind & touching letter,” read the very unexpected opening to an email from Utkarsh Ghate in India. I was shocked not because the words themselves were stunning but because this came in reply to my email letting them know that SIA wouldn’t be able to fund their proposal.

This exchange brings to life our competitive advantage: kindness, respect, honoring people as individuals. 

At Spirit in Action, we have the time and the passion to connect with people, to write thoughtful responses to all emails, give feedback on proposals we can’t fund, to affirm their service to their community, and listen to the challenges they face.

Justus Aluka and a colleague in Kenya.

Justus Aluka and a colleague in Kenya.

“We appreciated and highly acknowledged the content of your letter. Thanks for your encouragement and prayers of hope sent.” Such warm greetings were expressed in a recent email from Justus Aluka at Shirly Centre in Eldoret, Kenya. Putting this gratitude into action, his community group generously sent a 2000Ksh (around $25) donation to SIA. This unsolicited involvement and “paying forward” is another expression of the ripples of SIA’s work to put spirit and love into action.

So while other organizations may give more thousands of dollars, we give thousand times more encouragement and respect, acknowledging that these individuals, like Justus and Utkarsh, are the ones doing the front line work and facing those in dire need.

And our partners reflect this encouragement back to us: “p.s.” Utkarsh wrote, “Your bottom line is very impressive, let God make it true!” I always end my emails with “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” and I believe that honoring each person who reaches out to Spirit in Action is part of building that peace in the world.

Businesses Earning, Girls Learning…

We have some exciting updates to share with you about Spirit in Action’s ongoing programs!

First, positive reports from the business leaders in Nawangisa Village, Uganda, sharing about their new enterprises started this year:

Ms. Tabisa Jese; Mat Making – “The demand has been higher than what we could supply! Now, I can provide better food for my family.”

Making and selling baskets in Uganda

Beautiful baskets in Uganda

Ms. Nankwanga Joy; Basket Making – “We have all participated effectively,” Joy says about the family business. A total of 8 people have benefited directly from the business and they have been able to repair their home with profits!

Ms. Magida Moses; Bricks Making – “We earned $50 in profit. Now we can take the children back to school.”

What amazing testaments to the power of a small enterprise to improve lives in a rural village in Uganda! Photos are in the mail from Uganda now and I’ll post them on the website and our Facebook page when I get them!

Girls Learning

Tanya with Girls at CIFORD

Tanya meets with girls who have graduated from the CIFORD workshops. July 2011

A generous grant to Spirit in Action from the Charles Wentz Carter Foundation will go to assist CIFORD Kenya conduct more Girls Empowerment Workshops! We are so grateful for their support, which helps SIA serve this community organization in Kenya.

The Foundation said they were really impressed with the report last spring and so they are pleased to continue support of this great organization! A workshop for 150 girls is planned for this month. [Read more about CIFORD’s programs in our Spring newsletter.]

Upon hearing the good news, one of SIA’s Advisory Board Members shared her enthusiasm for CIFORD’s community work: “We are thrilled about the CIFORD project. Seeing that girls have the opportunity for an education in East Africa is especially dear to our hearts. To keep girls in school gives them a world of choices unavailable to those who aren’t able to attend. The project reports are so inspiring.”


Searching around for the perfect gift? How about honoring your friend or family member with a gift to SIA? It’s a gift that – through our Sharing the Gift initiative – keeps giving and giving… 

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