There must have been some kind of special “karma” in the air last weekend. I had an urge to listen to a record album (yes, the kind that are played on a turntable) from the 60’s by a group called Ten Years After, and featuring a song entitled, “I’d Love to Change the World.” After listening to both sides of the 33 1/3 RPM, I realized that both the song and the group hold special meaning this week: today, October 1, I have worked with Winds of Peace Foundation for ten years. And naturally I have honed a deep yearning to change the world!
Ten years ago I left my role as corporate CEO with no plan about what I would do for my “next chapter.” I had two kids in college and two more headed that way, a nice home with its accompanying mortgage, a desire to distance myself from the obligations of corporate demands (both personal and philosophical), and a need to search for meaningful work that was closer to my passions and compassions. Firmly believing in the shelf-life of a CEO, I chose an early retirement on September 30, an option some companies afford to folks who are not old enough for Social Security but who are old enough to recognize when it’s time for a change. I had no plan or prospect in mind.
I became involved actively with Winds of Peace the following day. Having served on its Board of Directors since its inception in 1980, I was familiar with its mission and history. And with one of its founders, Harold Nielsen, in the hospital with pneumonia at age 90, I might have been the most logical and available person to step in on a temporary basis. But within a week, I recognized the work as something I wanted for my “next chapter.” By the time I could visit Harold personally later in that week, he apparently had come to the same conclusion. He offered me the opportunity. I jumped at the chance and have never looked back for even a moment.
There have been many affirmations about that decision. The first was that I continued to work with founder Harold and Louise Nielsen, two of the most genuine and selfless people I have ever known. (Harold was the wise and entrepreneurial founder of Foldcraft Co., my firm of some 31 years. Louise was his wife and co-conspirator, as Harold would say.) The second immediate affirmation was in the person of Mark Lester, the Foundation’s “feet on the ground” in Nicaragua, a most exceptional man, a student of and advocate for development in the country, and one whom I had met years earlier during my first visit there. The third affirmation emerged a bit later, during my ensuing visits to Nicaragua when I was able to meet face-to-face with the potential and actual beneficiaries of the Foundation’s work. This was where the true richness of the work has been experienced, where the longing to serve meets the hunger and thirst of people who are living their very lives on the edge of collapse, continuously. These and other affirmations are endless and continue to this day.
Ten years is a long enough period to measure any organization´s impact and progress. Over the past ten years alone, WPF has issued grants totaling over $2MM, loans totaling $7.6MM and maintained a loan default rate of just over 2%. It has partnered on more than 300 agreements representing thousands of families. It has underwritten scores of organizational and technology workshops as its focus has become focused on a territorial strategy. The Foundation has added primary, secondary and university education as additional focal points for funding and development. We have accompanied. We have researched and written. We’ve been busy.
The past ten years have brought about change in the lives of our partners, as well. Access to capital in some of the most rural settings of Nicaragua has been a critically important element of life for those served by WPF. For some, it may have meant survival. The accompaniment in organizational development by our colleagues has illuminated some dark places where myth, falsehood, forgery and undereducation have festered for generations, rarely permitting the light of opportunity to foster growth. Women’s voices have been heard. Students bloomed. People wept. And smiled.
Well and good; the actions behind these measures what WPF has been called to do. But there have been personal impacts, as well. The past ten years have also rather dramatically changed the way I personally experience the world and its complexities. I have come to understand how incredibly difficult it can be to “give away” resources. Not the physical distribution of them, but the ways in which such work must be done to achieve meaning and impact; the presence of large amounts of funding does not guarantee success in the move away from poverty and marginalization. Sometimes it even contributes to the problems.
I have experienced the importance of accompaniment. I am still surprised and moved by the importance of our accompaniment with partners. There is a feeling of strength on the part of rural peasants knowing that they are not entirely alone, that someone else knows of their existence and plight.
I now know the face of the poor. I have established relationships, friendships, partnerships with individuals, real people with real families and real problems. These are not statistics or photographs, but real human beings for whom my empathy and concern runs as deep as for any member of my community, my neighborhood, or other niches of my life. That has changed me, as it would you. I now personally understand why Harold and Louise Nielsen were so easily moved to tears when talking about this Foundation’s work.
In ten years’ time, Harold and Louise have both passed away. Our focus has both broadened (with the addition of education and research) and narrowed (with the emphasis on a specific territory). Our processes have sharpened, with the involvement of our three Nicaraguan consultants and their personal commitments to WPF work, and our own experiences in nurturing healthy organizations. The presidency of Nicaragua has changed, the country’s relationships within the international community are different and so is the landscape within which development must conduct its efforts.
But the poverty remains. The Nicaraguan poor are as omnipresent as ever, perhaps not in every statistical metric, but certainly according to any reasonable measure of basic human needs. And therein lies our work agenda for the next ten years, which I’ll envision in Part II of this message, next week….