Planters and Harvesters

I think most people would be surprised to learn the difficulty involved in being a funder.  Most often, when folks learn that I work for a private foundation which provides grants and loans in Nicaragua to really poor people, they respond with something like, “Oh, what wonderful and rewarding work that must be.”  And while it’s true that there is great intrinsic satisfaction in working with our Nicaraguan partners, there are other layers in our labors that one might never anticipate.  It turns out that, like in most enterprises,  it’s not all that easy to envision, plant, nurture and harvest the precise outcome desired.

That reality was impressed upon me again recently in a conversation I had with an acquaintance about measuring end results.  That’s something which most aid organizations are prone to do, because without some sort of results to tout, raising funds from potential donors or justifying actions to a Board of Directors becomes quite difficult. The easiest measurement to take, of course,  is the number of dollars placed during a given year, under the assumption that if an organization is placing lots of money it must be creating lots of impact.  (Which is not always the case.)  During my conversation, a number of additional measures were cited, including number of households served, geographic area covered, number of women included and loan default rates.  We all search for some way to affirm that funds and energy expended have been put to good use and yielded a good result.  We want to look forward to a “harvest” of the good intentions and capital that we have sown.

Understandably, there are many aid organizations for whom the harvest is the main objective and without a reasonably short and certain “growing season,” they won’t make the investment. Harvesters are numerous and they are essential to vibrant development and organizational accountability.  They represent significant funding sources.

But one of the realities of development work learned by WPF over these past several decades is that sometimes germination just takes longer than we’d like, and there is no certainty of anything growing out of a particular investment made.  Risk is without guarantee, and especially when swimming upstream against currents of rural location, prevailing culture, limited education, autocratic governance models and natural disasters.   So occasionally, the exceptionally poor require the presence of “planters,” those who are willing to sow in marginal soil, where possibly the only measurement is whether anything can bloom- not in micro-loans returned or number of houses built, but in whether there are grounds for further accompaniment and relationship.

Planters bring an entrepreneurial appetite for exploration and risk.  They are willing to “get proximate” enough to make a bet on the lives of deeply marginalized people. They not only lend and grant, but also accompany.  Measures are not unimportant, to be sure, but they are less sure. And for planters, that’s OK.  Because eventually planters hope to be harvesters, too.  They just may be willing to wait longer to be so.

Working on development in the rural sectors of any country is not an exact science.  WPF has developed its perspectives and methodologies over thirty years of on-the-ground observation and partnerships.  There is no existing formula for certain success.  If it was formulaic work, more institutions would be doing it, with assurances of success and favorable measurements to share with the donor base.  It isn’t that easy.

We are all members of the development universe in some capacity, whether we acknowledge it or not.  As members of a common humanity, we do have an obligation to one another.  Our actions, whether small or large, create an impact, good or bad.  Harvesters are willing to travel where the path is rocky, but straight, so that they have reasonable expectations of repeating their success.  Planters bring visions and seeds to scatter, in the recognition that neither the path nor the final fruits are necessarily clear; they are less sure of their own viability in the process.  But we need planters and harvesters and every other resource we can muster in order to blunt the disgrace and indignity of deep impoverishment. …






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