Tag Archives: Cooperatives

Ten Years After, Part 2

There’s no question but that the modest beginning undertaken by Harold and Louise Nielsen has evolved into something broader and deeper than a funding mechanism for poor Nicaraguan peasants.  Yes, the grants and loans have been exceedingly important to those rural recipients who received them.  But the lessons embedded in those transactions and the fruits which have blossomed from them may hold a much greater value than the strictly financial one.  The impacts can be transformational, and that has the potential to change not only lives, but ways of life.

Looking forward to the next ten years has both precedence and importance.  Years ago, Harold and Louise envisioned a foundation that would somehow help to alleviate poverty and marginalization of rural Nicaraguans.  WPF has likely evolved in ways far different from that initial vision, but the shape of that initial dream has been the base upon which any good results stand.  Nonetheless, it can be dangerous to attempt prognostications.  (I cannot even make a fair prediction about my day tomorrow, let alone a look into the future of a people and their country.)  No one can ever say for certain what the future will hold, whether in terms of natural evolution or human interventions.  But not to dream is a missed opportunity, a failure to imagine better circumstances for the rural poor in Nicaragua and perhaps elsewhere.

What lies ahead?  Our dreams and discussions continue  around the idea of a Synergy Center in Nicaragua, a site in Managua which is the intersection among WPF, Nicaraguan development and an education entity from the U.S.  The Synergy Center concept presents a progressive opportunity for a U.S.-based education institution to become the owner and administrator of a facility that can utilize data and experiences for the real-life learning of its students, as well as for other international visitors seeking to understand and bridge the immense gaps between the Global North and South, for mutual global benefit.  It’s a notion that is bold in light of the frequent tendency of education entities to “pull back” in times of global and economic unrest, the very times when this very sort of personal education presents perhaps the only realistic means of addressing such gaps.  It’s a big initiative for a little foundation, but that is not likely to have stopped Harold and Louise.

The creation of the Synergy Center would represent  a significant boost to education development within Nicaragua, as well.  While the Foundation has funded scholarships for elementary to university-aged students, we will continue to seek additional bridges between opportunity and learning.  The path for rural Nicaraguans to move from poverty is located squarely within education.  The Foundation’s commitment to growing such opportunities was born of Louise Nielsen’s determination that young women, in particular, could become key resources to Nicaraguan society through their education; our continuation will be based on objective data that confirms the essential nature of improved education opportunities at all levels of society.  The Synergy Center can serve as one education “pivot” between Global North and South, an intersection of research and education between the regions.

Concurrent with the establishment of the Synergy Center, the Foundation dreams of collaborations which could bridge the gaps that exist among the various funding agencies which still operate in Nicaragua.  We are all still victims of our own thinking in terms of what Nicaraguans can accomplish and how they will accomplish it.  As a result, there are many development resources which operate in total independence from one another, and sometimes even at cross-purposes.  As is true for any organization, there is greater strength in numbers and collaboration, a truth which still represents a major hurdle for those of us who operate in Nicaragua.  In a curious conundrum, it’s another potential value of a Synergy Center, but only if WPF and other organizations would be willing to abandon a “not invented here” mindset and choose to collaborate and learn with one another.

My own background includes experiences with some of the most important tools for transforming organizations into higher-performing enterprises.  Cultivation of organizational transparency (Open Book Management) in the cooperative’s function and adoption of methodologies which cultivate continuing improvement (Lean Methodologies) are two concepts that will generate transcendent, positive change in both the businesses and the lives of their practitioners.  It’s a movement whose seeds have been planted, and whose harvest needn’t wait for ten more years.  And I can readily imagine rural Nicaraguan cooperatives embracing and applying the tools for themselves as a means to retain the ownership and value of the lands they tend.

Finally, the future must hold one additional achievement, this one perhaps more essential, more transformative, more vital to development of the rural poor (and therefore to the success of WPF) than any of the others.  It’s the awakening of the global conscience to the circumstances of the poor and the terrible costs that we all pay for their plight.  Even if we collectively have no empathy for those who struggle (a terrible supposition by itself), we are inextricably tied to their outcomes.  It’s a sobering prospect to consider.  Those who know and feel it have an exclusive obligation to educate, to touch, to move others who have had no personal connection to draw upon.  That work, too, will continue to be mission and vision of WPF.

The next ten years will pass by like the flash of lightning in a summer storm.  We know this, given the passage of the past ten years.  It is a short term in which to create truly transformative movement in any environment, even shorter when working abroad.  Our aim will continue to be improvement in Nicaraguan and North American lives, by helping people in both lands become more globally literate.

These are visions for WPF, not roadmaps.  Our fuel for change continues to be made up of capital and accompaniment.  But  we will also continue to remind ourselves that better circumstances do not imply greater monetary wealth only.   Indeed, as the adage goes, some people are so poor that all they have is money, and we know that we can aim higher than that….

 

Loans, Leadership and Legacies

We received a project proposal a few days ago, this one from one of our longer-standing partners.  It’s a cooperative that we have admired for its vision, its holistic approach to the well-being of its members and the progressive leadership of its president.  They plan and act in ways that strengthen their cooperative as well as the communities in which their members are located.  In addition to being a reliable loan partner, the have served as a model, of sorts, to less developed coops who wonder what a strong cooperative really looks like.  We hold a great deal of respect for what they have accomplished, against long odds, and for what they aspire to do in the future: yes, they plan strategically.

When I read the project proposal, I once again noted all of the strengths which drew us to them initially.  But I also noted the frequency with which the charismatic president of the coop was mentioned: in addition to the entire introductory section of the proposal being essentially about him, he was also referenced five other times as an initiator of something good in the cooperative.  Clearly, his humility notwithstanding, he is an important guy within the context of the coop.

His prominence in the proposal gives me pause, however.  As essential and visionary as he has been to the success of this group, I wonder about the longer-term effectiveness of his contributions.  Without question, he is one of the broadest-thinking leaders I’ve had the pleasure to come across in my travels within Nicaragua.  Without doubt, he has carried the progress of the coop on his diminutive shoulders.  But without succession, whenever he ceases to lead, all of his organizational ingenuity is likely to become little more than an aftermath, as opposed to a true legacy.

Despite all of the good things going on here, I’m particularly concerned for the future of this coop.  Ironically, the very strength of the coop- its leader- also may be its biggest liability.  The members’ reliance on their president creates a dependency that will be difficult to manage once their leader is gone.  It’s one of the most noticeable challenges encountered in organizational development: balancing the high impacts of a great leader with the need to institutionalize the good things he/she has brought about.  As the adage goes, not all of one’s eggs should be in but one basket.

As it’s difficult to argue with success, a leader’s recognition of the need to develop the next generation of capable and caring leadership is often subjugated in importance.  The successful leader becomes so engrossed in creating new and successful ideas that there is little time for cultivating the same skills in others.  Sometimes the lack of development stems from a “messiah complex,” an ego in the leader which is convinced that there is no one else capable of governing as well.  Sometimes it’s purely a perception of too little time.  It might be a fear of creating capabilities in others which may eclipse those of the current leader.  Or it may be a lack of certainty about how to develop those characteristics in another, a view that prospective successors either “have got it” or they don’t.  Whatever the reason, effective succession is the most frequent cause of once-strong entities becoming weak.  It’s as true in Nicaragua as it is in the United States. All the greatness of a transformational leader becomes but an historical footnote if he/she has not prioritized succession as the most important piece of his/her legacy.  It’s the difference between giving a fish versus teaching to fish.

The good news here is that this leader, among his other strengths, indicates that he sees the critical need for this development in his organization.  He has asked for help in addressing how to create future, holistic visionaries from a population limited in education and leadership experience.  (This is not hard for him to imagine, as he is limited in his own ability to read or write.)  He has begun to avail himself of tools that can develop such succession thinking, in the form of Open Book Management techniques and Lean Process Improvement methodologies.  He acknowledges both the organizational importance and potential detriment of his role as a high-impact leader of the organization.  These are crucial first steps in a very difficult balance in protecting both the current and future states of the coop, which already exists in a context of significant and sudden changes, whether natural or man-made.

For Winds of Peace, making a loan to an organization which presents reasonable capacity for repayment is relatively simple.  A group that is blessed with strong and visionary leadership is more difficult to find.  But an organization that recognizes the essential need for excellent next-generation leadership is the difference between a cooperative of the moment and a transformational legacy for the future….

 

 

The Point of the Trip

In The Parable of the Sadhu, a real-life story by former Wall Street

Bowie McCoy
Bowie McCoy

investment banker Bowie McCoy, we learn what it means to focus on “the point of the trip.”  McCoy and a friend take advantage of a six-month sabbatical offered by his company and they travel to Nepal and the Himalayas, there to rediscover and energize themselves, and maybe to sharpen the sense of meaning in their lives.  Climbing the treacherous peak requires strength, persistence and a constant eye on the weather, which provides for only brief opportunities to actually reach the summit.

While on their ascent, a New Zealand climber shows up at their camp with the nearly frozen body of a Sadhu, a religious mystic, and leaves the man with the Americans to rejoin his own party.  Short on time and weather opportunity themselves, McCoy and his companion decide that the suffering mystic should be taken down the mountain to a Japanese camp, where perhaps someone there might better minister to the Sadhu’s needs.

McCoy’s companion volunteers to help the Sadhu and does not meet up with McCoy again until the following day.  Distraught, he relates the seeming indifference of the Japanese climbers to the plight of the Sadhu.  They, too, are focused on the brief window of opportunity which the weather provides to climbers.  The companion relates how he has left the slightly-revived Sadhu at the Japanese camp, uncertain as to their intentions toward this inconvenient intruder.

McCoy and his companion press on successfully to the summit and down again, but never discover the fate of the Sadhu who had come so briefly and awkwardly into their lives.  And it is only then that McCoy, a church elder himself, comes to realize the missed opportunity of his search for renewal.  So focused on the climb and the summit, he misses the noblest and most important chance of all, that of saving the life of another human being.  McCoy has spent his days since that trip in “public confession” and teaching ethics to those who will stop long enough to listen.

I continue to reflect upon the activities and the lessons of the recent Certificate Program for cooperatives in Nicaragua, though several weeks have now elapsed since the event.  While I participated as one of the “teachers,” my greatest take-aways were from the perspective of being one of the “students.”  The faculty and the participants assembled by organizer Rene Mendoza were so good that absorption and reflection were inevitably created in every participant, even if he/she did not actively seek such personal impacts.

One of the more dramatic lessons took place mid-week, at a point when the group likely needed a break from the seminar format and would be most open to learning of a different sort.  Our assignment was simply this: report to the learning center at 6:00 A.M. to commence the hike to the top of Peñas Blancas.  Guides would lead the way for us, and we were all encouraged to make the hike all the way to the top.  We were assured that the climb would be worth the effort, that the view was spectacular and the richness of the forest would reward even the most casual observers.

Peñas Blancas
Peñas Blancas

Surveying the group before departure, I began to wonder whether such admonitions were entirely appropriate for some of the participants.  We ranged in age from approximately 18 years of age to perhaps mid-70’s.  Some women were attired in skirts.  Others wore open-toed shoes.  Beyond that, while I knew that I would be hiking among people who made their livings through hard physical work and who regularly traversed difficult terrains, I also knew that hiking up the side of a mountain required an entirely different set of physical strengths.  I wondered whether the climb was really well-advised for every member.

We set off on the journey full of enthusiasm, high spirits and anticipation.  Our first half-hour presented only a gentle slope as we followed a rough road to the base of the cliff.  We stopped to admire and climb a truly “big rock”

The Big Rock
The Big Rock

in the backyard of one of the cooperative leaders before continuing on; energy conservation had not yet become a consideration.  Conversations flowed easily among us.  One participant even approached me to try out some of her English as we walked.

Some forty-five minutes into our adventure, we reached the base of the cliff and the origin of the narrow hiking trail upwards.  The tightness of the path dictated a single-file line, IMG_5043though it didn’t seem to limit the ongoing give-and-take of the hikers.  If anything, the laughter and the noise we created seemed to grow in their intensity as we ascended.  Now-steep elevations in the trail began to test our resilience and leg strength.  The trail became more slippery, a combined outcome from the previous night’s rain and the footfalls of some fifty hikers.  Periodic stops along the way signaled the growing fatigue of some, but in every case the cluster of people around them patiently waited for recovery while offering swigs of water from bottles carried by others.

And at each moment, words of encouragement and support were poured out upon each other.  The most savvy and stable of the forest hikers, without request or prompt, assumed personal responsibility for those in greatest need.  Even for me: more than once, as the muddy trail slipped out from under me, Edmundo or Lester were there at my side to offer a hand.  (I suppose they needed to watch out for the gringo.)  But I remember thinking to myself how good and supportive that felt, even in the face of my prideful determination to navigate independently.  The spirit was the same throughout: the group had become determined to ascend to the top as a group, with no one left behind.

The long line of marchers eventually separated a bit into faster and slower groups, though continually within earshot of one another.  I had chosen to move ahead with the faster bunch, eager to reach the pinnacle and take in the views.  My own energy remained good and I was particularly grateful to be wearing my trail boots on this occasion, convinced that they were giving me an advantage over the terrain that most of the others did not have.  At the precise moment of that reflection, I noted the shoes of others nearby and was amazed to see one tiny lady of our group sporting flip-flops for the climb.  I felt sheepish about my footwear despite- or maybe because of- their utility.

Four hours into the adventure, the first cluster reached the small clearing at the summit.  We became rather subdued in that moment, a reverential peace and quiet descending upon us in the face of a panorama that literally took our collective breaths away.  There is something about mountaintops that perhaps suggests closeness to heaven; we all might have been feeling that.  IMG_5053

They All Arrived
They All Arrived

And then the others arrived at the peak, in twos and threes from the forest trail, tired from the journey but equally transfixed at the valley sights far below.  But of equal importance was the greeting that each successive cluster received as they joined the rest of us.  Cheers and congratulations and laughter resounded from that peak, joy that we had all achieved the summit, that even the oldest and most unconditioned and reticent of us had persevered together.  There was water and snack crackers for everyone, the largesse of several members who simply chose to share.

Watching the entire collection of unlikely teammates, I eventually began to discern the point of the trip, the lesson of the day.  This demanding hike, though not of the intensity or scope of Bowie McCoy’s, offered a renewal.  It had not been about physical condition or our universal longings for achievement or even recognition of our need for a collective stewardship of a beautiful planet.  The exercise revealed something far more crucial for those inclined to see something deeper in the sweat and the mud.  The lesson was revealed in the gathering of all hikers at that clearing on the top, the fact that a very disparate and unlikely consortium of human beings collaborated, persevered, helped one another and triumphed, that we each had been presented with an opportunity to serve another.  Every participant brought an energy and a contribution to the Peñas Blancas effort, even an outsider who did not even speak the same language as the rest.

Our wealth is in each other.  Our achievements and treasures, if won in the solitude of self, hold no import without context. And there is no context in our lives but for the lives of others.  That was our lesson of renewal.

The point of the trip.  It’s an easy thing to miss, even when it’s staring us in the face.  It’s an ancient truth, but one easily forgotten in our competitive, self-driven lives.  The lesson was well worth the climb….

The Point of the Trip
The Point of the Trip

 

 

Dear Jack

 

Jack Stack, Author of The Great Game of Business
Jack Stack, Author of The Great Game of Business

Dear Jack:

It’s been a long time now since you authored the book, The Great Game of Business, back in 1992.  I remember reading it entirely in one afternoon, I was so excited about what it described!  You folks at SRC were actively doing what we at my company had only dreamed about: creating a business of owners.  Your impact on our company made a tremendous difference in the worklives and outside lives of lots of people.  And I’m writing now to tell you that I’m seeing the possibilities once again.  This time, it’s in the rural communities of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua.

If I was excited to come across your book in ’92, then I felt positively ecstatic a few years ago to discover that it had been translated into Spanish.  We immediately acquired copies and began the advocacy for open books as a means to cultivate long-term, sustainable development.  We shared the idea with established coops, with development agencies, a national association of cooperatives and anyone else who would listen.

But the reaction tended to be the same as that which you originally experienced when first sharing the notion with companies here in the U.S.: leaders saw it as a threat, managers could not accept the possibility of broad-thinking peasants, and in our case, there may have even been some nationalism at work as Nicaraguans may have doubted the applicability of a North American business invention.  So we simply continued to reference the concept with groups as we interacted with them, we continued to tell the story of the transformational potential of open books, and hoped that the seeds which were planted might take root.

Then, last month, I think we may have achieved a breakthrough of sorts.  Winds of Peace Foundation provided the major underwriting of a “certificate program” for cooperatives.  The participants were mostly rural producers and members of cooperatives, with some development people, as well.  Some of them had heard us talk about open books previously, but only in a generic way.  This time, they were exposed to more detail and actually performed some exercises to illustrate the process.  By going slowly and with care, many of them seemed to warm to the belief that they could and should “know their numbers” and the processes behind them.  (Their excursion into open books has even been written up by researcher and certificate program developer Rene Mendoza, in the magazine, “Confidencial.”)

I wonder if you knew back in 1992 that the idea of open books contained as much transformational power as it has proven to hold.  You wrote about empowering people and changing their lives at work through open books, you wrote about companies harnessing resources that were previously dormant, you even wrote about the intrinsic impacts that this kind of participation engenders.  But could you have foreseen entire cultural shifts that could result?  Did you contemplate what it might mean in changing the dynamics between the “gatekeepers” of knowledge and the producers who often naively relied upon them?  Having the book translated into other languages constituted a step of faith in that direction, but did you actually anticipate that rural cooperative members- often uneducated and inexperienced- could take control of their organizations that had long been under the influence of other voices?

In Nicaragua, some of our partners are beginning to rethink the cultural norm of autonomous leadership that has existed for generations.  They have begun to experience a confidence in both their need and ability to know the critical equations of their businesses.  I know that you might identify with the feelings I had when visiting one cooperative, exploring with them the reasons for their success when so many of their neighbors were struggling.  The reasons were many, but when they reported having read your book (which we had earlier placed with them) and having implemented some of its lessons, I knew that the magic of the game was as real in Nicaragua as it has been in the U.S.  More importantly, they did, too. If you really did anticipate the universality of open books, then you are, indeed, prescient.

As with any methodology that shakes up the status quo of authority, knowledge and position, this process will take time, repetition and success in order for it to take hold as a new way of life.  You have preached that reality continually from your own experiences.  Winds of Peace will need to stand with the early adopters of open books and provide the necessary resources for continued training and access to experienced voices.  But if the commitment is there, we will be, too.

I can only hope that the cooperatives who show interest in embracing open book management can create the kind of network among themselves that you were able to create with open book organizations in the U.S.  That opportunity for organizations to come together and share their experiences, their difficulties and their solutions have really helped to expand the open book reality.  Those networks have made it easier to deal with problems and false starts before they become too big to handle.  Being available to one another is not only a help to those who are struggling, but also to those who are succeeding, still wanting to achieve more.

So thanks again.  Your idea worked for my former company over the years and now stands the chance to work transformations once again, this time in a more difficult context.  But great ideas have a way of surviving even the most challenging circumstances, and my belief is that one of your many future site visits just might include a stop in Central America, to see the Nicaraguan version of Le Gran Juego de los Negocios…. 

Best Regards,

Steve

Steve Sheppard
Steve Sheppard

 

 

 

 

 

Against the Current

The salmon are one of our best teachers.  We watch the salmon as smolts going to the ocean and observe them returning home. We see the many obstacles that they have to overcome. We see them fulfill the circle of life, just as we must do. And if the salmon aren’t here, the circle becomes broken and we all suffer.
-Leroy Seth, Nez Perce Tribe

It’s a truth for many creatures of this earth that progress and success must be forged in the face of great currents.  As with the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, and the Native American peoples who relied upon them, their histories define the very idea of struggling against the tides.  And like their distant North American cousins, rural Nicaraguans have found themselves fighting against undercurrents from both within and outside of the country for generations.  Like the salmon, Nicaraguans have experienced swimming upstream as a way of life.  But unlike the salmon, Nicaraguans clearly see the possibilities in navigating a different way.

So when the plan was created late last year to have Winds of Peace Foundation underwrite a cooperative certificate program in Nicaragua, we readily endorsed the idea.  The notion of developing an holistic, best practices curriculum for rural producers engendered immediate enthusiasm because -maybe for the first time- a peasant cooperative population was being offered a menu of topics befitting any progressive North American business enterprise.  In addition, this program would consume an entire week of the participants’ lives, a block of time that by definition signaled a serious commitment to learning.  That willingness, along with the logistical reality of dormitory-style living quarters, suggested that the attendees felt the urgency and importance in making an offering such as this a seminal event.

Not least of importance, the developers of the program were proven leaders in their knowledge of both the materials and the

Rene Mendoza
Rene Mendoza

participants.  Dr. Rene Mendoza is a Nicaraguan researcher, teacher and writer, a co-founder and former director of the University of Central America’s well-known NITLAPAN research and development institute.  For the past  several years he has visited and counseled with scores of rural cooperatives in exploring their viability and sustainability in the face of global and national economic change.   He continues to present much of his research in the form of articles posted to this website.

Edgar Fernandez is a broadly-experienced rural development practitioner, a frequent collaborator with Mendoza and also a co-founder of NITLAPAN.

Edgar Fernandez (with Abemelet Rodriguez)
Edgar Fernandez (with Abemelet Rodriguez)

An exceptional analyst of organizational strength and weakness, Fernandez readily connects  with and engenders confidence in rural Nicaraguan producers.

Ligia Guitierrez is a psychologist and “firebrand” for helping rural populations-

Ligia Guitierrez (At right)
Ligia Guitierrez (At right)

especially Indigenous communities- to recognize their cultural heritage and powers of influence and self-destiny. In the face of growing economic disparity and marginalization of large sectors of the population, her lessons of personal integrity and self-esteem resonate with those who fear losing hope.

But participant readiness and facilitator expertise are only parts of a successful learning equation.  The other essential ingredient is a content that is both worthy of the interest and useful in its application.  Here, the magic of a week’s investment was evident from the earliest iterations of the agenda.

The modules of the week’s activities might have been copied from an advanced leadership training  prospectus:  Day 1- An important historical context for the current state of cooperatives;  Day 2- Organizational innovations (including open book management and Lean process improvement) from a North American employee-owned company; Day 3- Gender and the loss of relationships and resources; Day 4- Climate change impacts, current and future; Day 5- Spirituality in work; Day 6- Individual and organizational health.  (I may have more to say about any or each of these in future essays, but for now it is sufficient to recognize the scope of the program.)

In between the content-rich plenary dialogues, breakout discussions and creation of action plans, the days offered important opportunities for relaxing the difficult work of introspection and self-analysis.  There were songs sung, dance and music IMG_2535performances by participants and visitors, and an awe-inspiring hike to the topmost reaches of Peñas Blancas.  We tossed a ball to introduce ourselves to each other, threw wadded up paper at speakers and each other to stay positive in the face of the enormous challenges and laughed endlessly at one participant’s

Uriselda Lopez (Kept us laughing!)
Uriselda Lopez (Kept us laughing!)

uncanny ability to sound exactly like a crying child!  Indeed, all of the intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, occupational and physical aspects of our collective and individual wellness were fully in play during the entire week.  This was an exceptional educational event.

By addressing all of the components of the Nicaraguan cooperative circumstance, this program and its presenters managed to identify and contextualize Nicaraguan realities and prospects in an important and unique way.  For perhaps their first time, cooperative members were able to behold their organizations, their mutual responsibilities to one another, the economic elements which are truly beyond their control and those which are within their influence, the nature of transparent and collaborative work and the research that underscores all of that. The lessons were difficult.  The truths were uncomfortable.  The currents undoubtedly prompted some to consider turning around and swimming away.  But the integrated view of their cooperative lives and an inherent drive to surmount obstacles like “it’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “we can never understand” allowed transformations to take place over the week.

Time will reveal which of these possible innovators will succeed in fighting the stream of status quo and in what ways.  Maybe like the salmon, there exists sufficient and innate will to complete the journey to which their lives are called, to fulfill the most basic needs for work and sustenance and dignity.  In a very real sense, without that chance the circle of their lives becomes broken, and we all suffer….

The "Others"
The “Others”

Very Cooperative

Winds of Peace Foundation has committed a great deal of time and resources to the study and development of cooperatives in Nicaragua.  Over the past five years alone, WPF has supported more than thirty coops; underwritten the cost of a half-dozen cooperative workshops for rural participants; commissioned studies about their history, makeup, the effects of climate upon them, and the context of coffee; and now partially sponsored an entire cooperative certificate program to continue teaching and to provide a tangible marker of achievement.  We’ve even pitched the idea for the creation of a “Synergy Center,” whereby WPF might partner with  a North American university to share its wealth of experiences and findings and provide a destination for students and delegations wanting to know more about the realities of Central American neighbors.

We’ve had some amazing successes.  We’ve also experienced some unexpected and disappointing defaults.  We’ve come to know a lot about Nicaraguan coops and what makes them work.  Yet, at the same time, we’ve had one organization- not even a cooperative in structure- that models the cooperative methodologies and successes as well or better than almost any other partner.  Yes, I’ve had another visit with ANIDES.

ANIDES has been guiding women of the rural communities of Matagalpa in the creation of small community banks in recent years, creating financial literacy, sustainability, independence and savings accounts for its participants.  The impact upon the lives of its members is palpable, not only in terms of financial strengthening, but also in quality of life and family.  WPF has admired the motivations and results of this group for years.  And now, ANIDES is proud to be reporting that these small community banks are becoming formally-registered cooperatives, with ten of the current thirteen banks in the registration process.  The objective is to eventually form a union of cooperatives once all registrations are complete.

These coops offer strengthened opportunities for their members to establish outlets for their small enterprises: crafts, bread-baking, small services and other commercial ventures.  These entrepreneurial efforts have created the financial wherewithal to “feed” the community banking enterprise.  The resources generated by these small enterprises often are used to fund significant events, such as the addition of indoor plumbing to a home, a water softener for cleaner drinking and washing water, or education opportunities for members’ children,  a dream that might otherwise seem very out-of-reach for these same families.

The legal cooperative status confers some technical advantages for the  women members: they will have access to joint banking accounts, easier accessibility to those accounts, greater security for deposits, cooperative education to further their understanding of collaborative advantages, opportunities to learn from one another.  The plan is to conduct monthly meetings among the cooperative delegates to consistently share experiences, problems, concerns, financial lessons and to celebrate what has been and promises to be a continuing success story in the rural countryside of Matagalpa.

The real value of these fledgling cooperatives, however, may not be in the technical or legal characteristics that registration will confer.  The bigger impact just may be on the lives and attitudes of those who have been willing to risk moving out of their comfort zones and into positions of learning and financial responsibility. For most, it’s an act of faith.  (By comparison, imagine yourself voluntarily signing up for a quantum physics class as a forty-something year-old, when you barely understand arithmetic.)  But such is their determination for improving their families’ circumstances, to work in some form of solidarity.  It also underscores a deepening sense of self-respect: in discussing a request for possible funding,  they have specified for the first time in our work together that the funding be in the form of a loan, to be fully repaid.  (I truly wish I could convey the sense of pride on the faces of the women as they specified a loan.)

They are taught and they understand the basic finances of their banks.  They assume positions of leadership, likely for the first time in their lives.  They make decisions among themselves.  They establish and attend meetings of their banks, sometimes walking for miles to be present.  They create celebrations of their work and themselves.  In short, these women do the things that successful cooperatives-  successful organizations of any sort- must do in order to endure.

As WPF imagines new ways of bringing together organizations to model best practices and to learn from one another, ANIDES might very well need to be part of the mix, even though they aren’t growing coffee, beans, rice or raising cattle.  What they are raising is their quality of life, their knowledge and their self-esteem, and being very cooperative about it….

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Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

I will be leaving a corporate Board of Director’s seat in a few weeks, ending about 28 years of service with that group.  “That group” is Foldcraft Co., the firm for which I worked as an employee for more than 30 years, as well.  To have remained on the board for so long has been a privilege as well as a point of pride; that any organization would tolerate my presence and outlooks for so long defies realistic expectations.  But I have chosen to leave under my own terms and timing, which seems a fitting conclusion for so long a tenure.  The change that it will create is an essential one. And therein lies a lesson for most organizations, I think, including ones in Nicaragua.

The lesson has everything to do with succession, that final piece in a sometimes long term of service wherein the responsibilities and obligations, the voice and the stewardship for the organization is passed along to whoever follows.  It’s likely the most overlooked responsibility leaders deal with.   That’s not to suggest that leaders don’t think about and plan for succession at all, but that they simply don’t prepare for the eventuality nearly well enough.  That reality is why leadership succession represents one of the most vulnerable times in an organization’s entire life, and why organizational failures often occur within a short time after a succession has taken place.

I have often stated that perhaps the most important accomplishment I ever achieved during my employment at Foldcraft was turning over the leadership of the Company to the “right” successor.  I still believe that to be true.  But it also must be recognized that the effectiveness of that transition was years in the making, wherein senior authority and leadership became increasingly discussed, shared and strategized.  In fact, one could argue that preparation for that particular succession evolved over nearly fifteen years.  Successful succession in that instance was not an event, but rather a process of orientation, teaching, seasoning, making and learning from mistakes.  Organizations rarely have fifteen years to prepare for a shift in leadership, but they owe it to themselves to be constantly preparing for the inevitable change.

And when the planning and preparation have been well provided for, the change in boardroom or management or committee setting can be- in fact, should be- a blast of fresh air.  I hope and believe that my participation in recent Board meetings has not been stale or redundant.  (You’d have to ask the others about whether that’s true or not.)  But I also hope and believe that my successor will bring new chemistry to the process, challenging the way that conversations have evolved over the past 28 years, lending insights that I might never have had, and seeing the future of the organization through a new lens.

If, over the past years, I have brought any positive elements to the organization, I will trust that those characteristics will have impressed themselves on my colleagues and they will blend those singularities with the freshness of the newcomer.  It’s the best of evolution, and our organizations deserve that step up in their continuity.  No one is good forever, and even if they could be, there will come a time when the organization needs something else, something new.

One of the great disservices which befalls an organization is the perpetuation of same leadership.  Leaders are comprised of the sum total of their life experiences and lessons.  It’s the stuff from which they draw conclusions, make judgments and see the world.  But no one possesses perfect vision or all-encompassing experiences, and by definition that means any leader is bound to misinterpret or misread from time to time.  The capture of an alternative outlook sometimes can only be discovered through new insight born of different intelligence.  Hence, the necessity for superb succession.

Some have argued that the risk of succession is primarily because the new leader might not possess the same values and perspectives that allowed the organization to function well in the first place.  And that’s true, if the successor is relatively unknown to those who would make the appointment; any governing body’s primary obligation is to have a pretty intimate knowledge of its incoming leaders.  Where that knowledge exists, the value of new energies will far outweigh the risk of detrimental decisions.  (In any case, no leader should lead without checks and balances and the continuing governance structure should always provide a safety valve against an ill-advised direction.)

I’ll be spending time visiting cooperatives during the coming weeks and one of the essential qualities I hope to see is the provision for what happens when the leadership shift occurs.  First of all, will one occur?  And if so, under what process and preparedness?  It may not feel like a priority to anyone today, but I can guarantee that it will be, and sooner than most are prepared for.

Yesterday, I remember wondering about the future and what it might hold for my organization.  Today,  as I prepare to leave it, I recognize all the promise and challenge once imagined in the past. Tomorrow, I hope neither I nor the rest of the organization will regret any lack of preparedness for what is to come….

 

 

 

 

A School for Learning

In the first moments of the cooperative workshop held a couple of weeks ago, Rene Mendoza, the architect and facilitator of the session, asked the 40 or so attendees several questions: 1.) When you first heard of cooperatives, what did you think?  2.) What do you think now?  3.) What do you think a cooperative can be?

Each of the questions elicited a range of answers from the participants, but the one that struck me was one man’s response to the third inquiry, about what a coop could be.  On that point, he observed that the cooperative “ought to serve as a school for learning,” a place where members ought to be able to become better: better producers, better stewards of the land, better administrators, better colleagues with one another, better providers for their families and themselves.  The moment was a passing one, and the conversation immediately took a different turn.  But I made the note to myself that this fellow understood the essence of what could be.

The motivations of the attendees for being at the workshop covered the full spectrum.  They revealed it in their answers to the three questions.  Some were there because they had attended previous workshops funded by WPF over the past several years and they didn’t want to be absent for the latest installment.  Some were there because the venue was close to home and the opportunity to check in, have several meals with members of neighboring coops and hear the latest news was just too convenient to pass up.  Some attended because they thought there might be a chance to secure new funding from WPF; they said as much.  And then, there were those who came because they have begun to understand that the experiences and wisdom of other cooperatives contain a wealth of learning opportunities that are unavailable almost anywhere else.  All the reasons for attending were good ones and there are no judgments here about whether one person’s basis for coming was valid or not.  We all come to the table with very different histories and circumstances.

But if one of the intentions of the workshop was to create a long-lasting, sustained impact on the lives and the fortunes of rural cooperatives in Nicaragua, then the observation made by the guy quoted above deserves special attention.  For the idea behind that comment gets to the heart of lasting change in Nicaragua  or anywhere else, for that matter.  It is only when we allow ourselves to be in a full learning mode that we’re capable of real transformation, both organizationally and individually.  In this case, the comment was made from an holistic point of view, wherein change at the individual level would facilitate change at the organizational level, and the benefits of such changes would scatter through entire communities.  But first, every member of a cooperative would have to be willing to bring whatever knowledge he/she possessed, to share in building a true school for learning.  That’s what a cooperative does, cooperate to the advantage of the entire group.  Easy to understand, more difficult to perform, and particularly against the tide of a culture which has not functioned in such a way historically.

All of the folks in attendance were present for good reasons, whatever those might have been.  The good news is that they were there, taking the risk of leaving their comfort zones and exposing themselves to something new.  That takes courage and willingness to accept some risk.  But a further step to be taken is the one where each member of a cooperative can come to feel the trust and collegiality within their organization.  The pieces of the cooperative puzzle are embodied in each of its members and, like any puzzle, all the pieces are needed in order to complete the picture.  And when that faith among fellow coop members has been cultivated sufficiently, then in turn the coops as organizations are more likely to turn to one another to further contribute to the solving of the producer puzzle on a territorial basis.  Education may be partially dependent upon great teachers, but without willing learners, even the most compelling educator is rendered useless.

Many interesting visions about what a cooperative can be emerged in that discussion several weeks ago.  But the notion of “a school for learning” is the one that stays with me, and I hope with the other participants, as well….