Tag Archives: Development

The Closed Intersection

And you thought you had a tough commute!

Last month’s visit to Nicaragua was memorable for any number of reasons, not the least of which was an encounter we experienced on our way north for some meetings.  Near the community of Ciudad Dario, traffic started to slow down significantly.  Within a few miles it had crawled to a halt.  Protesters at a major intersection had taken over the highway some miles ahead in a well-planned protest of high bus fares.  They made their point by making everything stop.    Buses, trucks, cars, all stationary .  And there we sat, wedged in from behind and in front, traffic halted both north and southbound, a complete gridlock in the countryside.

The impassability of the highway turned out to be significant enough to make the news around the country, including the front page photograph of one of the daily newspapers, shown above.  The protesters were successful in making their unhappiness known, if not corrected.  They were upset over the increases in bus fares which they had recently experienced and were essentially demonstrating that if they were unable to travel by bus, no one else would travel, either.  I’ve thought about those protesters and their bottleneck and wondered about the both the genesis of their actions and whether it portends anything for the future at large.

I’m fairly certain that the reason for the rise in bus fares would be blamed on the cost of fuel, and that as fuel prices rise, bus fares must follow suit.  It’s the same formula the world over, but the bite taken out of the personal budgets of poor people is felt sooner and more deeply than for many of the rest of us.  Additionally, rural Nicaraguans have no practical alternatives to the overcrowded buses that comb the countrysides; they are truly hostage to both the circuitous routes and the fares charged.  When fuel prices rise in the United States, drivers grumble and pay the increase.  When fuel prices rise in  rural Nicaragua, the resulting fare increases change the ebb and flow of life dramatically, and very quickly.  Hence, the protests.

There was no point in cursing the jam and no real inconvenience to us.  The delay provided a welcome opportunity, in fact, to get out and stretch along the highway, a diversion which was actually appreciated.    In each direction, the highway was filled with vehicles for as far as one could see.  On several occasions during the wait, vehicles moved ahead, ever so slightly, causing all other drivers to scamper back into their vehicles in the expectation of an end to the gridlock.  But each time, the short movement proved to be nothing more than the wishful thinking of impatient drivers trying to fill every available space in the hopes of moving ahead.  (In one particularly “urgent” case, the sudden lurch forward interrupted one truck passenger whose need to relieve himself could wait no longer, but whose cover was suddenly “blown” when his driver unexpectedly lurched the truck forward .)

The traffic jam made for some interesting people-watching and it raised some curiosities.  Seeing the tremendous impact that this one relatively small protest was having upon the daily lives of many Nicaraguans got me to thinking about what kinds of scenarios might be playing out across the world in the months and years immediately ahead.  Of course, some scenarios are already unfolding, as in Greece and Spain.  The immediate situation here represented but one small portion of Nicaraguan society in the face of one or several fare hikes, but what will the consequences look like when the increases are even larger and more frequent?  What will the landscape look like when these impacts begin to be felt more deeply within the U.S. and other large economies?  Witnessing the extensive backup of vehicles on a Nicaraguan roadway is one thing; what does a similar effect bring to the major cities and the very rural locations elsewhere in the world?  Quite suddenly, the jam before me shrunk in its dimensions as I contemplated energy shortages and higher prices making themselves felt the world over.  Imagine no traffic in and around Los Angeles, for example.

Futurist Chris Martenson has managed to synchronize a great deal of this thinking in his work, Crash Course.  In it, he articulates with great clarity the looming intersections of overpopulation, increasing energy demands in a finite energy world, energy-dependent economies and the costs of degrading environments.  A scientist by training, Martenson offers his work not as a futuristic dreamer, but as one who has data at his disposal to support the vision of what these intersections will mean to all of us in the years immediately ahead.  The picture is not necessarily one of doom and gloom, but it is a vision of a very different existence for most of us.  And the lineup of vehicles on a rural stretch of highway in central Nicaragua is but a small and early manifestation of what we might well experience in the near-term.

On this day, some drivers lounged in the grass by the side of the road, surrendered to the reality that they were not going anywhere very soon.  I heard only a few frustrated blasts from car horns.  Passengers who were headed north climbed down from their buses and began walking to where the southbound buses were stopped; the southbound passengers did the same in reverse.  The strategy was to turn the respective buses around, exchange passengers and resume their journeys north and south.  I don’t know whether it worked, given the way the vehicles were tightly wedged together, but it seemed a good plan.  The shared dilemma created an almost festive atmosphere among the drivers and passengers stuck there along the road, giving credence to the adage that misery really does love company.  For us, the delay didn’t interfere with anything except our arrival at the hotel for the night, a slight inconvenience at worst.

But for many, the long halt in traffic flow created great inconvenience or worse.  In seeing the massive backup stretch for as far as I could see, I felt as though witnessing a preview of a world soon to come, an intersection of realities with the potential to bring much of the world to a halt, a blockage in the flow of economic, energy and environmental life that will demand extraordinary patience, a strong sense of community and an increased acknowledgement of those who possess far fewer resources than the rest of us.  For ultimately, none of us can ever be as well as we might as long as others around us are unwell; it’s the limitation of the weakest link.

Perhaps we all need to be halted in our tracks for long enough to look for that closed intersection and what it will do to our respective journeys….




Useless Things

Part of my recent travels to Nicaragua included participation in a workshop on cooperatives, the most recent in a series of workshops focused on the rural coops in the northern coffee region.  Winds of Peace has been sponsoring these workshops over the past two years, allowing tier one coops to meet and discuss issues with tier two groups, buyers, funders, technical assistance organizations and more.  These have proven to be unique opportunities for these groups to assemble for several days, discuss production and commercialization issues, to learn of each others’ concerns, and hopefully to create alliances among one another  that will strengthen all.  The sessions have proven to be enormously popular among the participants;  other, non-invited cooperatives have consistently inquired about the possibilities of their own participation.  Time will tell whether the organizational strengthening work that they are doing will create significant development, but the early indicators are positive.

Between Sessions with Freddy

In this most recent workshop, we heard presentations on topics of innovation, and primarily from the youth of the region.  In turn, each of the nine stood before the other sixty  participants and carefully described the business plan of an economic initiative of their creation.  The plans were articulated with detail, enthusiasm, and realistic expectations.  They ranged from a regimen of plastic bottle recycling to the raising of honey bees.  PowerPoint presentations brought the ideas to life as each innovator spoke to issues such as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to their plans.  Each had thought through the myths and misconceptions that might have prevented others in the past.  And the plans examined the initiative from a full range of perspectives, including intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual, occupational and physical dimensions.  I was impressed; frankly, I have read business plans in the U.S. that were not nearly as well-crafted and holistic as these.  I noted in particular the confidence exuded by each entrepreneur as he/she laid out the plan of attack.

Abraham Cruz

One idea caught my attention in a big way.  Abraham Cruz is an impressive, young family man who has been raised within the GARBO cooperative lands beneath the towering presence of Peñas Blancas.  His life and worldview in that beautiful natural environment have clearly shaped his thinking, as he presented an idea unique in my experience: he outlined the development of a “colibrario,” a preserve, or sanctuary, for hummingbirds.

Within the restricted confines of his own yard, Abraham decided to act upon his interest in these tiny creatures.  He began learning more about their habitat, the types of plants that attracted the various species- five found within Nicaragua- and commenced a regimen of planting and cultivating around his yard.  In fact, he spent a great share of every day developing this environment, sometimes to the derision and even unhappiness of others.  “Why do you plant flowers all day?” people would ask.  “Who cares about these hummingbirds, anyway?  This is lazy work.  You are interested in useless things.”  Conventional thinking regarded Abraham’s commitment to this small aviary a waste of time.   Fortunately, Abraham was far more attuned to his own inner voice than the noise surrounding him.  He persisted in cultivating his yard space to attract and nurture the proliferation of the tiny birds.  And the endeavor has worked.  As Abraham toured us through his densely-packed yard, he pointed out one dazzling aerial acrobat after another.  As we enjoyed the array, Abraham talked about the future plans he has in mind to attract even more birds, to invite more  of the native species into view, to document their habits and behaviors, and to introduce tourists to this amazing world of laser-like flight.  Abraham is nothing less than a self-made ornithologist.


For me, personally, hummingbirds occupy space in that niche of wildlife that commands a deep awe and attention.  Like giant pandas, penguins and porpoises, there is something intensely attractive about hummingbirds, a quality that captures our imagination and love for them.  We set out all kinds of devices to attract these kinetic creatures: sugared water cones and brightly flowered feeders and large flowering plants.  Maybe it’s due to their tiny size that we recognize their vulnerability and feel instinctive desires to feed and protect them.  Like newborn puppies, hummingbirds are nearly irresistible.  And in this visit, I was able to be as close to these creatures as I have ever been.   I had the opportunity to feel the communing experience that Abraham described in his earlier presentation, an up-close and personal connection with a part of nature which somehow fulfills us in ways we can’t always explain.     But that space is an essential one for each of us, whether we always recognize it or not, whether the world at-large sees it or not.

At the end of our two days in the workshop, as the youth from the various cooperatives prepared to set off on their varied project journeys,  I found myself hoping that they had found the time to visit with Abraham at his home and to experience the project that was already unfolding there.  I know that they heard his story about his hummingbird dream.  I know that they understood all too clearly the hurt that comes from derision of new ideas which don’t comport with conventional thought.  I even thought for a moment about offering the famous quote from Albert Einstein, when he said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”  But in the end I can only hope that they share the same resilience that Abraham has displayed in remaining true to his own muse and that they, too, continue in their pursuit of useless things….


I had the exceptionally good fortune to be traveling within Nicaragua a couple of weeks ago, visiting partners and new sites and learning all over again from them what it means to be resilient and of good spirits.  Those lessons are hallmarks of my visits over the years, and I find myself infused each time with new energies and resolve as a result.  It seems as though every conversation, every dilemma, each visit has the capacity to both drag me down and pick me up on the basis of the particular circumstances encountered.  One of those circumstances last week stood out in an immediate and compelling way, so I share it with you here.

One of the entities which we have funded over the years is NITLAPAN.  As an adjunct organization of the Central American University (UCA), they have conducted more research and exploration about  development in Nicaragua than anyone else.  It specializes in research on and creation of new local development models and methodologies.  It promotes concrete development initiatives by providing financial and non-financial services to small rural and urban businesses, especially those of women and young people. Their alter-ego, the Local Development Fund (LDF), has established branches throughout a large share of the country to service such needs and in the process has become a trusted source of support by rural Nicaraguans.  It’s an effective organization, one that’s having an impact across the country, and therefore one that we have felt good about supporting.

Recently, NITLAPAN undertook a project of technical support to a very remote community, Santa Maria de Wasaka.  Their project is one of accompaniment and teaching, providing the rural community members with basic gardening inputs and training so that the participants can create a more favorable position from which to feed themselves and their family members.  Since Winds of Peace had decided to help underwrite the costs of the project, it seemed like a logical destination during the week’s visit.

Now, when I mention that this visit took place during the tail-end of the rainy season in Nicaragua, you might imagine gentle, warm rainfall over the canopy of a tropical rain forest.  But often, the rainy season brings sudden deluge to the land.  And if the downpour occurs at the end of the season- when the land may already be saturated with previous rains- then the result can be catastrophic in scope.  Such were the conditions encountered as we drove the truck along the path to Wasaka.  A bridge over the river- questionable for automobile travel on its best days- was essentially wiped out.  The river itself rushed quickly, still swollen from a downpour several days past,  precluding any attempt at driving through it.  Walking the rest of the distance proved to be our only remaining option; we shouldered our packs and set out to hike the remaining mile and a half or so.

Buena Vista

A hike in the rural sector is often a valuable thing for me, a nice break from the hours of sitting that we do.  It provides a chance to experience the countryside up close, to linger over beautiful vistas and, all-too-often, to fully absorb the primitive conditions in which many rural residents find themselves.  It brings the circumstance of the rural countryside to life, for better or for worse, and creates a perspective that is difficult to come by in any other way.  The way to Wasaka required forty-five minutes of walking, observation and reflection.  The path wound up and down the hillsides, still wet and puddling from the recent rains, closed in on both sides with deep forest growth which provided privacy for most of the inhabitants residing there, a route beautiful and mysterious and vaguely unnerving from what lay hidden in the depths beyond its edges.

“I felt very sad this morning.”
Stirring the pot and people’s hopes.

Many of the project participants had gathered for an afternoon training session as we arrived.  They gathered around a large pot, boiling from the heat of an open fire.  Several women stirred the contents of the pot.  It reminded me of a community stew, and in a sense, that’s exactly what it was.  NITLAPAN technicians were teaching the secrets of an organic insecticide, one that could be reproduced at a fraction of the cost of chemical treatments and that would be far safer for both the gardener and the environment.  As intent as the participants were, they paused in their afternoon classroom to acknowledge and welcome us.  One after another of the members offered their salutations and explanations of the lessons being taught this day.  But they shared more than that, as well.  They reflected on the difficult events of the preceding three days.

We had entered a place of terribly mixed emotions.  Fears lingered in the aftermath of flash flooding from several days before.  Sadness shrouded the community from the loss of a small child, drowned in the fast-moving water which had engulfed much of the area.  Frustration arose from economic loss, as the sudden flooding destroyed many of the new gardens which had been the focus of their training and efforts.  Intensity was born of a need to learn faster, to improve know-how and production; it was on the face of every person we encountered.  As was hope and determination.  “I felt very sad this morning,” one woman confessed, “but then I met up with this man (the NITLAPAN technician) and he helped me feel hopeful again, he said that we could start over.”   “We thank God for the chance to learn and improve our gardens,” said another.  “My garden is completely washed away, but with the help of these men (NITLAPAN technicians) I will start again.”  “We hope this will not be your last visit here with us.  When you come again you will see something beautiful,” promised another.

Of course, we had already witnessed something beautiful there in the hills of Santa Maria de Wasaka.  Some might call it spirit.  Some might prefer the idea of resiliency, others characterize it as determination.  Whatever label is given to that community chemistry, it deserves our notice.  The people of Wasaka are not unique.  They are not some sort of idealized “noble poor,” seeking sympathy and admiration for their plight.  They are simply doing their best.  Everyman.  These are people trying their best to come to terms with circumstances that could render the strongest of us weak.  And yet they persevere, pick themselves up after a knockdown, look for the rising sun the day after a storm.  The people speaking with us were holding each other up, emotionally and attitudinally.  And in the process, they modeled for us the best that the human psyche can be: humble, loving, stewards of the earth, unwilling to give up, being strong in the face of great obstacles.   I recall wondering to myself whether anyone could say the same about me.

I  shed a tear on the drizzly walk back to the truck.  It was for me.  I was protected by the dark, hidden from the others as I contemplated myself both dragged down and picked up all in the course of a short afternoon….



The Castle Paradox

I’ve had this poster hanging in my office for perhaps the past 30 years or so.  I don’t even recall where it came from, but I was immediately taken with its message of holism and strength and living an integrated life, so I kept it as a reminder of how I thought I should try to build my own life.  Or, at the very least, to remind myself of how out of balance I can become and how easily the imbalances can happen.

The components of the castle construction are insightful and beg reflection, but it’s the heading of the graphic that poses The Castle Paradox: “A Dream Is A Goal Taken Seriously.”  It states in very economical terms an entire philosophy of personal and organizational development.  (Naturally, I am drawn to perceived truths that seem to make sense in my own life.)  And the idea here is essentially that any dream of mine- as nebulous and sometimes impractical as it may seem- might be nonetheless achievable if I will be resolved to wrestle with the enormity of my vision and conquer its small component parts, if I can harness the power of my very own spirit, if I will treat it as an objective or reality as opposed to a fiction.   After all, objectives are things that simply need to be done, while dreams too often occupy the realm of fantasy, well beyond my reach.  I like the idea of grappling with something tangible.

But the paradox is both  encouragingly simple and maddeningly problematic.  Our loftiest aspirations might well be within our reach but only if we can teach ourselves how to re-imagine their achievement.    Sometimes the path to succeeding is, indeed, by the “road less taken,” and that can be a path that is difficult to discern.

The Castle Paradox and the puzzlement that it brings to most of us in real life remind me of the lessons from one of my favorite books, The Paradoxes of Leadership, by Charles R. Edmunson.  Ostensibly written for leaders in employee-owned companies in the U.S., the book is a compendium of lessons that apply equally well to individuals simply trying to get along in life, and with others, as well as they can.  What makes them unique is the way they challenge the traditionally-held beliefs about our interactions, attaining success and the nature of organizational relationships; what they reflect is quite contrary to the views of the status quo:

* We have more influence when we listen than when we tell;
* Profound change comes from a feeling of safety, not from fear;
* We are stronger when we are vulnerable;
* Even when we are effective, we doubt ourselves;
* Our strength is our weakness;
* Less is more;
* Our strength comes through serving, not through dominating;
* We correct better through grace than through confrontation;
* We gain respect not by demanding it, but by giving it;
* We learn by talking, not just by listening;
* With people, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line;
* The hard stuff is the soft stuff;
* Sometimes we have to get it wrong to get it right;
* A full life is achieved not by grasping but by giving.

What Edmunson learned from his own leadership experiences was that a willingness to see things from a very different perspective often generated some very different answers to life’s issues.  The value in his observations lies not in whether one agrees with each of the statements as he wrote them, but that one would invest the time in considering them and discovering perhaps new meanings imbedded within them.   (Life itself is paradoxical in nature: in fact, Edmunson’s own greatest paradox was revealed through the writing of his book, at a time in his life when a neurological disease had robbed him of his ability to speak or even move.)  It seems as though our circumstances can sometimes create dramatically new solutions to the “castle walls” we seek to climb.

Much of what we think we know to be true is actually something less than that; there are few immutable truths to which we can cling for comfort.  Elements of tradition, history, culture, politics, religion and family heritage tend to shape what we believe as much as actual truth does.  Perhaps that’s the reason for so many paradoxical situations in which we find ourselves.  We cling to ideas that we have gathered along the way, worldviews that we have grown up to embrace, perspectives that we hold because “they have always been that way.” These eventually feed and complicate the paradoxes we face.    But recognizing the paradoxical presence in our lives should give us some degree of confidence in resolving these seemingly impossible quandries.  They may be little more than everyday realities which beg for a fresh look, an engaged mind, and an open heart in order to achieve a new resolution.

Solving The Castle Paradox: encouragingly simple and maddeningly problematic….





Credit Where Credit Is Due

Ever since Winds of Peace first began its microlending practices in Nicaragua in 1994, it has struggled with the balance between making resources available to those organizations in greatest need and the desire to maintain a high rate of repayment.  It’s a difficult balance, because often those in greatest need have the least experience and the toughest obstacles to surmount.  While we have been blessed with a very strong repayment history from our partners over the years, we also have lamented the fact that there did not appear to be any means for effectively researching a group’s credit history, either good or bad.  Sometimes we might be able to speak with other funders, if we knew that they had supported an organization in the past, but such opportunities were few and far-between and often the information offered provided limited insight as to future credit performance.  The result has been to the detriment of both the members of the funding community, who have had to take on greater risk based upon their singular assessments of a group, as well as to the field of potential borrowers who must generate their funding requests under a generic cloud of suspect accountability.  That may be changing.

WPF has recently subscribed to SinRiesgos, a credit bureau servicing the entire country of Nicaragua.   While this organization came into existence in 2004, it began independent operations in 2006 and has really become an active and sought-after service in the wake of the No-Payers Movement in recent years; there is nothing like a period of defaults to get the attention of lenders.  As a result, the database has been expanding with new entries and the users have grown from a few big lenders to now include individual cooperatives seeking to evaluate potential new members.  The service currently serves more than 230 institutions, including banks, microfinance institutions, and cooperatives.

The presence and growth of an organization like SinRiesgos might seem like an unremarkable development to some.  Service companies such as this are common in North America and throughout Western-style economies.  But its presence in Nicaragua marks a threshold of importance for that country in at least two respects.  As an operating tool for use by the credit industry, the service represents a major advancement.  Lenders in Nicaragua have long been hampered by assessing loan-worthiness in the dark, relying on word-of-mouth representations, written proposals which may not always contain accurate credit histories and occasionally personal interviews which can be highly subjective.  The result has been that many lending institutions which once operated broadly across Nicaragua are now much more restrictive in their presence or have left the country altogether.   But there’s a second benefit that carries an even-greater potential, the creation of an accountability tool for the borrowers.

Accountability is often found in the personal character of leaders, those who speak on behalf of their cooperatives or associations.  Their word is their bond and one may rely on that with confidence.  But such reliability is not universal and in any case it is usually difficult to assess in advance.  For hopeful borrowers, the challenge has become not only how to convince a lender of the importance of loaned capital, but also their trustworthiness to receive it. With the credit service, they now have a tool to demonstrate their reliability, something by which to measure the the performance of their words.  And that is an asset to the poor and poorly-connected worth a great deal.  It is measurable credibility.

There is yet another benefit to the emergence of the credit bureau service.  It is in the form of an attitude.  When most people are faced with an objective, there is an inherent desire to achieve it;  it might come from pride or self-satisfaction or self-respect.  But there is also an external drive to accomplish it, emanating from our  knowledge that the people around us are paying attention, and for most of us, that’s a powerful motivation to “measure up.”  If the detriment to defaulting on an uncollateralized  loan is that one can simply walk away from it and on to the next funder, no one is well-served.  The original lender has lost the loan, the borrower has failed to repay and that is the end of the story.  Such a minimal consequence actually harms the borrower when the default is without meaning, without impact.  As a consequence, the lesson learned is that defaulting is painless and therefore not to be taken too seriously.  But if the outcome creates an effect, a cost, an impact- in the marketplace, the community and in the psyche- then a transition is possible.  The essential outcome is not simply that default is painful; the true lesson is that successful performance builds confidence, self-respect and a foundation from which to dream.  And that is what SinRiesgos has the capacity to do for its participants.

I never thought about such impacts as our company worked with credit services in the United States for more than 30 years; it demonstrates the shortsightedness that we all tend to bring to our respective perspectives.  But the people of Nicaragua, and I, are still learning….

Seeing A Future

Our work in Nicaragua has been made up of wins and losses over the years, just like in any enterprise.  I cheer the groups which seem to embrace the principles of transparency and participation and  holistic well-being and I mourn the groups that at first step up to that difficult model and then back away, whether through habit or urgency or seduction.  It’s hard for me to remember that the organizations with whom we work are not U.S. businesses, and that I can’t really look at them through the same lens that I might use to consider the workings of a company here.  But there is one need that seems to apply to developing organizations no matter what structure they may have and wherever they may be located.  That essential component is the ability to envision a future.

It’s important for you to note that I did not say the future, but a future.  The future implies whatever is destined to be, something beyond both our control and our ability to foresee.  A future suggests a point in time to come which is subject to our influence if not complete control.  An organization is subject to all of the laws of Nature which will shape the future, but it maintains a hold on many of the cultural, social and relationship elements of a future.  Good-to-great organizations around the world have come to recognize and embrace that difference.  A future is made up of elements beyond our control, but many are of our own making.

That truth applies equally to any of the four priority initiatives undertaken by Winds of Peace.  In order for women of Nicaragua to achieve an equal status with equal rights, they must first be able to envision a future where gender issues are not a hindrance to personal development, but rather an awareness of the enormous untapped resources within the country.  If Indigenous communities seek to regain their ancient cultural and property rights as the original inhabitants of their lands, they must first be able to envision a future where they are willing to truly speak from the ancestral voice, as one, in bridging past and future generations within the framework of cultural stewardship.  If the rural agricultural poor ever escape from the factors which isolate and oppress them, it may be a result of their ability to recognize their collaborative strengths and a future view of broad engagement and participation from peasants who are able to separate short-term relief from long-term transformation.  In order for education to lead Nicaragua into a future instead of the future, leaders throughout the country will need to see education not as a problem with few solutions, but as the solution to a great many problems facing the entire nation.  Those changes in perspective alone reshape a future in ways beyond measure.

But in each case, the change comes first from envisioning a future that is wanted and then from committing to that vision.  The visioning is more than unstructured dreaming; it consists of objective components that are refined to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.  Only if the resulting vision is compelling enough, will it have the strength to garner the commitment from others that will be required, because that dedication forms the essential energy needed to swim against a tide of status quo.  Creating a future is neither automatic nor easy, but few worthwhile outcomes  ever are.  Just ask the members of countless enterprises that go out of business every year.

Whenever faced with a faltering initiative in Nicaragua, I ask myself whether there was a future in mind at its inception, or whether the request for partnership was born of short-term, immediate need.  I wonder whether an initial vision became somehow corrupted by circumstance or self.  It’s often difficult to discern where a group is in its thinking, and some folks have become very accomplished at telling a compelling story without a compelling vision behind it.  Our evaluations will never be perfect.  But the ones who stand to lose the most are not the members of Winds of Peace or the countless other funders who work in Nicaragua.  It’s the organizations themselves, and the individuals within, who run the risk of having to face the future, whatever unknowns that may bring….



In It Together

Recently I was describing some of the work in which Winds of Peace is involved in Nicaragua to an acquaintance.  I tried to paint a verbal picture of the cooperative involved and I referred to the organization as our “partner.”  The reference seemed to confuse my listener; for a moment he thought that I was referring to another funding entity with whom we might be partnering in  our support.  I explained that we were the sole funders in this case, and that we refer to all funding recipients as our partners.  While he eventually understood the distinction, I could tell that he was just a little puzzled by it.  I think lots of people are, including many organizations who are in the business of development.

Effective, impactful philanthropy has everything to do with the relationship between donor and recipient.  And that relationship is formed from a great deal more than a meeting or two between the principals.  It is a dynamic, evolving association which is strengthened through the ongoing give-and-take which all relationships require in order to be healthy.   It’s coming to know each other, discovering what this relationship could mean to each party.  From the foundation standpoint, it’s accompaniment rather than simply funding.

I have been surprised to learn how little such relationship-building really occurs in the world of some foundation work. We’ve seen it in the inability of some funding organizations to serve as a reference when we have sought to learn from them about a potential recipient.  We’ve experienced it when trying to establish opportunities to combine performance information with other funders to establish a “clearinghouse” of data, only to discover that such material isn’t maintained by many funders.   And we’ve heard it in the stories told by Nicaraguan partners about how different their relationships can be with other sources of funding.  An arm’s-length association may suggest greater independence for the recipient, less interference by the funder, fewer strings attached and less accountability in the end.  But if all of those actually occur, then the likelihood of real success and transformation is lessened.  Impact isn’t created by money alone.  Impact is what we can do with the monetary help together, as partners, as we each provide elements of importance to whatever the endeavor might be.  There is a sense of equality which exists between partners that simply doesn’t exist between grantor and grantee.

I read some comments shared through an association of foundations here in the U.S.  One writer captured the value of partnership well when he wrote:

Along with money, some of us came to know the grantees on a local and personal level, helping them with our… [own] expertise.  We could see the results of our efforts and leverage the dollars beyond anything we would have experienced beyond sending a check in the mail. 

My advice to those of us on the grant maker side of the equation, with an interest in leveraging  the  impact of the size of their grants, is to become more closely involved with those whom we serve.  You will never wonder about the effectiveness of your time and treasure.  Moreover, the personal rewards you reap are so much larger than any dollar amount you may grant. 

The impacts created by Winds of Peace over the years have certainly been tied to the funding which we have been able to provide.  But the most heartfelt expressions of appreciation and meaning heard from our partners have all revolved around the Foundation’s ongoing presence in their lives, our acknowledgement of who these people are, our awareness of the circumstances in which they find themselves, and our willingness to stand with them.  As partners.  We need something from each other in order to achieve the transformations being sought, and one without the other can become either fraud or condescending charity….