Archive for the ‘microfinance’ Category

Connecting the Dots – From Seraphina to Prime Minister Odinga

July 26, 2012

Shannon Maynard is Director of Bankers without Borders®(BwB), Grameen Foundation’s skilled-volunteer initiative. Maynard has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management and volunteer mobilization. Before joining Grameen Foundation, she served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and managed strategic initiatives for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. This is the final post in a four-part series; you can read her first post here, her second post here, and her third post here.

BwB Director Shannon Maynard (left) presents Seraphina (right), a women’s group leader and entrepreneur, with a cook stove that the other group leaders purchased as a thank-you for her wisdom and leadership to them.

As a U.S.-based employee of a global NGO, the small amount of time I spend in the field is incredibly helpful in checking assumptions around what’s possible and what’s needed with our work in particular places, and in gaining a better understanding the realities of my employees based there. Of course, being surrounded by abject poverty on a daily basis, combined with getting to see – in person – the hope and progress that takes root in poor people’s lives when they gain access to credit or savings, redoubles my own personal commitment to the work of Grameen Foundation and Bankers without Borders (BwB).

In addition to gaining such perspective during the two weeks I spent in Kenya, I was able to help better position BwB to benefit Kenya-based social enterprises such as the Visionary Empowerment Program (VEP), Paradigm Kenya and Paddy Micro Investment, among others. I also had the chance to shake hands with two very important people: Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and self-identified industrialist Seraphina, an elderly woman who lives in a rural village outside Thika town and makes soap to support herself and her family.

What do these three social enterprises and these two people have in common? Let me connect the dots – because that really is what Grameen Foundation is all about. We bring together the people and facilitate the collaboration required to foster significant, scalable financial- and information-related solutions for the world’s poorest.

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Poverty Waits for No One

July 17, 2012

David Washer is a Bankers without Borders® volunteer who recently returned from a project in Ethiopia. Upon graduating from Yale University, Washer began his career in portfolio management at McKinsey & Company, where he currently works as a financial analyst. During his time at Yale, he was actively involved in human rights advocacy and research, and now looks forward to using his knowledge of finance and international development in the service of colleagues overseas.

I’ve always had a healthy skepticism about short-term volunteer projects abroad. But as a Texas expatriate living in a Manhattan closet that passes for an apartment, I started to go a little stir-crazy as my heart for social justice from my undergraduate days began to beat again. The irony of it all? As an undergraduate, I had plenty of time – but no true, concrete skills to offer to development organizations. Once I began my work career, the opposite initially held true.

David Washer (center) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian MFI, as part of BwB’s Financial Modeling Reserve Corps.

David Washer (center) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian MFI, as part of BwB’s Financial Modeling Reserve Corps.

I began to research and critically examine different service opportunities, and eventually came across Grameen Foundation’s Bankers without Borders (BwB) program. Convinced that through this program I could help empower others to lead sustainable, grassroots development in their own communities abroad, I decided to join. I was not disappointed. ‪Once I became a member of the Financial Modeling Blueprint Reserve Corps, BwB provided me with the training, templates and tools I needed to apply my financial analysis and modeling skills in a development context.

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Risk Management: It’s a Mindset, Not a Budget Line Item!

July 3, 2012

Michelle Katics, CEO of BankersLabTM, supports the MFI sector by providing pro-bono risk-management technical assistance to microfinance institutions (MFIs). BankersLab, through its corporate social responsibility program, supports Bankers without Borders®Bankers with VisionMFIOpenSource and Kiva. We have excerpted a portion of her blog post, followed by a link to the full post.

I recently returned from a Bankers without Borders (BwB) volunteer engagement in West Bengal, India, with Society for Model Gram Bikash Kendra (GBK), a small non-profit microfinance company. As many BwB skilled volunteer-corps members can attest, volunteers typically feel they gain as much or more than the recipients of the services they provide. In this case, the experience for me highlighted important factors for success in risk management, some of which we forget from time to time in the traditional banking sector. Much of what I learned came from observing the energetic and curious discovery process of the GBK staff as they tackled typical risk management challenges.

When working with partners around the world, BwB (a Grameen Foundation initiative) recognizes that MFIs have a common need: risk management. MFIs face similar risk management challenges across the board, including how much risk to accept, how to mitigate the risk that cannot be avoided, and how to manage the real risks that are part of their day-to-day business and operations.

It’s free to change your mindset and habits.  The GBK staff expressed concern about how they could improve their risk management while remaining in control of their budget. They worried that IT systems and additional staff were the main (and costly) requirements for successful risk management, yet were delighted to discover simple and easy ways to improve their operations, with minimal cost. Many of these ways don’t apply to the traditional banking sector, which already has strong systems, but some of the simple ”mindset” changes are a relevant reminder for us all.  For example, GBK decided to research and implement new best practices in areas such as accounting and audit. Taking a step back to examine and improve the process can be the key to success. By doing this, they also realized the need to create contingency plans and other methods of dealing with crisis before facing one.

Another observation was the impact of GBK’s collegial and open collaboration among departments to jointly tackle risk management. In other words:

Cost of coffee and snacks for the meeting:  $20

Value:  Priceless

Continue reading the full blog post at the BankersLab blog >>

Things Move More Slowly in Africa

June 27, 2012

Shannon Maynard is Director of Bankers without Borders® (BwB), Grameen Foundation’s skilled-volunteer initiative. Maynard has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management and volunteer mobilization. Before joining Grameen Foundation, she served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and managed strategic initiatives for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. This post is the third in a four-part series; you can read her first post here, and her second post here.

“Things move more slowly in Africa” – this is a common refrain for many of us at Grameen Foundation when we find ourselves experiencing hurdles with our work in places like Nigeria and Ethiopia. In fact, African countries and the organizations we work with do often lack the infrastructure – particularly the Internet connectivity – that contributes to the fast-paced, rapid-response world that those of us based in the United States have grown so accustomed to. Slower is also a word I’d use to describe Bankers without Borders’ own presence in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Joining Grameen Foundation after primarily working with US-based NGOs, I remember my own first experiences arranging a call with a microfinance institution (MFI) leader in Sub-Saharan Africa – fumbling around with Skype to enter the correct phone number, then getting a voicemail message in a language I couldn’t understand. It might take a few weeks of trying to connect at a time convenient for us both. In those early days, Grameen Foundation did not have local offices or staff in places like Nairobi, Accra or Kampala. Cultivating relationships and managing projects is difficult to do from a different continent, which is why I am amazed we were actually able to do any work in places like Ghana and Nigeria in those first few years of BwB.

Over the past year, however, BwB has been able to gain some traction in the region, thanks to the regional leadership of Erin Conner and Steve Wardle, and BwB Regional Program Officer Martin Gitari, all based in Nairobi.

David Washer (right) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian microfinance institution, as part of Bankers without Borders' FiDavid Washer (right) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian microfinance institution, as part of BwB's Financial Modeling Reserve Corps.nancial Modeling Reserve Corps.

David Washer (right) spent a week meeting clients and lending his skills in finance to Eshet, an Ethiopian microfinance institution, as part of BwB’s Financial Modeling Reserve Corps.

Grameen Foundation’s own programs, particularly our MOTECH work in Ghana and Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) program in Uganda, are BwB’s biggest clients. In our early days, we had a hard time convincing Grameen Foundation’s own technology teams of the services we could provide, because Grameen Foundation’s own employees assumed BwB was only focused on connecting bankers with microfinance institutions (a fair assumption, given our name). Thanks to some education on our part and the willingness of these programs’ leaders to give us a try, we’ve been able to place volunteers such as Chris Smith and Gillian Evans (a husband-and-wife team) with CKW and Roche employee Lynda Barton with MOTECH, in year-long placements. We’ve worked with CKW to establish a local collaboration with Makere University to provide interns to our Uganda office each semester. And we’ve just finalized arrangements to engage a Glaxo Smith Kline employee with the CKW team on a six-month assignment, starting this month.

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A Productive Week in Asia

June 21, 2012

Shannon Maynard is Director of Bankers without Borders®, Grameen Foundation’s skilled-volunteer initiative. Maynard has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management and volunteer mobilization. Before joining Grameen Foundation, she served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and managed strategic initiatives for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. This post is the second in a four-part series; you can read her first post here.

While in Hong Kong, I start my days with the “international breakfast buffet.”  In my travels, I have actually grown fond of this tourist and business traveler’s treat. I can have a hybrid breakfast of dal and danish in Bangalore, pad thai and pancakes in Bangkok, or dim sum and doughnuts in Hong Kong.

The international breakfast buffet is particularly appropriate in Hong Kong, a truly international city to which everyone’s path seems to have spanned several global cities. As I begin the next leg of my travels, I leave Hong Kong reflecting on the many social-change agents I met. Just as my hybrid breakfast blends the best of multiple food traditions, these folks blur the lines between the social sector and corporate sector when it comes to fighting global poverty.

On Monday, I spent the day with the dynamic women of Grameen Foundation’s Hong Kong office – Sonia, Christina, Dilys and Sharada. Their careers have zig-zagged from banks and consulting firms to social enterprises and Grameen Foundation. They are all equally effective in their roles – which largely focus on cultivating corporate partnerships and donors for our work in Asia – because they know how to make Grameen Foundation’s work accessible to different audiences. They take the time to explain microfinance, social enterprise and other terms that we take for granted, and can do this easily because they truly understand how we are trying to improve the lives of the poor and poorest.

Shannon Maynard (left) meets with Grameen Foundation staff in Hong Kong.

Shannon Maynard (left) meets with Grameen Foundation staff in Hong Kong.

On Tuesday, I had the chance to kick off the Bank of America Merrill Lynch(BAML) CSR Lunch and Learn series.  I impressed by the sheer turnout (including a waiting list for the event!) as well as by the diversity in the room. Some of the most senior people in the Hong Kong office attended the event and were the first to inquire during Q&A about how their teams could get more involved with Bankers without Borders. I have no doubt we will find a way to put their commitment and skills to work in the near future. Melissa Moi, who recently left a prominent post with a well-known NGO in Hong Kong to join BAML’s Corporate Philanthropy team, has a clear vision for how skills-based volunteering can help further the Bank’s philanthropic objective of helping women and children in the Asian-Pacific region.

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Tipping: A Viral Infection We Want to Catch

June 15, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

At Grameen Foundation, we often talk of the concept of “tipping,” which was popularized by the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.  I define the concept as taking something, such as an idea or a product, to the point where it starts to spread virally, exponentially and without much additional effort.  For an organization like Grameen Foundation that works with limited resources to make significant impact on a global problem such as poverty, it is a very important concept.  Through tipping, our early seeding and nurturing of innovations can lead to their widespread adoption by poor people, the organizations that serve them, and even by businesses and governments.

One example is our Growth Guarantees program, which pioneered loan guarantees to forge mutually beneficial business relationships between local commercial banks and microfinance institutions (MFIs) working to alleviate poverty.  In the program, we not only directly consummated transactions (bringing nearly $200 million to MFIs, who were then able to help more than 1 million new poor borrowers), but more importantly, proved the concept and prompted many other banks to follow suit (even without guarantees from Grameen Foundation).  Likewise, our efforts to replicate the highly successful village phone program of Grameen Telecom, initially in Uganda, set in motion dozens of “village phone” initiatives, most of which we had no direct role in starting or managing.

The PPI is a simple, short, country-specific survey that poverty-focused organizations can use to better understand the people they're trying to help, as well as the effectiveness of their work. This is a screenshot of the PPI for the Philippines.

The PPI is a simple, short, country-specific survey that poverty-focused organizations can use to better understand the people they’re trying to help, as well as the effectiveness of their work. This is a screenshot of the PPI for the Philippines.

I thought a lot about Grameen Foundation’s role in “tipping” last week when I flew to Jordan to attend the annual meeting of the Social Performance Task Force (SPTF), a group in which Grameen Foundation has been deeply involved for years.  More than 300 people attended.  The SPTF sets standards and shares best practices for those practicing ethical, poverty-fighting microfinance.  Partly as an acknowledgment of Grameen Foundation’s central role in the task force, I was asked to give the closing remarks at a historic “CEO Roundtable” where the heads of leading MFIs came together to discuss implementation of the just-completed “universal standards for social performance management.”  The standards have the potential to reshape how MFIs around the world work in fighting poverty, mainly by comprehensively adopting what have emerged as effective practices through the task force’s dialogue and research over many years.

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Reporting from Hong Kong

June 14, 2012

Shannon Maynard is Director of Bankers without Borders®, Grameen Foundation’s skilled-volunteer initiative. Maynard has more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit management and volunteer mobilization. Before joining Grameen Foundation, she served as Executive Director of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, and managed strategic initiatives for the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency. This post is the first in a four-part series.

The summer after I joined Grameen Foundation to run Bankers without Borders (BwB), I had the pleasure to travel to Shanghai, China, where we had amassed a significant pool of advocates for our work – the “Shanghai Volunteers.” I met with these inaugural members of our BwB community (organized by uber-volunteer Susan Place Everhart) and joined Jennifer Meehan, our Regional CEO for Asia, in meetings with potential corporate partners for Grameen Foundation’s work in the region.  After spending time in Shanghai, I then traveled to Bangalore, India, where BwB was undertaking one of its first corporate collaborations and field-based projects in Asia, with Grameen Koota and a team of volunteers from Accenture, Dow Chemical and Citi.

It’s now three years later, and I am headed to Hong Kong – Grameen Foundation’s regional headquarters for Asia – to spend time with Sharada Ramanathan, the extraordinary woman behind BwB’s presence today in Asia. Working with Grameen Foundation’s regional staff, we’ll brainstorm how to continue to deeply integrate volunteers into the way Grameen Foundation does business – from helping us fundraise and addressing our own capacity gaps, to creating standard roles for volunteers in delivering our programs and services in Asia. We’ll also look at how we continue to share the skills and expertise of volunteers in our database – more than 20% of whom are based in Asia – with other social enterprises that have a market-based approach to improving the lives of the poor.

BwB Regional Program Officer for Asia, Sharada Ramanathan, and Director Shannon Maynard are spending a week meeting with volunteers and supporters in Hong Kong.

BwB Regional Program Officer for Asia, Sharada Ramanathan (left), and Director Shannon Maynard are spending a week meeting with volunteers and supporters in Hong Kong.

As I prepare for this trip, I think it’s worth reflecting on some of BwB’s successes, failures and insights from our three-year history in Asia.

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Making Progress Through Savings

June 14, 2012

Kimberly Davies is a program officer on Grameen Foundation’s Financial Services team.

Traveling to the field and talking with clients is the favorite part of my job.  I’ve worked in microfinance for five years and think daily about the poor women and families whom we support. Working with partner organizations and meeting clients face-to-face not only reminds me of why I’m in this field – it also helps me better understand the poor’s demand for financial services and the many challenges involved in providing those services.

It has been really exciting to see the progress of our microsavings project in India.  The first time I visited our partner organization Cashpor Micro Credit – a poverty-focused microfinance institution (MFI) in Varanasi, India – it was not yet offering savings products to its clients. This was partly due to complex Indian regulations requiring MFIs to work with banks to provide savings. Since then, Cashpor partnered with ICICI Bank and Eko Technologies (a tech provider that enables savings via the mobile phone) to launch a new savings product in the summer of 2011.

Microsavings accounts provide poor parents with a safe place to save for their children's future.

Microsavings accounts provide poor parents with a safe place to save for their children’s future.

Since the launch, Cashpor has added about 250 new savers every day, and currently has more than 60,000 savings accounts. Cashpor’s clients have spoken loud and clear about their desire to save. Clients told us during my last visit that they wanted their own safe savings accounts, but I wasn’t sure what the real demand truly was. It’s also challenging to offer convenient services to clients, because some do not have cell phones, most can’t read and many are even numerically illiterate. These challenges, on top of others, were things that I knew would take time to navigate.

However, the huge demand does make sense. A safe place to save is critical for families, because it helps them smooth consumption during times of sporadic income, or prepare for an emergency or a planned lifetime event. Of course, people want convenient tools to help them better manage their lives. In the United States, we have access to so many financial tools in our everyday life – various savings accounts we can access at any time, insurance, loans, locked CDs that yield a safe and consistent interest rate, etc. You name it, we have it. The poor want these same tools.

Truly moving out of poverty is a huge task. Though tools like the Progress Out of Poverty Index® can measure the likelihood that an MFI’s client base is poor and track its movement out of poverty over time, this is a complex thing to measure, because forces such as natural disasters and family illnesses can prevent people from moving out of poverty or cause them to slip back into poverty. These uncontrollable forces make the use of easily accessible and affordable financial tools – such as savings accounts – all the more important to the poor.

Again and again, I’ve seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears how access to financial services has improved the lives of poor people and their families. I look forward to seeing Cashpor’s savings program grow even more over the next year, as they help more women and families in need.

Growth for All: Including the Poor in Strategies for Economic Growth

May 31, 2012

Michael Castellano is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying International Affairs and Development. He interned with Bankers without Borders® at Grameen Foundation during the spring of 2012.

In the years following the global financial crisis, politicians and policymakers across the globe have harped on one cardinal goal: economic growth. Without a doubt, plans for growing the economy will dominate discussions in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. It seems as though we as a society have collectively determined that if only the economy would turn around, conditions would certainly improve across the board. If only we could enact legislation to spur economic growth, inevitably we would all be better off.

Fortunately, statistics show that the United States has seen steadily climbing annual growth rates since the nadir of the “Great Recession.” Developing countries and emerging economies have, on the whole, experienced average growth rates of more than 5 percent thus far in 2012 and will continue to propel the world’s progress, according to financial forecasts. So – this is good news for everyone, right?

Not necessarily.

Although a country’s national economy may grow, the poorest of the poor often remain completely disconnected from the financial, political and social systems in place. Without active bank accounts, the poor cannot easily save or access other financial services. In rural villages, people may not have easy access to healthcare and can quickly fall victim to external shocks such as disease or natural disaster. Without these services, poor people around the world cannot reap the benefits of overall economic growth.

During my time at Grameen Foundation and through my studies in International Development during this past year, one fundamental lesson has stood out: Though economic growth is certainly important, growth does little to reduce poverty if the poor lack access to essential services. This illustrates a key principle that development practitioners dub “pro-poor growth.”

Michael Castellano served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring.

Michael Castellano, shown here during a trip to Australia, served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring.

Pro-poor growth involves forming development policies and strategies that target the poorest of the poor and offer new ways of connecting them to financial markets. Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, stated, “The direct elimination of poverty should be the objective of all development aid. Development should be viewed as a human rights issue, not as a question of simply increasing the gross national product.”

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Panel Explores the Power of the Mobile Phone in Fighting Poverty

May 14, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

I first met Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, through one of our greatest Grameen Foundation Board members, Lucy Billingsley.  When Isobel and I were introduced to each other, she was running a small program at the Council focused on women’s issues.  She has since grown it into a flagship initiative of this prestigious institution, and her reputation as a researcher and thought-leader has naturally grown along the way.

I was therefore very pleased when she invited me to speak as part of her Women and Technology series last week, alongside Ann Mei Chang, senior adviser for women and technology, Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State (and formerly with Google), and Scott Ratzen, Vice President for Global Health at Johnson & Johnson.  The title of the session was “mDevelopment: Harnessing Mobile Technology for Global Economic Growth.”  We had a planning call with Isobel, Scott and Ann Mei the week before and I realized I was joining some extremely knowledgeable and articulate people.  To prepare, I read up on all of Grameen Foundation’s many programs that work to alleviate poverty by leveraging the mobile phone revolution, as well as some related research on inclusive business models.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

The event was kicked off with remarks by Suzanne McCarren of ExxonMobil, which sponsors this speaker series.  Suzanne, whom I sat next to during lunch, explained why women’s economic development is a high priority for their company’s foundation, which has made more than $50 million in grants so far, according to my notes.  Then Cherie Blair, the former first lady of the United Kingdom and the founder of a foundation that bears her name, spoke.  She announced the release of an important new report titled, “Mobile Value-Added Services: A Business Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs.”  I had met Cherie several times through Meera Gandhi, whose book Giving Back features the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, as well as Grameen Foundation.

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