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Seeking the Anti-Poverty Holy Grail: Can a ‘Trust Mark’ Boost Microfinance’s Social Impact?

by CHRIS DUNFORD / CARMEN VELASCO

Partially reprinted from Next Billion Blog

Seventeen years ago, one of us compared the successful balance of financial sustainability and poverty reduction in microfinance to the Holy Grail – many searched for it, some claimed unconvincingly to have found it, and even more gave up on it as a beguiling myth. Not much has changed since then. Or so it may seem. Sophisticated research in the past decade has deepened doubt and strengthened skeptics. Yet practitioners, responding to moral imperative, societal need and market opportunity, keep trying to reach and serve people living in poverty. And many millions of them keep using microfinance. Why do they use it if it doesn’t help them? Do some practitioners do a better job of helping them than others do? How would we know?

Faced with this puzzle, a group of us set out in 2010 to find some straightforward way to identify the practitioners who are successful (and, by implication, those who are not so successful). But what does “success” look like? How would we know it if we see it? Depending solely on sophisticated (and expensive) research studies is not practical for sifting through a large number of practitioner institutions. So we asked: What are the obvious and essential practices of a “successful” practitioner that logic says should help clients achieve lasting, positive change that reduces or even eliminates poverty from their lives? If the logic is right, we should be able to quickly assess the “pro-poor performance” of various practitioners of financial services for poorer people.

The most obvious practice is to actively try to reach and serve people living in poverty. Of course! We can’t aspire to “lift people from poverty” if they are not living in poverty to start with. This became our Pro-Poor Principle No. 1.

The next most obvious practice is to design and offer products/services specifically to serve poorer people. This often requires segmentation of a diverse clientele to identify poorer clients and make sure at least some of our products/services are designed to address their particular wants, needs and constraints. This became our Pro-Poor Principle No. 2.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the need to investigate how the lives of participating clients actually are changing. This requires tracking the progress of clients (at least a representative sample) to understand how they use the products/services and how this use correlates with positive changes in their welfare (however the practitioner defines “positive change”). Such impact evaluation – bearing in mind that correlation points toward, but never by itself confirms, causation – serves more than donors/investors. It also provides vital feedback to the practitioner seeking to correct, improve and innovate products/services. This basic good business practice is our Pro-Poor Principle No. 3.

Armed with these three Pro-Poor Principles, we brought together microfinance rating agencies and other technical experts to design and test with us an assessment tool and process to tell us how completely a practitioner institution is adhering to the three principles. The more complete the adherence, the more likely the institution is truly helping people lift themselves from poverty.

To beta-test this tool and process, we commissioned three social rating agencies to assess nine institutions around the world, giving each a score composed from the answers to a number of questions about essential practices. We found that scores fell into four clusters along a continuum of potential scores.

Even the most committed pro-poor institution is on a long journey toward “perfect” pro-poor performance and will never fully arrive. A threshold of “compliance” anywhere short of perfection would be arbitrary, so we decided it is better to recognize institutions as having arrived at milestones along a Pro-Poor Pathway. The four clusters of our beta test served to establish four milestones – Aspirant, Emerging, Achiever and Leader – ranging from those just getting started on the journey to those who have traveled a long way already and serve to inspire and encourage institutions further back.

These concepts and instruments offer the opportunity to create a global “trust mark” for anti-poverty action. There are many trust marks on which consumers, investors and regulators have come to depend for identifying quality in products and practices; for example, home care products, fair trade coffee, building design and forest products. We could have a trust mark for pro-poor performance that would build and support confidence in the pro-poor claims of development practitioners and service providers of many stripes, not just financial services.

Given the experience base of our group, we started with financial service providers in developing countries. We call ourselves Truelift (as in truly helping people lift themselves from poverty). So far, 24 microfinance providers reaching tens of thousands of clients have been assessed and recognized, each at one of the four Truelift milestones. In April, Truelift announced that Fundación Paraguaya in Paraguay and Friendship Bridge in Guatemala have reached the Leader milestone, the most advanced stage along the Truelift Pro-Poor Pathway. This recognition is based on the results of Truelift-licensed assessments conducted in late 2016 by MicroFinanza Rating.

Fundación Paraguaya and Friendship Bridge are only the second and third institutions to achieve the Leader milestone in Latin America and only the third and fourth in the world, respectively. This rarity reflects the difficulty of achieving the Leader milestone, but these institutions show that it can be done! The rarity also reflects the nascent stage of development of Truelift as a global trust mark signifying commitment to positive and enduring change for people affected by conditions of poverty…CLICK HERE FOR MORE

From Russia to the USA, I Can Make a Difference

 

Svetlana Yamanova 

reprinted from the Golden Transcript

My name is…Svetlana Yamanova.  I’m 47. I was born and raised in Russia and I came to the U.S. to attend school. I enjoy how free people are here. Americans have an I-can-do-it mentality.

I studied international relations and graduated from the University of Denver in 2003. I moved to Wheat Ridge that year.

I enjoy the outdoors. Where I’m from in Russia, we don’t have that kind of culture. That’s why I love Colorado and living so close to the mountains.

I volunteer with Friendship Bridge, which is a nonprofit organization based in Lakewood. I’m a member of the Foothills Circle. We’re a group of women who does fundraising for Friendship Bridge, and Friendship Bridge micro-lends to indigenous women in Guatemala. The funds provide the Guatemalan women an opportunity to become entrepreneurs so they can start a business weaving or making jewelry, for example, to help support their families…CICK FOR MORE

How Evergreen Learned to Give Twice (Photo Essay)

by Rachel Turner

Always in action, Friendship Bridge Circles  raise awareness, raise funds, and host education sessions about global affairs.  They think ahead all through the year to prepare for upcoming events.  Below, a little bit o’ winter in the summer….

Betty Astle or ‘Button Betty’ as her Friendship Circle friends call her, smiles at another Circle member while preparing to add buttons to swittens on June 2, 2017. “I love buttons!” said Betty enthusiastically. “They’re so interesting. If I showed you my button collection, you’d go crazy. I have thousands. I like connecting the perfect button with the perfect switten.” The Evergreen Friendship Circle makes swittens (mittens made out of felted wool sweaters) all year long to sell at the Alternative Gift Fair in Evergreen. Proceeds go to Friendship Bridge. “Since many people buy swittens as gifts, we say you’re giving twice when you buy swittens,” continued Betty. “First to the nonprofit and then to your loved one.”

A tag is added to each pair as a reminder of who they benefit.” As your hand touches the swatch of Guatemalan fabric inside your switten, know that you have touched the lives of Guatemalan families by making this purchase.”

 

 

Mary Steinbrecher (left) and Ardis Strieby compile material to design the swittens. “I like working with fibers,” said Mary. “I got the idea for making the swittens from the Oconomowac Circle in Wisconsin. I visited them and learned how to felt wool and then adapted the designs to our culture.” The Evergreen Circle meets once per month to cut the material for the swittens and then they take the material home to sew. It takes about three hours to make a pair of swittens from start to finish.

Each pair of swittens has a piece of woven fabric from Guatemala sewn inside to remind buyers who’s lives they’re helping.

 

Paula Carter cuts material for swittens while Mary Steinbrecher and Kathy Head speak to each other. Paula and Kathy design and sew Christmas stockings with wool that has become too thick to sew into mittens. “I love turning a pile of sweaters into a thing of beauty and joy for the holiday season,” said Kathy. “It’s fun!” A retired nurse, Kathy drives over 30 miles to meet with the Circle. “I love this group,” she said.

 

The Evergreen Circle also sells Christmas stockings made of felted wool. All the products are made from 100% natural fibers.

Ladies from the Evergreen Circle cut felted wool into patterns to sew swittens. The ladies buy used sweaters from thrifts shops and felt them by putting them in a pillowcase enclosed by a rubber band and then agitating them in a washer with hot water. “It’s not an exact science,” comments Mary Streinbrecher. “You have to watch them closely to that they don’t shrink too much, because then they will be too thick.”

Betty Astle and Barbara Voth embrace after seeing each other at the Circle’s gathering. “Barbara and I went to Guatemala with Friendship Bridge,” said Betty. “It was an amazing experience to see how hard clients work to give their children a better life.”

 

Swittens made by the Evergreen Circle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on Friendship Bridge Circles or to purchase swittens, please contact Ardis Strieby: astrieby@friendshipbridge.org

 

Colorado Senator Meets Guatemala Textile Leader

Doña Herminia makes thread from cotton near her shop in San Juan La Laguna.

by Rachel Turner
and Marta Ixtuc

The smell of plant leaves and bark cooking over an open fire filled the room. A colorfully dressed woman sat weaving with a wooden hand loom using brilliantly colored thread – all dyed naturally with the juices from boiled barks, plants, vegetables, flowers, and even insects. More women bustled around the room cleaning cotton, making it into thread, and dyeing it.

Seeing visitors enter, Doña Herminia stood to welcome them into one of the two shops she runs.

With confidence and pride, Doña Herminia showed her visitors the elaborate, time-intensive process traditional weavers go through to create scarves, bags, and shawls. She pointed to two plants, “These plants will provide a different color if picked during a full moon,” she said. It was obvious she held generations of knowledge that made her products special.

Doña Herminia offered her visitors the opportunity to make thread from a piece of fluffy cotton. Former US Senator Mark Udall from Colorado stepped up to the challenge. He succeeded in making a bit of thread and gained even more appreciation for the difficult task.

Former US Senator Mark Udall makes thread from cotton with the help of Doña Herminia.

Doña Herminia learned traditional weaving at the knees of her mother and grandmother as a young child. She quickly grew in skill and creativity, and as a young adult, joined Ixoq AJ Keem, a group of women weavers of Maya Tz’utujil ethnicity who sell their products primarily in San Juan La Laguna. Today, she leads the organization and employs seven women in her own business.

'Herminia is a real leader. She has what it takes in terms of determination, enthusiasm, and charisma,' commented Senator Udall.Click To Tweet

A Friendship Bridge client for over five years, Doña Herminia joined the Artisan Market Access Program in 2016. “It has helped me learn about business, the North American market, quality control, and so much more,” said Doña Herminia. “Beyond that, it has shown me the value of formal education – especially for my children – since I only studied through 4th grade.”

Doña Herminia continues to mentor women who want to become better artisans. “I want to help women learn,” said Doña Herminia. “I advise them to take advantage of opportunities presented, and to invest the time to learn.

Because of what I’ve learned, I now have the power to make my own decisions. -Doña HerminiaClick To Tweet

Traveling soon? Click here to buy handmade travel products from Doña Herminia.

Rachel Turner is the Global Communications Manager for Friendship Bridge. Having worked and lived  throughout the world, she now calls the foothills of the Rocky Mountains home.

Marta Julia Ixtuc is the Communications Coordinator in Guatemala. Based in Sololá, she continues seeking to support the development of Guatemalan women in search of their own ways out of poverty.

Volunteerism: improving our world one idea at a time

Click to get involved with Friendship Bridge

(VIDEO) Friendship Bridge volunteer and supporter Cindy L. Rold is recognized by Carroll College with its Distinguished Alumni Award for Community Service. Click to get involved with Friendship Bridge

Mother’s Day Celebration Match is Met!

In May, we celebrated mothers all over the world.  Our partner W4, even offered to help us honor mothers by matching funds raised during the month of May.  With your help and W4’s match, we raised a total of $47,208!  Thank you!

Here at Friendship Bridge, we’re all about providing opportunities for women to build resilience and pursue opportunities.  Through microfinance, education, and preventive health services we support women entrepreneurs so they can reach their dreams. You’re making that happen too! Funds raised will support over 1,800 women with  life changing Non-Formal Education for a year.

Cheers to mothers worldwide!

What’s the Connection Between Rough Roads, Persian Rugs, & Exotic Jewelry?

Karen Barker catches a ride with a Friendship Bridge facilitator.

by Rachel Turner

Sitting on the back of a motorcycle, Karen Barker zoomed through the streets of Guatemala with a Friendship Bridge facilitator (loan officer). “Visiting Guatemala and Friendship Bridge Clients is a very unique experience for all of us who are reaching out in one way or another,” said Karen about her recent trip. “One of the reasons Friendship Bridge is successful as a microcredit NGO is it serves clients in rural areas that are very challenging to get to.” Facilitators travel by foot, motorcycle, bus, and boat throughout the Western Highlands to serve clients on a monthly basis.

Karen learned about Friendship Bridge in 2004. “I became very enthused with the concept of how microcredit works and the mission of Friendship Bridge,” said Karen. “I also learned that Circles were key to the organization’s success.”

Soon after, Karen partnered with Helen Gair to begin a Friendship Bridge Circle. They quickly organized a group of highly motivated, enthusiastic women with diverse skill sets to begin fundraising to support the Microcredit Plus program, which provides non-formal education and health services to women in rural Guatemala. “As a broadcast journalist, I covered education issues for 20 years, so this opportunity really resonated with me. I could make a difference.”

As a broadcast journalist, I covered education issues for 20 years, so this resonated with me.… Click To Tweet

They created fundraisers (like selling Persian rugs and exotic jewelry) that would generate interest with those who had no idea about Friendship Bridge. “And through them, we were able to translate why these efforts were important to a country that had little relationship with the U.S. at the time,” said Karen. Through the years, these fundraising activities have raised tens of thousands of dollars in funding to expand Friendship Bridge’s programming and outreach.

Karen and ladies from her Circle pose with the Persian rug salesman during a fundraising event.

However, beyond fundraising, the Circle also incorporated an educational component into their monthly meetings. “This has been one of the reasons for our success,” said Karen. “We host speakers to talk about a variety of global issues to expand our knowledge base as well.” Becoming more educated about women’s global issues has helped the Circle build relationships and to share with others their common interest to empower women.

Since 2004, their Circle has grown and national issues such as immigration challenges have given more relevance to reaching out to a country like Guatemala. “We’re providing the basic resources that reflect what they need to mitigate their impoverished situation – a financial hand up, not a hand out – to create a better path for the women and their families.”

We’re providing a financial hand up, not a hand out to create a better path for the women and… Click To Tweet

Karen continues to use her journalism skills to share non-profit stories, and she has become an ambassador for Friendship Bridge’s annual Salud-a-thon, motivating her friends and family to commit to their health for the month of September each year. She is an empowered woman building a better future for many.

Click to join a Circle in your area

 Click for Karen’s video about Friendship Bridge’s history

Click for Karen’s video about her 2017 trip to Guatemala

Click for Karen’s video about Friendship Bridge Circles

Rachel Turner is the Global Communications Manager for Friendship Bridge. Having worked and lived throughout the world, she’s excited to now call the foothills of the Rocky Mountains home. 

Friendship Bridge is 4th organization in the world recognized as Leader by Truelift

Friendship Bridge is proud to announce that the organization is has reached the Truelift Leader Milestone. Friendship Bridge is the third Truelift Leader in Latin America and the fourth in the world. The organization’s commitment to social performance management and the Client Continuum concept are quoted as major reasons that Friendship Bridge has earned this highest Truelift recognition.

Carmen Valesco, Truelift Co-Chair and one of the founders of Pro Mujer Bolivia and Pro Mujer International, shared, “At Truelift we are honored to give Friendship Bridge recognition because we know firsthand how tremendously difficult it is to remain loyal to the mission and put it into practice in all strategic actions and decisions. We know that it is a job that requires excellent management, aligned with the principles in favor of people living in poverty and that is the work of each and every one of the people who are linked to the entity.”

 

​Truelift is ​a global initiative to push for accountability in pro-poor development. The three Pro-Poor Principles are as follows: 1)  Purposeful Outreach to People Living in Conditions of Poverty 2) Services that Meet the Needs of People Living in Conditions of Poverty 3) Tracking Progress of People Living in Conditions of Poverty.

In response to the recognition, Karen Larson, President & CEO, and Caitlin Scott, Social Performance Manager, wrote: “We are so very honored to be recognized with the Leadership Milestone

A member of the Social Performance Management Team interviews a Friendship Bridge client to understand her needs.

by Truelift! As you know, we are not a large organization but we want to make a big impact. We strive to provide services that empower our clients to fend off and bounce back from shocks as well as pursue opportunities that create a better future for themselves, their families, and communities. We believe that our commitment to Social Performance Management helps us both maintain clarity of our objectives and be effective in achieving them.”

This honor signifies Friendship Bridge’s commitment to positive and enduring change for people living in conditions of poverty.

Click to read more about Truelift Leader Status 

Empowered Employees Empower Clients

 

Bacilia meets with one of her Trust Banks (a group of 7-25 women who co-insure each other’s loans).

 

Surprise and nervousness filled Bacilia Chay Pos.  Over 100 colleagues began applauding her, smiling.  She looked down, shyly, but then lifted her head thinking, “It’s not a crime to receive a prize, I’m being awarded!”

This year, Whole Planet Foundation recognized Bacilia’s work with the Field Officer Award, and she was presented the award at Friendship Bridge’s staff retreat in Guatemala. “I felt happy, encouraged, and satisfied because my work is being recognized,” says Bacilia. “These types of prizes are important because they encourage.  I don’t just feel like a part of the organization, I am Friendship Bridge. That’s what motivates me each day to help with the development of women.”

Bacilia has been a facilitator (loan officer) with Friendship Bridge for 13 years. She manages over 514 clients with over $225,000 loan portfolio. Not only that, her clients have a repayment rate of over 99%.

Bacilia poses with Astrid Cardona, left, (Guatemala Director) and Karen Larson, right, (CEO & President) of Friendship Bridge.

What’s the key to her success?  Many, certainly, but one of the most important is her compassionate heart. Most days, Bacilia leaves her home early, traveling on public transportation to conduct Non-Formal Education sessions and oversee loan payments for her Trust Banks. “I most enjoy treating the women with respect, understanding them, and figuring out their needs,” says Bacilia.  “I learn from them, and they learn from me.”

As an indigenous woman, Bacilia has a deep understanding of the lives of the women she serves. Similar to many Friendship Bridge clients, Bacilia’s parents were only able to support her through a portion of her education. From the sixth grade on, Bacilia worked on coffee farms and cleaned homes to pay for her high school education.

Today, she prioritizes her clients’ education as well as her five children’s, so they can have tools to invest in their futures.

“A very powerful word used at Friendship Bridge is empowerment,” says Bacilia. “If we as employees are empowered, we can empower the clients. That’s the most rewarding part of my job, seeing entire Trust Banks of women become empowered.”

If we as employees are empowered, we can empower the clients. -Bacilia Click To Tweet

Laugh, Learn, Dream

Doña Isabel waits for her husband before going to her field.

by Rachel Turner

Doña Isabel rested under the tin roof of her small wooden house. She spends her days caring for her husband, children, and two Spanish acres of tomatoes and maize. “I’ve been with Friendship Bridge for five years,” said Doña Isabel. “I’m also a mother of five children. I married at 14-years-old, and had my first son at 15.”

The only girl and the second oldest of nine, she never had the chance to study. Instead she left home at 8-years-old to work domestic jobs in Guatemala City to help pay for food and the care of her younger brothers. There she met her husband at 13-years-old.

The only girl and the second oldest of nine, she never had the chance to study. #empowerwomen Click To Tweet

Isabel stands in front of her home.

Determined that her daughters not marry so young, Doña Isabel uses profits from her fields to pay for school fees. She makes a point of working shoulder to shoulder with her children to teach the importance of honesty, respect (especially for the elderly), and belief in God hoping they will be good people.

“I’ve also taught them to work hard in school so that they can be professionals and serve their community, ” said Doña Isabel. “I think the most difficult challenge has been finding enough time to lead them on the right path during adolescence, but I think one of the most important things for mothers to do is to support their children’s dreams.”

I think one of the most important things for mothers to do is to support their children’s dreams.… Click To Tweet

 

Doña Isabel’s aunt introduced her to Friendship Bridge, and the opportunity to join a Trust Bank, a group of 7-25 women who co-insure each other’s loans and meet monthly for non-formal education sessions.

“Before joining a Trust Bank, I didn’t have capital. If there’s no capital, you can’t work,” said Doña Isabel. “At the monthly meetings I began learning how to manage and reinvest money.”

I’m happy because before Friendship Bridge, I only ate my food, but now I can invest in growing… Click To Tweet

Isabel checks her tomato crop.

Later, she rented two Spanish acres, and learned how to farm tomatoes. With her loan, she bought the tools she needed, paid rent, and irrigation costs. Now she has a crop to harvest and sell every three and a half months. “I’m happy because before Friendship Bridge, I only ate my food, but now I can invest in growing our food,” said Doña Isabel. She currently employs 3-4 workers to help her and hopes the market prices stay good. “If Mexico sends a lot of tomatoes to our markets, the prices drop,” said Doña Isabel. “And sometimes the frost kills the plants or they get sick. You win some and you lose some.”

For now, though, she feels optimistic about her future and is already thinking about opening a small grocery store. “Our Trust Bank meets the first Tuesday of the month and we laugh, learn, and share dreams,” said Doña Isabel. “We’re hardworking women who are looking for a better future for our children.”

We’re hardworking women who are looking for a better future for our children. -Isabel #dreambig… Click To Tweet

 

Rachel Turner is the Global Communications Manager for Friendship Bridge. Having worked and lived throughout the world, she’s excited to now call the foothills of the Rocky Mountains home. Rachel recently visited Guatemala to meet Doña Isabel and other clients working with Friendship Bridge.