Empower women. Eliminate poverty.

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Drivers of Change: International Women’s Day

Global Partnerships Partner with Friendship BridgeBelow is an excerpt of an article published today in Global Partnerships Blog.  For the full article, click here.

By Tara Murphy Forde, director of research & impact, Global Partnerships, and Karen Larson, executive director, Friendship Bridge 

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day (March 8, 2014) by highlighting the importance of empowering women around the world. This year’s U.N. theme is “Equality for women is progress for all,” and it echoes Global Partnerships’ (GP’s) belief that investing in women is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty.

What Happens When Women are Empowered?

At GP we believe that increasing women’s access to resources and information enables them to make decisions that improve the wellbeing of their families, businesses, and communities. In turn we seek partners like Friendship Bridge, a nonprofit organization that provides microcredit and education to Guatemalan women, so they can create their own solutions to poverty. Through Friendship Bridge’s Microcredit Plus program, women start, expand or diversify their businesses and learn practical, applicable lessons on everyday topics including business, health and self-esteem. Today more than 20,000 Friendship Bridge clients participate in the program, resulting in:

  • A greater ability to weather economic shocks, such as illness or natural disaster
  • Decreased malnutrition
  • Decreased spousal abuse
  • Improved hygiene and health care
  • Increased number of children attending school, especially girls
  • Increased support, camaraderie, and self-esteem among borrowers
  • Increased family planning (borrowers are 50% more likely to have fewer children)

Empowering Women

GP seeks innovators – by that we mean organizations that aim to improve, refine, and renew their approach to solving the world’s toughest problems. By leveraging cross-trained loan officers to provide education during group repayment meetings, Friendship Bridge is achieving high levels of participation and excellent loan repayment rates while incurring low marginal costs. This refined approach means that Friendship Bridge can arm more women with the tools and information they need to transform their lives.

This is an excerpt of an article from Global Partnerships Blog.  For the full article, click here.

Meet the Women of Flor De Pamezabal

Guatemalan Women Eliminating PovertyFlor De Pamezabal

Location:  Pamezabal Santa Lucía Utatlan, Sololá, Guatemala.
Loan cycles:  4
Members:  9
Average age of members:  37 years
Average school level of members:  0.6 years
Average loan size: $438.75

The rural village of Pamezabal Santa Lucia Utatlán is located in the department (state) of Sololá in the southwestern region of Guatemala.  Its inhabitants speak Spanish and K’iche.  It is also home to the nine women who form the Trust Bank called Flor de Pamezabal.

Flor de Pamezabal was founded about four years ago.  During that time, the women have developed a strong sense of leadership within the group led by Magdalena Manuela, their President.  She says, “The women are responding with great responsibility.  They are outspoken, open to change, and united together.  They are also proud to say that 16 of their children — 11 primary school, four middle school, and one high school – will attend school this year.”  This is quite an accomplishment since the average education of the women in the group is only six years.

Rolanda is 49 years old with nine children.  She makes and sells traditional “cortes” skirts as do most of the members of the Trust Bank.  She recently joined the group after watching a friend expand her own business via Friendship Bridge’s support.  With two children still of school age, she hopes the financial support and monthly training from Friendship Bridge will increase her income enough that she can continue supporting them. “It is very exciting to see the changes in our children since taking our loans and growing our businesses.  Our children are watching us and the future of their village seems more hopeful,” she says.

The importance of the monthly training is exemplified by Cristina, a member who is in her third loan cycle managing a convenience store.  “Friendship Bridge is a nice organization.  We are pleased that many women are benefiting from its programs.  Personally I have learned a lot more about women’s health.  Sometimes we worry so much for others that we ignore the importance of our own health.  The training has made ​​me think more about myself than before,” Cristina says.

The Flor the Pamezabal Trust Bank wants to thank the Rotary Club for providing the support for its loans. “This is a wonderful gift,” one Trust Bank member remarked.

Thank you to the Westminster 7:10 Rotary Club and all other participating clubs for a grant to support these women.  It is greatly appreciated.

2013 Friendship Bridge Highlights

Signing for a Microloan, GuatemalaAs we embark on 2014, we wanted to share highlights from 2013.  These would not have been possible without the generous support from all of you.  Thank you!

In 2013, Friendship Bridge:

  • Maintained an excellent portfolio quality with 1.27% in write-offs, or $55K, and ending the year with PAR>30 of 0.43% – continuing to be one of the best portfolio results in the industry
  • Increased the number of clients from 15,750 to 19,969
  • Friendship Circles raised over $205,000 to support our mission
  • Promoted 7 employees, 42% of promotions went to women
  • 11.8% of new hires were clients
  • 517 clients attended advanced education or technical training
  • Conducted nearly 19,000 surveys to enhance programming,
  • Presented FB’s Social Performance Management at the Latin America  Village Banking Forum 2013 in Ecuador
  • Implemented a new database – GoProve – to assist in measuring impact
  • Launched new website to raise awareness and funds for FB clients
  • Published in Grameen Foundation’s Blog for our work with PPI
  • Offered tuition reimbursement for 16 employees in Guatemala
  • Initiated clean stove loan, part of our health initiative program
  • Instituted an education loan product at a low interest rate to help clients prioritize education for their children
  • 100% of FB Board of Directors supported our work with financial contributions

Eating Healthy in Rural Guatemala – Angeles Trust Bank

AngelesTB_webThe Angeles Trust Bank is a group of nine women from Santa Clara la Laguna, located high above Lake Atitlán in the Sololá department of southwestern Guatemala.  The average age of a member of this Trust Bank is 38 years old and the average education level is two years of formal education.  Now, however, most of these women are earning enough to send their children to school and that is a priority for them.

The women of Angeles Trust Bank have a variety of businesses mostly in commerce, including selling clay pots, kitchen materials, clothing, and produce.  A few raise bulls and chickens to sell at the market.  The Angeles Trust Bank have been together for over six loan cycles and have built strong friendships and have built a circle of support.

They met recently for their monthly repayment meeting and non-formal education lesson.  On this day Sara, their loan officer, taught them the importance of eating healthy food using available resources.  Often, members of the Trust Bank do not speak Spanish or cannot read, so Friendship Bridge provides easy to use flip charts and hands-on participation to ensure everyone learns.   A discussion comparing the importance of meat vs. vegetables begins and many of the women share their thoughts.

Lucia Dolores, who has five children, mentions that fruits and vegetables are nutritious, readily available in the community, and they are less expensive than meat.  Eating meat everyday for her family is not an option because of cost. Instead of spending $ 0.50 in herbs and other vegetables, sometimes they spend $5 on two pounds of meat and use it for just one meal. Sara, the Friendship Bridge loan officer, mentions that sometimes people think eating healthy means eating meat every day, but according to research the foods that should appear daily on the plate are: vegetables, fruits, bread, potatoes, tortillas, beans, rice, and oats, which are not hard to get.

At this time the conversation turns to mealtime hygiene.  Hygiene for the cooks and simple tasks like children washing their hands before every meal, for better health which means fewer doctor visits.

“Through Friendship Bridge, we are helping ourselves,” said group member Yolanda Yac. “Before we had access to credit, we made just a little bit. Now with our credit, we can buy the beads, thread and everything we need to make more fajas to sell. We couldn’t attend school, but thank God, we are fighting to educate our children and we can pay for them to go to school. The education Friendship Bridge provides is also a benefit for us. We can sell more and learn how to improve our businesses and invest in them.”

Fourth Quarter Highlights from Executive Director, Karen Larson

Dear Friends,

Season’s Greetings from all of us at Friendship Bridge!  After just returning from several weeks in Guatemala, I have much to share, but first, I would like to thank you all for the tremendous impact you had on Friendship Bridge this past year.  I am excited to highlight our many successes with you, and of course, if you are looking for more in-depth information on any of these highlights, please contact the Friendship Bridge office via e-mail or 303.674.0717.


  • Guatemalan women learn more about new, safe stoves with Friendship BridgePilot stove project health initiative rolled out in October – A recent study on open pit fires, used by many of our clients, found the deadly gas carbon monoxide was found to be fifteen times greater than the EPA base level considered to be dangerous (learn more at HELPS International).  Friendship Bridge is offering low-rate loans to help our clients transition to safer and healthier stoves.
  • Pricing study on interest rates proves Friendship Bridge remains in the lower quartile – Friendship Bridge recently completed a comprehensive pricing study of 13 competitors that make up 70 percent of the market share in Guatemala.  The study confirms that we have met our goal of offering loan rates in the lower quartile of the market.
  • Expanding the Bridge: 2014-2016 Strategic Plan sneak preview – Guided by comprehensive data evaluations, the 2014-2016 Strategic Plan includes enhanced credit and savings products, a focus on rural agriculture families, a market access program for artisan clients, implementing several health related initiatives, and growing successful relationships with partners including Kiva and Global Partnerships.  You will hear more about this in 2014.

I know it is a busy time of year for everyone, but I am grateful you have made the time to review our highlights.  We are in a very exciting stage in our organizational growth and I encourage you to remember Friendship Bridge and the potential of our many thousands of empowered women in your end-of-year giving.

All the best this holiday season,

Karen Larson
Executive Director

How poverty data influences strategy at Friendship Bridge

For many years, Friendship Bridge has been utilizing both qualitative and quantitative evaluation tools to monitor the impact of the mission.  In 2011, Friendship Bridge committed to a PPIlogomore consistent evaluation process to better monitor balanced financial and social performance, which included conducting a baseline study using the Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI).  The following year, Friendship Bridge institutionalized the PPI as part of its regular processes.  The data collected from these efforts are now used to shape the strategic plans and priorities for the organization.

The Grameen Foundation’s PPI blog recently highlighted Friendship Bridge for our efforts in using poverty data to influence strategy.  The data obtained through the PPI validates existing program strategy to deliver microcredit and education to our target market.  In addition, the data is guiding the 2014-2016 Strategic Plan to expand programs that offer diversified financial products and advanced educational services.  Please read the full blog post on the PPI blog here.

Giving the Gift of Empowerment

Empower Guatemalan WomenAfter receiving Microcredit Plus from Friendship Bridge, Vicenta left the back-breaking life in the fields behind to pursue her weaving trade.

At Friendship Bridge, our philosophy is simple: We believe women are the key to economic development.  Over the past year, Friendship Bridge offered more than 19,000 Guatemalan women loans and education programs to help them create their own solutions to poverty. Through microloans and education, you are helping to turn the tide in Guatemala by providing women the skills and resources to build sustainable futures.  Renewable loans for as little as $125 allow them to enhance their own small businesses such as artisan trades, raising livestock, and making and selling food products.

Case in point: Vicenta Zaput Palax.  From the age of 11, Vicenta worked in the cotton and coffee fields along the southern coast of Guatemala.  With only three years of formal education, planting and harvesting year after year became a way of life.  While working the fields had always put food on the table, what she really loved was weaving.  After receiving Microcredit Plus from Friendship Bridge, Vicenta was able to turn her love for weaving into a business, capable of supporting herself and her family.

In fact, she is so successful that all of her children are now in school and she is also using what she has learned to help others in her community, Vicenta now leads an association of women artisans!  Women like Vicenta are a perfect example of how microloans combined with education can empower women to find their dreams and become change agents in their families and communities.

The success of these programs and the women we serve, would not be possible without donors like you.  Please consider making a significant impact with your donation this holiday season by investing in women through Friendship Bridge.  Your donation will provide life-changing microloans and education programs to help women grow their businesses, create change for themselves, their families and communities, and like Vicenta, find their dreams.

Click here to give the gift of empowerment.

Visiting Guatemala with Friendship Bridge

By: Meryle Melnicoff

On the recommendation of a friend, I signed up for the November Insight trip, organized and hosted by Friendship Bridge.  As a believer in the power of micro-finance to improve lives, I wanted to see how Friendship Bridge works with its women clients.  The trip turned out to be filled with many wonderful surprises and delights.

My first surprise was the country of Guatemala itself.   At the urging of the Friendship Bridge staff, I went straight to the town of Antigua from the airport instead of staying in the capital of Guatemala City.  Antigua is a lovely tourist town full of shops and markets where you can purchase the wonderful hand-woven articles that are unique to Guatemala.  Anyone who enjoys quality handicrafts and artwork will have a wonderful time in this town.  After Antigua, we went to Lake Atitlan, which is a magnificent lake surrounded by beautiful mountains, which I learned were active volcanoes.

The most meaningful moments of my Insight trip were our visits to the Friendship Bridge clients, many of whom are located in the small towns and villages around Lake Atitlan.  During these visits we saw the power of micro-finance to improve lives.  We met with some long-term Friendship Bridge clients who now have thriving businesses such as restaurants, shops selling local goods, and even a multi-family clothing factory; these businesses now supported the women and their entire families.

Clients Learning about Children Education

FB Loan Officer teaching clients about the importance of education for their children.

During one client visit, we had the opportunity to observe – and participate in – a repayment meeting and that is when I learned how special and unique the Friendship Bridge micro-loan program is in Guatemala.  Once a month each Trust Bank (a group of 8-12 women who have agreed to guarantee each others’ loans) meets with a Friendship Bridge loan officer.  Instead of simply making their payment and then leaving, as would be the case with a for-profit micro-loan company, the women meet for an hour for a bonding and educational session.  These educational sessions are the real reason the Friendship Bridge clients rise out of poverty: the clients learn about the importance of keeping their children in school, mental and physical health, family planning, and managing their business.  One impact of these sessions is that, in a country with only a fifty percent literacy rate, we know that Friendship Bridge clients are now able to prioritize education for their children.

Guatemala is a beautiful country that is growing and prospering, but it still has many people, mainly indigenous Mayans, living in poverty and without education.   Thanks to the work of Friendship Bridge, 19,000 families are now led by empowered women who are getting the financial and educational support to lift themselves out of poverty.  Much has been accomplished in Guatemala in the past 15 years, but there is still much more to do.

View a photo album of Meryle’s trip, here.  Photos by: Doug Smith

Technical Training Creates New Love for Floral Arranging

Guatemalan women in technical trainingFriendship Bridge is continuing to make huge strides with our advanced education and technical training initiative.  To date, over 700 women have participated in a technical training to help take their business to the next level.   Through a variety of strategic partnerships with key organizations in Guatemala, we have sponsored courses on topics ranging from pastry making and canning to improved agriculture techniques and flower arranging.

Recently, a handful of our clients completed a training dedicated specifically to the art of flower arranging.  This skill is versatile as it can give clients a variety of opportunities including:

1) Store owners can create a new stream of income

2) Allows women to start a second small business

3) Presents an opportunity for women who really enjoy the art, to move from their current career into a new one

In addition to enhancing their businesses, the women in these technical trainings report that they love to get out of the house, form new relationships and the new skill boosts their confidence levels.

Meet the Aj Batz Trust Bank

Aj Batz Trust Bank

Four new members of the Aj Batz Trust Bank

The Aj Batz Trust Bank consists of 14 amazing women from the rural area of Chichicastenango, Guatemala.  These women have been clients of Friendship Bridge for many years, they continue to apply for microloans and education from Friendship Bridge because they feel it is a great tool for them.  Over the past several years, they have grown their businesses, which benefits their whole family and even other members of their community.

Recently, the Aj Batz Trust Bank welcomed four new members: Anastasia Quino, Maria Quino, Marta Cuterez, and Maria Calel.  All are very excited to be part of the group. “I learned about Friendship Bridge from a friend.  My husband and I discussed the opportunity and agreed it would be good for our family because to make more money at my small convenience store, I needed to increase the inventory,” explains Mary Quino.

“I live near the other members of the Aj Batz Trust Bank, so I asked them for more information.  I liked what I heard, so I made my decision to join.  I’m happy with this first loan cycle and I invested the loan in the production of textiles,” says Marta Cuterez.

Each month, the women meet to repay their loans and gather for an information education lesson.  These lessons are provided by a trained loan officer and are included with their microloan from Friendship Bridge, thus the name Microcredit Plus.  The loan officer travels to a home of a Trust Bank member for these meetings.  Topics range from budgeting and customer service to self-esteem and women’s health.

Even though it was cloudy and cold morning when we visited the Aj Batz Trust Bank, the ladies had a lot of fun during their meeting. Lots of laughs were shared, especially when all of the ladies got actively involved during this month’s education session focused on marketing (specifically product, price, place and promotion).  The clients freely compare their small businesses, and discuss openly whether they can implement any marketing strategies to promote their businesses. These women have businesses that are based around the Guatemalan art of textiles.  Their products include: tablecloths, napkins, huipils (Guatemalan shirts), scarves and much more.

The Friendship Bridge loan officer and facilitator, Tomasa Sen, starts the session with the first theme: product.  She talks about how the product size and presentation can make a difference in the mind of the client at the time of purchase.   The group also covers the importance of pricing your product so that it covers hard costs but is also market appropriate depending on their audience (wholesalers, retailers, or final consumers). Slowly the conversation turns to where they sell, which varies from woman to woman.  They sell in the Plaza, out of their home, on the street, or door-to-door.  Based on that, the women discuss promotions.  The ladies all agree that they can advertise their product in many ways including posters and word of mouth.

Meet the Trust Bank President:

Each Trust Bank elects its own board, including president and treasurer.  After the meeting, we had a chance to catch up with Aj Batz Trust Bank president, Tol Cuterez Josefa (she prefers to be called Josefa). Josefa is 46 years-old and has 12 children.  Her business is creating and selling textiles – mostly shawls, but she also makes tablecloths and huipils.  She uses her income to provide more nutritious meals for her large family.  Josefa enjoys being president because it allows her to improve her leadership skills and learn more about how to organize a group. Josefa’s dream is to see all her children reach sixth grade, and possibly advance to high school.  She knows this may be difficult because her children have many needs, and she and her husband have to give the same opportunities to all of them, but she is working hard to make this happen.

“I appreciate the support and tools Friendship Bridge provides. I also like the education piece of the organization because it teaches us how to be more profitable.  Many of us are a little shy to share our stories to the group but when we do, we enjoy it and we feel part of the change in our communities,” explains Josefa.

Thank you Whole Foods Belmar for supporting Aj Batz!

Flor del Desierto Circle Celebrates Day of the Dead

Beautiful Alter Table DecorBy: Constancia Leshin

The Antelope Valley Country Club banquet room was transformed by members of our local Circle beginning at noon on October 24th. A four tiered altar or “ofrenda” was built on a 22 foot base and ornately decorated with bright orange paper marigolds called “cempatuchil”, tiny orange lights and flickering candles, ceramic and wood santos, fruits and sweets of all kinds, a bottle of beer, wine, coffee and tea with glasses and cups. Guests were invited to bring pictures of loved ones who had departed to place on the “ofrenda”. Thirteen large round tables for eight with black tablecloths and brightly colored napkins along with centerpieces of traditional woven bags from Aguacatan, Guatemala were the centerpieces. Each bag had brightly colored tissue paper peaking out. Ornate “papel picado” adorned the silent auction table as well as the ofrenda. With lively Guatemalan marimba and guitar music, over 90 guests entered the room at 5:30 and were offered hors d’oeuvres of papaya, watermelon, pineapple and melonsprinkled with chile and lime juice. A no host bar was set up near the tipica table. Caroline Bernal and Maru Trimmerhad designed the evening’s multipage program which included informational pages of our Friendship Bridge support Circle, Day of the Dead as well as a detailed description of silent auction items. They smoothly and efficiently checked guests in at the beginning and end of the evening.

Chice Davison and Jean Monte were very helpful at the tipica table and by the end of the evening, very little of it remained. Roxie Patterson conducted a very successful 50/50 split in which an additional funds were raised. Also contributing to the success of the evening were Vivian Kamori, Jane Zeok, Ricky Perkins, and Mary O’Malley.. Long distance members attending were Penelope Curtis, Laurie Piccolotti, Lindy Smelthurst and Sat Akal.

Guests were welcomed at 6:15 by Emcee Constancia Leshin and because the evening had been meticulously planned by event chair, Caron Trataris, there was a wonderful flow to it. A short modern dance presentation followed with four dancers from Hidden Entropy Movement Project directed by Rochelle Guardado, who wore huipiles and black tights, their faces painted in Day of the Dead theme, who presented an improvisational modern dance near the “ofrenda”. Dinner was served shortly afterwards and consisted of a South of the Border Coleslaw, Vegetarian Ceviche, Black Mole Chicken, Spanish Rice, Black Beans, Roasted Vegetables, Fresh Fruit Salad, as well as Tortillas and Salsa. The dessert was a very rich and delicious chocolate bread pudding.

After dinner, the compelling 2012 Friendship Bridge video was shown followed by a short presentation by Constancia about the latest news from Friendship Bridge. Everyone was quite enthusiastic about the anticipated emergence of Friendship Bridge branded merchandise, health insurance, savings program as well as agricultural assistance. Noted local Guatemalan artist and writer, Edwin Vasquez passionately shared his thoughts about current political and economic issues in his country of birth. Everyone was visibly moved.

Our small but mighty Circle raised over $10,000 and we are quite pleased. Many in attendance left very inspired and requested that we repeat the event in 2014. It would be our 4th Day of the Dead Fundraiser. Some inquired about future Insight Trips as they wanted to experience the organization in a more intimate manner. Still others decided to join our Circle. As for the members of our Circle, we packed everything and left the venue, very pleased with our efforts!

View the full Day of the Dead photo album.

New Circle Hosts Fiesta for Friendship Bridge


Circle members sell plants for Friendship Bridge

Plant sale at Fiesta for Friendship Bridge

One of Friendship Bridge’s newest circle’s recently hosted a wonderful Fiesta to raise money for Microcredit Plus.  Fiesta for Friendship Bridge was an amazing evening that included wonderful eats, beautiful silent auction, plant sale and more, all at Branch Mill Organic Farm in California.

Eight months ago, Carolyn Casas and Lonna Crane started Las Perlas del Mar Circle (aka Central Coast Circle) and have since raised thousands of dollars to provide Guatemalan women with microcredit and education. Fiesta for Friendship Bridge was intended to be a fundraiser, but was so much more.  The Las Perlas del Mar circle also raised awareness and added seven new members to their circle during that event!

 The event drew many people who are not circle members, and they were all very excited to learn more about FB and support the women of Guatemala in various ways.  Adding to the evening festivities was a presentation by Delfina, a FB Branch Manager, and entertainment from Chris Belund, a talented artist who supported the event with the gift of music. “It warmed my heart how everything, except paper supplies, was donated so we had very little overhead.  In addition, we had several women stay late to clean up…we were all tired but working together and creating many great memories,” says Carolyn.

Both Lonna and Carolyn have traveled to Guatemala to see Friendship Bridge in action.  “I am drawn to microcredit as a development tool and after reading The Blue Sweater, which Lonna lent me, it makes sense that the best way to empower people to change their lives for the better is through microloans.  I love the idea of women helping women in other counties, too.  We have so much here and it feels good to share some of that,” explains Carolyn.  “And I agree that helping women grow and be successful helps the whole family prosper.  The education that FB gives is extra much- needed support for these women.”

Thank you Las Perlas del Mar for hosting such a great event on behalf of FB!