We've never heard anyone living in poverty describe their situation as simple. In fact, we've heard story after story about the complex interactions between poor health, lousy infrastructure, barriers to education, corruption, violence, social isolation, limited financial access, and exploitative markets.
And yet, the social sector is overflowing with awards, fellowships, and other laudations for silver bullet solutions. We love ideas we can understand in a mobile-enabled infographic. Reality, as understood by anyone who has actually implemented any of these solutions, is so much messier.
Take the example of Lwala Community Alliance. Nine years ago, two brothers from a remote village in Western Kenya mobilized their neighbors to start an organization that would holistically tackle the social determinants of health. Lwala has since become a recognized expert at working through government systems and community structures to ensure that every individual has access to high-quality healthcare.
Our work is seeing results: since 2010, the rate of women delivering babies in a facility has increased from 26 to 97 percent, and the ratio of girls graduating primary school has increased from 37 to 46 percent. However, the communities we serve remind us that these improvements on their own are not enough.
What's the biggest demand from community members? They consistently voice a desire for more economic opportunities. So, in search for a partner with an evidence-based, bottom-up strategy to increase incomes, we approached Village Enterprise, a mutual grantee of Segal Family Foundation.
Village Enterprise works with the ultra-poor to create businesses that generate sustainable savings and incomes. Village Enterprise uses a community-driven process to target the ultra-poor, then provides them with a capital seed grant, business and financial literacy training, and mentoring to start small, sustainable businesses and savings groups.
- Our staff members are hired from the specific village they serve.
- The people we serve lead the design of our programs. At Village Enterprise, business groups select their own type of business, and savings groups set their own terms. At Lwala, community committees determine plans for their education and health programs and local traditional birth attendants design our package of home-based services and links to health facilities.
Lwala Community Alliance and Village Enterprise have each bitten off huge components of the complex web of deficiencies that defines extreme poverty. Now, we are joining forces in southwestern Kenya to see if we get more impact together than either of us would have separately.
We are excited about what this partnership means for our communities, and we want to encourage funders to create more space for this type of collaboration.
- Incentivize collaboration - Consider dedicating a piece of your portfolio to fund partnerships between your stellar grantees. Or, create incentives in your granting system for organizations to apply as partners, allowing for genuine collaboration.
- Provide unrestricted funds - If you ask any implementer, you will hear that this is the most impactful money you can provide. Unrestricted funds from Segal Family Foundation, Imago Dei Fund, Weyerhaeuser Foundation, the David Weekley Foundation, and the John F. and Mary A. Geisse Foundation are allowing us the flexibility to begin a pilot even before we secure new money for the collaboration.
- Don't value scale at the expense of impact -Don't let numbers distract from transformational impact. Collaboration like ours means taking time to pilot, adapt, and measure well. This likely means the slower addition of each new beneficiary in the short-term, but it also means that each individual will be more holistically served.
- Convene - Get people in the same room, or even better, eating at the same table. Village Enterprise and Lwala both attend Skoll World Forum and Segal Family Foundation's Annual Meeting, where we participate in sessions, but also share drinks, laughs, and crazy ideas with like-minded innovators.
- Forget about attribution - We often hear that the reason partners don't work together is that it will muddle their research design or make it difficult to attribute impact to a specific intervention. There is a place for randomized control trials and research with clean controls, but the industry desire for these shouldn't drive organizational strategy. Hold partnering grantees mutually accountable for cost-effective, transformational impact, and de-emphasize forensic study on exactly who did exactly what.
We'd like to give a shout out to our implementing friends that have joined us in the practice of community-driven approaches - Tostan, Spark MicroGrants, STIR, Rafiki wa Mandeleo Trust, Development in Gardening, and The BOMA Project. And, to our path-breaking funder allies, mentioned above, who are creating space for meaningful collaboration.
A person living in extreme poverty aspires for more than just a solar light or a mentorship program or a safe delivery or a loan, they yearn for the opportunity to transform their life - so should we.
Ash Rogers (@ashlaurenrogers) is passionate about proving that when communities lead, change is drastic and lasting. She is the Executive Director of Lwala Community Alliance, a community founded and led organization taking local innovations and using them to transform health and education systems in Western Kenya.
Dianne Calvi (@diannecalvi) is President and CEO of Village Enterprise. During her tenure, Village Enterprise has been recognized by the Rockefeller Foundation as a Next Century Innovator, by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) as an effective implementer of the evidence-based graduation approach, and as a top-rated non-profit from Charity Navigator, Guidestar and Great Nonprofits.