The following is a conversation between William Abrams, President and CEO of Trickle Up, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: For a program committed to lifting people out of poverty, and one that wants to show positive results, it is tempting to choose participants with a good chance of success: some education, a few employable skills, people who just need an opportunity. But if you’re committed to doing the most good, you would look at the most vulnerable populations living in extreme poverty, even ultra-poverty, often in isolated, rural areas. Trickle Up is an organization that has taken the latter path and has achieved amazing results at the same time. And here to tell us about how they go about doing it, it’s a pleasure to have with us their President and CEO, William Abrams.
Good evening, Bill, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
William: Thank you, Denver. It’s great to be here. I look forward to the conversation.
Our focus is on people who are living at the absolute depths of poverty, what we sometimes call ultra-poverty, and focus virtually 100% on women. Our mission is to help women and their families escape extreme poverty by helping them start a business, save on a regular basis, gain skills and confidence that will last them a lifetime, and importantly, change their view of what’s possible for them in their lives.
Denver: Likewise. Trickle Up was founded 40 years ago, back in 1979. How did it get started, and what is your mission?
William: Let me talk about the mission first…. As you quite perceptively said, our focus is on people who are living at the absolute depths of poverty, what we sometimes call ultra-poverty – we can talk more about that later… What are the differences in levels of poverty? … and focus virtually 100% on women. So, everything that Trickle Up is about starts there, the population we’re serving. Our mission is to help women and their families escape extreme poverty by helping them start a business, save on a regular basis, gain skills and confidence that will last them a lifetime, and importantly, change their view of what’s possible for them in their lives. So that’s what we’re all about.
The origin story is fascinating. It was started, as you say, 40 years ago by a remarkable couple Glen and Mildred Robbins Leet. Today, we would call them social entrepreneurs. I don’t think that phrase had been coined yet.
So the story in brief: Glen had worked in the Development sector all of his life, starting with the rebuilding of Greece after World War II. He became the president of Save The Children in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, and the big idea in poverty alleviation at that time was something called Integrated World Development – let’s go into a village and fix everything: schools, clean water, the economy, so on and so forth. Very ambitious, probably too ambitious. All that complexity became a burden unto itself.
I think Glen, who I never met – he passed away before I got involved with Trickle Up – but, by all accounts, was a genius-level thinker…I think he went away and thought “All that complexity didn’t work. What’s the simplest thing that we could do?” And the answer that he and Millie, his wife, came up with: “We’re going to focus on women,” which today everybody takes for granted, but for then was a very progressive idea, “We’re going to help them gain the skills and give them a little bit of a kickstart so they can start a business, and if they have more money, a lot of good things will happen.” It was based very much on the belief that if you give people a small boost, they will take it the rest of the way. The women are always the heroine of the story; it’s not Trickle Up.
Millie was a human dynamo, had been involved in causes all of her life. Very active, for example, in civil rights. I could show you on the picture of Martin Luther King delivering the I Have a Dream speech, and there to his left was one of the few Caucasians on the platform, Millie Leet, lost in thought; fascinating picture. She made things happen. She mobilized the staff. She mobilized donors. She never got off an airplane without a check or a couple of business cards or both. And together, they had this idea that if they could focus on people at this level of poverty, focus on women, give them a few basic inputs to get them going…that something amazing would happen. They had $1,000 that a relative, someone had left them in a bequest, so they went to the island of Dominica, and they found ten women, and Trickle Up was born.
Denver: There you go. These founding stories are always so fascinating.
You mentioned a moment ago, Bill, the extreme poverty and ultra-poverty. We hear these terms used a lot. Is there a definition of them?
William: Yes. Extreme poverty has been defined officially or formally by the World Bank in the UN originally, at the notion, sort of the shorthand of living on a dollar a day or less; actually, over time, that’s been recalibrated to $1.90 with inflation and changes, so on. So, there are about 700- or 800 million people by the World Bank’s count who live at that level of poverty. Now, it’s very hard to generalize about 700- or 800 million; in fact, when you unpack it, there are levels of poverty within that. So, the ultra-poor, which is a term more in use in Asia and South Asia than here, but it’s useful in describing that segment or sub-segment of the extreme poor who live well below that line. Think of people who are living not on a $1 a day, but 50 cents a day, or 75 cents a day. Their lives are characterized by obviously having very little money, almost no savings, very often not enough food to get through three meals a day.
Denver: Just trying to stay alive.
William: Especially during this sort of what’s called the hungry season – a few months before the harvest when there isn’t much work; people have used up their stores, and they’re living more or less the same lives that their parents and probably their grandparents lived. So, the question is: How do you break the cycle of poverty, the cycle of multi-generational poverty?
Denver: Well, one of the ways in which you do that and is held in such high regard is microcredit or microfinance. Now, is that an effective solution for the ultra-poor?
William: What we do is not microcredit that many people have heard of – small loans, no collateral loans. One of the things that distinguishes Trickle Up is we give small grants. Think of it as equity, not debt. We started doing $100 grants, which was actually enough to get something going: to buy a second-hand sewing machine; to buy working capital or inventory for a small trading business.
So that was the idea because people at that level of poverty are not ready to take on more debt. It’s often debt that has gotten them into that level of extreme poverty through moneylenders and things. Credit has always been available from any lender. Now, microcredit helped make it safer and more affordable, but credit has never been something people at any level of poverty couldn’t get their hands on.
Denver: Is this a one-time grant?
William: It’s a one-time grant. Now, the amounts have, of course, grown some with time. Generally, they’ll range between $125 and $250 depending on the place and how much money we have, and partners and so on and so forth. And again, it doesn’t sound like much, but in many places, that’s enough to buy four or five goats, which can get you started; to buy that sewing machine; to get your small trading business going; to buy some cooking equipment so that you can have a small food business… a small restaurant really, outside your home.
One of the things that characterizes the businesses that we help people start is they’re home-based. People are not yet at a point that they could afford to rent or buy another location. So one of the definitions of success is when a business gets to the point where it could actually have a separate address and have a couple of employees beyond family members; then you’re really, really going strong.
Denver: What are some of the challenges that face people who have lived in ultra-poverty?
William: The list is long. Some, as I said, is simply multi-generational poverty. You’re trapped in a poverty trap; it’s hard to get out. And even within a village, a poor village, the very poorest are often marginalized: They’re exposed to few opportunities to earn money, a high degree of health risks, sickness, accidents, usually lack education of any consequence. There’s very little way out for them. Their housing conditions are generally quite poor. You’ll very often see mud houses. The roof is often a very good indicator of the whole story, and there’s actually a kind of technical measure called the cash-poor index, where if you look at the roof, and if you can kind of look around at the roofs in a community, you can figure out who’s the poorest because the poorest family will have a roof that’s probably a hodgepodge of some branches and a piece of plywood and some burlap and maybe a piece of sheet metal. A good roof is sheet metal; a good roof will hold back the rain.
And the other piece of this – this is important – is discrimination. People are marginalized by virtue of being women, by being a member of an indigenous group such as Mayan populations in Guatemala where we work, or tribal populations in India. They’re marginalized by lack of education, sometimes caste, such as in India.
So, there’s a lot of forces that people are trying to overcome. Some are very clear and countable – lack of money, lack of education; some are much more subtle around this sort of aspects of discrimination.
In many ways, a person’s view of the world is at the heart of the matter. It starts with confidence: Can I actually succeed at this? It starts with a certain amount of bravery: Can I overcome some traditions?
Denver: And it would seem like in combination, this must really take a hit on their self-esteem.
William: You ask good questions, Denver. Yes. In many ways, a person’s view of the world is at the heart of the matter. It starts with confidence: Can I actually succeed at this? It starts with a certain amount of bravery: Can I overcome some traditions?
Very often, these are heavily patriarchal societies with a lot of rules about what women can and can’t do, where they can and can’t travel. An important element we’ve found is the ability to plan. If you live in conditions of extreme, extreme poverty, you don’t have a lot of reason to think that what you do will change your destiny. You are a captive of weather cycles, of patriarchal societies, of history…so why plan if you can’t change anything? So we take planning for granted. And so, one of the important skills that we teach people is how to visualize a different future and how to plan the steps to get you there.
Denver: Well, before we get into those steps, you mentioned Guatemala before. What are some of the other countries in which you operate?
William: We operate primarily in three regions of the world. In Asia, it’s primarily India, but we’ve been working for a couple of years in Vietnam and Bangladesh. We work in West Africa, primarily in the small but very poor country; in the fantastic country of Burkina Faso. And now, we’ve been doing some advising to some of the other neighboring countries in West Africa. We are part of a large multi-year project with refugees in Uganda. In Latin America, our home base is Guatemala. We’ve also worked in Nicaragua on and off, depending on political conditions. Over the past two years, we’ve also expanded into Mexico.
So our map has grown. Fourteen years ago, when I joined Trickle Up, we were in a lot more countries. It was a very portable approach. We were in 15 countries, including a program in the United States…. in a number of places in the United States. Small budget, small staff, and then we said, “We have to step back and think about quality more than quantity. Let’s be in fewer places with depth.” So that took us from 15 countries down to around 5.
Now, we also work on a consulting basis, primarily through our refugee program in a number of other countries: Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, Burkina Faso, and others. Probably have a larger engagement in Jordan fairly soon, a huge refugee population. So you want to find that balance between depth and really understanding the local context and building strong, local relationships, and also a certain amount of adaptability as circumstances change.
Denver: Have to have that healthy tension in any organization.
William: Well, we have plenty of that.
Denver: Well, let’s talk about those steps. Your core program is based on the Graduation approach, and that’s a method that was pioneered by BRAC, the largest NGO in the world. Walk us through the Graduation approach.
William: Before that, a little bit of history. So for sure, what we now call Graduation was conceived and developed, brilliantly so, by BRAC in Bangladesh over the last 15 or 20 years. But actually, what BRAC developed as Graduation is probably 65% or 75% the same thing that Trickle Up has been doing since 1979. So the opportunity came along for us to get involved in a pilot project to scale BRAC’s Graduation approach through a number of countries. So we looked at that, and we said, “This is perfect for us because it’s very compatible”. It actually pushed us; it stretched us to modernize some of the things we were doing.
Denver: Always trying to get better.
William: Exactly. And it’s important to be open to sharing and working in collaboration. The challenge of global poverty, of extreme poverty or ultra-poverty, is too big for any one organization. There are 300- or 400 million people in the world living in the conditions of ultra-poverty that we talked about earlier. So being open to partnership is a critical factor for success.
I came out of the private sector. I came primarily out of the media business, so there, the notion of partnership is usually more alien. I’m blessed to work in an industry where, for example, we have a lot of sharing. Before, intellectual property was a key thing to the success of any media company. So, being able to take a more relaxed view of that is very important.
Denver: Walk us through that Graduation approach.
William: It starts with targeting… selection of people. We have a methodology to identify the very poorest in a community. I can talk more about targeting. And then, it begins as this sort of planning piece. So before anybody gets anything started, it’s some of this: “What would you like to do? What do you think is possible?” It may be a woman who’s had some kind of business activity but has some other ideas, and people very often have plenty of good ideas.
Denver: So you make her the center of her transformation.
William: Absolutely. We’re just there to give a little boost, to be a catalyst, and if the woman doesn’t own the solution, it won’t work. So, there’s planning, and we work with women particularly in kind of training in groups. Part of what we do is organize women into savings groups, a group of women 15-, 20 women who meet every week or every two weeks, and they start to save together, and then they start to lend to each other.
We talked before about Trickle Up giving grants, not loans. The loan, the credit piece comes into the equation through the savings group. The other important element of Graduation and of the Trickle Up approach is enabling people to get some seed capital, enough — $100, $200. One of the differences between microcredit and what we do is it takes a while in microcredit to get your hands on $100 at one time, and so people have enough capital to get something going. There are a variety of ways that happens: some is an outright grant; some are soft loans.
One of the important things about Graduation is it has basic principles in a basic sequence. It’s usually time-bound, sort of in two- or three years to help somebody go through change, go through a couple of crop cycles and business cycles. But you always have to be very, very aware and sensitive to the context of the place you’re in and the population we’re working with, so there’s always adaptation.
The role of the coach is not simply there to just dole out answers, but it’s to help women develop their own strategies, their own solutions: What are you going to do about that? What might be possible? Who can you talk to in your community who might have some advice?
Denver: Absolutely. One size never fits all.
I am a certified executive coach and really believe in the power of coaching. You make that a key part of your program. Speak to that a little bit.
William: Absolutely. I have a personal executive coach in this country, in corporations. I have coaches. Coaching is very important.
One of the things we’ve found over time is just training people in a classroom, a workshop-type setting doesn’t work very well. It’s a lot to absorb, and you’ll see the same things here if you go to a workshop, and especially for people who’ve never been to school. So, you need to lay down some basic things. But then we work with partners, which might be a local grassroots agency, but we would think of as a social service agency or government. We work more and more with government to provide coaching.
A coach will typically visit women every week or every two weeks. So it’s: “What is your challenge today?” And a lot of it, again, going back to that confidence segment: “I’m here to help you,” which no one has ever done for them; Or, “I care about you. I’m going to call you by your first name. What’s going on? How can I help? You’ve got a problem with your goat? Let’s look at that together.” And importantly, the role of the coach is not simply there to just dole out answers, but it’s to help women develop their own strategies, their own solutions: What are you going to do about that? What might be possible? Who can you talk to in your community who might have some advice?
So again, we don’t want to – whether it’s Trickle Up staff or local staff – be there in a kind of patriarchal, patronizing way and just kind of force-feed people information and solutions. They have to be the architects of their own destiny.
Denver: Bill, how do you define, and then measure success?
William: We have a rather formal six definitions of success that we’ve created a number of years ago. We spent over a year debating this internally, so we know where we’re measuring, and that we can have some simple standards. They’re very basic: Do people have enough food to eat? Do they have a safe, dignified livelihood? Do they have savings? Are they making improvements in the quality of their life, whether that’s the conditions of their housing or children going to school? And importantly, do they have a vision and a plan for their future? So that’s the framework that we use for measurement, and we typically will gather some data, some information at the beginning of someone’s involvement in the program, usually at the midpoint, then at the end. So we can see what happens over time.
The other piece that’s very important for Trickle Up and similar organizations is: How can we demonstrate that it’s our intervention that made the difference, rather than maybe it was a really good weather year, a good crop year or a big government program came into the community? So we’re involved with partners in various randomized, controlled trial tests similar to what was developed in the pharmaceutical industry, where you have a control group and then you have the active group, so that you can do a compelling job of attribution, saying, “These activities resulted in these outcomes, and that we can credit that back to these activities and not something else.”
So, we do… especially for an organization, we do more than our share of research. One reason is to always be learning, always be making our program better. The other, of course, is to demonstrate to funders and others that this is effective.
Denver: That’s great, and that’s the right priority. So many do it just to demonstrate to funders, but your primary reason is to get better, and the funders are secondary to that.
Direct cash transfers have gotten a lot of attention and have many fans, and that’s when people are given money with no strings attached, to use as they see fit to better their lives and those of their family. How does the Graduation approach compare to direct cash transfers?
William: Cash transfers definitely have their place and have demonstrated effectiveness in a number of settings, especially in Latin America through what’s called conditional cash transfers. We’ll give you this money as long as your kids are in school or they’re inoculated. And then there are sort of pure cash transfers. A number of years ago, I think that what started the cash transfer movement was a book called Just Give The Poor Money, and get all of the process, the training, the hand-holding, the coach…you get that all out of the way. It’s expensive and trusts people that they’ll figure it out. It’s very seductive; the simplicity of it is hard to argue with.
I believe, based on some of the evidence we’ve seen, it can work. However, when you look specifically at the population we’re working with– the ultra-poor people who are lacking education, lacking the means to start and manage a business, facing all kinds of discrimination– just having money won’t get them there.
So, we turbocharged cash transfers. In many ways, the original Trickle Up $100 grant, which came with very little training and very little coaching, was a precursor to cash transfers. I think time will tell what works best in what setting. There is no one answer. The question is: What is the answer in a specific place, for a specific population, at a specific time? How do you accumulate the evidence to show that it’s really working?
Denver: People and experts will tell you that one of the most difficult things is to take a successful program like yours and to scale it up. There are a lot of different ways to do it. When you decided that it was a priority for the organization to reach more people, how did you go about doing it?
William: So, about six or seven years ago, we took a serious look at what we were doing and we said, “Well, we’re doing great work. We are helping 10,000-, 12,000-, 15,000 families a year escape extreme poverty on a sustainable basis. And you feel very good about that. And I go out, and I travel, and I meet women, and those stories just fill your cup for a long time…all the inspiration. And then we said, “But, now, how do we scale?” Because there are 300 million or more families that would benefit from this. And so, we made that the central pillar of our strategy, and the answer we came up with was we had to work with governments and very large international NGOs – Mercy Corps, organizations like that – because the hardest thing to scale for any nonprofit is your funding. We were not going to go from being a $5 million NGO to a $50 million or a $500 million organization. Bill Gates was not going to write us a check for $50 million a year ‘til the end of time.
And here were governments, and we were kind of allergic to government for all the reasons you can well understand: politics, corruption, so on and so forth. And we said, “We have to get over that” because there are a number of governments that are very sincere about this as a matter of mission and as a matter of policy… governments that have tremendously effective poverty programs, smart dedicated staffs, smart research. And if we went into this with mutual respect, and also made sure we understood the difference in the kind of power balance, if you will, between Trickle Up, a small organization based in the United States, and a large agency in India or West Africa.
And so, we started out, and we exceeded our expectations, starting with the UN Refugee Commission… and we were not really working with refugees then, but they liked this Graduation approach as we practiced it so that refugees could get back to work. We were able to enter into relationships with two very large state-level poverty agencies in India. We’re now advising the government of Paraguay, working in Guatemala at the municipal level, which is sort of where it happens, not so much in the capital, and overall, very effectively. They bring a lot to it, and so their ability to scale far exceeds ours. Also, we were looking to change our own business model.
So up to that point, Trickle Up had paid essentially 100% of the costs to deliver the program, and we said, “Well, that’s an impediment to scale, and many of these governments have significant poverty budgets.” Now, whether that’s from their tax base or the World Bank, money is money.
Denver: Money is money.
William: In many cases, what we found that’s fascinating is: if we could help large agencies organize some of their existing inputs and resources a little bit better, they could have greater effect. So we found, for example, working with the UN Refugee Commission, they had a lot of the components in some form or another, but putting them together in the right sequence, in the right combination, would make a difference, and the incremental cost was quite small. So, we’re always looking.
And the other thing that’s important about government is: government will also have other programs, other approaches that address the other parts of the poverty equation that we don’t. Our focus is economic development, but people need health; they need clean water. We see this in India that working with state government partners, we’re able to mobilize other resources that would normally be beyond, whether it’s sanitary latrines, or education, or access to health. So that’s really critical. One of the great challenges of our work is: poverty is about much more than lack of money, so how do we help mobilize resources to the whole equation?
Denver: It’s interesting the way you walked us through that because it is so frequent that social entrepreneurs don’t want to deal with government because they’re slow, and it’s difficult. But inevitably, if you really want to make impact, you have to partner with government.
William: That’s been our experience so far, and it’s a learning process, dealing with a big bureaucracy, staff turnover, budgets, in-and-out politics. So, for example, in Guatemala, being able to work at the community level, municipal level, in one community where we really started this approach… in Guatemala, we’ve now been through three mayors. Any program that can survive three mayors is a program that’s got some legs.
Denver: Some stick-to-itiveness!
Let me ask you about one of the most important relationships of any nonprofit organization, and that would be between the board chair and the CEO, and then, in turn, the culture of the board. What insights do you have on that over your 14 -,15 years of leading Trickle Up?
William: We are blessed with a great board, and it’s interesting. Trickle Up is not the highest-profile organization in New York City, and all of our board members could be on bigger, fancier boards that would get their pictures in the New York Times on Sunday and that kind of thing.
So, they’re there because they believe in the mission. They like the fact that we’re highly focused and consistent over 40 years. They like the fact that we have evidence to demonstrate Trickle Up works. Our board has 21 members. Many of them stay quite a long time. We don’t really obsess over term limits. I personally believe if you have a good board member who’s productive, why would you say goodbye to them?
And so, in terms of the board chair, likewise, I’ve been blessed with two great board chairs in my 14 years. The first was Wendy Gordon Rockefeller, who had great experience working with nonprofits, and very good at leading the board and a very good advisor to me. I came from outside this sector, so I needed a lot of coaching and hand-holding. And after her 10 years were up, our current board chair is a woman named Penny Foley who works on Wall Street and particularly does international investing.
We find Trickle Up resonates with people who do global investing because, one way or another, they understand what’s happening in these poor countries at a different level. We have a great relationship. I think we’re both totally committed to the mission. Everybody understands these things take time. Penny is really smart. She’s tough. People who work on Wall Street are tough; women who work on Wall Street really have good skills in terms of directness. They keep us on our toes because they ask good questions.
Denver: That’s the key.
William: And a couple of times, I can think of one or two examples, but we’ve gotten lost in the forest, and the board will pull you back. So now, let’s look at the tree. We lost the trees; the board will help us look at the forest.
So, Penny and I meet usually once a month. We talk on the phone and email all the time. She’s supportive. She helps us clarify our ideas. She’s not a pushover, in the best sense of the word. That’s what you need in that dynamic is someone who really will be your thought partner and help you—
Denver: Challenge your ideas and make them better as a result.
William: I think another thing that’s important… in many ways, being the CEO of a non-profit is a lonely job. You have a great staff. You consult with them, but then there are things you don’t, can’t consult. At a certain point, your spouse or partner gets tired of hearing you complain over dinner, so having a board chair who’s a thought partner… and also having a coach helps you navigate.
The secret sauce of Trickle Up is the behavioral change, the psychological change that we help foster in the people we’re working with.
At the end of the day, success is a matter of helping a woman see: My future can be different than mine. My children’s future, importantly, can be much better, so I’m going to take the steps and do the work.
Denver: Let me close with this, Bill. In the decade and a half that you’ve been doing this, you have seen a profound transformational change in thousands upon thousands of women and, in turn, their families and communities. What have you found to be the key factor, the key element, that in essence makes this remarkable change all possible, which without, it would be almost impossible for it to have occurred?
William: The secret sauce of Trickle Up is the behavioral change, the psychological change that we help foster in the people we’re working with. Yes, we provide training. We provide seed capital grants. We help organize savings groups, so a number of tangible, concrete things we do. But at the end of the day success is a matter of helping a woman see: My future can be different than mine. My children’s future, importantly, can be much better, so I’m going to take the steps and do the work. Being involved in Trickle Up is extra work for women. They don’t get to not take care of the house even when they work. So you have to be aware of that. They may have to get up at 4 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. to manage their Trickle Up business, but out of that comes confidence, willingness to take risks, and a lot of this is about helping people recalibrate their risk assumptions for the future, willing to take on and challenge some of the prevailing mores and ways of society.
I will tell you: I’ve seen it dozens of times, the power of a dozen women together, even women who were voiceless and virtually invisible in their community…when they get together and they go to the local council to make a point, or to challenge something…
Denver: It’s miraculous!
William: It doesn’t take a lot to make change, and the women, they amaze themselves with what they’re able to accomplish.
Hope is… Millie Leet, our co-founder said very beautifully, “Well, yes, we provide training and all these things, but the most important thing we leave behind is confidence.”
Denver: And you give them all hope, that’s for sure.
William: Hope is… Millie Leet, our co-founder said very beautifully, “Well, yes, we provide training and all these things, but the most important thing we leave behind is confidence.”
Denver: Fantastic. Well, Bill Abrams, the President and CEO of Trickle Up, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Where can people learn more about your work or make a contribution to help it if they’re so inclined?
William: Very easy. Go to trickleup.org. There’s tons of information. And yes, of course, there’s a donate button.
Denver: A couple of them, probably.
William: And that’s great, but honestly, if we can help, if people can learn about the conditions of global poverty and the fact that there are solutions, in many ways, that’s the most important outcome.
Denver: Well, thanks Bill. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
William: Thank you, Denver. Very good conversation.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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