About 12 years ago my good friend Bob Wiens asked our company, Legacy Kitchens, to purchase a table for an Opportunity International fundraiser banquet in Calgary. Having heard enthusiastic reports from him about this organization’s concept of microfinance for the poor, but not really wanting to attend myself, we were intrigued enough to ask a few of our managers to attend. They came back with great reports about the organization and how they were using microfinance to help people living in poverty in South America. We supported OI in this small way for a few years when they showed up in Calgary every fall, sending our managers to these fundraising dinners. In 2005, we decided to get more involved with OI because we were very interested in microfinance, small loans they were making to the entrepreneurial poor in South America. Bob suggested we do it through his Rotary Club, who would use the donation as a challenge amount for a number of Rotary branches in Southern Alberta to match against. We liked the sound of that, so we gave Rotary the check, having confidence that this money and more would eventually find its way to OI in South America.
A few months later we got an email from Bob saying that our “incentive funds” worked very well in mobilizing Southern Alberta Rotary clubs to participate and that the total campaign will exceed the original gift by a factor of 11 times. Gary Walsh the Canadian president of OI at the time followed up with an email: “there are special moments when a gift is disproportionately significant. It seems as though you have chosen well and the result …. will go beyond our expectations.”
Needless to say this was a small miracle for us to pay attention to. To see what we thought was already a large donation multiplied by a factor of 11 was a sign in large capital letters to get more involved in a cause that attracted that kind of get on board effect in donors. That same phenomenon was the cause; the well-documented multiplication effect observed when loans given to the entrepreneurial poor by Opportunity International are consistently repaid with interest and then to be reloaned over and over again. The word that they used in their work was transformation, a simple word with profound consequence which I didn’t really appreciate at the time. They took this very seriously; to the extent of a person in leadership at the ground level having the job title of Director of Transformation.
In August, 2006 my wife Evelyn and I went on on an Opportunity International insight trip to Lima, Peru with a number of other Calgarians to see the work of the organization first hand. We visited with clients in their homes and saw them living meaningful lives, despite their desperate circumstances and environment, because someone had offered them a chance. The chance came through, not a handout, but a hand up, in the form of small loans and training that would allow them to start small businesses through which they could provide for their families and others in the community. We saw that it was faith based work where weekly training and interaction with loan officers resulted in real transformation (that word again) in clients’ lives. We knew then that we wanted to be involved in a more significant way than we already were with this amazing organization.
Our company has been able to support a number of different fine organizations over the years also involved in transformation. It was always a dream of ours that Legacy would have its own project that the whole company could rally around, something more than just a place to send checks to. We wanted a project where we could get up close and personal to the grass roots of work with people in poverty and where we could see the real impact of our giving. After taking the insight trip to Peru and seeing the amazing work of Opportunity International, I asked the Canadian Vice President Doris Olafsen, if it was possible for Legacy to have a specific OI project that we could focus in on with our employees. Doris came back within a week or two with a proposal for Legacy to be involved in supporting a new microfinance project being established in the Nelson Mandela Barrio, a squatter’s town of about 50,000 in Cartagena, Colombia. We were very excited to have our company involved in such a focused way, but for our employees to get close to the work we would have to take a group from the company to see it for themselves and then come back and tell the story to everyone else.
For more information on Opportunity see: http://www.opportunityinternational.ca/
Next post: Our Visit to Cartagena