pühapäev, jaanuar 15, 2012

This is Grameen Foundation

The last two days at Grameen passed quickly. I had finished my research, so after the 9AM call conference with Musoni, Kate sent me over to Development to get to know another part of the organization better and to help them with some end-of-year filing work and mailings. I spent a day and a half with a wonderful lady named Jacqueline who first talked about the importance of the Development department and then answered a pile of questions I had. I am amazed at how patient she was with me – according to another lady in Development, Lusille, the most valuable skill of someone who works at Development (at least if they work for her) is to ask as few questions as possible and to complete as much work as possible! But since Jacqueline also handles all the bookkeeping that goes around donations, it is important to ask questions to make sure that every check and thank you letter goes to the right place when filing.

Development essentially has three sections: one that deals with grants from international corporations, foundations and the government, one that handles middle-sized donations, and one that handles donations smaller than $25,000. Apparently, the smallest donation made to Grameen is a monthly 10-dollar check from somebody in Minnesota. Every donation counts, and each donor gets the appropriate acknowledgement as well as a tax exemption notice (also very important).

People at Grameen Foundation tend to wear many hats. Besides being in charge of smaller donations, Jacqueline also organizes fundraising dinners. She also goes to events to talk to potential donors about Grameen's work. Grameen obviously cannot attract every large corporation or a generous philantrophist, but it gets donors based on mission alignment (there is that word again! It seems to be extremely important in the NGO world). So maybe Nike, a sportswear company, will not fund Grameen, but JPMorgan Chase, the MasterCard Foundation and Google, Inc will. The reason is simple – Grameen helps the poorest using strategies that appeal to banking and technology companies. In terms of mission alignment, these types of companies are the best fit for Grameen. In addition, there are international funds such as USAID, Fund for the Poor etc. Grameen makes sure that their donors' money is spent in the way they have requested. For example, the donors can ask for their money to be used towards a specific program or a specific region. In addition, Grameen's assets and expenses are publicized annually. For the 2010-2011 fiscal year, 82% of the donations go directly to programs, 17% goes to cover overhead expenses (was that the right term?), and 1% goes towards fundraising. The sources of donations are: 50% foundations, 24% corporations, 26% individuals. 15% of the funding comes from in-kind donations, which means services in any other form besides monetary (e.g. volunteering).

Overall, I am really fascinated with the microfinance industry. I feel that it is really reaching out to the people, going past a lot of bureaucracies and being efficient with its funds. For inspiration, I would recommend everyone to see some of the success stories: http://www.grameenfoundation.org/our-impact

The story I find most inspirational is this one: a strong woman who does business and cares for her children, all of it while dealing with HIV/AIDS.

So this was my week at Grameen Foundation, at 1101 15th and L Street, Washington, D.C. I would like to thank again all the people whom I interacted with during this week, and of course, my biggest thanks and respect go out to Ms Kate Griffin who supervised everything I did this week and was generally supportive and insightful. Her work is truly inspirational, and so is her attitude towards it, all of which had a great impact on me. Thanks also to Kenyon's Career Development Center for helping me set up this externship, and the Burton D. Morgan Foundation for the financial support!


kolmapäev, jaanuar 11, 2012

Day 3 at Grameen

I took a risk and wore jeans to the office today! It seemed fine, although apparently Friday is more commonly the jeans day.

Anyways, today was a great day! Well, not much happened with me besides working on the Rwanda research, but I got it done! Well, I got the sections on political and socioeconomic background and financial/microfinance sector done, but did not even manage to start on market analysis. To be honest, it did look like an intimidating piece of research, because I have only ever taken Microeconomics, and I am not even sure what I should be looking for when I'm asked to do market analysis. But turns out Grameen has someone working with some data and analyzing it, so I was freed from that part of the research.

I learned a bunch of interesting things while doing the research. One of the more fascinating/random pieces of information I found is that in Kigali, plastic bags are illegal. I'm just wondering, since most people probably arrive to the Kigali airport with some plastic bag, what does the procedure for confiscating and getting rid of them look like. Is there a detector that goes off as the luggage is checked? Hm. Hopefully someone can clarify this for me. Also, there is an intriguing (maybe not for someone who is better versed in Rwandan politics than myself) interview out there with Kagame's ex chief-of-staff who talks about Kagame's somewhat dictatorial politics.

At 3PM Linda and I went to check in with Kate on our research, and mine was deemed complete! So I left the office an hour early and went to American Art Museum. I saw some great Asian American art, as well as a photo portrait exhibit with people's reflections about being Asian American, mostly of Korean heritage. Looking forward to work tomorrow, though - there will be an interesting call meeting at 9AM with Musoni, and a microinsurance - new for me! -call meeting at 11AM.

Your Extern Girl


teisipäev, jaanuar 10, 2012

Days 1 and 2

It's 5PM and I'm sitting in a fairly crowded Starbucks on the corner of K and 15th. I will dedicate a whole other blog entry to the urban planning and architecture and everything else not microfinance-related in D.C. later hopelly, but for now, I am going to try and digest my first two days at Grameen Foundation.

Monday was hectic: we started at 8AM with an international conference spanning multiple GF offices and many time zones. I actually have very few memories of this phone call as I was not taking notes, but I do have many impressions of it as it was the first call meeting of this type that I have attended. It was very orderly: Kate was mediating and people would respectfully wait for their turn to talk. I am not the only addition to GF's office this week: Linda who goes to the University of California (San Diego I think) has a three-month internship with Grameen, which started yesterday. After the meeting, we got a tour of the office from Chris, then an introduction from Kate about all the different departments and programs of Grameen. Sounds like a busy day? It was only 10AM after all that! :)

At midday, Kate and Kimberly (Solutions for the Poorest Program Associate and my desk neighbor for the week) took me and Linda out for lunch. We had amazing Thai food and further introductions. Then Kimberly left and Kate shared further details with Linda and me about working on a proposal for MicroLead, a microfinance fund offering grants for microfinance development. I will be doing background research on Rwanda and Linda will be doing it for a project in Kenya.

The MicroLead proposals are due February 1st, so timing will be crucial for the next couple of weeks in terms of doing research, communicating with the MFIs that GF wants to assist, and eventually writing up the proposals. For this, many of those aforementioned intercontinental-interorganizational call meetings are required. According to Kate, it is a challenge to do everything this quickly and many talks are needed for the parties to get comfortable with each other and slowly delve deeper into the specifics of the process. The call meeting with the Kenyan MFI, Musoni, that I joined Monday afternoon (where some people were calling from desk phones and some were attached to the conference through a Skype by one of the people on the desk phone) was for the most part just an introduction, an ice-breaker of sorts, and after more than an hour of mediated discussion, further meetings were scheduled for later this week.

In the afternoon, Linda and I also met and chatted with representatives from three different departments in Grameen's D.C. office: Jimmy from Social Performance Management Center, Stephanie from Capital Management Advisory Center, and Maria from Human Capital Management Center. Jimmy talked to us about the Progress out of Poverty Index developed by GF to assess poverty levels, which is determined using 10 country-specific statistics. The cool thing about this index is that its straightforward-ness makes it usable not only by MFIs for their purposes but also by other organizations that are trying to assess and understand a country's situation better. Stephanie talked about GF's work in connecting world capital markets with the world's poor through different programs such as Growth Guarantees, Pioneer Fund, and Fair Trade. Maria talked about the importance of carefully choosing and training MFI employees and also about the problems the HCM department has with getting funding, and how underfunding can lead to poor decisions, which in turn can potentially lead to something even worse... All the three department meetings were exteremely interesting, but the HCM one with Maria, both the content of our discussion as well as the sincerity of the interaction definitely left me with quite a deep impression. (Also, as a non-American, may I add that I was quite fascinated by her accent, too!)

It is almost six o'clock now and street lamps, office windows and traffic lights are successfully fighting darkness that has descended over the Eastern Time Zone. I would only like to add some short reflections on today. I worked on my Rwanda research quite a bit in the morning (did you know that Rwanda is the only country in the world where women outnumber men in the Parliament? According to the 2003 constitution, 24 out of 80 seats in the Lower Parliament are reserved for women, and an additional fifteen women were voted into non-reserved seats. But that was just side-tracking...) In the afternoon I joined Kate and Laura for another intercontinental Grameen call, discussing the Musoni call yesterday as well as the MicroLead proposal involving Kenya Commercial Bank. Many questions arose, and will hopefully be answered tomorrow when Erin from GF meets with KCB people. I am excited to follow along as they are moving forward with this project. As I am understanding so far, the main things Grameen is concerned with in getting involved with a MFI or a bank, are mission aligment and institution/capacity building. I was having a chat with Kate a couple of hours ago about the content of today's conference call, and she explained Grameen's strategic thinking. Since GF is a comparatively small NGO, they want to get more bang for their buck, and the way they achieve that is making sure that their assistance multiplies in value after it has been given out. That usually means they want the MFI to expand and grow in clientele to have a bigger impact. It could also mean passing on technical skills.

So the real dilemma here is whether to support KCB whose mission alignment with GF is still undefined but has more capacity building potential, or whether to cooperate with Musoni that is smaller, but seems to be well in line with the main aim of Solutions for the Poorest, which is to reach and improve the living conditions of the poorest.

This is exciting, folks. Stay tuned for further updates on the microfinance front!

(Starting to sound more and more American...)

neljapäev, jaanuar 05, 2012

Externship at Grameen Foundation

For the coming ten days or so, English will become the primary language of this blog as I will be externing at Grameen Foundation in Washington, D.C. and recording my adventures here as a journal for myself as well as for the wonderful people at Burton D. Morgan Foundation who have helped make this experience happen.

The key person in my externship adventure is Ms Kate Griffin, and I would really like to thank her for giving me this opportunity. My path to her was through Kenyon's Alumni Network: she was a Kenyon student from 1995 to 1999, an International Studies major (I was that... almost). Here is a (blatant) copy-paste from the GF official website, which gives a brief overview of her academic and professional career:

Kate Griffin, Director, Solutions for the Poorest
Kate Druschel Griffin is a microfinance professional with regional experience in Asia. She currently leads GF’s initiative to reach the world’s poorest people with access to reliable business opportunities and financial management tools. She has also overseen programs in the Philippines, East Timor, and Indonesia, and led GF’s strategic expansion into China. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a board member of Women Advancing Microfinance International. Previously, Kate focused on microfinance policy and poverty measurement tools at the IRIS Center at the University of Maryland. A Mandarin Chinese speaker, Kate holds an MA in International Development from American University and a BA from Kenyon College.
(source: GrameenFoundation.org)

This introduction got me really excited, because Ms Griffin a) went to Kenyon b) led GF's expansion into China, and c) is a Mandarin speaker! In addition to this information, the Kenyon Career Network informed me about which Special Interest groups Ms Griffin is willing to mentor, and I happen to belong to all of them. :) At that point I knew that Grameen Foundation was the externship I wanted. This wish was fairly quickly transformed into a real plan with the help of Kenyon's Career Development Center, a big thank you to them as well!
Here is a short video of Ms Griffin talking about the Solutions for the Poorest program in the Philippines, India and Indonesia.

Important point that I picked up on: Although GF is all about providing technology solutions for the poorest, it also stresses the importance of the people and their ability to make this new technology help them. There needs to be education both about the safety and security measures that go along with bank account information, as well as financial education.

Grameen Foundation was founded by Alex Counts in 1997 with a seed grant of $6,000USD by Muhammad Yunus. GF's mission is, "To enable the poor, especially the poorest, to create a world without poverty." The way GF goes about making this mission statement reality is through continued innovation and social entrepreneurship. It supports microfinance (MFI) institutions around the world through funds and technological assistance. Today, Grameen Foundation has grown to a leading international humanitarian organization with an annual budget of approximately $25 million. Its technology projects include:
* the Mobile Technology for Community Health (MOTECH) initiative in Ghana
* the Community Knowledge Worker initiative in Uganda
* the Mobile Money initiative in Kenya

There are many ways Grameen Foundation reaches out to MFIs. Some of them include:
- Help them find financing, either through loan-guarantee programs (Growth Guarantees) or direct funding (Pioneer Fund)
- Improve their IT systems, through Mifos, its open-source MIS software
- Ensure that their staff are as productive as possible, through services and consulting provided by its Human Capital Center
- Measure whether their efforts are reaching the poor, though its Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI)
(Source: Wikipedia)

After this little introduction, I now provide the agenda which I received today by e-mail from Ms Griffin.

Extern week at Grameen Foundation – Jan. 9-13, 2012

Monday, January 9
8:00am Solutions for the Poorest Team Meeting
9:00am Office tour, set up (Chris, Operations)
9:30am Introduction to GF – Kate Griffin, Director, Solutions for the Poorest (SfP)
10:00am Join meeting with Kate and Julia Arnold, Program Associate, SfP
12:00pm Lunch with Kate, joined by Kimberly Davies, Program Asssociate, SfP’s Microsavings Initiative
1-1:30 pm Discuss MicroLead Proposal project with Kate
1:30 – 1:50pm Meet with Jimmy Harris (Social Performance Team – SPMC)
2-2:20pm Meet with Stephanie Simpson (Capital Markets Team – CMAC)
2:30-2:50pm Meet with Maria Luque (Human Capital Team – HCC)

Tuesday, January 10
12:00pm Join Africa Coordination Call with Kate
1:00pm Join MicroLead Proposal team call with Kate
2:00pm Meet with Jacqueline Wiseman, Development Department
Thursday, January 12
9:00am Join ACSI Bi-weekly call with Kate and Microsavings Initiative team
11:00am Join call with MEDA on SEEP Network Practitioner Learning Program

Projects to Complete:
Conduct research and create brief write up on the country of Rwanda to contribute to a large proposal (MicroLead proposal).
Help Development Department with mailings and filings (Friday, January 13)

I can't wait to get started! Monday seems to be the busiest day, with meetings from 8AM until 3PM. I hope I won't be completely overwhelmed! But it promises to be a really exciting day with a tour around the office, an official introduction of GF by Ms Griffin, and meetings with leaders of several teams within GF. Tuesday and Thursday seem to represent the international cooperative spirit of GF as the meetings that I will be attending are all described as "calls," implying distance. Finally I'm excited to see that besides shadowing Ms Griffin, I will also be able to give my little contribution to the work of GF by conducting a bit of research and helping out at the Development Department.

Since this is my first time doing an externship, I am not really sure how to prepare for it. I think a good thing to do for starters would be to try and verbalize my goals for this week:
1) Get to know the inner workings of a fairly large international NGO, the day-to-day work and how the different departments function together;
2) Learn about the strengths and limitations of social entrepreneurship;
3) Be active and ask good questions! (this is a reminder to myself as I tend to be more of a passive listener and sometimes a bit timid when it comes to asking questions)

In addition to these goals, over this week I am trying to find answers to some of the following questions:
How does GF identify the critical areas in which the Foundation's work could have most impact?
How long does this process take, and how much involvement (help/guidance) is there on the side of the target country's government?
Does this involvement differ by country?
GF has an annual budget of $25 million. Where does this money come from? Has the funding been affected by the economic recession?

Mostly, I am just looking forward to being inside an NGO and seeing what it is all about. A senior at an American college with a major in Modern Languages and a foreign passport, I am interested in ways I could put my language skills and energy into good use. I know that apart from languages, I have few other 'concrete' skills - the beauty of a liberal arts degree -, but I assume most skills are actually obtained while working, so I hope that these almost-four years at Kenyon have prepared me well. :)

Counting down until January 9th... Stay tuned!