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The benefits of risk-taking

A friend of SIA with 50 years experience employed on the executive and administrative sides of church, parachurch and humanitarian foundations, muses on the value of risk, accountability, and the occasional failure in investing in people and projects world-wide:

When I asked Tanya about on-the-ground accountability for SIA grant funds in the places where people have the least resources, I was thinking of several experiences in our foundation work which looked like failures at the time.

Providing education for girls

Here is one example.  We work with a foundation that provides school fees and scholarships in developing nations primarily for the children of people we met while working for another foundation.  We’d become aware that the local leaders we worked with, in every instance, chose to stay in their countries and serve their people rather than migrating to Western Europe or the USA.  In some cases, by staying and working as teachers, nurses, social workers, pastors, and community organizers, they did not generate enough income to keep their own children in school (in many developing nations, parents have to pay for school tuition, uniforms, and other fees beginning in elementary school).

Due to cultural exigencies, if a parent has, say, two boys and two girls, and there is enough money to educate only two children, it is the boys who go to school.  (This isn’t what it looks like to American eyes — in their cultures, where there is no such thing as retirement income or Social Security and Medicare, it is the sons who must care for their parents in old age.  Sons have priority on education because of their responsibility to provide for their own wives and children, and then also their parents.  Girls become part of their husband’s family, and help care for her husband’s parents.)

Girls with education bring more resources and opportunities to their families, and more choices open for them as well. Our foundation’s educational grants specify that they are to be used for the education of the female children of the family, and no other purpose.

Building relationships built on trust

Most of the families we’ve assisted with school fees are people we’ve known face to face, worked with in their own communities, and greatly respected for their vision for improving opportunities for people in their country.  In the vast majority of instances, the school fees, college and university scholarships, and graduate school fees have been used for the purposes for which we sent them.  However, occasionally funds are “misused.”

One family had six children, four girls and two boys.  The boys had been in school from age seven.  The girls had gone sporadically, whenever there was enough money. This was just the sort of family we wanted to work with, to be sure the girls had an education, and therefore, many more choices and opportunities when they became adults. We sent the funds for one school term for all four girls.

When we checked in several months later, inquiring how the girls were doing in school, we received no answer.  Several more letters and emails were not answered.  Finally we checked with a mutual friend in their village.  It happened that just as the school funds arrived, the wife/mother of the family fell critically ill and needed surgery.  The husband/father chose to use the education funds we’d sent to pay for his wife’s surgery, very likely saving her life.  He was so embarrassed and ashamed that he had “failed us” that he wouldn’t respond to our contacts.

Of course, when we learned what had happened, we immediately wrote and told him that we understood completely, and that in this case, he had made the right choice to use the funds to save his wife.  THEN we asked the question, “How can we work together to keep your girls in school?”

Valuable lessons for all

Over time, the man felt so empowered by our continuing trust in him, he and his family redoubled their efforts to earn income from their garden. With a little help from our foundation, he paid the balance he owed for the girls’ school fees, and from there on managed to pay more than half of the fees needed to keep his daughters in school.

What at first looked like a failure and loss to the foundation, and felt like a personal failure to the man whose daughters we helped, turned out to be a double blessing — the man had the funds at hand when his wife needed surgery for survival, AND the family was motivated and empowered to become even more self-sufficient.  The building of self-confidence, self-esteem, and trust in God’s providence was the great blessing that came out of what looked like a bad mistake.

In our foundation experiences, such misuse of designated funds has happened several times (though remarkably rarely,) with various projects and individuals.  Not always, but most often by staying in very close supportive contact with the individuals involved, the situation can become a very valuable learning experience — for everyone!

So, our view, based on long experience, is that it is okay to take a risk now and then, and perfectly okay to “fail” now and then — more often than not, a much greater good emerges from what is learned, both by the individuals involved, and by the foundation staff and board.

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