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Dowser Interview: Bill Abrams of Trickle Up

, ,    /   Mar 15th, 2010International, Interviews

Bill Abram’s jokes that when he was hired as president of Trickle Up the staff “thought the board had lost its mind.” He’d spent 30 years in the media industry, where the goal is to maximize profits not to pursue social impact. Nonetheless, in 2005 he took charge of an organization that provides startup grants, savings services and training to people around the world living on less than $1 a day. At a time when many microfinance groups are moving away from serving the extreme poor in order to earn higher profits, Trickle Up maintains a sharp focus on the neediest. Abrams talks about applying what he learned at companies like Disney to help alleviate global poverty.

Dowser: Trickle Up helps people living on $1 a day raise their incomes and improve their lives. How does it work?
Abrams: A few ways. We work through a network of about 50 local partner agencies in five countries. Through them, we provide business training—teaching what it takes to operate a microenterprise—or technical training. We provide a small seed capital grant. Usually it’s a cash grant, but sometimes it’s in the form of assets that people can use to build a business. Lastly, we help people become effective savers, typically through a savings group.

Why do you work through partnerships?
Our local partner organizations are composed of people who live and work in the communities that we serve.  They speak the language and they understand the nuances of culture and politics. We also count on our partners to guide us in localizing our approach to meet the specific needs of a community.

You work in Burkina Faso, Mali, India, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Who do you target?
Ninety percent of the people we help are women living on $1 a day or less. Women have been excluded from full opportunities in the commercial marketplace. We also focus on people with disabilities because they are disproportionately poor and have fewer opportunities.

What are Trickle Up’s values?
We believe that poor people can be the architects of their own destinies, that women are a vital key to this endeavor, and that poor people can be trusted to handle money well and will work very hard to improve the lives of their families.

I understand that you entered the non-profit sector later in your career. How old were you when you changed careers?
I was 52 when I came to Trickle Up after a 30-year career in the media business. I didn’t have management experience in the nonprofit sector, but I had general management skills that were applicable. I also had great passion for Trickle Up’s mission of improving opportunities for the very poorest.

What was the first thing you did when you arrived?
It started with management. It’s all about people. I’ve become a huge devotee of the management consultant Jim Collins who wrote a book called ‘Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer.’ That volume, in 35 pages, is far and away the best guide that I’ve ever found to managing a non-profit.  One of his basic principles is ‘get the right people on the bus; get the wrong people off the bus; and get everybody in the right seat.’

What were your priorities for change?
We wanted to increase our focus on measurement, which we have.  Also, we clarified the mission. We clarified what we say ‘no’ to because you can’t do everything.  The villages and communities where we work have so many needs. We can’t meet them all. We’re a small organization so we have to do our one thing really well.

What’s the biggest difference in working for Trickle Up or a company like Disney?
The sense of mission and personal responsibility. It’s scary sometimes when you realize the potential impact of a mistake.  Before when I messed up I thought, ‘Well, it’s the Walt Disney Company. They’ll be fine one way or the other.’ But now if I mess up some woman in India or Mali is not going to get an opportunity to benefit from Trickle Up—and that’s profoundly troubling.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Columbus Council on World Affairs

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