Heifer International has worked for more than 70 years helping people all over the world gain the tools they need to improve their livelihoods. The core of their model is “Passing on the Gift”, meaning the communities they work with must continue to help others, giving new communities their animals’ offspring and training them, in a never-ending series of helping others.
Food Tank was fortunate enough to speak with Pierre Ferrari, CEO of Heifer International since 2010.
Food Tank (FT): What are your biggest accomplishments since becoming CEO in 2010, and what are your biggest goals for the upcoming years?
Pierre Ferrari (PF): I started in late October, early November of 2010. We started to focus on three strategies, or themes really, and I think they’ve led to a lot of accomplishment.
The first was scaling up programs. When I started, we had about 900 small projects all over the world, and on average, the number of families engaged in each project was around 150. The median was probably more like 100, but there were a couple large outliers that pulled the average up. And that meant that the projects were very scattered all over the countries. It was almost as if we were maximizing the difficulty of getting to each project. Part of the reason was political; for instance, the politicians in the countries where we do work wanted us to “spread the wealth”, but that meant that each project was very small, not at scale, and not really creating as much change as possible. I come from the business world, and I said, this doesn’t work, scale matters, network effects matters, and today, we are down to 132 projects with an average size of close to 10,000 families. That has led to a cost change per family from over 600 dollars per family over the period of the project, to under 200 dollars per family, so we’ve tripled impact. And by the way, we think that the impact per family is deeper than it was in the past. It’s a great achievement by the team here.
The second theme was systems. We have about 1,000 people in our organization, with about 130 million dollars in revenue, and the systems were not in keeping with the size of the operation. So we’ve invested in creating a global system that is very effective, cloud-based, accessible, and creates transparency. It’s not perfect, but it’s well organized and already delivering results.
The third strategy was to diversify our funding sources. It wasn’t a focus on growing, but about diversification. In 2010, most of our donors were small donors, who we love and appreciate, but we needed to make the organization less vulnerable to changes in the economy. The small donor range used to be in the 80th percentile, and we’ve lowered it to the 60th percentile, so that now if any one of our revenue streams has a hiccup, there are more alternate sources of funding we can rely on.
So, that’s what we’ve worked on the past four years. The team has worked really hard, and it’s been a lot of change.
FT: Recently, you have focused on evaluating Heifer’s work not just on raising incomes, but more precisely on bringing those incomes to a level that is on par with cost of living. How is Heifer performing in this respect?
PF: With the systems changes and integration, we’ve just committed to the idea of ending poverty. Our mission has always been to end poverty and end hunger while taking care of the Earth. When you mention that to people, they say that it’s a very lofty goal—that it’s more than aspirational and that it’s really almost unobtainable. In terms of globally ending poverty, we don’t have the resources to do that. But we do have the resources to end poverty with the communities in which we work. As I travel the world I ask, have we truly ended poverty for these people, or just made their lives a little bit better? How much better? To me, it’s very distinct: either you’re in poverty, or you’re out of poverty. So, the team has now agreed to establishing a line where poverty ends for a particular community, using nutrition, education, housing, hygiene, etc. Everyone now is designing projects that have this specific goal in mind: how do we end poverty in these communities with whom we are working? We are committing to getting four million families out of poverty by 2020.
FT: What makes this year Heifer’s “tipping point” year?
PF: The tipping point we measured was the number of projects at scale, where we finally had more projects at scale than the smaller projects that we’d had before. People in the organization were spending more time on scaled up projects than the less effective smaller ones.
FT: Heifer doesn’t just give animals, or tools to grow, but they give people the spirit of philanthropy, and its spreading. How do you instill this sense of “Passing on the Gift,” which is the core of Heifer’s 12 cornerstones?
PF: We provide some help, there is no question, we bring assets, we bring technical training, but most of the time the first year is spent around these twelve cornerstones, and this idea that they will get themselves out of poverty. You move them from hopelessness to hopefulness; not hopefulness that we will take them out of poverty, but hopefulness that they will take themselves out of poverty. I have a quote from a theological thinker, Dan West, our founder, where he talks about passing on the gift: “We want to give intelligently and effectively. The only gift one man or woman has a right to offer another is opportunity, since opportunity demands on the recipient’s part an expenditure of energy corresponding to that represented by the gift itself.” Embedded in that is what we do. Fundamentally there is a philosophical and ethical belief that whatever we do for the community, they have a responsibility to spend as much energy on what they receive for their own good and the community’s good. Unless that happens, we withdraw.
FT: How do you ensure that after you leave a project, that the communities stay true to the 12 cornerstones, such as gender and family focus? How do you know, for example, that once you leave a community, the women are being involved in decision making processes just as much as the men?
PF: We can’t totally ensure. But, once they’ve experienced this change in relationships and power structures, it’s very difficult to forget and to go backward. Most of the communities we leave have women in charge of and responsible for most of the co-op activities. That’s one of the things we look for, that the institutional collective arrangements are led by women. That gives them the power base and the authority with which to continue, and we find that when we go back to see how they are doing, when the women are generating the right kind of revenue into the communities, the men are much more participatory and willing to accept their work. Part of the paradigm that’s shifted in men’s minds is that women are leading communities and providing a tremendous source of income. The significant material benefits help the paradigm change. Further, in many of these countries, the men are not even there, because they have left to work elsewhere to support their families. When the women start creating enterprises that allow the men to come home, so much changes in how they are seen, and the roles they play.
FT: Can you talk about merging business with philanthropy in Heifer’s partnerships? How has this been successful for both Heifer and the businesses you partner with?
PF: We have been most successful when we stay focused on our values, which is value for the farmers. If you begin to chase the money, with any partner, you begin to lose sight of what actually works. And this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t create value for the partner, but the fundamental drive has to be value to the farmer. At the beginning of the conversation with some of our funders, it can be a little hard, since we are seen as the recipient of aid and therefore we should be happy and compliant and thankful. We are so grateful, but the partnership needs to be based on the changes that we are trying to work on together. And I think when we do that, we get very strong respect that this is our driver.