No-Frills Trip Is a Shared Experience for Charity Executives and Donors

By MARCI ALBOHER
The Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 31, 2005

León, Nicaragua – Lynne Patterson wakes up at 3 a.m. in the Hotel Austria to say goodbye to her colleague, Carmen Velasco. They have spent the past three days here for a board meeting of Pro Mujer, the microlending organization they founded in 1990.

While Ms. Velasco heads off on a personal trip to Panama, Ms. Patterson is staying in Nicaragua to take trustees and a group of donors on a four-day tour of the country and Pro Mujer’s operations.

This trip marks the third time that the charity has held a board meeting outside the United States, and the first time donors have been invited along. The travel group will include four donors, nine trustees, and four family members.

The goal is to give the donors a firsthand look at how their money is spent — financing small business loans for poor women in Latin America — and to encourage them to dig deeper into their pockets and spread the word back home among their like-minded peers. Donor trips like this one are gaining in popularity among charities that do much of their work internationally.

But this trek is no luxury vacation. Since Nicaragua is just developing a tourism infrastructure, travel means dirt roads and the occasional outhouse, not exactly the type of touring to which the charity’s board members and donors — a group of mostly wealthy executives — are accustomed.

“I wasn’t worried about the board,” Ms. Patterson says. “I knew they’d be good sports if anything went wrong. But I didn’t know the guests, and that’s where I had some concern.”

The donors on this trip are Daniel Cristofano, a retired brokerage president, and his wife, Auriela, who brought their teenage daughter Danielle, so, as her father puts it, she could “see how 98 percent of the world lives”; Helen Clement, a retired banking executive exploring a career in the nonprofit world; and Isabella Salman, an 80-year-old retired physician.

Ms. Patterson confesses she had a moment of concern when she heard about Dr. Salman’s age, but the donor quickly proved to be a low-maintenance traveler, insisting on carrying her own bags even when others left theirs on the bus for the driver to handle.

After Ms. Velasco departs for Panama, Ms. Patterson catches a bit of sleep for the few hours before her morning meeting. She dresses in her tropics uniform — a wrinkleproof blue button-down shirt, khaki pants, walking shoes, and basic silver jewelry. With her white-blonde bob and poorly accented Spanish, she is rarely mistaken for a native in Latin America.

Promoting Women’s Health

At 7:30 a.m., she is picked up for the hour-and-a-half drive to Managua, where she meets with Ana Ortiz de Horvilleur and Ana Arguello de Montalvan, sisters who run a family foundation that helps women pay for breast-cancer treatment. Ms. Patterson sees the group as a potential partner for Pro Mujer, which already provides pap smears to its clients. By the end of the meeting, the two groups have forged an alliance of sorts, expressing a commitment to work together.

Now that Ms. Patterson has made contact with the foundation heads, she can pursue her next goal — convincing their father, Ortiz Guardián, who owns BanPro, the largest bank in Nicaragua, to consider becoming a member of Pro Mujer’s local board.

Although the connection with the foundation opens doors for Pro Mujer, the most significant part of Ms. Patterson’s morning turns out to be a conversation she has en route to her meeting at the foundation’s office.

During the trip, she talks with Wilfred Rojas Lezama, a 23-year-old driver who works part time for the charity. Formerly he worked in a factory, earning about $18 a week assembling car parts. Working at Pro Mujer, even without a full-time position, has doubled his weekly income. The pay, he says, isn’t all that appeals to him about the job. He says he likes feeling that he is part of a team — unlike at the factory, where employees work standing up and bathroom breaks are rare. The driver beams as he tells Ms. Patterson of the improvement in his life: He is saving up for a government program to complete his high-school education during two years of weekend classes.

Ms. Patterson is so affected by his story that she repeatedly talks about it with everyone on the trip. She calls Gloria Ruiz, the charity’s Nicaraguan country director, to make sure all Pro Mujer employees who are eligible take advantage of this government program.

A Charity’s Origins

Pro Mujer, which translates to “For Women,” was born in the minds of two women with concerns about their community: Ms. Patterson, an American schoolteacher living as an expatriate in Bolivia with her then-husband, who did development work for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Ms. Velasco, a psychologist who was teaching, counseling children, and working as a consultant to Unicef in her native country.

The two came together for a health and child-care education project. They began to notice that poor women were spending time idly in community centers while they waited for government handouts. After talking with the local women, Ms. Patterson and Ms. Velasco concluded that the handouts alone, without any kind of training and continuing assistance, were not lifting these women and their families out of entrenched poverty.

In the charity’s early days, the founders focused on teaching the local women about child development, family planning, and health; since many of their clients were illiterate, Ms. Patterson and Ms. Velasco used picture books as teaching tools. Soon, their clients began to ask for advice about how to earn money. In response, the organization’s leaders developed a course on business plans, teaching the prospective entrepreneurs to craft simple, often oral, proposals in which they explained their ideas for businesses and determined how much money they would need to begin.

By the third year, the founders heard about an increasingly popular lending model called village banking. In this system, loan recipients are organized into groups that function as credit and savings associations. The microfinance institution makes a loan to one of those groups (the “village bank”), which then makes small loans to its members to start or expand their own businesses. The village bank’s members do not have to put up collateral; rather, the members guarantee one another’s loans and use peer pressure to ensure payment.

The founders traveled to Bangladesh for training at Grameen Bank, which was one of the pioneers of the small-loan approach, and realized that they could obtain government money for just the type of work they were doing. Pro Mujer’s initial funds came from the Bolivian government and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Today, Pro Mujer has operations in Bolivia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru and is exploring expanding into other parts of Latin America.

With more than 100,000 clients, Pro Mujer has disbursed $130-million in loans to women who have started small businesses and also received education about family planning, AIDS, cancer, and other health issues. Less than 1 percent of the charity’s borrowers default on their loans in all of the countries it serves, according to Nancy Wilson, Pro Mujer’s business development officer.

Although most of Pro Mujer’s $850,000 annual budget comes from governments and from large grant makers, such as the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, about 19 percent of the charity’s money comes from small family foundations, and from board members and individuals — like the donors on this trip.

A Long Lunch

At 12:30 p.m., Ms. Patterson joins the board and donors for a luncheon in León. They occupy a large table where they share stories about their morning and prepare to hear a lecture on Nicaraguan history and politics.

The group had just returned from visiting a community meeting where Pro Mujer’s clients congregate weekly to learn about health issues and make their loan repayments. Everyone fills Ms. Patterson in on what they have seen. An AIDS-education workshop devolved into a male-bashing session that could have occurred in any women’s group anywhere on the globe.

As she listens to the trustees and donors talk, Ms. Patterson feels confident that they will return home to be better spokespeople for Pro Mujer. “If you don’t have a fresh story in your head, you sound like a book,” she says.

After an hour, much of the food hasn’t arrived, but the table chatter is enough to distract everyone from their hunger.

Then the lecture begins. The guest speaker, who turns out to be an English-language instructor rather than a historian as the local tour guide had promised, gives an overview of the country that Ms. Patterson fears is so whitewashed that it will be insulting to her educated guests, most of whom know more about Nicaragua than the supposed expert. Ms. Patterson visibly cringes.

After a few softball questions from the group, it becomes clear that people are just waiting patiently for the presentation to end.

“I would love to provide experts of the highest quality with a mastery of the facts,” Ms. Patterson says.

“But this is Nicaragua, after all, and that may not exist. What we have here is good will,” she says in a tone somewhere between pride and resignation.

The restaurant’s management offers a free round of beer, since four people still have not received their meals.

Ms. Patterson pushes her mostly uneaten plate of food to the center of the table, urging her guests to dig in while she brainstorms with Peter Johnson, president of Pro Mujer’s board and a partner in a socially responsible investing firm in Connecticut, about a new way that Pro Mujer can finance loans.

Tourist Activities

By 3 p.m., the group returns to the bus for an afternoon of sightseeing. León, despite being the nation’s former capital, doesn’t offer much in the way of tourist sites, but it has two good art collections, a mural depicting Nicaragua’s history, and a colonial cathedral from the 18th century.

Ms. Patterson goes along with the program, but she doesn’t see too much value in the parts of the agenda that don’t involve educating the group about Pro Mujer. Her narrow focus earns her some teasing from her traveling companions.

As the group climbs to the top of the cathedral, Ms. Patterson pulls aside the tour guide to question him about the quality of the lunch lecture, the restaurant’s poor service, and how to keep the rest of the trip on track. She is most concerned that a three-hour meal cuts into time the travelers can spend doing what they came to Nicaragua to do — meet face to face with Pro Mujer clients.

Between the sightseeing adventure and her next meeting, Ms. Patterson checks out of the Hotel Austria and moves to the relatively ritzy Hotel Convento, where her board and the donors are staying.

At $75 a night, the Hotel Convento is double the price of the Hotel Austria. Although she and her staff usually opt for spartan accommodations, she makes exceptions when traveling with her board members. Her job, she feels, is to be with them and maximize all opportunities for extra interaction. She settles into her new digs grudgingly.

“I generally believe in staying somewhere appropriate to the work we do,” she says.

The extended time with her board members, she says, is probably the greatest benefit to trips like these.

“There’s a certain formality with board members because they bring a lot of status and prestige, but when you go through the conditions we did on the trip, it creates a nice shared history,” she says.

Earlier on this trip, she says, an unexpected lodging glitch meant that Ms. Patterson shared a hotel room with Gail Landis, a board member and managing director at Credit Suisse Asset Management. When the bathroom sink fell off the wall in the middle of the night, the roommates had a war story to share with their traveling companions at breakfast the next morning.

“I didn’t realize how very purposeful and how much fun it would be,” Ms. Patterson says. “It was like having been on a pajama party with them.” Once the travelers return home, she says, that kind of shared intimacy will make it easier to pick up the phone and stay in touch.

In the beginning, she says, Pro Mujer’s board consisted of friends and contacts of the two founders. The main criterion for eligibility was that board members live in Washington, a residency requirement included in the organization’s charter.

“Carmen and I used to come up from Bolivia twice a year and do a little dog-and-pony show for the board,” Ms. Patterson recalls. After those presentations, she says, the trustees typically applauded. Today, the board is made up of senior executives and experts on microfinance, all of whom are committed to donating not just money but time, expertise, and contacts to Pro Mujer. They expect a level of formality and professionalism from the founders.

In 1994, when Pro Mujer was about to get its first sizable grant, Ms. Patterson learned the value of having prominent and activist board members. The charity was at risk of losing a $500,000 grant from the Agency for International Development after a change in personnel. When she explained the situation to Ruth Cowan, a political scientist in New York and then the president of Pro Mujer, Ms. Cowan immediately got on a plane and accompanied Ms. Patterson to the meeting at the government agency’s headquarters.

“We showed these people that we were not just two ladies trying to work with poor women in Bolivia,” Ms. Patterson recalls. “When Ruth showed up, they saw us as an organization with oversight.”

Lately, Ms. Patterson says, she has learned a lot about management from her group’s trustees: She has gone from being defensive about these talks to embracing constructive criticism.

“It’s done in such a respectful, professional way,” she says. “I didn’t grow up as a manager, I was a teacher. And there is so much to learn from these people.”

Dinner that night is served around a long formal table in a room overlooking the garden courtyard of the Hotel Convento. Mr. Johnson, the board president, toasts the group and thanks the donors for their support and interest. For Ms. Patterson, the dinner is a time to wind down, chat, and breathe a sigh of relief that the day’s activities are over.

The table is buzzing with side conversations. A lot of the talk is about Elsa Mercado, a Pro Mujer client whom the group visited the previous day. Ms. Mercado has built a successful business making and selling pottery through a collective. With loans financed by Pro Mujer, she bought a pottery wheel, then trained her son and husband to use it as well.

When the group visited her in her combined home and workshop, she boasted that she has already sent two of her four children to college. During that visit, one board member cried when she saw the dirt-floor kitchen crowded with chickens that Ms. Mercado’s husband proudly showed off.

After returning home, Dr. Salman, the retired physician and self-sufficient traveler who impressed Ms. Patterson, said she doesn’t think the trip will have much bearing on her giving. (She has already given about $12,000 to the charity over the years, she says.) But it did make her feel more connected to the organization.

“I had never met Lynne Patterson or any of the board members and was so impressed by them,” she says. “While I enjoyed meeting the clients and seeing the organization on a grass-roots level, I don’t think the trip was particularly well organized.” However, she adds, any inconveniences were trumped by the good work the charity does. “What I remember from the trip is seeing the offices of Pro Mujer and meeting the clients. Not that one hotel didn’t have enough rooms so we had to double up.”

The trip also served to teach Ms. Patterson about the impact of her group’s philanthropy. During the travelers’ meeting with Ms. Mercado, the client explained that the women in her collective have been selling some of their pottery at below-market prices to a Peace Corps volunteer, who then sells the pottery to raise money for poor children in the neighborhood.

“We had no idea that our clients were donating to the less fortunate in their communities,” says Ms. Patterson. “But I guess we couldn’t have scripted a more moving example of what Pro Mujer is about.”

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