All posts by Tanya Cothran

Tanya Cothran is Executive Administrator at Spirit in Action, an international micro-grant organisation working in eastern Africa. She recently moved to Toronto and is looking forward to meeting other not-for-profit folks there. She is trained as a librarian, and finds satisfaction in tracking down bits of information. To learn more about Spirit in Action’s work, you can contact Tanya at admin AT godsspiritinaction DOT org. You can also follow her on the SIA blog at

Asking questions that get real answers

“We all think you’re a member of the CIA,” my friend’s meditation group informed her. Yes, it might seem odd that, even at 85 years old, she lives alone outside of town, takes frequent flights around the US, and drives across the southwestern desert in her Jeep.

But their suspicions came about in good part because my friend does not like to answer bad questions, and so she often evades them with the nonchalance of a spy. When the group was asked to go around and say their names and “a bit about themselves,” she gave her name and then – instead of sharing the number of years she had been meditating – simply stated that she’d lived in the area for a few years.

And indeed, rote, meaningless questions often elicit, and I think deserve, rote, tired answers. How often can I, who moved to Toronto from the US last August, genuinely answer the question, “How are you finding Toronto?” (That phrasing is by far the most common.) How many times does the recent high school (or college, or PhD) graduate really want to answer, “So, what are you going to do now?” Are aid workers tired of the bland question, “How was [Haiti, Kenya, Peru, etc.]?”

It’s not bad to ask questions about any of these topics. Usually we ask because we are sincerely interested in someone’s response to a new city, hopeful about their next job, and curious about far-off countries.

But how can we form better questions to encourage genuine conversation and more reflective answers?

Better questions about travel often ask people to relay a single story from the trip. Travelers will no-doubt have funny, scary, or crazy stories that are unlikely to be shared in answer to a generic, “How was the trip?” question. Instead of accepting the answer, “the people are so great there,” probe further to see what made them great. An entertaining New York Times travel article created a taxonomy of “world’s friendliest people,” encouraging more precise descriptors. Were they welcoming, friendly, not as bad as you’d thought? Better questions will get at these interesting distinctions.

Another way to get better answers is to give people time to think before they answer. The extra moment of thought might cause the answerer to shake off their memorized answer about the great transit system, the amazing health care system, blah, blah, blah, and bring up more interesting stories of finding the swing dancing community and shopping in Italian corner markets. Be warned, once we ask the question and tell them to take a moment to answer, we better be willing to listen when the reply comes out.

Carefully preparing and thinking about questions is how my peer coach and I have structured our biweekly calls. A few days before each call, we email each other with issues we’re having or about areas in our work we’d like to improve. This helps deter just complaining about work, redirecting us to topics where we can actually coach each other. Or maybe this format just works because we’re both type A (in a good way).

Forming good questions is also crucial for receiving good information from grant partners. A grant report form that asks, “How is the project going?” will get a dull answer and, “How have people benefited?” is both a vague question and a leading one. Again, asking for stories and letting them know we’ll have follow-up questions can create an evaluative dialog, rather than a useless (for both parties) report.

We’re pretty programed to ask people what they “do.” With so many people piecing jobs together, and the indescribable nature of many “development” jobs, this question may be a conversation stopper rather than starter. When I asked my post-PhD friend about her future plans she answered that she’s in “transition.” Even my bad question led to a interesting discussion about what she might be transitioning to and what she’ll bring from her PhD to a new job.

If you really want to get to know someone, Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk and mystic, suggests, “ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” And, in answering the person can clear up that no, they are not with the CIA; they just were waiting for a good question.


Should we just give money to the poor?

Have you ever been around a development program that was gradually getting more and more complicated? Maybe something that started out helping to improve education had become a program filled with underused administrators and layers of reporting and bureaucracy that never trickled down to benefit the students?

Just Give Money to the Poor by Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos, and David Hulme, suggests a much simpler method of reducing poverty. How about we skip the complex programs and just transfer money directly to the poorest in our country? Already there are around 45 countries that have cash transfer programs, including South Africa, Malawi, China, Bolivia, and Mexico, and they become the basis for the argument in this book.

However, setting up and running a cash transfer program isn’t as easy as “driving through the countryside throwing $10 bills or 10 peso notes out of a car window” (p. 11). And as the protagonists in Dave Eggers’ novel You Shall Know Our Velocity quickly find out as they set out to do just that, questions soon arise: What’s the point of the money, what’s expected of the recipients, and who is most deserving of the money?

Just Give systematically discusses similar questions, using examples from already established cash transfer programs in the “Global South,” which can take many different forms depending on the local context and the current political and economic situation. Perhaps the two most important points to consider when designing a cash transfer program are: who are the beneficiaries and what are the goals of the program. Aims for such programs can range from development and economic growth, to social security, to rights and equality (including access to food and education) within the society (p. 47-48).

Deserving vs Undeserving

The longevity of a program depends not just on continued finances (most often from taxes and some external funding) but also the popularity of the program among the general population, and this is where the notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor comes into the decision-making process.

For example, in Malawi, elites blamed the poor for their poverty and worried about cash transfers leading to dependency and lack of will on the part of the poor to change their situation, and so their cash transfer program takes the form of a fertilizer subsidy, targeting “only the labor-constrained ultra-poor” (p.168). In Brazil, where only 1% of the elites interviewed blamed the poor for their poverty, cash transfers are much more widespread and politically popular.

Perhaps the largest populations that are exempt from the “undeserving” label, and hence the most common cash transfer recipients, are the elderly and children. These populations of beneficiaries have the added benefit of being relatively simple populations to define and target; people know who the elderly are and all people will hopefully fall in both categories in their lifetime (p. 92). In the future, programs to provide national identity cards and innovations in biometrics and identification technology may help make more kinds of populations easier to define and segment.


Once there is a program in place, how can its effectiveness be evaluated? Unfortunately, as with all evaluation, it is not a straightforward endeavour. Some indicators of impact might be measuring the amount and quality of food consumed, local investment and entrepreneurship, and school attendance.

Ultimately, the authors seemed to deem a program successful if it reached the intended population and remained politically popular. Further research (or perhaps it’s already out there) might compare the impact of cash grants to low-interest loans or other financial development programs.

In the end, I’d recommend reading Egan’s You Shall Know Our Velocity side-by-side with this book, to bring alive the debates about benefits and challenges of just giving money to the poor. I’d also like to see a discussion comparing Just Give Money and David Roodman’s Due Diligence on the topic of micro-finance versus cash transfer programs.

On the other hand, if you have the opportunity of working with a government to implement a cash transfer program, this book alone will provide useful examples of other successful and not-so-successful programs already in action around the world.

Catapult: The exciting new crowdfunding platform for NGOs

Action. Transparency. User feedback. Equality. These words kept popping up as I talked with Maz Kessler, founder and creative director of Catapult, about her new crowd-funding platform. Catapult, which went live in beta form on October 11, is dedicated to promoting equality for women and girls by giving women and girl-focused organizations a place to campaign online.

Right now, all organizations – big and small – whose programs benefit women and girls at least 80% of the time, can apply to have their projects listed on Catapult’s crowdsourcing platform. One of their large partner organizations, Global Fund for Women, assists with vetting of organizations and projects.

The application process is rigorous, requiring financial transparency materials, references, and annual reports, and although it may keep some of the smallest grassroots organizations from applying, it does not seem as complicated as some international NGO grant applications.


Catapult is filling what Maz and her team see as a “lack of clear and achievable asks” in the realm of international development. Translated into everyday language this means addressing the failure of something like Kony 2012 to make any real change.

Activism is really good at stirring people to care about an international problem; then they click a Like button and slacktivism sets in.

In campaigning for women and girls, there are often “brilliant pieces of communication” on a particular issue and the response on a human level, Maz told me, is “Oh my God. Yes. Child marriage is terrible. You’re right”. Yet, people don’t know what to do then to make a change. To address this, Catapult has positioned itself between the “awareness-raiser and the NGO implementers”, between the campaign and the people acting to address the problem, to help connect passionate donors with trusted organizations.


Catapult achieves transparency by prominently displaying each project’s budget, including administrative expenses on their page, giving perspective donors an idea of how the money will be spent. “I don’t want to force our partners to forgo their costs”, Maz said. Rather, “we all need to talk about what it costs to really do this work”. This is a stance very much aligned with WhyDev’s belief in the necessity of overhead costs as well as Good Intentions Are Not Enough’s views set out in ‘Lies, White Lies, and Accounting Practices‘.

Moreover, including budgets should help more than the donor, Maz said. “Because this is all about solving problems for girls and women. We hope people will be really interested in how these problems are actually being solved and what they cost”. Indeed, project budgets could give development workers more information about partner budgeting and the types of programs that organizations are implementing to address issues faced by women and girls.

But Catapult’s approach is not without its limitations. The budget line items can be pretty vague, with entries like $28,000 for “income generation training”. This may be in the interest of not overwhelming donors with too much information, or restricting recipient’s flexibility in implementation. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to track whether or not highly detailed budgets are more attractive to certain donors.


Eager to see Catapult in action, I donated $20 to Gardening for Health. Based in Palawan, Philippines, Gardening for Health has a modest $2,000 budget to help women start vertical gardens. A Google map on the right of the page showed me exactly where the project is located. A link on the left led me to more information about the partner organization, Roots for Health.

Gardening for Health. Image credit: Catapult.

If Gardening for Health manages to raise the remaining 95% of their budget in the next five months, they will receive the full amount to implement their project and I’ll get regular updates for the first year. However, unlike Kickstarter or other similar platforms, if they don’t raise all the money my contribution will be returned to me as a Catapult gift card and I’ll be able to choose another project to fund.

Thanks to some large foundation funding, Catapult does not charge either donors or partner organizations for transaction costs of listings. And donations are tax deductible in the United States.

Until Catapult launches a full media campaign around Giving Tuesday, as the Tuesday after Thanksgiving in the U.S has been dubbed, they will be checking and tweaking the platform and structure. Inviting us to a place of “shared learning” and more transparency, they are seeking feedback on the design and opening the conversation through the various social media spaces to see what works and what doesn’t work for donors and partners.


All the projects listed on Catapult’s platform are working in some way towards equality for women. And they cover an impressive range of topics, from maternal health and child brides, to LGBT issues and education. Many small grassroots organizations are already out there working for gender equality and women’s rights and many of them are in danger of closing and most are underfunded.


“All the expertise resides in the NGOs, right? Because these are fabulous NGOs and they are working in context, in country, in region, and in community to solve problems in their own way and so we hope that people will want to support them”, said Maz.

Rather than start her own organization to directly help women and girls, Maz saw the huge potential for change that was possible by opening up campaigning opportunities for these local, knowledgeable, NGOs. Even in beta form, Catapult is a valuable mechanism for organizations to share their programs and then their success.


Micro-loans or micro-savings: what works?

“Is there any one member of this group going for a loan from FINCA again? No! No! Is there any member who is going for micro-loan? No!” Such was the dialog I heard in Malawi from a local savings and loans group (called MAVISALO) discussing micro-loans. Where I had expected to hear great stories of micro-loan organisations empowering people and solving problems, instead I heard tones of disgust. David Roodman’s Due Diligence: An impertinent inquiry into microfinance finds little compelling evidence that micro-loans alleviate poverty or empower people, two of the most common themes in micro-credit marketing.

In one of the appendices, Roodman poses a critical question, “how far should nonprofits go in misrepresenting what they do in order to fund it? It is not an easy question: what if honesty reduces funding?” (loc. 3859). The marketing success of microfinance, and the surge of commercial, governmental, and individual financing that follows, clearly clashed with my experiences in Malawi.

The marketing of micro-credit succeeds for a number of reasons. On one hand is the appeal, especially in North America, of stories of individual “bootstrap” entrepreneurship. These stories are fed to us through loan agents who are trained to create stories of everyone being an entrepreneur and single loans that lead to successful businesses. On the other hand, the micro-credit fundraising model creates an impression of an “unmediated” loan (loc. 3434), where donors/investors feel they are making a one-to-one, direct human connection.

“If people continue to channel billions to the best storytellers,” Roodman says of investors, “they will continue to distort the very thing they mean to support. But if they recognize how their choices have been part of the problem, then they can become part of the solution” (loc. 3456). Can NGOs use the stories as part of a solution that both accurately represents their relationships with aid recipients and also provides assistance that is beneficial?

Throughout the book, Roodman points to the potential of micro-savings to address the financial needs of the poor, especially for protection against financial shock. Indeed, saving seems to emerge as a bright spot in the midst of tepid evaluations of micro-credit, especially considering that “Whatever credit can do, savings can, too. Both can finance investment, pay for consumption, and help a family through health crises” (loc. 1382). While Roodman’s examination of micro-credit research shows benefits only in very specific situations, “the one high-quality study of micro-savings does find economic gains” (loc. 1857). It seems, then, that micro-savings has the potential to both provide a better poverty-reducing vehicle to the poor and tell a better story to donors.

Let’s consider how can we take the elements of successful micro-credit marketing and begin to market self-help and village savings groups. To start, we have to acknowledge that savings programs have an inherently different narrative from micro-credit; it’s not a story of giving a loan or other object directly to another person. Most likely, the NGO costs for establishing and supporting savings groups are paying for infrastructure to keep money safe, and salaries of savings agents. Yet, several aspects of micro-savings, especially when provided through self-help groups, seem poised to allow NGOs to tell the great “lifting out of poverty” narrative that has been applied to micro-credit with more accuracy. The work of micro-savings has less leeway for misrepresentation – either people are saving, or they aren’t – we don’t have to ever know how people spend their money or if their business is successful.

Here are some points gleaned from Roodman, which help craft an honest story about micro-savings that still lends itself to donor impulses:

  • Savings actually can reach the poorest of the poor (loc. 1190). One of the best lines of the book is a poor woman in rural Niger saying that micro-credit “is for rich people” (loc. 1205).
  • People want to save (loc. 3364) and don’t want to be in debt (loc. 1384). Giving people services that help them do what they want is better for them and a better story.
  • Savings programs seem to help women more than men (loc. 2233; 2809). Women are sympathetic story characters and are chosen for many loans programs.
  • Savings groups, which unlike micro-finance institutions (MFIs) can be flexible and reliable, are more likely to empower members (loc. 2476; 2820; 3616). Also empowering, self-help groups foster a sense of group ownership (loc. 2855).
  • Savings can improve the impact of micro-credit (loc. 1531), improving the stories told by MFIs that provide both services.

Of course, the reality of the world makes it unrealistic to expect that any single service will eliminate poverty. Part of the truth in marketing is not just telling a more real story but also sharing a more complex story. Promoting micro-savings programs and stories alongside the many narratives of micro-credit and entrepreneurs can subtly prod donors to consider a wider context of financial services and a wider understanding of life and economic needs of the global poor. While Roodman shares a discouraging overview of micro-credit, there is a more hopeful story of micro-savings as a way to protect against shock and, yes, cover business expenses for entrepreneurs. I came back from Malawi wary of micro-credit and large MFIs but enthusiastic about local groups cropping up to help people move away from loans and towards saving.

Africans Feeding Africa: using social enterprise for success

Women Deliver recently came out with their annual “Women Deliver 50” list of inspiring ideas and solutions put forward by women and girls. The women and groups celebrated in the list cover a broad range of topics and programs, from midwives in Ethiopia to advocating for women’s voices in Libya.

One that sparked my interest was “Africans feeding Africa” by Backpack Farm, which is a social enterprise that hosts trainings for small-scale farmers in East Africa and sells them green agriculture technologies and supplies– all in a backpack.

I caught the founder, Rachel Zedeck, in the middle of the busy planting season in Kenya, but she managed to spare some time to tell me about their program and some of the challenges in pursuing the social enterprise model.

Tanya Cothran: Where does your funding come from? What drew you to the commercial model as opposed to the donor-funded aid model?

Rachel Zedek: I used my life savings to build the company, which is a registered LTD (limited company) in Kenya. In retrospect I think I was naïve. A hybrid NGO/for-profit model would have been best in the early days to help strengthen our operations with access to more grant funding. Now, more commercial capital is moving into the market but still not as much as you would think. Finance continues to be our biggest challenge to scaling our operations. Just five years ago, no one believed in for-profit for smallholder farmers. Now they have been included in the Davos and G20 agenda so I am hopeful this will help attract new agriculture investors into Kenya and the wider East Africa Community.

TC: Your focus is assisting smallholder farmers. What does this term mean and how about many smallholder farmers are there in Kenya?

Geoffry is a Backpack Farm Agronomist at the Eldoret farm.

RZ: We differentiate between a smallholder who has 2-5 acres of land and earns their primary income from farming versus a “last mile” or subsistence farmer who typically has less than ½ acre of land and lives in a semi-arid region with little or no access to water. It is infeasible for the majority of subsistence farmers to move above the poverty line through horticulture farming.  What’s more exciting is that 80% of the region’s food is produced by women. While we aren’t gender biased, we do work with a lot of women.

There are approximately 27 million smallholder farmers in Kenya (76% of the population work in rural agriculture). I and others estimate that approximately 21 million are truly smallholder with the remaining 6 million being subsistence farmers who are also pastoralist, such as the Maasai, Turkana, Borana, ethnic Somalis, Pokot, and other tribes.  They love cattle and goats and have limited desire to farm.

TC: How much do the backpacks cost? How do they reach your customers?

RZ: Backpack materials cost anywhere from $10 (for refill of products) to more than $2,000 USD for a full acre of inputs. This is 1/7 the cost of other commercial inputs. More than 75% of that cost is for the drip irrigation and water tank. This may seem like a large investment but on its own, irrigation can double or triple crop yields. If I had my choice, I would want every smallholder farmer to have access to a drip irrigation kit. The refill packs for each new planting season include seeds and cutting edge biological & botanical inputs enhancing soil nutrition (fertilizers), and crop protection.

These products are distributed through a network of franchise training and distribution centers. If the customers only want to attend training then they pay 20 KES (less than $0.25 cents) but they aren’t required to buy any inputs.

TC: How are your product and trainings marketed in Africa?

RZ: We are primarily leveraging local agriculture shows and our own farmer field days. Right now, we are shopping for finance, and so not able to invest in big marketing campaigns.  In the future, we plan to use more print and radio ads and our mobile tool to target specific regions with SMS campaigns.

Our website media is primarily used to attract franchise partners, investors and donor partners who want to leverage our technical program.

TC: Do you find that many people already know about some aspects of sustainable agriculture when they come to the trainings?

RZ: Yes, farmers do have a lot of local knowledge as well as bits from other NGO programs or national campaigns. The issue is not the desire to learn but a complete understanding of why they should be committed to implementing the techniques. We offer 47+ classes, covering a range of topics, with the biggest impact in water and soil fertility. In the last 10 years, we have suffered from eight years of drought or late and short rains. Better water management is critical to accomplishing regional food security.

So many NGO programs have popped up over the last 20 years. In fact, it has been a huge stumbling block for us. So many communities are indoctrinated with “free.” This is one reason we charge for our classes. When we launched free training, no one would come. We learned that free has no value.

Now we are asking farmers to invest in their own success through training or new farming technologies like drip irrigation. When you make an investment, you demonstrate the determination to see the return on investment. By giving them access to a demonstration farm, they can see the long term benefits of both the training and technologies. Farming is all about patience. At least with drip irrigation, we can show them a pretty immediate impact in their use of water (which is a cost input) and how well their seeds germinate. The longer-term impact comes from the strength of the plant as well as how much and what quality it produces at harvest.

TC: Is there any help for selling their crops, in addition to growing them?

RZ: Currently, we do not link farmers to a specific market but wholesalers are welcome to attend a farmer field day and meet farmers. In the future, farmers will be able to link to buyers through our mobile training tool, “KUZA Doctor.”

TC: If you received a large donation or investment today, how would you use it? How would you grow/expand/improve?

RZ: Ahhhh…the magic question of money. If we raised the investment we need today, I would do the following:

  1. Hire four new staff including a new Director of Operations
  2. Buy new equipment including two new cars and four computers
  3. Move into a new office with space for a demonstration garden in the middle of Nairobi. It’s amazing how many city dwellers are secret weekend farmers.
  4. Build a minimum of five new franchise farms. Build it and they will come – making it much easier for us to find partners in key agriculture regions like Meru and Nanyuki.
  5. Plan a marketing campaign for the upcoming planting season. If all goes well, the short rains will arrive in October and November.

Visit Backpack Farm’s website to learn more.