Heifer International: One Very Impressive Nonprofit.

Last night, I watched a documentary by Bob Gilner on PBS about Heifer International. To say the least, I was very impressed by the organization. The idea behind Heifer is that they go to the very poorest places on earth, partner with locals, and give them the ability to feed themselves.

Their methods are downright brilliant. Instead of just giving temporary aid to improve the immediate situation of an area, they shoot for the real long term survival of the population. They find partners who are willing to work hard, give them training on how to produce food through livestock, get them to agree to some basic terms, then provide them with the animals they need. The partners agree to "pass on the gift" which means that at some point, the partners will give some portion of the offspring to new partners in the same area.

This approach makes a lot of sense to me. Instead of just giving away goods UN-humanitarian-relief-style, they are very carefully giving away capital and training with the understanding that it will eventually spread to the entire surrounding community. The impact of the training is permament - even without the capital, the farmers learn new methods of farming that are easier and more effective (and also have the side benefit of having less environmental impact.) The capital is in a form that is hard for corrupt governments to steal. How many corrupt dictators will go to the far reaches of a country to steal a few goats from a dirt poor farmer?

Looking at Heifer's financial info, it appears that they are about a $100MM organization. Around 25% of the money is used by fundraising/administration the remaining 75% goes directly to programs. It seems reasonably efficient to me. Most of their donations are directly from individuals. They've been around since 1944, so it looks like they are here to stay.

Heifer International has an impressive donation page where for as little as $10 you can choose an animal (or a share of one) to give.

Anyhow, I was really moved by the documentary. One part showed a "pass the gift" ceremony in Albania. The people were living in abject poverty. The documentary followed an old man to his home which was a simple stone hut. He slept on a pile of rags on the floor and there were a few chickens crawling all over his bed. The goat he received in the ceremony clearly would make a real difference in his life; he planned on selling it's offspring for a little money and consuming the milk it produced. The original small gift of a few goats and training had spread throughout the entire community and improved many lives.