The second feature in our International Development Leader Spotlight series: Jake Smith, Executive Director at Blood:Water. Why did you pursue a career in international development? I began my career in fundraising and marketing for large university athletic department. I was fortunate that two of my sisters chose to teach school in Africa. After a visit to Africa and 8 years in fundraising for college athletics, I decided that a career that would allow me the opportunity to work closely with those I had met in Africa would be a much more fulfilling vocation. I began my career in international development in 2010. I’ve historically held roles in the areas of development and marketing. In 2019, I became the Executive Director of Blood:Water, a role that I currently hold and love. The role now allows me the chance to speak into our program strategy, while also helping to raise funds and awareness to support our partners.
How does Blood:Water take an anti-colonial approach to international development? We are not implementers. We believe locally-led African organizations know what they need more than we ever could. We begin every potential partnership with the questions, "What Are You Doing and How Can We Help?" At Blood:Water, we don't put strict limitations on our funding commitments. Because we’re involved for at least eight years, we’re able to create lasting change in organizations who can then create a lasting impact. Our model includes an in-depth process for developing and measuring the growth of organizations. From finance to technology, and assisting organizations in developing their mission and vision, we work alongside our partners to strategize and develop their organizations.
How do you ensure Blood:Water’s beneficiaries are represented with dignity? There are a lot of organizations who want to make you the hero of the story. At no point will Blood:Water ever talk about American donors or funders being the heroes. From the pictures we present on our website and collateral to the way we talk about partner leaders, we always aim to make those doing the real work - our African partners - the heroes. When we tell someone’s story as he/she would want it to be heard, we honor the story. We are about inspiring people by sharing a humanized account of others, and therefore, being human to one another.
What is one project or movement that inspires you? The funding that Blood:Water provides for peer exchange visits in Africa always excites me because it removes the “top down development” mentality and instead allows two of our Africa partners to learn from each other. One of our current partners, PaCT in Uganda, has an Excellence in Schools WASH program. We recently provided the opportunity for another one of our partners in Kenya, Beacon of Hope, the opportunity to visit with PaCT, to learn about this program and then bring this back to Kenya for work in their schools and communities. What is really exciting is that we’ve seen countless times that when the partner who brings a project back to implement in their community, they undoubtedly make some small tweaks and improvements that in-turn serve the original project partner. It’s a continuous cycle of learning and growth, all fueled by African partners.
For young professionals considering a career in international development, what is one piece of advice you would share? Just start. Find an organization that you can intern with or volunteer with in college that will allow you a chance to see all facets of an organization, from the programs team to the fundraising team. From there, you will be able to discern what path is best for you. One of our program team members, our Impact and Learning Manager, got her start first as a fundraising coordinator. It first helped her learn that she didn't want to do fundraising! But it also helped her get a foot in the door which has led to a very successful career that a diploma alone likely wouldn't have afforded.
The first feature in our International Development Leader Spotlight series: Jodi Fischer, Development Director at Fundación Adelante.
Why did you pursue a career in international development? After spending a year studying in Cairo, Egypt at age 20 I found the volume of poverty and associated challenges in the region to be staggering. Although we face many issues in the US, I was drawn to learning more about the issues developing countries face and what organizations have been doing to address them.
How does Fundación Adelantetake an anti-colonial approach to international development? Adelante was founded on the assumption that Hondurans living in poverty did not choose their fate, but they have the talent, ingenuity, and strength to transform their lives if given the opportunity to do so. Adelante provides women with microloans to grow or start businesses so that they may achieve economic self-sufficiency.
How do you ensure Fundación Adelante's beneficiaries are represented with dignity? Adelante places beneficiaries at the center of what we do. Compared to other microfinance organizations in Honduras, our Portfolio-at-Risk (PAR) > 30, which is a measurement often used to determine the health of a microfinance and current repayments, is higher than others. This is because we are willing to restructure loans, postpone payments, and increase loan terms to accommodate the unique challenges the women we work with face. Adelante also regularly solicits information from borrowers, conducting surveys and collecting feedback so that we can ensure the work we do is best serving their needs.
What is one project or movement that inspires you? I care deeply about education, food security, financial inclusion, and reducing global emissions. That said, in all my years of experience I find microfinance to be the most powerful sustainable international development solution. Not only because it allows women and families to have agency over their own lives, but because increasing wealth for families reduces other poverty indicators. And because with repayments, the loan pool is recycled allowing new borrowers to be supported into perpetuity. Microfinance experienced a lot of attention after Grameen Bank Founder, Muhhamad Yunnus, received the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately microfinance fell short of expectations to solve global poverty. The world learned micro loans and debt burden are not appropriate for the poorest of the poor, but those living in the less destitute levels. As long as microfinance organizations use a fair interest rate and preferably offer education/training to accompany loans, intergenerational cycles of poverty can be broken, resilience to external shocks and climate impacts improve, and reduced displacement and migration ensues.
For young professionals considering a career in international development, what is one piece of advice you would share? Who you work with is more important than the mission of an organization. There are countless organizations doing good work, but the ones that are composed of good leadership and healthy teams are few and far between. Volunteer, intern, take temp jobs with International Development organizations so that you get a sense of the work culture and people before you commit long term.