October 13, 2014 by Alex Counts
“Bad habits are hard to break. But if you can somehow turn a bad habit into a good one, it will also be hard to break.” In just those few words, Grameen Foundation board member David Russell elegantly captured the challenge, and the opportunity, of our “connected farmers” initiative in Latin America that is attempting to convince subsistence cultivators to adopt improved farming practices. This is just the latest in a long line of contributions – intellectual and financial – Russell has made to our work south of the border. It is fair to say that he took a special interest in supporting our regional CEO, Alberto Solano, after he was hired in 2009.
There is much talk these days about the importance of good governance, both in the corporate and humanitarian sectors. But what does that really mean? At its core, good governance is about the group of people who constitute an organization’s Board of Directors doing a few critically important things competently – such as overseeing the budget and auditing process, setting strategy, and evaluating the CEO. And to do that, people need to attend meetings, come prepared and ask the hard questions. Most certainly, since he was elected in 2007, David Russell has been doing that as well as anyone we have ever had on our board.
But especially in the case of organizations like Grameen Foundation with social goals as well as financial ones, good governance can mean much more. In particular, it can mean individual board members taking a special interest in new, unproven program areas with high potential and providing whatever is needed to give them the best chance to flourish. Most often what is needed are practical ideas, financial resources, and new allies. One of the great case studies of this kind of support is Russell’s engagement with our Latin America programs over the last few years.
Most notably, two years ago he announced that he would match, dollar for dollar, all donations from new financial supporters of our “Last Mile Initiative” in Latin America. Beyond being a great morale boost to our team in Medellín, Colombia, his bold pledge attracted $246,000 in new contributions, which he and his wife Susan matched.
Among those making first-time donations to our Latin America programs were our past board chairman, Paul Maritz, and Miami-area philanthropist Manuel Medina, the driving force behind eMerge Americas. Both cited the Russell match as a strong motivating factor. In addition, the Russell match motivated the team in Medellín to focus on maximizing earned revenue, resulting in $229,000 in new resources from implementation partners.
On the same recent day when Russell made his observation about turning bad “habits” into good ones, Alberto Solano announced to the five board members who were visiting Colombia that one of the largest contributions ever to our Latin America strategy hit our bank account. Importantly, like the Russell matching funds, it was designated for supporting our entire regional strategy, rather than being tied to any particular project. As a result of all these contributions, our Last Mile Initiative has touched 132,000 poor families and is on course to reach 200,000 by 2015.
Grameen Foundation Chairman Bob Eichfeld, who has long taken an interest in our work in India that parallels David Russell’s support of Latin America, recently said, "I commend David and Susan for their generosity of time and resources. They have put their skin in the game to ensure that we are transforming the lives of poor farmers in Latin America. They are true partners of Grameen Foundation and their investment is proof of that. David and Susan are both our biggest supporters and our toughest critics - lauding the accomplishments we've achieved together while always pushing us to do more."
Our recently elected vice-chair, Ricki Helfer, added, "David and Susan’s support has ensured that Grameen Foundation can continue to do what we do best – testing and scaling mobile technology solutions that help the poor manage and improve their own lives. Thanks to David and Susan’s matching challenge, we have been able to take what we have learned in Uganda and Ghana and apply it to the Colombian context."
Good governance is both an art and a science. The science is having the discipline to do a few things well. The art is creating an environment where individual members can take specific products, initiatives or geographic regions under their wings and help them realize their full potential. Clearly David Russell, who was in Colombia with me this past week, is a shining example of both aspects of being a great board member. We are lucky to have him on our team.
When I asked Russell about his comment regarding habits, he added, “You know what they say, good character is simply developing a sufficient number of good habits.” That made me think about what the world would look like if all those charged with governing commercial and humanitarian organizations developed a critical mass of “good habits” that they found difficult to break. It would be a much different, and better, world than the one we live in. People like David Russell give us a window on that better world today.