Meeting Microfinance’s Biggest Star

Dr. Muhammad Yunus: A warm and positive humanitarian genius.

My summer’s hottest event had to be the InterAction Forum 2011, held in Washington DC in August. As temperatures soared above 33 degrees Celsius I dragged my soggy self to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to mix and mingle with some of the top players in the American NGO scene. What a thrill! I was part of the team representing Humber College in the exhibition hall and thanks to the generosity of Susan MacGregor, the school’s international development program coordinator, I was also able to attend a barrelful of workshops.

Highlights in a nutshell: Shaking hands with Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, founder of Grameen Bank and the godfather of microfinance. Charming and very approachable, Mr. Yunus gave the keynote speech at the closing plenary. He spoke of his determination to “solve problems”  (even in the face of persecution in his home country of Bangladesh), and noted that politics have changed in the last 20-30 years. “Today in Bangladesh youth are acting as thugs for politicians and see politics as a way to get money, not a way to collectively better society,” he told me, the frustration visible in his warm brown eyes. A beacon of inspiration, Mr. Yunus’s Grameen Bank now has 7.9 million borrowers, 97% who are women, and has lent more than $8 billion with a near 100% return rate. He’s also founded other companies to help abate poverty including mobile phone services, energy, education and health care. “I don’t own these businesses and I don’t personally make a profit from them. I start them to fix problems,” he said.

The one-hour film Saving Philanthropy, produced by Kate Robinson, set out to clearly define how non-profit organizations can effectively manage to outcomes. Some of the tips she shared were the importance of having a strictly defined target audience, having a clear system for monitoring and evaluation and being flexible enough to change strategies mid-course. Finally, she pointed out how it is sometimes necessary to say “no” in order to say “yes” effectively. The tools and resources used in the film for assessing social impact are available at

Women in the Middle East: Attitudes and Advocacy in an Opening Political Space was a timely glimpse into gender issues, especially during the Arab Spring. Rola Abdul-Latif, a research specialist, presented findings on the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa while Wameedh Shakir, founder of the Yemeni Women for Social Peace Campaign, discussed the need to challenge cultural barriers with data that proves women’s engagement is a core part of creating democracy that benefits both men and women.

Perhaps most relevant for me was the Communication on a Shoestring workshop with Wendy Hanamura , vp/gm of LINK TV, Lisa Anderson of Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Jeff Davidoff, chief marketing officer with ONE Campaign. I learned how LINK TV offers partnerships with NGOs to embed videos on their site. Once they are posted, semantic Web technology generates links between the videos and the latest related content across the Web. “The film To Educate A Girl tripled its views from what it was getting from Twitter and Facebook,” Hanamura explained. Lisa Anderson reported that her organization’s Trust Media program trains journalists around the world. Other great services the foundation offers are an emergency information service for local populations to pin-point relief stations, and AlertNet, a humanitarian website that reports on projects, posts jobs and provides a resource for journalists. TrustLaw is a service that provides information as a form of aid. “We offer pro bono legal help in 70 countries through 151 law firms that can help NGOs with everything from how to set up offices to getting visas or paying taxes,” said Anderson. Jeff Davidoff shared the secrets of effective marketing. “The message has to be simple. Speak of the benefits first, be action oriented, easily understood, short, quotable and repeatable.”

What an inspiring and content-packed conference. I can only hope to attend again!


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