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50 for 50: The Power of Community

By Allison Kooser

In the early 1990s, Opportunity International was testing out innovative new models around the world. While launching our very first programs in Africa and beginning to issue larger loans in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a group of donors in the United States dreamed up a new idea of their own.

These women, who would later power the Women’s Opportunity Fund, wanted Opportunity to serve people even further down the economic pyramid. They wanted us to provide financial services and training to those who needed us most: women and those in extreme poverty.  

The challenge, of course, was that the fewer assets a borrower had, the riskier the loan became. A woman with no resources and no business training frankly didn’t look good on paper. Which is exactly why she needed a hand up. 

And Opportunity was willing to try. Leveraging the innovative thought that has come to define Opportunity International and our unrelenting commitment to those in greatest need of support, that small group of women donors helped staff develop and fund a plan. 

In 1992, Opportunity International piloted the first “Trust Bank” in El Salvador. This group received loans and training through a new lending model that was based on the simple principle that your fellow group member would cover your payment if you defaulted. Instead of collateral, they secured their loans with community, solidarity, and trust. 

After a two-year pilot in El Salvador, one thing was clear: Trust Banks worked. 

Trust Banks—later called Trust Groups—allowed even the smallest business owners to borrow much-needed capital. Instead of a few hundred, or even a few thousand dollars, the initial Trust Group loans were usually less than $100. They made financial services available to those that had previously been deemed “unbankable.”

Despite lending to some of the most “high-risk” borrowers in the world, Opportunity’s repayment rate was 98%. Groups took out second, third, and fourth loans that increased in amount and impact. They gathered every week to make payments and receive financial training from a local staff member. They grew their businesses. They fed their families.

Meanwhile, Opportunity International partners around the world saw this success and wanted to set up their own group lending programs. They, too, wanted to serve clients who were otherwise unserved, and they realized this was the way to do it. 

Looking back now, it seems obvious. Group lending is now such a cornerstone of microfinance that it is in its very definition: “Microfinance is a type of banking service provided to unemployed or low-income individuals or groups who otherwise would have no other access to financial services” (Investopedia).

But in the early 1990s, there was no hindsight assurance, there was only risk. 

So, the big question is: why did it work so well? 

Because people longed for opportunity. Because women were ready to change their families’ futures. Because community can be a powerful force for good. 

For an Opportunity article published six years ago, I wrote “For us in the United States, it seems crazy to tie our personal success to that of our neighbors and friends. But for many around the world, the community acts as a safety net.”

After nearly a year of social distancing and isolation, this concept doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore. Community feels more powerful—and more essential—than ever. The ability to care for one another, push one another, and rely on one another is a valuable gift that we can leverage for our mutual success. 

I have seen firsthand the amazing friendships between Trust Group members—relationships that are not only wanted, but needed for survival. As people build their businesses, their friends walk alongside them, cheering them on and encouraging them in times of challenge. This relational element is the key to Trust Group success. 

The “we’re all in this together” sentiment is at the heart of the Opportunity International Trust Group. For our clients, your challenge is my challenge; your victory is my victory—and it’s been this way for 30 years. 

Today, Opportunity continues to do what it has always done: create innovative solutions to better serve those who need us most. We’re still serving 6.2 million people today through Trust Groups, and we’re leveraging the power of community through other programs as well. Farming co-ops benefit from strength in numbers when it comes to learning best practices or negotiating with buyers in markets. In fact, we empower farmers to become trainers for their neighbors because the trust built within communities is irreplaceable. Educators are no different, and that’s why we’ve focused on building “clusters” that bring schools together to share learnings and encourage each other. 

Our global community of staff, partners, donors, and clients is at the core of everything we do. The tactics may change, but the mission of empowering people to work their way out of poverty remains. And through it all, we’re in it together.

Each week for the next 50 weeks, we will share a piece of Opportunity’s history—major or minor, sobering or inspiring. We have gotten to where we are today by facing some of the world’s greatest challenges, with you by our side. Please join us in celebrating the many significant moments that have built the foundation on which we will embark on our most audacious vision yet: ending extreme poverty. 

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