When Jill and Steve Smith were students at Georgetown, they had no idea that a chance encounter during the late 1970s would shape their philanthropy for the rest of their lives. When they met Opportunity's founder Al Whittaker, the Smiths were impressed by his practical and faith-based approach to fighting poverty and continued to track Opportunity's work with interest over the next several years. They decided their 10th-anniversary gift to each other would be an Insight Trip to Central America. Soon after, Jill joined a group of women who launched the Women’s Opportunity Fund (WOF) in the early 1990s.
We sat down with the Smiths to discuss their journey with Opportunity, what continues to excite them as committed donors for over three decades, and how they're imparting their generosity to the next generation.
Can you share how you’ve been involved with Opportunity International over the years?
Jill: I was a part of the early group that came together with a vision to launch the Women’s Opportunity Network in 1990. We funded experimentation of different approaches to better target and serve the needs of women living in poverty. We documented and shared the Trust Group methodology among Opportunity’s worldwide partners. I have also had the privilege of serving on Opportunity’s global network board, as well as the U.S. and Mexico boards over the years. Currently, Steve and I enjoy serving together on the Board of Governors. These efforts have forged lifelong friendships that I treasure to this day.
How have your philanthropy interests become a family affair?
Jill: After years of our engagement with Opportunity, my mother decided to check it out by taking our then 13-year-old daughter Erin on an Insight Trip to Honduras. My mother also accompanied me on a memorable board trip to India; she ended up requesting Opportunity as a recipient of gifts in her memory which was very meaningful to me. Later, Steve took our younger daughter Julia on an Insight Trip to the Dominican Republic when she was 13.
Steve: Jill has always made our home a place of hospitality for international guests. We’ve had several high school foreign exchange students, many college and adult students enrolled in local ESL programs,and Opportunity global staff stay with us over the years. Our daughters have been raised with an interest and respect for global connections. Generosity is a value we’ve tried to instill from an early age. At Christmas a few years ago, we asked each of our daughters and their husbands to choose a charity they supported and we would match their charitable gift to that organization. We have kept that tradition alive and hope to encourage our grandchildren as well.
What made you decide to form a Donor Trust Group?
Steve: The idea stemmed from a call with Opportunity donors on the West Coast who had formed a Donor Trust Group to bring together small, committed groups with shared values. The Trust Group concept resonated with us because of its early development by WOF and its long-term success with Opportunity loan clients. We also liked the idea of forming a group of couples in a similar stage of life (i.e. empty nesters) who share values of generosity, a global perspective, a love for international travel, and a desire to learn more about how to address world poverty. Jill and I met individually with friends from our community to discuss this idea, and within a few months, we had a group of eight couples including ourselves on board.
Jill: The energy and excitement of these couples have been contagious and so uplifting. It has renewed our own commitment. We set a fairly ambitious giving goal upfront which the group exceeded before our first group meeting! The group is all new to Opportunity and has enjoyed hearing about Opportunity’s work from staff who implement it. We have met twice over dinner since starting in October and will continue to do so over the next two years, including a trip to Colombia early next year.
What has drawn you to supporting Colombia?
Jill: We were drawn to Colombia because there is such a rich history there beginning with Opportunity’s first loan client in 1971. Additionally, Colombia is launching a new Opportunity Zone which will include all three major programs: Microbanking, EduFinance and AgFinance. Latin America is a region close to my heart since my student days of studying Spanish in Guatemala and a semester abroad in Ecuador.
What motivates you to continue supporting Opportunity?
Jill: Opportunity has been a partner to us in achieving our philanthropic goals. I like that the organization continues to adapt what they’ve learned and apply it to their laser focus of reaching the most marginalized and those no one else is reaching.
Steve: We’ve met so many impressive and hardworking clients over the years. I will always remember meeting Riata in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2016. She shared with us about the horrors of living through the genocide in 1994, yet she had a renewed outlook on life since starting and sustaining a new business (a shop) with an Opportunity loan. Seeing the strength of women like Riata around the world and their important role in communities has been inspirational and reminds me of the impact of Opportunity’s work. It has also helped me to be a more uplifting, supportive husband and Dad to our two girls.