The mission of Going Global is to educate and inform Midwest technology companies on what local technology companies are doing internationally so other firms can learn from the successes of like-minded peers.
OAK BROOK, Ill. Ė Opportunity International in Oak Brook, Ill. strives to reach the worldís poorest people through its microenterprise development programs. Its mission is to provide opportunities for people in chronic poverty to transform their lives.
John Kamperschroer joined Opportunity International in July 2000 and is its vice president of marketing. He is involved in recruiting, training and managing several major gift fund-raisers. He is also involved in the areas of planning, communications, marketing and donor acquisition and serves a major donor portfolio of his own.
International expert Michael Muth sat down with Kamperschroer to learn about the organizationís technology initiatives.
Michael Muth: How has technology helped you raise money?
John Kamperschroer: A small percentage has come in through the Web site. Weíre hoping to grow that significantly. We just launched our new site on Nov. 9.
How did you localize the Web sites of your international partners?
JK: They all created their own. Weíve been talking about creating more consistent messages and working together to a greater degree.
MM commentary: I surfed each of their international Web sites and they do need to work on consistency. Even their numbers donít match in some cases. This is typically an issue for loosely connected organizations. This results in some confusion for surfers who know each country.
MM: How has technology helped you loan money?
JK: We have to be technologically proficient because weíre a financial institution. For example, we rely on a South African company that has adapted its sophisticated banking software (which was developed by Temenos) so we can have the whole network on one worldwide system.
Each loan is recorded in each branch. It works very well. Investors think itís a good program to back. This technology has been a major factor to our success.
Elsewhere, Opportunity International Bank of Malawi uses technology to overcome the identity problem that exists because Malawi has no national identity card. Forms of identity accepted by banks in the country (passports and driverís licenses) are too expensive for poor people to acquire.
Technology enables us to provide every person we serve in that country with a smart card that has their fingerprints embedded on a chip within the card. They can prove their identity by scanning their finger at a tellerís station or at an ATM.
We hope to use PDAs or some form of Palm Pilot to eliminate paper ledgers, be more sophisticated, save time, make us more efficient, register, allow information to be uploaded automatically and have the information moved over to the mainframe.
MM commentary: Some of the technology they are using blows me away. The smart cards they are using in Malawi are something we arenít using much here in the U.S.
MM: How do you use your Opportunity.net intranet?
JK: It serves as an internal resource tool. We use it for phone lists, directories, proposals and reports. Itís a go-to place for our staff. There is also an intranet for the partners throughout the network to use as a resource for their needs.
MM commentary: Given their resources (or lack thereof), itís a major accomplishment that theyíre able to connect with a worldwide network.
MM: How helpful is your e-mail newsletter?
JK: We will begin distributing our first e-mail newsletter in January 2005. We trust it will help Opportunity with our goal of engaging people in our work to serve the poor. We will better be able to gauge the impact of the mailing after it has been distributed for six months.
MM commentary: Hereís a quick look at the level of technology in countries where Opportunity operates:
As you can see, the level of technology is pretty low. In no country where they operate is landline telephone use even above 50 percent. Internet connectivity and the use of cell phones is quite low in the countries in which they operate. Itís pretty amazing what theyíve been able to accomplish given the level of technology infrastructure in these countries.
MM: Who are Ruth and Don Ebinger? Why did they create a matching grant?
JK: They have been longtime believers in our cause. They gave us a $50,000 challenge grant to encourage people to register on our Web site and answer a few simple questions. A $10 donation will be made for each registrantís name.
MM: What have been your biggest obstacles to overcome? How did you do it?
JK: Initially, we werenít reaching the poorest of the working poor. We turned to group lending. That was the paradigm shift from lending thousands of dollars to a few men to lending hundreds of dollars to many women. Our repayment rates skyrocketed.
MM commentary: Opportunity International really went against the grain to make this kind of decision. It has really paid off. Perhaps the same kind of change in thinking can make a difference here.
MM: How do you define ďoperational sustainabilityĒ?
JK: I define this when partner organizations are generating enough income to offset their costs. While there are some newer programs that are not yet sustainable, itís critical that they become sustainable and not subsidized. Itís irresponsible and weíre not being good stewards when itís the dollars of the donors that weíve been entrusted to use efficiently and wisely. Any profits earned are pumped back into the lending program.
MM commentary: To be clear, Opportunity is now self-sustaining. If they were to receive no more donations, they could still go on lending money to the poorest of the poor. By receiving donations, Opportunity can expand its lending and help more people in more countries. This means donations to Opportunity are not consumed as with many other charities. Instead, they are leveraged so they assist their beneficiaries over and over again.
MM: What can local technology entrepreneurs learn from Opportunity?
JK: Budding entrepreneurs in developing countries have a lot more in common with Americans than we might think. They are experiencing the same struggles.
Entrepreneurs here in the U.S. have probably had a lot of the same doors shut on them (just like our clients). Opportunity International gives poor entrepreneurs hope in a dignified way so they can realize their dreams. There are a lot of similarities. They need to provide for their families, they want to employ others and they contribute to society.
MM: In addition to donations, what are the best ways for local entrepreneurs to get involved?
JK: They can become governors on our board of governors (like Doug Cogswell of ADVIZOR Solutions). They can put on receptions that often feature international guests and experts with first-hand stories of what itís like in the field. The receptions are really fun and are real eye-openers. There are volunteer opportunities as well to help us solve our technical problems globally and locally.
MM commentary: When I interviewed Cogswell earlier this year on ePrairie, he lit up when we started talking about Opportunity International. I think this shows the passion that people develop when they become involved with Opportunity.
MM: Do you organize insight trips?
JK: We put on international trips that enable our donors to take four= or five-day trips to meet clients and their businesses and attend trust bank meetings. The trips are very inspirational.
MM commentary: Cogswell took his daughters on an insight trip to Latin America. While they questioned the purpose before they left, theyíre anxious to return as soon as they can.
MM: How do you find, qualify and work with indigenous partners?
JK: The national partnerships we have established during Opportunity Internationalís 33-year history are typically with non-governmental organizations (NGO). When we identify a need to provide loans in a country, we perform a feasibility study and develop a business plan before entering the region.
MM commentary: Opportunity has two kinds of international partners: network peers in the developed world whose work mirrors Opportunity International in the U.S. and 42 implementation partners in 27 developing countries who loan the money, conduct meetings and receive repayments. I would think they could use more of both.
Join us next Tuesday for part three of this three-part series
where we will learn about the organizationís international partnerships.
Michael Muth is managing director of GATA, an international business development consultancy that helps technology companies build international partnerships. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for Muthís full biography.
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