Interview: Matt Turner of Beyond Poverty
Beyond Poverty is an up-and-coming non-governmental organization (NGO) based outside of Atlanta, GA. Its purpose is threefold: to empower poverty-stricken communities, facilitate local leadership, and incite ownership and accountability for community driven solutions. These approaches are designed to guarantee lasting, sustainable growth and development. Beyond Poverty’s holistic mentality is a cut above many of today’s development non-profits. Founding staff member Matt Turner was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about fighting poverty and the nature of development work.
What compelled you to create your own non-profit from scratch? Were you dissatisfied with the climate of poverty-focused NGOs?
At the time I was making plenty of money and wanted to invest it in fighting poverty through a nonprofit, but I also wanted to do my own research and find an organization that would really produce results with the resources I would provide them. I had to learn a lot of specialized terminology to make sense of their reports and financial documents and what I found deeply disturbed me. The amount of money that nonprofits invest in poverty-based problems is astounding and the real results are astonishingly low. Additionally the unintentional and intentional over-reporting of impact is astonishing. Based on the amount of money invested in fighting poverty over the last 100 years and the collective impact reports of nonprofits, there really is no reason why poverty should still exist, but in reality there is no less poverty today than there was 100 years ago. In fact, it’s the opposite.
I blame this mostly on the approach. While doing this research, one of the things I noticed about organizations is that few to none of them were actually fighting poverty. They thought they were, but in reality all they were/are doing is addressing a symptom of a much larger problem. For example, if a community needs clean water to stop water-borne disease, we could drill a well, but water-borne disease is only a symptom of poverty. Why is there not already a well there? Why is there not money or knowledge to maintain one? Why is there not adequate healthcare to treat the disease or why is there no access to the healthcare that does exist? Why is there not adequate nutrition to maintain a good immune system? The list goes on!
In comes the term “sustainable” this word has been murdered in the most heinous of ways, it has become synonymous with “green” and while being green is a part of being sustainable and is a good thing, nonprofits have begun to pass off every program and project under the title of “sustainable” just because they installed a solar panel or recycled a few sheets of paper. Both of these are good things, but don’t make a project “sustainable.” Ultimately, if we want to end poverty, the people living in impoverished communities need to take responsibility for the change and transformation of their own society. We can help them, but if we do everything for them, we only make things worse! That is why all of our projects are designed to be independent after the initial funding stage. We still provide information and support, but the community needs to take ownership!
Most agree there is no single silver bullet for ending poverty. However, is there one method (microcredit, for instance) you find particularly helpful?
Yes, fighting poverty! I know that sounds like a wise-guy response, but that’s the problem. We’ve been conditioned to treat everything as singular problems, when in reality poverty is an extremely complex problem that requires a complex set of interventions to address it! I’m currently writing a paper on the interaction between “sectors” as they are called (ie: water, education, health, economics, nutrition, etc.) and how they all play together to create something like the food web we learned about in 5th grade. Each area is integral in the fight against poverty. That said, I think two areas are more “at the center” of the web: Economic Development (can be microfinance) and Education, mostly because these two seem to have a bigger impact on each of the other sectors. They can also be the most difficult to manage!
How do the various academic and professional backgrounds of your staff work together to develop Beyond Poverty?
Ultimately for our approach to work, we need specialists in every area to work together. I’m a microbiologist, so I shouldn’t be designing microfinance initiatives. We have everything from political science people to engineers, doctors, scientists, public health specialists and economists working with us, and while they are not all staff, we have a large number of people who believe in what we are doing and lend us their expertise. I went back to school for my Master’s of Public Health in Community Development because I believe that if you are going to do something, you might as well do it right! Most of our staff is young, but they are creative, think outside the box, and truly know what they are doing. Most of them could be making 60-80k a year elsewhere, but instead they work small part-time jobs so they can work with our donors to have the impact that they believe in! (Read: we don’t pay much!)
What is one myth about poverty which you would like to dispel?
That there is a quick and simple fix. We are bombarded with appeals of “give $20 today and we will (fill in the blank) that will eliminate poverty for 20,000 people” (I’m exaggerating of course). Although we live in a culture of instant gratification, this isn’t about us. Poverty takes a long time to really get rid of, and it takes a lot of complex work. $20 does make a difference, but it’s not the quick fix we are told by the marketers of the world!
What is Beyond Poverty doing that other NGOs and non-profits are not?
The first thing is our holistic/comprehensive approach at the community level. We are not content to bring a community clean water alone or medical care alone; we want the whole deal! One of the remarks we get often about this is, “How can we be good at so many things?” Again I’ll point out our incredible staff and the network of professionals who step in for projects on a regular basis. They are incredible beyond words! We also like to partner with organizations, we’ve partnered with 4-5 organizations before in a single community, all bringing our best to the table in different ways. It is amazing to see that happen and the impact it can have!
The second is being there for the long haul. While our projects are each designed to be independent after their initial phase, we know that poverty can be generational and so it will take a generation at least to really eliminate it. We need to grow up children in a culture where they understand what their parents are doing to keep them from living that life and cultivate a shift in mindset. If we don’t do this it is likely that the next generation will collapse back into poverty.
We are also focusing on economic efficiency. We believe that we can do more for the same amount of money in the non-profit world. Americans are the most generous people in the world and I am thankful to live amidst so many wonderful people. Small nonprofits are typically more efficient with money but have a greater overhead due to startup and inability to scale up their work. We are very intently trying to grow and achieve that economy of scale while keeping our small organization penny-pincherness! It is difficult, as we are impatient and it might take longer to do things the less expensive way or to wait until we find a company willing to donate that item we need, but in the long run it is worth it and we owe it to our donors to make their dollars go as far as we can!
You mention a holistic approach to attacking the cycle of poverty. Could you please elaborate on this?
Yes, you’ve probably picked up on it along the way, but it is the idea that poverty isn’t solved by implementing one project or by bringing a community clean water. It takes work in all the different areas of need from water and sanitation to finance to nutrition and agriculture and education, etc. Think of it as a simultaneous, multi-pronged, divide and conquer strategy.
Is there a country which you believe the international community has especially failed? What could be done to improve the situation?
Yes, Haiti. Haiti has had more aid per capita than nearly any other country, mostly due to its proximity to the United States, but it is poorer now than it was 30 years ago. This could be improved by the NGOs that work there focusing on what is best for the people of Haiti. Most nonprofits survive on donor funds and so they do what gets them the pictures and videos the donors want to see: drilling the well and getting the video of water gushing up out of the ground, the child getting Christmas presents, etc. In other words, they do projects based on what makes the donors happy, not on what they should be doing to have the biggest impact! It’s why so few NGO initiatives last when the NGO moves on.
If we want to remedy the situation, we need to focus on listening a lot more, specifically to what the people who are a part of the community tell us, not just surveying the situation and implementing what WE think will be a solution. We also need to stop looking for a quick fix. Poverty has been around for a long time, there is nothing wrong with taking some time to make sure things are done the right way!
Beyond Poverty’s best days are yet to come. Its projects are primarily based out of East Africa, but there is promise of expanding into countries like Ecuador, Haiti, and Nepal. Matt and his fellow staff see a long-term trajectory for the organization, which we sincerely hope will bring the efficacy and success they envision. There are many ways to become involved with Beyond Poverty, including the ability to invite guest speakers and shop online for a great cause! Matt’s methodology for helping to create a world without poverty differs from that of many NGOs, much to his credit. It would appear that he and his colleagues show great promise for accomplishing their noble goals.
Please check out their website to find out how you can support their cause: http://www.beyondpoverty.org/. Perhaps this holiday season you can consider a gift for a cause!