What Can $500 Do?

What if donors simply gave money to families living in poverty and told them, “Do whatever you want, as long as it’s for the betterment of your community?”

Actually a lot, with the right people in charge

What if donors simply gave money to families living in poverty and told them, “Do whatever you want, as long as it’s for the betterment of your community?”

That simple yet provocative question is what helped launch Unbound’s latest development initiative, the Agents of Change platform.

Individual cash transfers are one of the most effective — and studied — strategies to alleviate poverty around the world. But those efforts have largely focused on individuals acting for their own immediate benefit. Or if there was a community focus, final approval would have to be determined by faraway grant funders.

With Agents of Change, Unbound is not only distributing money to community projects around the world with little to no strings attached to maximize impact, the organization is also ensuring that the teams selecting which projects receive funding are made up of mothers of children in its sponsorship program.

“The person who knows the most about international development is a mom who can keep a household going on $2 a day. That’s the expert, so we’re going to listen to her,” said Dan Pearson, director of international programs at Unbound. “It doesn’t really demonstrate our belief in empowerment if final approval comes from a grant writer thousands of miles away at headquarters, so that didn’t happen —we let them choose.”

According to Pearson, the Agents of Change platform operates on four simple rules:

  • Grant recipients are from existing Unbound mothers groups.
  • The maximum grant size is $500 per group.
  • The proposed project must be for the benefit of the entire community, as opposed to benefitting the group members themselves.
  • Unbound mothers, rather than staff from Unbound, must be the ones who select proposals for funding.

The result? This approach has allowed the projects to be more targeted and tailored for individual community needs, and it has also increased the level of rigor for each of the project proposals.

“The mothers live in the communities — they know what the real challenges are, and they know how to make the absolute most of every penny. They are able to see with a level of detail that outsiders can’t begin to approach,” Pearson said.

Piloted in 2017, the Agents of Change platform has distributed more than $800,000 to groups in 14 countries. Approximately 900 community projects have been completed thus far — neighborhood safety initiatives, playgrounds and soccer fields, clean water access, bathrooms in schools, lighting in health clinics and more — things that, according to Pearson, Unbound’s headquarters likely never would have identified as needs from thousands of miles away.

Unbound began using direct cash transfers more than 15 years ago. Since then, the organization has become one of the world’s largest providers of cash transfers, dramatically increasing the effectiveness of its development efforts.

Agents of Change will launch its first public-facing campaign seeking donor support this Giving Tuesday, Dec. 3. It’s a natural next step to fulfill the organization’s ultimate goal of eradicating poverty in all its forms.

To help support an Unbound Agents of Change project, please visit: https://www.unbound.org/myoutreach/agentsofchange

Unbound delivers more than $100 million in personalized support to children, elders and their families living in extreme poverty in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Rated the highest child sponsorship charity in the United States, more than 93 percent of Unbound’s expenses go toward program support. Unbound has developed and trained more than 10,000 mothers groups around the world.