“Our mission is to end hunger and poverty while caring for the earth.” Those words, on the main display at the reception area in Heifer International’s Little Rock headquarters, might seem presumptuous if they weren’t so true. Since its founding in 1944, Heifer International has become one of the most respected philanthropic organizations in the world, grown out of the simple premise that if you provide someone the means for a productive life, they will become self-supporting.
Heifer International has an appealing donation model: give a few dollars to buy chicks for a family in Ecuador, a bit more buys a pig in Swaziland, even more buys a cow in New Guinea. It’s a model that engages young children and families in philanthropy even on a modest pocketbook.
After Heifer establishes operations in a developing area, the organization provides animals only to families who seek them out. Families receiving farm animals are expected to ‘pay it forward’ by giving offspring to other neighbors.
Tracey Meyer Chesser, Director of Heifer Village, toured me through the organization’s LEED Platinum headquarters building, adjacent education center, and 3.5 acre demonstration farm, all built on a brownfield site just east of downtown Little Rock. Heifer also operates two larger demonstration farms in the US. Tracey describes Heifer’s current focus on helping farm families be greater participants in the entire process of food production and distribution. “How can we develop the traditional model to be responsive to real market needs?” To that end, Heifer is reaching out to disseminate improved farming methods, form cooperatives, and include farmers in distribution networks.
This is a leap from providing chicks to a needy family that requires a different level of funding. Jensyn Hallett, Foundation Officer, explains, “Over 95% of Heifer’s funding was from small donors. Now, we are working with organizations like the Gates Foundation on the East Africa Development project, working to create a complete value chain for dairy farmers.”
Heifer International’s impressive campus may seem too grand for a non-profit institution that addresses fundamental needs. Yet I came to see it as an integral part of their mission. True, they spent a lot of money. But they turned a polluted site into viable land, and they constructed something that will cost much less to operate over time. I could not help but compare Heifer to their giant corporate neighbor in Arkansas – Wal-Mart – a company whose relentless focus on low first cost doesn’t reckon with the environmental or resource implications of their actions as carefully as an organization rooted in distributing chicks.
How will we live tomorrow?
“I want to start a woman’s coaching business in work and life.
“I hope we will live more consciously in the future—whether it’s in consumerism, what we say, or how we treat others.” – Jensyn