Posted by on Dec 9, 2014 in Blog, Models

Upside-down earth card

Photo courtesy of NASA

December 2014

Dear Untours family,

As a youngster, my grandfather “Pop” taught himself to read out of boredom during long church services, sitting on the floor at his father’s knee. While the minister read the scripture aloud, he would follow his father’s finger on the words in the Bible. In time, Pop could read what he was seeing. Unfortunately, he learned to read upside-down!

The good news for Pop is that, having already mastered reading one language — upside-down English — he could more easily learn how to read his second language, right-side up English.

Lots of things in this world are upside-down. Righting them is often pretty easy once we see what’s not working and what needs amending.

When Hal started the Untours Foundation in 1992, he had some upside-down experiences while testing micro lending. For example, he loaned money to one single fair trade farmer in Mexico, who lost everything, including the loan from Hal, in two hurricanes. Hal then discovered he could spread the risk out over many farmers by loaning money to fair trade organizations in the USA, which in turn fairly financed the farmers he believed in. Since that discovery, fair trade businesses have had a 100 percent repayment rate on their Untours Foundation loans.

“Upside-down” may be just the way we need to start looking at some things. We love our upside-down map on the foundation wall. There’s no astronomical or geographical reason why the northern hemisphere should be on the top.

Shannon and Elizabeth in front of our favorite map!

Shannon and Elizabeth in front of our favorite map!

So as we carry out our work at the foundation, my colleague Shannon Davidson and I look for ways we might have the book upside-down, and ways we might just need to turn it upside-down ourselves to discover more effective means to address poverty issues.

This year we didn’t find much in our loan portfolio needing to be inverted or righted, but we did observe that we have some superstars. So instead of investing in new companies (well, we did invest in one), we decided to help some of our current companies leap forward. Here’s a stellar sample:

  • Wash Cycle Laundry expanded from Philadelphia to Washington DC and Austin, grew from seven employees to 48 since we made the first loan three years ago, and attracted equity investors to support its expansion. It’s won more sustainability awards than any company I know, including a $25,000 prize just last month.
  • EcoZoom received a $21 million order for 700,000 cookstoves for Rwanda alone. These cookstoves are helping to solve a major indoor air pollution problem that affects mostly women and children.
  • Tosheka Textiles, makers of handbags from plastic bags and natural fibers, has a new organic cotton weaving project. They’ve secured government funding in Kenya to launch 500 organic cotton farmers on 700 acres (and up to 4,500 farmers on 7,000 acres over four years), who will supply Tosheka.
  • SosteNica expanded to support green housing construction in Nicaragua. Housing features include composting toilets, rainwater capture, solar electricity, edible landscaping, and building with local materials.

One upside-down issue is how most foundations invest their endowments at cross purposes with their missions. An analysis of the Gates endowment demonstrated just this point: The foundation held stock in the very pharmaceutical companies it was fighting to secure medications for low-income patients! Billions of dollars of foundation endowments could instead be invested in change-making businesses and nonprofits — the way the Untours Foundation invests.

We are collaborating with several foundations on a campaign to put endowment funds to work in alignment with their missions. We believe that this could be our most impactful work in addressing poverty and helping the planet. We are pleased that the foundation can serve as a model for this type of proactive investing.

We remain most honored that you are on this journey with us. That’s one thing that always feels right-side up! We count on your support to grow our successes. Please keep taking Untours and thank you for considering a direct gift to our work!

Wishing you and yours a beautiful, loving, holiday season and a spectacular 2015,