Key quotes from Jacqueline Novogratz’s inspiring book on work for social change

Posted on July 3, 2012


“Bridging the gap between rich and poor in an interconnected world” is the subtitle to Jacqueline Novogratz’s book The Blue Sweater, which I just finished reading. It was a great read for many reasons. Not only was it well-written and entertaining as if it was a good fiction; it was also deeply inspiring and full of useful information on social entrepreneurial work as it’s not fiction, but the true story of Jaqueline’s journey across continents, social projects and continuous learning. It is the journey from her first trip to Africa as a young professional seeking new, more meaningful challenges – to today, where she successfully is running Acumen Fund, a company that invests in social business in developing countries like East- and West Africa, India and Pakistan. The book far exceeded my expectations, as it managed both being a captive story but also a book to find a good advice or two on social work. And then, as an added bonus, it leaves the reader inspired to be a part of the change movement, in which ever way one can contribute.

“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting” – Buddha

My copy of the Blue Sweater – which I bought in New Delhi at the event of launching the book in India and had signed by the author – is now full with dog-ears and underlined phrases. Refections, quotes or points I was inspired by, found useful or for other reasons just want to remember. So I figured, why not share some of those here. It might inspire others, maybe encourage some to dig into the book too, or just serve as a reminder to myself. It is one of those books, I might return to every now or then, just to recall her key points and use it as something to mirror against in my own work and life. Below you will find some of those phrases from the book, that I will return to every so often. Even if the quotes might sound simple or obvious, her key points, they are surely much harder to do in real life out in the field, and sometimes even though we ‘know the obvious’, it’s not always what we end up doing. So it might be worth keeping those good advices, from experienced people who have walked the path for decades, close by as guiding stars in a landscape that sometimes can be difficult to maneuver, despite the best of intentions.

If you wonder why the book is called The Blue Sweater, and haven’t heard it yet, hear Jaqueline Novogratz tell the reason in this short video. It’s a good story.

Giving chances, not handouts

“By lending women money instead of  giving handouts, we would signal our high expectations for them and give them the chance to do something for their own lives rather than waiting for the “experts” to give them things they might or might not need. (..) I’d begun to see that if you support a woman, you support a family. I’d also learned that I definitely didn’t like the word “expert” when it came to development. I still don’t” (2012: 46). “Only when women control money will they have the power to walk away from being hurt” (2012: 58).

“We are not handing out gifts,” she would say, but are bringing forth the gifts inside the people themselves” (2012: 52).

“Programs like the one I’d reviewed in Tanzania would do a greater service by focusing on a few things and doing them well. A pilot once said to me that if you shoot for the moon, you’ll have a better chance of clearing the trees. Programs serving the poor needed to do a better job of giving people the chance to aim high and believe in themselves – and of holding them accountable for reaching their goals” (2012: 156).

“We would build more transparency and greater accountability into the work at all levels and treat the poor as customers with a real voice, not as passive recipients of charity” (2012: 216).

“Traditional charity speaks of donors and grantees, but this passive language creates a power dynamic that might as well call the two groups the givers and the takers. I had seen so many dysfunctional conversations where a grantee would give a would-be or existing donor misleading and evasive answers because they feared losing funding if they told the truth about the difficulties of their work. And I’d seen those same grantees agree to do things the donors thought they should, even if it made no sense for the mission of the organization. It is hard to say no to someone who has the power to finance your dreams – or more to the point, your payroll” (2012: 220).

“I’d seen the incredible potential of the poorest people – the poorest women, who just needed a chance, not a handout” (2012: 120). (..) “I’d also seen what a small group of people could do to change the world” (2012: 132).

“Our investment style was focused on what we termed patient capital – not traditional charity, not traditional business investment, but something in-between. Patient capital is money invested over a longer period of time with the acknowledgment that returns might be below market, but with a wide range of management support services to nurture the company to liftoff and beyond” (Novogratz, 2012: 231).

It’s about listening

“I began to understand that I could have listened better, for listening is not just having the patience to wait, it is also learning how to ask the questions themselves. People who’ve always been dependent on others for some kind of charity or goodwill often have a hard time saying what they really want because usually no one asks them. and if they are asked, the poor often think no one really wants to hear the truth” (2012: 90).

“Everywhere we found womens groups who spoke proudly of what they did, and it was only when we pressed them for details that their stories began to unravel” (2012:101). “Another challenge was eliciting truthful answers from the women. “They’ve seen too many people like you coming into their lives,” Mary told me, “so why should they be honest with you? There might be some chance that you give them money if the answer your questions in the way you want to hear them”. What amazed me was how quickly the women learned the jargon of the development agencies and played it back to people like me” (2012: 103).

” ‘The one thing for you to teach,’ he said, “is that the most important skill needed is listening. If philanthropists don’t first listen, they will never be able to address the issues fully because they will not understand them. Second, philanthropists should focus on supporting others to do what they already do well rather than running programs themselves (..). Philanthropists should find innovations that release the energies of people. Individuals don’t want to be taken care of – they need to be given a chance to fulfill their own potential. Too many projects create dependence that helps no one in the long run’ ” (2012: 146).

We can’t wait around for someone else to change things

Creating change

” ‘Just start,’ he said. ‘Don’t wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you. No one expect you to get it right in the very beginning, and you’ll learn more from your mistakes than you will from your early successes anyways. So stop worrying so much and just look at your best bets and go’ “(2012: 223).

Let the work teach you

“I finally understood: In order to contribute to Africa, I would have to know myself better and be clearer about my goals. I would have to be ready to take Africa on its own terms, not mine, and to learn my limits and present myself not as a do-gooder with a big heart, but as someone with something to give and gain by being there. Compassion wasn’t enough” (2012: 33).

“Beauty, vanity, status, and comfort: These are the levers that are pulled the world over as we make our decisions. The rich hold no monopoly on any of it. But we’re a long way from integrating the way people actually make decisions into public policy instead of how we think they should make them” (2012: 267).

“This is the essence of understanding that our work stand on the shoulders of so many people who have been trying, failing, and trying again for many years. And now, the solutions is in our collective hands. It is breathtaking” (2012: 289).

“The world will not change with inspiration alone; rather, it requires systems, accountability, and clear measures of what works and what doesn’t. Our most effective leaders, therefore, will strengthen their knowledge of how to build organizations while also having the vision and heart to help people imagine that change is possible in their lives” (2012: 303).

“People need to believe that they can participate fully in the decisions that affect their lives and have a stake in the societies in which they live” (2012: 301).

The key sum-up

“I’ve learned that solutions to poverty must be driven by discipline, accountability, and market strength, not easy sentimentality. I’ve learned that many of the answers to poverty lie in the space between market and charity and that what is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them. I’ve learned that people usually tell you the truth if you listen hard enough. If you don’t, you’ll hear what they think you want to hear. I’ve learned that there is no currency like trust and no catalyst like hope” (2012: 299).

Source: The Blue Sweater – Bridging the gap between rich and poor in an interconnected world, Jaqueline Novogratz, 2012, Second Edition, HaperCollins, India.