Our Story

By Ellen Boneparth and Kimberly Weichel

For decades, discussion has been ongoing about the most effective models of development in the developing world, and there is still no consensus. Most development aid comes from international or national organizations, but, from our experience, small-scale funding from nonprofits of modest size can have a lasting influence and a ripple effect on transforming communities. As a relatively small funder, Light My Fire has found one of the best ways to achieve impact is by funding projects that are sustainable and replicable. 

This is key to our story. Giving small grants to women-led, grassroots organizations, which have the potential for greater impact, can not only be effective, but also empowering. We take risks supporting new NGO’s that are too small for larger donors. We provide not onlyfunding, but also encouragement to jump-start their projects and programs. Most importantly, we show them we believe in them. 

Our Principles

Our support for a range of health and education projects benefiting women and girls in the developing world has focused on some key pillars.

  • We believe women are the key to building healthier and better educated families and communities. 
    Research shows that investing in women has a significant multiplier effect, leading to more productive workers, healthier and better-educated families, and ultimately more prosperous communities. Economists have noted that the single best grantmaking investment is education of girls. An educated girl is likely to increase her personal earning potential, as well as reduce poverty in her community. According to the World Bank, the return on one year of secondary education for a girl correlates with as high as a 25% increase in wages later in life. The effects carry from one generation to the next: educated girls have fewer, healthier, and better educated children. As many have said, “Educate a boy and you educate anindividual; educate a girl and you educate a community.

    Further, in societies where women have equal access to education and political rights, governments are more open, and younger generations are healthier and better educated. The United Nations has found that women in developing nations reinvest up to 90% of their income in their families and communities, as opposed to the 30-40% that men reinvest.  A single year of primary school increases women’s wages later in life from 10% to 20%, while the boost from female secondary education is 15% to 25%.  

    Poverty is closely linked to gender: two-thirds of very poor households, surviving on less than 1$ per day, are headed by women. Most women experience unnecessary barriers, such as a lack of access to loans and capital, that limit their ability to participate in the economy. Thus, it’s critical to focus on women at the margins. Globally, women make up 50% of the population and 40% of the work force, yet own only about 1% of the world’s wealth.
  • We believe development flourishes when resources are provided early in the process. 
    Early funding that leads to successful and effective projects can breed support from donors not wanting to take the initial risk. We often help before others will. Through early funding, we act as a catalyst that sparks and enhances interest and support. This has also been true in the political arena — consider the success of EMILY’s List,” an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast – It Makes Dough Rise.” Just as major donations early in a political race are helpful in attracting later donors, the same is often true in development.
  • We believe resources can and will be responsibly handled, even by those at the margins of poverty. 
    The Grameen Bank, founded by Mohammed Yunus, exemplified this principle. Since 1983, Grameen has provided micro-loans to the poorest in the belief that the poor have skills but no opportunity to use them without some funding. Having made millions of loans, primarily to women, around the world over the past three decades, theBank has had a 97% repayment rate. This shows that poor people are trustworthy and responsible. We believe that those existing at the margins of society should be given a chance, and our small grants can make a big difference, which, in turn, can positively impact their communities. 
  • We believe in social entrepreneurship. We seek projects that develop and implement solutions to key social or cultural issues and yield the best models for replication elsewhere.  
    We fund small programs or organizations that make a tangible difference in the lives of women while also solving community problems, particularly when the project can be a model for other settings. As an example, we funded a health education class for Bedouin women who were socially isolated from each other. The class was so well received that it was adopted by other villages and offered in the local mosque.

    We seek out programs that will be sustainable and replicable.  For example, we gave a grant to train Kenyan women in a drought-stricken region to farm in ways that required very little water. The trainers went back to their communities and taught what they’d learned to far-flung group of women farmers through sessions offered on mobile phones.

​​​Health and Education

While funders seeking to assist women often focus onfemale social roles, political leadership, or entrepreneurship, we choose to focus on health and education.  Why?

Women’s health, a key factor for survival, has been shortchanged throughout the developing world as a result of women’s inferior status in society.  Women’s roles as child-bearer, domestic provider, and family caregiver have given them critical, but behind-the-scenes and often unrecognized responsibility in family and community life.  Without the knowledge and capacity to deal with reproduction, epidemic disease, environmental threats, and domestic violence, women cannot better either their own lives or their community’s.

​In particular, reproductive health and rights have been a primary focus for our grantmaking.  Women and girls in many developing societies, such as the indigenous girls we support in Guatemala, know little about reproduction, family planning, or safe childbirth. Even with knowledge, women and girls are often denied access to health and medical services that would save their lives. Family planning is a case in point.  Because of cultural and religious taboos, females either fail to learn about contraception or have no means to practice it. Yet, it is widely known that birth spacing – a more acceptable concept for many developing countries than birth control – provides women with economic and social opportunities far beyond the tyranny of constant birthing.

​Just as vital as health is education. In fact, the two are directly related – the better educated, the healthier, and vice versa.  An education provides a woman with the possibility of finding work, taking better care of herself and her family, and controlling her life, including the number of children she bears. And education can be acquired with relatively little cost.  While school fees and uniforms are generally needed, as are books, time to study, and training opportunities, NGOs are adept at supplying the basics.

​Research has made clear the benefits of education for women – an increase in income, a decrease in birth rates, more highly educated children, and more respect (and less violence) from men whose wives help support the family. The problem for many females, however, is being considered worthy of education in the first place. When this is not the case, nonprofits can make critical interventions by offering girls and women access to school through payment of fees or providing training programsfocused on the work they do – agriculture, domestic work, family care.

Bettering Women Farmers

Agricultural assistance to developing countries was, for a long time, directed toward men. In recent years, the assistance world has recognized that, overwhelmingly, women, not men, are the farmers on family and community farms; thus, aid has finally focused on them. We’ve funded small, innovative programs in Africa that help women produce healthier and more marketable produce and farm more professionally and ecologically.  

Let’s look at some of the grassroots groups we’ve supported that seek more productive returns from women’s farming.  Their goals have been to:1) Grow garlic – only small plots needed and good sales prices;2) Grow better sweet potatoes – a guaranteed market and a source for vitamin A;3) Raise goats – provision of milk and sustainability from breeding;4) Grow mushrooms and leafy vegetables – improved diet and low overhead;5) Make briquettes from agricultural refuse – replacing scarce firewood and providing smokeless cooking.(Rather than cooking over fires inside confined huts, women cook on stoves outside over bricks rather than smokey firewood.)

More productive farming benefits women, their families, and the community by improving local diets and generating income to pay for children’s education and care for the sick and elderly. With programs such as thoseabove, long-term change can be achieved with limited funding.

Educating Young Women

Another project that also yields impressive benefits from modest funds involves girls’ education. Girls are eager to attend school but are often neglected as families prioritize boys for school fees and uniforms. If girls do manage to attend school, they face an additional obstacle in their teen years when they begin to menstruate. Few families have funds for hygienic products and girls are forced to use unsanitary products – rags, newspapers, leaves – to deal with menstrual bleeding. The result is that girls often absent themselves from school during their menstrual periods. Our goal has been to decrease girls’absenteeism. 

In recent years, the coming of reusable menstrual pads has, where available, changed girls’ lives and radically decreased absenteeism.  In one of our projects, girls’ absenteeism with these pads decreased from 85% to 5%. We have funded two groups, one in Kenya, one in Congo, where women sew pads which are reusable for up to one year. In communities where pads are given away, girls’ uninterrupted education has become a reality.​

​​​​​​Along with newly initiated groups, ongoing organizations also need help when they want to expand and innovate but lack the funds.  As seen below, we have made grants to ongoing women’s programs that, with new funds, have become even more effective than they were previously.

Sexual Abuse of Children

​In many developing countries sexual abuse of children is common.  For example, one of three girls in Bolivia is abused before the age of 18. Yet, child sexual abuse is typically ignored or denied. The only organization addressing such abuse in Bolivia is A Breeze of Hope,which provides therapy of many kinds for abused girls;seeks to reform the legal and judicial systems regarding such crimes; and works to rebuild self-esteem and healthy lives for victims. 

​Once girl victims recover and are ready to move on from treatment to jobs or postsecondary education, they often have the desire, but not the resources, to go to university or move into the workforce. We support a program at A Breeze of Hope to train girls in hairdressing and salon management.  Girls are overjoyed to acquire skills that will help them finds jobs or work part-time while attending university classes.

Girls’ Career Education

​We have also made grants for career education to Daraja Academy in Kenya, a boarding school that offers free secondary education to highly motivated girls from every Kenyan tribe and background. When girls graduate from Daraja, the great majority are admitted to university, but there is usually a time gap of many months between graduation and the start of university classes. In this gap period, families often put pressure on their daughters to come home, marry, and start families.  We have helped Daraja create an alternative, an internship program for gap students so that, while they await the start of university, they may work in local projects or learn about possible careers.

​We have also helped Daraja create an alumni mentorship program in which Daraja alumni inform students about various occupational choices and the best routes to entering desired careers.  Thus, Daraja and Light My Fire are helping students negotiate the critical steps between classes and the world of work.

Supporting Refugee Women

In making grants we have wanted to assist some of the most marginal women imaginable – women in refugee camps, who live in desperately overcrowded conditions, without any resources for themselves or their children. One of the worst traumas these women face when they leave their shelters for food, washing, or medical help is assault from men in the camps.

We provided a group of women refugees trapped in a Greek island camp the chance to learn self-defense training to protect themselves.  From self-defense they expanded their classes to yoga and exercise activities for them and their children. By moving from lonely victimization to group activity, these women refugees learned a path to leadership.

​​​​Lessons Learned

We’ve learned many lessons over the past five years. 

For example, micro-loan programs around the world succeed because they train women borrowers to work as a tightly-knit group under supervision to assure repayment of each loan.  When we funded a micro-loan program in Uganda, we discovered the borrowers were poorly trained and supervised and kept hold of their loan money. We learned the need to assure, as much as possible, thatprogram prerequisites — supervision, group solidarity, and business expertise – are in place before making a grant.

We learned another lesson when we funded a group in Kenya seeking to establish a small factory to produce reusable menstrual pads. This project was near and dear to our hearts; it would provide jobs for seamstresses and an end-product strongly desired and needed by female consumers. The factory was designed to be self-sustaining – the sale of the pads would fund seamstress salaries and the purchase of raw materials. Unfortunately, the challenge came with the sale of the pads. While there was a clear desire by consumers to obtain the pads, there was no sales market because, at fifty cents each, the pads were more costly than families were willing or able to pay. Ultimately, the factory had to give away the pads and the production effort fell apart. We learned our grantees needed not only a good idea but also a viable marketing strategy to support themselves.​

When grantmaking confronts extreme poverty and low levels of education, mistakes in realizing new programs are inevitable. Yet, our relatively few mistakes have not discouraged us.  To the contrary – they have taught us valuable lessons. And, our success stories have reinforced, time and again, that providing women, even those at the margins, with funding for innovative projects will empower them to break new ground.  

Our goal is to light a fire.

The chances are that, with even a small amount of fuel, the fire will burn. With women tending the flames and making way for others’ pots to heat over the coals, a small amount of kindling can ignite an entire community.

I, Ellen, became interested in women’s organizations in developing countries when I taught university courses on women and development. I founded Light My Fire in order to generate support for many of the organizations I already knew and a large collection of newly-encountered groups in Africa, South Asia, Central and South America. In five years, Light My Fire has made more than 40 grants of up to $5000 each, totaling over $200,000. We welcome working on projects for health, ranging from reproductive health to safeguards against pollution, and for education, ranging from training women in farm and handicraft production to supporting girls’ primary and secondary education.

I, Kim, have been a longtime champion and passionate advocate for women and girls, directing women’s advancement and leadership organizations and programs in many countries. As CEO of Peace X Peace, an international women’s peacebuilding and leadership organization, I expanded our global network to 30,000 women in 125 countries, providing a platform for cross-cultural dialogue and a voice for women peacebuilders. It has been a delight to work with Light My Fire to identify projects for funding and track their results. As someone who has worked with nonprofits most of my career and always needed to seek funding, it is now a joy to be able to give money away and support worthy projects that make a difference. 

For more information or to contribute to our work, please view: www.lightmyfirefund.org