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Zainab Salbi
  Zainab Salbi

Women for Women Founder Borrows Best Practices from Corporate World

5/17/2010 --

Humanitarian Zainab Salbi runs a thriving nonprofit, thanks to examples culled from the for-profit realm.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sometimes we choose a new beginning; sometimes a new beginning is forced upon us. Either way, a new beginning requires the courage to embrace and lead change. Few know that courage better than war survivor Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International.

"It is a privilege to live here, to graduate from this University, and to have the possibilities for your dreams to be fulfilled," Salbi told Ross School of Business graduates during her Spring Commencement keynote April 30. "Today you are choosing to start a new beginning with your graduation, and you are graduating into a world that is changing. You must have the courage to speak up and speak out: to break your own silence and live your own truth and values every single day. It is a responsibility you have as an educated person."

Salbi founded Women for Women International in 1993; her current chief of staff is Ross alumna Erika Lubensky, MBA '04. For nearly two decades, the nonprofit has helped women survivors of war rebuild their lives and contribute to their societies. Salbi's staff of 700 has served more than 250,000 women in conflict and post-conflict areas through direct aid, microcredit loans, and sponsorships. The organization has trained thousands of women in rights awareness and has helped many start small businesses.

Some 60 percent of the organization's budget of $31 million is generated by donors who give less than $1,000 a year. About 90 percent of them give less than $500. "It's very grass roots in its impact and its effects," says Salbi of Women for Women International, noting that 99 percent of the organization's donors are, in fact, women. In the following Q&A with Dividend magazine, Salbi cites ways in which she models the for-profit world to sustain her thriving nonprofit, engage high-level philanthropy, and negotiate innovative deals that produce real change for women and society.

Dividend: Despite the fact that you use the term "grass roots" to describe your organization, it is a huge and complex operation. How do you manage the balance between advocating for a social cause and running a successful business?

Salbi: The thing about working with a nonprofit and a social cause is this: Everyone comes into it thinking they are going to be immersed in the social cause and the social impact. But the truth is, the logistics of running the business is exactly the same as the for-profit realm. That's the reality check for everyone who enters the organization. Guess what? You have to have data entry, financial reporting, and HR policies. Just yesterday I was looking at examples of HR policies [we could adopt], and the one I picked up was from the for-profit sector. Nonprofits may say, "We believe in this…," but just because we work on a social cause doesn't mean we are immune from all of the challenges businesses face: corruption, mismanagement, etc. We need the humility to know that yes, we have a cause and we have goals. Our goal is not to make a profit, but to make impacts on human lives. The way to get there is, in my opinion, very similar to the for-profit realm.

Dividend: We've seen a trend lately in which nonprofits are moving beyond anecdotal evidence to begin producing hard data to demonstrate their true impact. The Ross School's Ted London created a model designed specifically for nonprofits to do this. Where is Women for Women in that regard?

Salbi:We need more resource allocations to women. We need more investment in women. And we need to measure and hold everyone accountable for impact and investment in women. The point is to create the business formula to make the social case for why investment in women and girls needs to increase tremendously.

Women for Women started to be serious about metrics and measurements about four years ago. First, we wanted to measure and understand ourselves. Now we are measuring the details for our own management to determine what has the best impact on the women we're serving — and to make a political point. For example: "It costs this much to serve a woman and to get her to stand on her feet."

I was shocked to know that we are one of the leaders among nonprofits to do this kind of measurement, but it's vitally important. It is important that we can go to heads of state, the World Bank, corporations, and today's mega-philanthropists and say, "This is what we have impacted, and this is what you can invest in." We have to speak their language if we want them to listen to us.

Dividend: Describe some of the ways you invest in women.

Salbi: We measure ourselves by four outcomes: The women we serve are healthy, we've increased their decision-making power, they have support networks, and they are sustaining an income. The harder one is sustaining an income.

To that end, one model does not fit all. About one third of the women we serve are entrepreneurs. For those women, we make microfinance and microcredit available. They are the cheapest and the easiest to work with. But the rest are not entrepreneurs. Many are HIV-positive and they just need to survive. So how do we look into viable economic opportunities for them? We look at market linkages, either local or international. For example, we have a partnership with Kate Spade in which we have connected the company with women in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda in simple outsourcing. These women's part-time income is more than the full-time wage in their country. In Afghanistan we may go to a local factory and say, "Instead of going and getting men off the streets to work in your factory – take our women." After all, they go through an intensive training program in women's rights, health, education, and political participation. These are women who are clean and educated. They are not corrupt. We are teaching them vocational and business skills. These are better employees than the men these factory owners are picking up in the streets.

The last, but not least, is the third model in which we are experimenting with our own social enterprises focused on commercial farming. It's innovative and we are very excited about it. Women are 70 percent of the farmers in the world and they are 70 percent of farmers in some of the African countries where we work. They produce 90 percent of the staples (rice, maize, etc.) of the world. Yet they earn 10 percent of the income and own less than two percent of the land. And all food policy and farmer policy is about men. This is not a sustainable model. I tell world leaders, "You are lucky women are not rebelling and creating strikes."

We have been going to governments like Rwanda and getting them to lease us land for the long term — 20 to 40 years, sometimes 90 years — for free. And then we are teaching the women organic farming. We are creating co-ops and finding commercial buyers for their crops. Commercial buyers for pineapples or oranges want commercial deals. They wouldn't think of dealing with a thousand women. But Women for Women can go to them as one entity to say, "Would you buy from us? We have the women, the land, the produce," and cut a deal with them. As a result, we are doubling the per capita income of the women we are serving.

Dividend: Conceptualizing, brokering, and negotiating those kinds of viable deals must be where you really rely on your staff with MBA degrees and other relevant business training.

Salbi: It's huge. I can talk to you as much as possible about the need to invest in women from a social standpoint, but someone like [Ross alum Erika Lubensky] is the one to translate what we are doing into a business model. Erika has the analytical skills to make a business case out of it. When I speak, it's about the social impacts of the women, on the women's lives. That's what I care about the most. I need the Erikas of the world to translate my language and the work we do into the business impact. We need to make sure we are measuring ourselves in ways that speak not only to the social entrepreneurs but to the business entrepreneurs. We need to prove this is a viable model with viable results. We need the MBAs to do that. A big section of our staff is from the corporate background, because we need those skills.

Our finance team goes as much into the field and meets with the women we work with as our program team, because we need to look at expense sheets, review the databases, train the staff, and all of that. Our finance person's contribution is to make sure the finances are clean and we are doing the work ethically. Maybe the social side of the cause doesn't come automatically to a finance person — but that's the point. We need a diversity of skills to make a social impact. So when I talk to college students who think, "I can only do this work if I pursue women's studies, or if I go to sociology or anthropology," I tell them, "Go to the finance world, go to business school. If you're good in numbers — then come here. We need you."

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,