It’s 2005. You’re a happily married man, living in New York City with your wonderful wife and two awesome kids. You have a great job working for the world-famous New York Times as president of the television division. Then you become aware of a charity with a decidedly memorable and accurate name: Trickle Up. The goal of this international organization is to provide “seed capital” to poor women around the world, so that they can become entrepreneurs and pull themselves and their families out of poverty.
Due to your august résumé—which includes being president of your synagogue—you land on Trickle Up’s radar. They want you as executive director, no less. You’re certainly intrigued, but there’s one hitch: the pay is less than half of what you’re currently earning. And you do have those two kids, with college tuition and fees looming in the not-too-distant future. Plus, living in New York City isn’t exactly cheap. Actually, there’s a second hitch, too, namely the travel that such a position would require. At this stage of your life you had rather envisioned being around for your family.
So. Do you take the job?
If you’re Bill Abrams, you do.
William M. Abrams was born and bred in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of three boys. In the mid 1960s, when Bill was 13, his prudent and practical mother, recognizing that her youngest just might lack the athletic prowess of his elder siblings, gently steered him off the field and onto the school newspaper.
It was indeed a good move and a great fit, as Abrams went on to have a 30-year-long career as a journalist. Moving to New York City in 1975, he first became a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. In the 1990s he moved to ABC News, rising through the ranks from writer and editor to manager. Specifically, he gave the network its Internet “sea legs,” as well as created documentaries for cable and public TV.
In 2001 Abrams moved on to The New York Times, but not for the newspaper itself. Rather, he helped the widely read and respected publication develop its visual brand via television, specifically within the realm of documentaries. However, when it became apparent to Bill that this part of the media landscape was not a good match for The Times, he helped it stage an exit.
A burning-bush moment
And then, says Bill, “About a day or two after The Times agreed to leave television came a very specific event that changed my life.” It was November 2004. A friend of Bill’s, Muzzy Rosenblatt, telephoned Bill, asking if he’d ever considered a job in the nonprofit sector. Muzzy himself ran an organization for the homeless called the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC).
The nonprofit sector? “It was a burning-bush moment for me,” says Bill. The then-52-year-old hadn’t written a résumé in a good 25 years. Though by that point he had an award-filled career in media, he nonetheless thought, “Maybe it’s time to do something different.” And so Abrams began considering his life goals in a structured, strategic, mission-oriented way. What did he want to achieve? Whom did he want to help?
Focusing on women
Within days, two possibilities took shape as the optimal options—a non-profit focused on New York City—or the one that he ultimately chose. Three women were instrumental in that choice: Belinda Plutz, a career coach with a visionary approach; Marilyn Machlowitz, a most helpful headhunter; and none other than Bill’s own wife: the exceptionally talented author Julie Salamon.
The path he took? Global poverty with a focus on women. Having three women as his guiding lights quite possibly helped in that regard, though as a savvy journalist with decades of experience, Abrams well knew the lay of the land, and to whom said land usually belonged: men. His take on global poverty was one of grounded optimism: “There were a lot of good solutions that seemed close at hand,” he says. Once Abrams told Machlowitz about his decision, he received a phone call that not only changed his life, but that of thousands of others.
Says Bill: “Marilyn said to me, ‘I want to tell you about the best-kept secret in New York nonprofits. It’s called Trickle Up. They help really poor women start businesses as a way out of poverty, and they’ve been around for over 25 years. They’re looking for different leadership. Are you interested?’”
At that time, Trickle Up was already famous for giving $100 grants to women so that they could buy, say, second-hand sewing machines or a couple of goats—purchases to help them create sustainable livelihoods.
Founded in 1979 by Mildred “Millie” Robbins Leet and her husband Glen Leet, the organization also schooled its recipients on the importance of three key areas: money-management, savings and peer support. Bill found that core idea of changing a woman’s life for $100 very compelling. And, says Abrams, with characteristic modesty, “The board was admittedly crazy enough to take a chance on someone who had zero experience with global poverty or leading a nonprofit organization.”
The poorest of the poor
At Trickle Up, Abrams had to rebuild the senior management team and put the organization on a path to grow. He also reduced the number of regions previously served to a more manageable total of three. Located in India, West Africa, and Central America, each field office was then locally staffed. Working through local grassroots agencies was certainly helpful but, as Abrams puts it, “It was like rebuilding the car while you’re driving down the highway.”
An unexpected learning curve—or more accurately, lack thereof—surfaced when Abrams discovered that, in his words: “Fundraising is not so different from selling television shows to cable networks.”
He realized the universality of certain things, mainly that telling a compelling story is key. And Abrams had traversed that narrative-laden universe for decades, bringing the fruits of what he had learned in the media to the world’s neediest: poor women in poor countries.
As he puts it: “The poorest of the poor. The most vulnerable, the most remote, the most forgotten or overlooked people in the world.”
“I want to be a millionaire.”
In 2006, one such woman—one of the first Bill had met—was Talam Maiga. She lived in Timbuktu, in the West African nation of Mali. “The only work she could find,” says Bill, “Was cleaning the barges that went up and down the Niger River. The boat lands and people and animals get off. It must have been horrible work. It’s really, really hot there. Like 125 degrees Farenheit.”
“She was a widow, she had several kids, and then Trickle Up came along and helped her with seed capital. She set up a fruit stand. And she said to me, ‘I’m going to become a millionaire.’ The currency is the West African franc, and a million francs is about $2,000. So it actually was not a crazy dream. She told me, ‘I want to buy a house for my children’,” Bill recalls.
Talam Maiga of Timbuktu, Mali at the fruit stand she set up with help from Trickle Up
“And there are two things I remember really well from meeting her—aside from the sweltering heat. I said, ‘Do you know what happened in New York on September 11, 2001?’ She was a total blank; she had no idea. But why would she, when you think about it? And then I said, ‘Well, I’ve asked you a lot of questions; do you have any for me?’ She asked if I had a wife and children. I said I did. Then she took me over to her stand. Among the items she sold were blocks of salt. She handed one to me and said, ‘Take this to your wife for her cooking.’ I felt that the salt block she gave me was quite sacred. The irony is that it had no iodine, and so she had goiter; her throat looked as though she had swallowed a softball. But I brought it home and put it on the shelf. Not too long afterward the salt ate through the paint and damaged the drywall so much that it had to be replaced. Over time, it would become moldy and I’d have to sand it. It finally pretty much dissolved. Two weeks ago we had the burial.”
See the change, be the change
Abrams, though understandably pleased with the remarkable upward trajectory of Trickle Up, notes that there are, roughly speaking, about one billion people who are currently living below the dollar-a-day threshold, which is the generally accepted definition of extreme poverty. Such people do not get enough to eat on a daily basis.
At the time of writing, Trickle Up was helping ten thousand women a year.
Though Abrams generally does remain in the New York office and thereabouts managing the staff, doing fundraising and working with the board, he also continues visiting the people and areas within the Trickle Up purview. “It’s important to see the change that you help make happen. And to realize that this poverty does not have to exist. And it shouldn’t. Time and time again you see that it takes so little to make dramatic and lasting change,” he says.
On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity will be granted annually to an individual whose actions have had an exceptional impact on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes. The Aurora Prize Laureate will be honored with a $100,000 grant. In addition, that individual will have the unique opportunity to continue the cycle of giving by selecting organizations that inspired their work to receive a $1,000,000 award. The inaugural Aurora Prize ceremony will take place in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 24, 2016.
Images: courtesy of Trickle Up