Real Leaders

Beyond Charity: The Biggest Impact Is Business With A Heart

Vicki Escarra at a board meeting in India.

“People think that running a non-profit is easy,” says Vicki Escarra, Global CEO of Opportunity International. “Like something you do when you retire, kick back and work a couple of days a week. But the reality is: it’s very tough.”

Escarra knows all about tough: she was promoted to chief marketing officer of global operations for Delta Air Lines in the week before 9/11. What followed tested her leadership to the limits, and she learned that sometimes you need to recognize that certain business models have served you well, but might one day become obsolete. She’s of the opinion that In the midst of tremendous change lies real leadership.

Opportunity International provides small business loans, savings, insurance and training to more than five million people in the developing world. While big multi-national corporations usually come to mind when thinking about insurance and financial services, Escarra has shown the world that a) a non-profit can be big and global and b) it can generate wealth in a non-traditional way – human capital. Around 90 percent of the people they serve are women, a demographic supported by another fact – that women consumers care deeply about social impact.

The key to Escarra’s success has been to run her non-profit like a for-profit.

After all, there are still bills to pay, staff to support and a global infrastructure to maintain. The ‘charity’ route was never going to work for the scale she envisioned.

“The notion of classic philanthropy is changing, with two emerging trends within the non-profit sector,” states Escarra. Firstly, donors want to continue giving because they love the mission or because it offers a good tax write-off. While this might have been the only reason to donate a few years ago, we’re finding ourselves being pushed to find social impact investments from which donors can get a market return. We’re moving away from giving to investing.

Vicki Escarra at a board meeting in India.
Vicki Escarra at a board meeting in India.


The second trend is around transparency and measuring impact. Who hasn’t heard that oft-repeated phrase, “So, we’re giving you money, but what impact are our dollars having?” Enter the University of Chicago Business School, that has joined Opportunity International to help discover exactly that. Researchers plan on fanning out across the globe to ask probing questions: ‘Is she holding down a job or growing her business? Are her children in school? Does she live in a decent home? Is she becoming a leader in her community?  Does she have clean water? Do her children have enough to eat?’ Having this information as hard academic fact, from a credible institution, can shift perceptions of non-profits from financially flaky to a professional image of corporate responsibility.

Escarra’s view is that there are too many non-profits in the world today, and that things might be more efficient if people collaborated more.

“We need to find ways of merging,” she says. “In the future there’ll be a lot of opportunity for us to all move in the same direction. There’s a high likelihood that we’ll become involved with technology firms too, who are fast-changing the way we approach everything these days.”

It really worries Escarra that the organizations she loves and cares about might become irrelevant one day. “Our world is changing so quickly that I wake up every morning thinking, ‘are we still relevant?’ If we disappeared tomorrow would it matter?  This is a question all leaders should be asking themselves on a regular basis.”

Financially, Escarra has reversed the revenue/donation model found at most non-profits. The last financial year saw Opportunity International raise $221 million in deposits and fund-raise $71 million from grants, corporations and individuals.

Escarra wants to help clients create 20 million jobs by 2020, which will affect more than 100 million lives. “It’s not just the impact of somebody opening a small grocery store and creating food security for their family,” she says. “They’ll also purchase stock from suppliers, that will create a ripple effect through the economy.”

“How much money is enough?” asks Escarra. “I think it’s important as a leader to ask yourself what your commitment is to the world. We should nurture a commitment to giving back because we’re all connected on this planet. We should all strive to become global citizens, especially those of us who’ve been given the gift of global influence.”

The Opportunity Network is made up of 49 organizations, 42 of which are microfinance institutions (program partners) operating in Africa, Eastern Europe, Central and East Asia and Latin America. These program partners provide loans and other support directly to families in need.


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