Bankers with Vision – A Force for Good

Monday, 07 Mar 2011

By Richard Hartung, Bankers with Vision Volunteer

For VisionFund affiliated MFIs in Asia, Bankers with Vision (BwV) might seem too good to be true. Bankers with decades of experience in the region are offering to act as trainers, coaches and consultants – all for free. And these aren’t just run-of-the-mill bankers. Credit experts, finance professionals, HR directors, marketing veterans, IT gurus and more have all signed up to help out.

Why? As BwV says in its vision statement, our volunteers want to “maximise the ability of MFIs to provide sustainable ongoing support for their borrowers.” More simply, we want to use our skills to enable staff to help borrowers all around Asia.

The concept of BWV started nearly two years ago, when a few bankers attending a VisionFund presentation in Singapore suggested what might have seemed like a radical idea. Along with contributing “treasure,” they wondered, how about offering time and talent to support VisionFund around Asia. Fortunately, board member Jon Hartley was receptive and started the ball rolling within VisionFund.

About twenty of us showed up for the first meeting in October 2009, knowing little more than that we wanted to help. Jon and other VisionFund staff explained more about what VisionFund was and led a discussion about possible next steps.

Veteran credit risk expert Richard McCrohan was instrumental in moving VisionFund forward, both tirelessly fund-raising to support microfinance in Cambodia and pulling in colleagues and friends to help the organisation. World Vision Singapore hired Lyn Loo in those early days, too, to support both World Vision and VisionFund. I helped with putting activities and support together however I could.

At first, our activities were fairly simple. We started organizing quarterly gatherings of the volunteers, including social event where volunteers could mingle and sessions where VisionFund staff coming through Singapore could explain the workings of VisionFund. Iain MacKenzie talked about how capital-raising initiatives work, for example, and Tim Hooper discussed VisionFund’s tremendous growth in Mongolia.

Several of us also started the volunteering ball rolling by coaching staff in the MFIs. VisionFund had never done anything like this before and it was probably a test case to see if it worked, with the hope that MFIs might benefit. McCrohan coached one executive in Cambodia, and I coached an executive in Myanmar. Fortunately it went well, and the momentum grew. Soon afterwards, our first trainers spent time teaching MFI staff in Sri Lanka and Mongolia.

One of the biggest struggles initially was simply getting the word out about something entirely new from VisionFund. Country directors had never had a pool of volunteers available and didn’t think about accessing those skills. Gradually, though, as Lyn and others met with senior MFI staff around the region, and as success stories began to trickle out, requests began to come in. We’ve gradually built up to the point where we have dozens of requests for support, and we’re working hard to meet them.

Fast forward to today, and BwV is a vastly more well-connected and active organization. A Steering Committee of four, along with staffer Lyn Loo, meets every 4-6 weeks to plan activities, improve communications and link volunteers to tasks better. BwV hosts gatherings monthly, with everything from volunteers telling stories about their time in the field or webinars with VisionFund subject experts discussing their area of expertise to country directors talking about their work or sessions to create more effective volunteering support. BwV has grown, and we now have over 400 supporters signed up.

Has BwV made a difference? We hope so, and feedback from the field has been good. Our HR trainers helped staff develop learning plans and programmes to increase retention, and IT experts with years of experience on systems implementation are providing advice on new software. We have everything from product development to financial compliance support scheduled for the months ahead.

The dual focus in our mission statement, to “create a community of highly skilled professionals with best-in-class management skills who will act as a resource to support VisionFund entities around the globe and who will become advocates for microfinance through VisionFund,” is intentional. On the one hand, VisionFund staff in the field have access to top-level coaching or training skills from experienced bankers. On the other, the volunteers are becoming a community that makes a difference and they’re developing camaraderie. Together, BWV in Singapore is creating a new model that truly seeks to be a win-win-win for borrowers, VisionFund staff, and the volunteers themselves.