Heifer International, the global antipoverty nonprofit based in Little Rock, was born in an epiphany that struck founder Dan West as he doled out milk to refugee children during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.
“These children don’t need a cup [of milk]. They need a cow,” the Church of the Brethren relief worker realized.
From the organization’s founding in 1944, donated cows, goats and chickens have been Heifer’s calling cards, living reminders of its quest to help impoverished families, communities and farms worldwide. Its goals are self-reliance, sustainable income and nutritious food. Photos of a family beaming over a new calf, or a girl hugging her new goat, became stock images beloved by donors.
But 76 years into its mission, Heifer is thinking bigger and smaller simultaneously, shepherding fewer but more inclusive projects with a slightly reduced workforce.
Donors still send gifts on the hoof to the needy, and Heifer still provides local farmers training for raising them productively. But over five years it has pivoted from running about 100 projects to now having 20 to 30 active projects.
The new focus relies on wider partnerships and collaborations, from buying goats in bulk in Asia to helping Guatemalans harvest cardamom spice pods without damaging the rainforest. With Heifer’s help, Haitians are growing and finding markets for vetiver, a grass used in making high-end perfumes.
The ventures are fewer, but they serve far more families per project, said Chris Coxon, Heifer’s director of communications and strategic public relations.
“We’re very focused not only on supporting the farmers themselves, but also the cooperatives they are a part of, which help them get access to markets, access to financing for their businesses and things like that,” Coxon said. “Ultimately the goal is to help families reach what we call a living income, as opposed to just lifting them above the international poverty line of $1.90 per day.”
More Than the Basics
The realignment coincided with recent staff reductions, including some jobs at the nearly 300-employee Little Rock headquarters adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Center. Heifer’s workforce, at some points above 1,200, has settled at about 1,000 now in 21 countries. Coxon said only “a few” Little Rock workers were affected.
“To have a dignified life, people need more than basic food, clothing and shelter, right?” Coxon said in a crisp British accent. “And even within this country — you’re in Little Rock and I’m in the Washington, D.C., area — the cost of certain things can be radically different. So for us, we define a living income as not just basic food, but nutritious food, along with clothing, shelter and things like access to education and health care.”
In 2015, the 501(c)3 nonprofit hit upon a strategy for helping people reach that living income, then started a slow rollout of the refinements in 2016. “It still means that we do the traditional work of placing animals within communities, but we’re making bigger connections.”
When Heifer began placing cows, pigs, chickens and goats, etc., it quickly learned that if the global recipients weren’t trained, the animals would not thrive and could easily contract fatal diseases. “So the training element became a big part of the work,” Coxon said.
“You get to the point where your cows are producing more milk than the family could consume, so the next piece was looking at how to help people sell the milk locally to make a bit of income in addition to having the nutritious food. And if you can sell milk locally, could smallholder farmers get together to sell milk in bulk?”
Heifer began mapping what it calls the “value chain,” looking for opportunities for local farmers to increase their revenue. “So in some places that could be, for dairy farmers, recognizing that there’s a gap in the market for yogurt, and giving the farmers the means to convert the raw milk into yogurt to be sold at a premium,” Coxon said.
“In other places, it might be families raising chickens, for the eggs, the extra protein in their diet.” Those eggs could be sold in greater numbers by a cooperative, creating another sustainable income stream.
Heifer has always seen its gifts of food- and income-producing livestock as a means to help families eat, become self-reliant and then pay the gift forward. Its first gift cows, in 1944, were named Faith, Hope and Charity.
Recipients are obligated to pass along the gift by donating their animals’ first female offspring to another family. They pass on their animal-care expertise as well, “multiplying the gift and thus benefiting entire communities.”
In East Africa, Heifer has worked for years with small dairy farmers. Now, through a system of cooperatives owned by the farmers themselves, they can take their product to hubs for testing and chilling, and then sell it to bigger dairies. “So instead of selling raw milk to someone who takes the product to market and makes the premium themselves, we’re capturing for the farmers more of that value chain,” Coxon said.
‘We Need That Scale’
Bringing all of Heifer’s global projects in line with the new approach has taken time, Coxon said, because “most programs last between three and five years.”
By the end of the 2020 fiscal year in June, Coxon said, Heifer International was “supporting 2.7 million families on the pathway to closing the living income gap. Since 1944, Heifer has supported 36.9 million families. That gives a few numbers for context, and what we’ve seen over five years is that we can be much more successful focusing on a smaller number of projects that are bigger in scale and have a more permanent impact through more partnerships.”
The goal for the next decade is to support 10 million farming families in closing that living income gap. “And we believe that in order to do that we need that scale,” Coxon said.
Heifer halted its fundraising for a few weeks in March during the coronavirus shutdown, but has been surprised and pleased by its numbers since resuming. The nonprofit’s 2020 fiscal year numbers will be released next month, Coxon said.
Contributions in fiscal 2019 were just short of $103 million, down from $106 million in fiscal 2018. But total revenue, gains and other support for 2019 were nearly $139 million, up from $131 million the year before.
“In terms of the impact of COVID, we paused our fundraising for a couple of weeks because we wanted to make sure we were respecting that a lot of things were going on in the lives of donors,” Coxon said. “But since then, when we kind of restarted, the fundraising has been very encouraging.”
He was uncertain about the effects of recent changes in tax law, particularly the 2019 increase in the standard deduction, which has led fewer people to itemize their charitable contributions as tax write-offs. Though Heifer has major corporate benefactors like Walmart and Cargill, the privately held global food corporation based in Minnesota, 70% of its gifts are in the form of personal donations.
The development charity is also using current events in its marketing, including a COVID-19 emphasis in a year-end campaign that frames farmers as frontline workers in the pandemic.
“There’s been a lot of talk about a world food crisis, and obviously that’s the space we’re in,” Christy Moore, Heifer’s senior vice president for marketing, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy in August. “I think it is eye-opening to a lot of our supporters, and especially on social media, how critical a role that farmers are playing. They are on the front lines, and we’re making sure they have the tools necessary for planting and then harvesting and then connecting those products to a market that needs it.”