Social Impact Heroes: “How Chris Marlow of Help One Now is helping to create long-term sustainable solutions to poverty”
…our goal is to end extreme poverty in the communities in which we partner. Extreme poverty is a cycle from which it is very difficult to free yourself. Families trapped in extreme poverty are stuck in a survival mode with little to no hope of getting out in their lifetime. They lack access to clean water, quality education, and basic healthcare. Putting food on the table is not an everyday reality. They have no financial security and no safety net. These families are incredibly vulnerable.
As part of our about Individuals and Organizations Making an Important Social Impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Marlow is a writer, speaker, founder of Help One Now, and author of “Doing Good Is Simple: Making a Difference Right Where You Are.” More than a decade ago in Zimbabwe, Chris met a starving child who was orphaned living in an abandoned gas station, and that helped launch the idea and spirit behind Help One Now. Chris now dedicates his life to seeking justice by empowering leaders and organizing tribes to launch global movements that do good. Chris is a sought-after speaker at churches and conferences, including TedX, Plywood People, IdeaCamp, Together for Adoption, and The White House’s gathering of Innovators Doing Good. Chris lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, two daughters, and a German Shepherd pup. For more information, please visit ChrisMarlow.me. For more information about the organization, please visit HelpOneNow.org.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was living a pretty traditional life in Austin, Texas. I was a pastor of a church plant, and for about four or five years, a friend of mine had been inviting me to visit him in South Africa, where he’d moved. I kept ignoring the invitation, giving all the usual excuses: “I’m too busy. I have a church. I have a family. Life is just too crazy.”
I ultimately realized that what I was actually doing was ignoring suffering around the world. So I took a trip and visited South Africa and Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe at 4 am once a morning, I met a starving kid at an abandoned gas station. He asked me for help. He was what we call an “edge of life” kid — meaning he was probably within two or three weeks of death. That moment prompted some more in-depth questions in me. I began to ask myself, “Why in such a wealthy, modern world are kids still dying this consistently?”
I came back to the States and did a one-year research program on extreme poverty. One of the things I realized during my study that almost everywhere I visited, there was an outside organization leading efforts. The question I began to ask myself was, “If we’re really going to innovate and create long-term sustainable solutions to poverty, don’t we need locals to be the leaders and heroes of the story instead of an outside nonprofit?” The outside nonprofit can definitely have a seat at the table, but we want locals to lead.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
In 2016, Help One Now planned a blogger trip to Ethiopia, which included board members, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Hollis, and other influencers to authentically document a trip through the eyes of these influencers in real-time. When we arrived on the ground, the Internet was shut down by the government, and no one could post. We took a big financial risk to bring all of these bloggers to Ethiopia, and at this moment, the fundraising side of the trip felt like a failure.
When we arrived back in the states, Rachel had the idea to host a gathering at Jen Hatmaker’s house to raise awareness of our cause. This party ended up being a huge success. Not only did we raise significant money initially, but at that gathering, we met the person who has become Help One Now’s largest individual donor. Without that party at Jen’s, we never would have met her. The moral of the story is that when everything goes wrong and fails, there is always an opportunity or a lesson to be learned.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At a gathering back in 2015, I was about to go on stage to talk about a Help One Now feeding program. I asked my team to repeat the data points to me right before I went on stage. When I got up there, I mixed up the number of meals we had served and the number of kids we had served. I received a standing ovation as I shouted, “This year, we’re going to feed one million kids!” What I really should have said was, “We’re going to serve one million meals this year.” Regardless, the crowd roared in excitement. The lesson here is that if you want a standing ovation at a live event — just lie! Just kidding — the lesson is to prepare your speaking and data points, and most importantly, to know your truth.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
To date, Help One Now has have enrolled more than 400 families in our Family Empowerment Program in Ethiopia with an average increased income of more than 500% — and many of these families now have 3–4 years of self-sufficiency under their belt.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
On a cool, rainy morning in Sodo, Ethiopia, I sat in a tiny restaurant and had a tiny cup of coffee — perhaps the best cup of coffee I’ve had in a long time. This coffee was served by a strong and resilient Ethiopian woman named Emebet.
Emebet is married and has seven children. For years, her husband was a weaver and made just enough money for the family to scrape by. This is very difficult and physically intense work, where workers are forced to sit at a station all day. Kidney disease is a common side effect of this line of work. Over time, Emebet’s husband became very sick, lost his job, and could no longer support the family. Emebet tried to start a business on her own, selling injera — a spongey sourdough staple of the Ethiopian diet. She failed because she didn’t have the knowledge or the kickstart that she needed. With an ailing husband and seven children, Emebet and her family were desperate and vulnerable.
Thankfully, about 16 months ago, Emebet was selected by our local leaders to enroll in our Family Empowerment Program, a seven-step road to sustainability. Emebet went through the program and, with in-kind support, opened a mini-shop in her neighborhood. Her business did well and she began to invest in an iqub — a community savings group of 5 or 6 individuals that is basically a revolving investment fund. After five months of running the mini-shop and contributing to the iqub, Emebet was able to use the revolving fund to start a small restaurant. Emebet hired her husband to run the mini-shop while she focused on the restaurant. Before empowerment, Emebet and her husband could not even provide daily food for the family. Today, her daily profit between the two businesses is 200 birr, or $9 US per day — well over $216 per month in profit and 450% increase in income. In addition to all this, Emebet has two paid employees and she continues to invest $36/month into her iqub.
So, what does this new life mean for Emebet? She has dignity. She’s becoming a leader in her community. And, she’s paying it forward by helping and serving those around her. Emebet can send her young children to school. Not only that, she is paying school fees for five children in her community who are living on the streets. Her husband is now able to get the healthcare that he needs and he has a job that is much less physically taxing. Emebet is also using her skills and experience to inspire others.
Emebet’s past was bordering on hopeless and full of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This is the tragedy of extreme poverty. It’s a cycle and a trap from which you can’t pull yourself out. So many vulnerable families just need a boost — a tiny spark to ignite their hope. That’s exactly what our Family Empowerment Program is. Emebet is not done. She dreams of opening a small hotel and helping even more people. She said, “The more families we help will spread self-sufficiency, which will change our community.” We can’t wait to expand this program into our other countries as well.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
At Help One Now, our goal is to end extreme poverty in the communities in which we partner. Extreme poverty is a cycle from which it is very difficult to free yourself. Families trapped in extreme poverty are stuck in a survival mode with little to no hope of getting out in their lifetime. They lack access to clean water, quality education, and basic healthcare. Putting food on the table is not an everyday reality. They have no financial security and no safety net. These families are incredibly vulnerable.
While extreme poverty can look similar in different places, its causes vary widely. The realities that trap a family in this cycle of vulnerability in rural Ethiopia are not the same as the realities that affect families in Port au Prince, Haiti, or in the Amazon jungle of Peru. Not only do the causes of extreme poverty vary widely, but the solutions do as well. It’s all very contextual. Poverty alleviation efforts often fail because we try to cram a square peg into a round hole.
We have a motto at Help One Now: local solutions for local problems. With that in mind, here are three things that we find helpful when you truly want to help:
- Listen. We have to approach poverty alleviation as listeners and learners. As Westerners, we have an ingrained inclination to fix things, to solve problems, etc. Unfortunately, sometimes we come in like a wrecking ball of goodwill, with our ‘brilliant’ ideas, and cause much more harm than good. We need to listen. We need to be willing to be wrong. We need to be eager to learn. We need to learn to trust because ultimately, the solutions that last are those that come from within the community, not those from outside. We have to work together, in a relationship, with local leaders.
- Collaborate. We currently have an incredible entrepreneurial program that is literally changing the entire trajectory of vulnerable families and communities. We are training and helping families start small businesses. But it’s more than business. It’s a holistic approach that considers the whole person: spirit, mind, and body. We didn’t come up with it. Our Ethiopian local leader pulled it out of his remarkable mind and rolled it around in his huge heart and introduced it to the world. It’s working wonders in multiple communities in Ethiopia. Now the challenge is to take that program, contextualize it, and implement it in other countries and communities around the world. To do this, our U.S. team is working with our Ethiopian leader and our other local leaders eight different countries, who will in turn work with their teams and local authorities and even other organizations. It’s collaboration upon collaboration upon collaboration. It can be a little complicated, and even a little slower than we might want… but IT WORKS.
- Commit. Good work takes time and patience. Transformation does not happen overnight. We live in a fast-food-fast-paced-instant-gratification society. We want to see results and see them now — or yesterday for that matter. Sometimes commitment seems like an old fashioned concept, something our grandparents had but we don’t really need. It may not be true that the best things come to those who wait, but we believe that good things come when we commit to our partners, commit to the process, commit to going far together. We are finishing year ten of this process now and we are beginning to see a deep and beautiful ripple effect, more impressive than anything we could have imagined ten years ago.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Great leaders maximize resources to inspire and empower people to accomplish a shared mission and reach their full potential. An example of this is using the resource of influence that the local leaders in the communities we serve around the world have in their communities. I look to them to lead us and maximize their many resources to bolster the most impact.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a short story or example for each.
- You’ll need far more capital than you ever imagined. When I look back at the financial projections of when I first started Help One Now, it’s clear that my projections were far below what it would actually take to successfully start and scale an organization. At that time, I think I was too scared to look at those “big” numbers so I made them smaller, and that caused many pain points for the first year or so until we pivoted.
- When you grow, leadership gets harder, not easier. When you start something from scratch, you push really hard just to get to a place where you have confidence that you will make it, and you will survive. You dream about this ethereal place often and then if you work hard, catch some breaks and don’t give up, you reach it. But surviving and thriving are two different things. To survive takes guts, focus, and hustle. To thrive takes leadership, savvy, and wisdom. You may not have the fresh energy that you had when you started, so you also have to become a better leader, set boundaries and work smarter.
- Too much vision without execution will hurt your organization. When I first started Help One Now, I was so excited to help people. Ideas would come rapidly, and they were always fun to dream about, but too many ideas would often get in the way of true progress. We would lose time and resources chasing a new idea and leaving old ideas behind. Even though we invested time, money, and energy, many of the ideas never matured because I was not a mature leader who understood the power of staying focused and ensuring our core vision was being executed at the highest level possible.
- My personal self-care directly correlates to the health of the organization. Sadly, I was so busy in the startup phase of Help One Now that I lost all focus on health. I remember getting up at 5 am to work a few hours, then getting my kids ready for school, then going to work all day until dinner, then spending time with my kids at night. And then usually around 9 pm, I would work a few more hours. Those were fun times. The thrill of the chase was the fuel to work, work, work. But, I began to gain weight, and I felt terrible. My energy was low and my future was bleak. For the past four years, I’ve prioritized my personal health (spiritual, physical, emotional) to ensure I can lead at a high level. But, it has taken me four years of hard work. When I look back, I wish now that I would have done this much earlier. It would have saved me significant time and money. If you are not healthy, do yourself a favor and make it a priority. Investing in yourself is the most important investment you can make. You can’t invest in others or chase your dreams if you are not healthy. Health is the foundation for long term success.
- Enjoy the journey: the ups, the downs, the whole process. It’s easy to be so driven to reach a goal that we forget to enjoy the process. I was recently climbing Machu Picchu, and I kept telling myself to be present, to pay attention, to be aware that I was having this amazing experience to be cherished forever. I have a tendency to rush through the moments. It’s like I’m chasing the next thing, and I forget to enjoy what is right in front of me. We crave progress, but it’s so easy to regret living at such hyper speed. I now mourn some of the smaller, more simple days. I miss old teammates who helped push the vision forward. I look back at the (so many) times when we failed, or the hard conversations, or the moments when we succeeded and often, we did not pause to celebrate. Now I have regret as I can never get those moments back. These are the moments, no matter how hard at the time, that made us who we are. They taught us life lessons of leadership, growth, and impact. These moments taught us what it meant to see our vision become reality and because of these moments, hundreds of thousands of lives are being impacted all over the world. Remember, slow down and enjoy the process, it’s a sacred journey called life and we don’t want to look back and realize we did not enjoy it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We’re incredibly passionate that every single person in the world can make a significant impact in the world for good. In my book, “Doing Good Is Simple,” I reference the impact matrix — where the intersection of our passions, talents, resources, and gifts come together. By finding where all of these parts of yourself meet, you can leverage doing good in your everyday life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson is the African Proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This has been extremely relevant in shaping the way I work. Essentially this proverb is saying the more you collaborate with others, the more progress you create. We have a saying here at Help One Now: “Together we build.” This is of a similar sentiment, meaning that together with our donors, team, and the leaders we partner with around the world, we get far more done than we ever could alone.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
This is a tough one! If I had to pick just one, it would be Melinda Gates. I’d love to learn from her about how they are helping solve some of the world’s biggest problems through the Gates Foundation.
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