It’s important to recognize the work of others, but so easy to let the days slide by silently – until a major transition occurs.
Last week there was such a transition, in the form of a gala to recognize the achievements of Alex Counts, founder and for 18 years, CEO of Grameen Foundation. So I decided to mark the occasion with these thoughts.
The story of the organization’s founding is a simple one, reflecting the naiveté and boldness of youth. As a recent college graduate, Alex moved to Bangladesh to apprentice at the Grameen Bank. On returning home to the U.S. seven years later, in 1997, and with $6,000 provided by Muhammad Yunus, he started the Foundation to carry Grameen Bank’s work for the very poor into countries around the world. He didn’t know what he didn’t know, as is the case for most entrepreneurs, social and otherwise. Grameen Foundation operated on a shoestring in those early days.
Over the next 18 years, Alex built an organization that today works in Asia, Africa and Latin America with a multimillion dollar budget and a high-powered board of directors (just a little self-promotion – I’m honored to be a member). Grameen Foundation has assisted some of the best and most mission-driven microfinance institutions in the world – Fonkoze, Grameen Koota, Cashpor, CARD Bank and many more – to raise money, improve their operations and try new things, with a constant eye on serving the very poor and the least-included, especially women. The Foundation was an early entrant into what is now the Fintech space, with the MIFOS initiative and the Grameen Technology Center, and it has become an important innovator in the use of mobile phones as a tool in support of the financial, agricultural and health needs of the poor.
But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I wanted to recognize Alex from a more personal point of view.
Those of you who have worked in or around microfinance for a decade – or two – or three – will remember that it was long divided into two camps: a poverty camp and a commercialization camp. If you think of the way Republicans and Democrats manage the U.S. Congress these days, you’ll get the general idea. Too much passion went into rivalry that would have been better spent moving forward. Standing on the commercialization side, I nevertheless wished to see microfinance come together under a big tent. Apparently Alex, firmly in the poverty camp, thought the same, but it was Alex who reached across the aisle. He systematically sought conversations with leaders at Accion, persisting in the face of initial wariness. He was smart enough to realize that reaching out did not undermine his pro-poor principles – it allowed him to advance them in more places.
When Alex joined the Center for Financial Inclusion’s Advisory Council at its creation in 2009, it was a public statement that the two sides had much to gain by coming together, and that 100% alignment on outlook and objectives was not a prerequisite for learning from and working with others. Since then, Alex has been a dedicated contributor to the Advisory Council. He never holds back his views, on anything from major strategic directions to the quality of the pre-read materials. I appreciate all his input.
More recently, Alex has worked harder than anyone else in microfinance to reconcile the field with the assault launched on it several years ago by the “randomistas” of the Jamal Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who subjected microfinance to randomized studies and found it less impactful than previously hoped. Alex has repeatedly – almost obsessively – attempted to understand and process the results, to caution the academics against over-hyping the negative, and most important, to take up the challenge the academics are offering: that randomized studies could help test and improve product innovations. With his encouragement, Grameen Foundation has worked with IPA and others on randomized studies. It is characteristic of Alex’s approach to life that he debates Dean Karlan of IPA publicly, even while asking Dean to formally serve as an advisor to the Foundation, as a member of its program committee.
The next chapter for Grameen Foundation will be headed by the incoming CEO, Steve Hollingworth, who is an excellent choice to lead it in new directions while upholding the organization’s mission.
The next chapter for Alex? You have to ask him. It will be exciting to find out.
So, at this moment of transition, I invite you, Readers, to grab the nearest coffee cup (or in Alex’ case, tea with a slice of lemon from the plastic bag in his pocket) and raise a toast to Alex Counts and his 19 years at Grameen Foundation. As they say in England, Well Done!
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