Helping the Poor to Create Successful, Life-Changing Businesses

Tufts Distinguished Achievement Award winner Bill Abrams reflects on 16 years at the helm of the international nonprofit Trickle Up

Three decades after leaving the Hill, Bill Abrams, A75, A11P, A16P, had hit a media trifecta, working as a journalist and senior executive at The New York Times, ABC News, and the Wall Street Journal. But he had become impatient with just reporting about what was happening in the world—he wanted to get directly involved.

“As a manager in journalistic enterprises, you could at times feel like you were doing something good for the world,” he said. “But you’re not allowed to be a participant.”

In 2005, ready to move out from behind his “journalistic shield,” he decided to seek work in the nonprofit sector, preferably in New York City, where he and his wife, Julie Salamon, J75, A11P, A16P, worked and lived with their two children. “I was 52 years old and, while I’d had a very fulfilling career in media, wanted to change direction.” he explained.  “This was a better way to manage one’s mid-life crisis than getting a Corvette or a new wife.”

Serendipity—in the form of a headhunter—told Abrams that Trickle Up, an international poverty organization that the caller dubbed “the best-kept secret among New York nonprofits,” was seeking a new president. Trickle Up’s website lays out its ambitious but daunting mission: “We go to the toughest places on earth to help resourceful but marginalized people start and run profitable businesses so they can earn, save, and build better lives.”

When Abrams joined Trickle Up in 2005, twenty-six years after its founding in 1979, it was “was in a low state, with management somewhat frozen in time,” Abrams said. “The board was looking for someone with leadership and managerial skills and not necessarily expertise in poverty. I had never been closer to global poverty than writing a check to Save the Children or Doctors Without Borders,” Abrams said. “The board took a risk” and he got the job.

Trickle Up uses a “graduation approach” that begins with working within communities to identify potential participants, nearly all women. Trickle Up helps them develop viable small businesses, offering seed capital grants that average about $200 as well as ongoing training in life and business skills. To help extend the benefits of individual success into the community, participants pool their resources to create “savings groups” that make loans to help them start or expand their businesses and cope with emergencies.

“Poverty has so many parts that, for a small organization like us to succeed, it must pick one,” Abrams said. “Ours is laser-focused to reach the poorest of the poor and help them achieve economic independence by helping women earn more money, save money, and help support their families.”

When Abrams took over, Trickle Up was working with about 10,000 women. By 2020, that number had grown to 62,000, with an estimated five additional people benefiting from each Trickle Up participant. Total revenues in 2020 were $5.6 million, raised from individual donors as well as foundations, corporations, and governments. Trickle Up focuses mainly on Asia (India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh) and Central America (Guatemala and Mexico). 

Because of Trickle Up’s “high touch” approach, COVID-19 complicated life for both the organization and its participants, Abrams said. The program helps women prepare for common shocks and stresses, such as famines, floods, or disease, so participants were better equipped to handle the pandemic, he said, “with their savings and kitchen gardens serving as important buffers. Even so, lockdowns and pandemic restrictions have reduced activity in local markets, which affects those Trickle Up women who sell their products locally.”

Mobile phones and an app provided by Trickle Up became important lifelines for women in India and elsewhere to connect with family and to access government supports. The smartphones and app faced a range of design challenges, from low literacy rates and variations in local dialects to connectivity and battery issues, but they helped participants, especially farmers, manage their businesses and household finances. 

Going forward, Trickle Up will further promote the use of digital technologies. Another focus will be to help participants and their communities cope with climate change.

But those initiatives will be led by someone other than Abrams. He steps down at the end of August, though he will help with the transition to his successor.  

Abrams intends to join a couple of nonprofit boards and will become a senior fellow with InterAction, a U.S.-based coalition of international non-governmental organizations, where he will research the role and future of smaller international development organizations. He will ask, “What can they do better than some of the giant organizations and what are the barriers they face?”

Abrams and his wife, an author, critic, and storyteller who is also involved with philanthropy, received the Tufts Alumni Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 2020. Their two children are also Tufts graduates: Roxie, A11, and Eli, A16.

Abrams hopes his legacy will be that he led Trickle Up “to a position of greater relevance and respect. We helped shine a bright light on the people living at profound levels of poverty and vulnerability and demonstrated their potential to advance to greater well-being and self-sufficiency.”

He is ready for some down time. “I’ve always been a worker bee,” he said. “Now I’m going to take a class in drawing and sketching, read all the books piled on my nightstand, and go to the gym five days a week.” Yes, he knew he was rattling off a Retirement 101 syllabus. “It really will be kind of nice to be able to have a fresh canvas to paint on.”

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