My experience in microfinance includes:
- Grameen Bank in Bangladesh – one month from December 2010 to January 2011;
- Grameen Foundation Australia – intermittently on a part-time basis throughout 2010 and 2011; and
- AMUCSS (Asociación Mexicana de Uniones de Crédito del Sector Social) – one year from August 2012 to August 2013.
The thing I have loved most about volunteering and spending time living in countries with low-income populations, is that there is both so much to learn and so much to contribute in what you do. People living off very few dollars per day are forced to make spending decisions that are very different to anything I have ever faced. The best way to understand these trade-offs is by placing yourself close to the lives of these people. Having had the chance to visit numerous rural low-income communities in Mexico, it is the opportunity to visit, speak to and interact with the people living there that has best built my understanding of what a microinsurance product has to offer in order to be successful and to meet the needs of these populations.
I spent around a year working 1-2 days a week on voluntary basis with Opportunity International in the Sydney office. My initial challenge was getting them to accept that I could be of value to them as they really didn’t need an actuary and tended to use volunteers who are studying international development or similar courses. It took some consistent following up to convince them I was genuine and prepared to do anything. In practice I found myself taking on a variety of projects in compliance, regulation and project management.
The value to them was someone who could pick things up quickly and take responsibility, the value to me was understanding at a much deeper level how they operate, the challenges of working with a not-for-profit and the huge enthusiasm and sense of satisfaction felt by the people who work there. My work there came to an end but did lead to some work with Many Rivers, a similar organisation in Australia, helping them understand how they can offer insurance to their clients.
If you are interested in contributing, my advice is to think carefully about the sort of organisation you want to work with and why. Targeting an organisation you believe in strongly will make the experience more worthwhile for everyone. Be open about what you can offer but be prepared to step away if having made your contribution you no longer feel you are adding value – there will be plenty of other places who will value your time or money. I also think it is worth bearing in mind that most not for profits need donations and that a regular financial donation can be equally, if not more valuable, than your time.