Real sustainable change takes collaboration and a willingness to learn from one another about what is and is not working for communities. This year, we decided to create a new category in our portfolio called Ecosystem Grants. These grants support new ideas and efforts which are enhancing the efficacy and interconnectedness of the work of social change. We are privileged to partner with economist Courtenay Cabot Venton in the launch of The Share Trust to amplify, support, and equip grassroots work that cuts through many sectors to something very simple yet high leverage: women gathering together in small groups to support one another’s aspirations and social capacities. We have been honored to connect many of our grantee partners with Courtenay’s work which she shares more about in this post.

The leveraging power of investing in women and girls has been a highly visible and studied topic in the last few years. Studies have consistently shown that interventions targeting women’s education, health, and livelihoods can multiply and magnify positive outcomes, especially in contexts with high levels of poverty. Films such as Girl Rising and Half the Sky have played a key role in growing visibility with a wider audience around the importance of investing in women and girls.

Nonetheless, evidence suggests that our funding and programming are systematically missing one of the most important drivers of change for women – their social capacities.

We typically design programs to target resource constraints, assuming that a lack of supply is the main driver of people’s poverty. For example, we program to deliver better health and nutrition services, ensure that more girls attend school, or enhance women’s financial inclusion through better access to credit and skills for starting small businesses. While all of these activities are critically important to poverty reduction, they are based on an assumption that poor people’s decision-making is consistent with rational economic reasoning, and that external constraints prevent poor people from accessing what they need.

However, a compelling but largely overlooked literature suggests that a person’s social capacities – namely their level of empowerment, aspirations (hope for the future), and self-efficacy (belief in their ability to create change) – can fundamentally affect their demand for services. For example: a 2011 study using survey data from rural Ethiopia found that people with high levels of aspiration and self-efficacy were statistically more likely to access credit and invest their money in productive activities1; a similar review across four countries2 found that aspirations directly influenced people’s uptake of school enrolment, nutrition and other investments3; and women in Bangladesh with high levels of empowerment were able to maintain their food security in a catastrophic flood in 2018.4

A recent USAID global evidence review found that social capacities – namely social capital, aspirations, self-efficacy, confidence to adapt, women’s empowerment and gender equality – were some of the strongest predictors of whether or not a person was able to cope with a shock or stress.5

If an individual does not believe that she can create change, she does not pursue opportunities to improve her wellbeing, and in turn deepens her sense that she cannot create change, a cycle that is self-reinforcing. As a result, while we focus programming on access to resources, they often remain unexploited or underutilized. Despite a strong rhetoric, empowerment and social agency are typically seen as a positive outcome of our programming, rather than something that we intentionally seek to build.

Five years ago, I was asked to evaluate a Self Help Group (SHG) program in Ethiopia. I was blown away by the changes that these women were making in their communities – setting up schools, starting small businesses, advocating for access to services, and stopping childhood marriage. Practically speaking, Self Help Groups are typically comprised of 15-25 people who meet every week to start small savings and business activities. But they are designed with a very specific and long-term focus: building women’s social capacities to drive transformative change through collective action. These groups ignite a spark – as women meet together, they work together, and as they work together, they begin to have hope for themselves and for their communities. With the power of hope in their hands, women begin to design and create their own change from the bottom-up.

As an economist, I have spent most of my career advising institutional donors and foundations on what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to reducing poverty worldwide. I have seen a lot of failure, and while there is a clear recognition that bottom-up approaches to poverty reduction tend to be most effective, how to scale such initiatives, as well as embed them in wider systems level change, has been a significant challenge. The Self Help Group model caught my attention because it seems to bridge this divide. Self Help Groups replicate organically and exponentially, with mature groups typically seeding new groups, at very low cost. As the number of groups grow, members are nominated to represent their Self Help Group at parallel cluster and federal level associations that become community based organizations with advocacy powers in their own right. These federated structures can provide the enabling environment for good governance, political change, and economic growth.

I founded The Share Trust earlier this year because there was mounting interest on the part of donors as well as implementing agencies to understand the role that social capacities play in poverty outcomes, and how Self Help Groups might offer an opportunity for greater investment. The evidence suggests that these groups are having a profound effect on a whole range of outcomes. For example, women who participate in Self Help Groups are twice as likely to participate in local politics in India.  A meta-analysis of multiple Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) in Asia found that participation in women’s groups was associated with a 37% reduction in maternal mortality, a 23% reduction in neonatal mortality, and a 9% reduction in still-births. These are astounding figures, and reflect the overwhelming impact that women’s empowerment and collective action can have on demand for health services.

Self Help Groups are not “new”; women have organized collectively to create change for a very long time, and grassroots organizations often use Self Help Groups at the core of their work. What is new is an increasing recognition that addressing women’s social capacities is perhaps one of the most fundamental parts of all of our work to address poverty, and yet it is the least well integrated into our programming. Understanding how to support these groups to successfully and sustainably achieve their goals requires new and innovative practices in philanthropy. Investment in women’s empowerment and collective action can be incredibly symbiotic with sector-based approaches such as education, health, and financial services, but needs to be intentionally integrated into programming.

At The Share Trust, our mission is to support and strengthen Self Help Groups globally, through building the evidence base, bringing together collaborations of like-minded partners, and working with donors and philanthropists to integrate this programming into their work. We believe that when we invest in the agency of women to create change, we exponentially and cost effectively dismantle poverty from the inside out. We also believe that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way we tackle poverty reduction, moving towards a fundamental focus on women’s empowerment and collective action to drive transformative change.

We would love to hear from you. We are actively working with donors who want to integrate this type of programming into their strategic funding. Grassroots, locally-led organizations around the world often use Self Help Groups at the core of their work, and The Share Trust is working to map and support these organizations. Please reach out if you would like to learn more at

Courtenay Cabot Venton is an international development economist. She works with large institutional donors and foundations, as well as non-profits, to figure out what is working, and what isn’t, when it comes to poverty reduction. Her work on humanitarian assistance has changed the way that donors structure their crisis financing, towards a much stronger focus on proactive investment in the resilience of those affected. She was named one of Town & Country’s Top 50 Philanthropists in 2017 for her work as a change-maker.

Courtenay spearheaded the development of a digital platform to support SHG facilitators with Code Innovation, and that project is now being delivered in 9 languages with an ever growing base of partner organizations across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. She founded The Share Trust in 2018 with a mission to support and strengthen the SHG ecosystem globally, through research and learning, building collaborations for systems level change, and guiding effective and thoughtful philanthropy in this space.

1 Bernard, T and A Taffesse (2011). “Aspirations: An Approach to Measurement with Validation using Ethiopian Data.” Journal of African Economies. 23:2 pps 189-224.
2 Nicaragua, Ethiopia, India and China
3 Bernard, T, S Dercon and A Taffesse (2011). “Beyond Fatalism: An empirical exploration of self-efficacy and aspirations failure in Ethiopia.” Center for the Study of African Economies; IFPRI; University of Oxford.
4 Lisa C Smith and Timothy R Frankenberger, Does Resilience Capacity Reduce the Negative Impact of Shocks on Household Food Security? Evidence from the 2014 Floods in Northern Bangladesh
5 USAID, 2018. “Resilience Evidence Forum Report”.