January 11, 2021

Michelle Chang (B’14)

Feature Series: The Economy of Francesco

Michelle Chang (B’14) is the chief development officer of FOREFRONT Charity and is a part of the Finance and Humanity working group for the "Economy of Francesco" international conference.

Michelle Chang
Michelle Chang

In November 2020 Pope Francis convened “Economy of Francesco," a global online gathering of young people determined to make the economy fair, sustainable, and inclusive. Georgetown University asked participating students and alumni to reflect on their experiences in two essays: the first considers their pre-conference working groups and the second offers personal takeaways after the gathering.

FOREFRONT Charity at the “Economy of Francesco”

I am drawn to the “Economy of Francesco” conference’s mission of gathering young economists, entrepreneurs, and change-makers around the world to discuss and work towards creating a new soul for the global economy. I believe the importance of doing business with social impact resonates with and is growing with our millennial generation. Take my journey as an example. Ten years ago, I first learned about socially responsible investing during my undergraduate days at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business (MSB). After graduating, I worked in green bond marketing and socially responsible investing at JP Morgan. Now as of the chief development officer of a startup non-profit, FOREFRONT Charity, I believe that local-to-local change is critical for long-term impact. I’ve seen other non-profits, with the best of intentions, bring resources to underserved areas, only to have the impact of their programs quickly crumble from the lack of local buy-in. Economic, social, and environmental sustainability, and governance, are all key to lasting impact and core to the discussions happening at the “Economy of Francesco.”

FOREFRONT launched in 2015 with $300 and a team of nine volunteers passionate that clean water and sanitation, education, medical care, and empowerment can make lasting impact in underserved communities. We believe that local people must lead the work in their communities for it to be effective and sustainable. Therefore, we began in and around Kolluru, Andhra Pradesh, India, with years of open community discussions, surveys, and research to ideate and collaborate with local people on culturally responsive approaches to charitable work. We heard from women and children who travelled six to eight hours a day to get water from open-air ponds. The time-intensive task of getting water meant that women were unable to seek employment, and children were unable to attend school. Over 7,000 children within a five-mile radius of Kolluru do not attend school. Female literacy in Kolluru is 32%, versus 59% in India overall and 83% worldwide. In addition, we surveyed that only 39% of people in Tallur, 20 miles from Kolluru, washed their hands with soap. Water-borne illnesses are common in Tallur due to the lack of sanitation.

Over the past five years, FOREFRONT has trained communities in and around Kolluru to build 38 clean water wells, serving over 60,000 people. With careful maintenance and testing done by both FOREFRONT team members and locals, the water quality from even our oldest wells tests better than bottled water. In addition, we have collaborated with a small, women-owned business in Tenali, India, 12 miles from Kolluru, to distribute over 4,500 soap toys and host handwashing workshops in rural villages. Our recent surveys show that now 95% of people in Tallur wash their hands with soap. In collaboration with over 150 locals, we’ve built a state-of-the-art elementary school in Kolluru that can provide an excellent education to 400 children every year. Our school features sliding-scale tuition, scholarships for female students, a community garden, clean water well, and community center. Our school is staffed 100% by people from India, with special initiatives to employ locals. We regularly provide all school staff with professional development and growth metrics.

FOREFRONT is seeing success in local-to-local change, but we still struggle in human resource and financial sustainability. In India, FOREFRONT has both paid and pro-bono staff; however, our U.S. team members are all pro-bono. With the expansion and intensity of our work, our U.S. team members volunteer eight to 20 hours every week, which is a commitment level beyond what many qualified applicants can offer. I hope to learn from the “Economy of Francesco” how to make our human resources more sustainable while maintaining low overhead. In addition, our work requires constant fundraising, which makes our budgets less predictable. I hope to learn from the “Economy of Francesco” how to create a non-profit funding model that increases the financial sustainability of our programs. From seeing the depth and diversity of experiences in the conference speakers, and from participating in the Finance and Humanity discussion group, I look forward to learning and creating innovations in non-profit sustainability.

Finance with Humanitarian Purpose

For the “Economy of Francesco” conference, I participated in the Finance and Humanity village. The goal of our village was to unleash the potential of good capital by restoring faith in finance that promotes well-being. We used the Catholic social doctrine of via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, to examine finance in a three-phased approach: 1) notice what strikes you; 2) determine if it is good or evil; 3) act. We were struck by the ideology of profit maximization, determined that profit maximization leads to blind self-interest, and acted to promote social business.

Our conference event featured a discussion with Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, along with Grameen Bank, "for their efforts through microcredit to create economic and social development from below." Dr. Yunus and Grameen Bank transformed microcredit from loan sharks oftentimes providing the only financing option for those in the bottom 50% of the income scale into social business that creates loans for poor entrepreneurs and breaks cycles of poverty. I was particularly excited for our time with Dr. Yunus as I read his book, Building Social Business, during my very first undergraduate semester of MSB in Professor Charles Skuba’s International Business class. Dr. Yunus’s approach to sustainable finance, particularly how he invests and empowers the poor, has inspired much of my work with FOREFRONT Charity.

Our financial systems currently facilitate the growth of wealth towards those who are already wealthy. COVID-19 has further revealed the weaknesses of our financial systems, as income inequality and inequality in health outcomes have only increased during the pandemic. However, we can change this. Finance is a neutral instrument, a means to an end. Therefore, it is key to assess and determine the end goal of finance. Our Finance and Humanity village determined that profit maximization is currently the chief end of finance. However, if we change the end goal of finance from profit maximization to collective interest, we can use finance to create social good.

Our Finance and Humanity village participants interviewed managers at Fortesa in Panama to learn about crowdfunding, AQIF in the United States to learn about financing the fintech sector in developing countries, and Uplift Mutuals in India to learn about microinsurance. From speaking to the leaders of Fortesa, AQIF, and Uplift Mutuals, it is clear that finance can be purposed to sustain communities and create social and economic integration, and still corporate profits. Uplift Mutuals CEO Mr. Kumar Sailab remarked, “If you build for purpose, profit will follow. If you build without purpose, you’ll never be happy.”

Although the “Economy of Francesco” conference has now ended, our work has only begun. During our session with Dr. Yunus, we conducted a live poll of over 250 live participants with the question, “What do you think is the key driver for future sustainable finance?” Among the respondents 57% of participants chose “education,” 22% chose “government fiscal policies,” 14% “chose “financial regulation,” and 7% chose “markets and market incentives.” The results of the poll point to the hope that education brings. Conferences like the “Economy of Francesco,” which gather young economists, entrepreneurs, and change-makers around the world, provide an excellent environment to reflect on and create financial practices that benefit humanity.

Michelle Chang (B'14) is the chief development officer of FOREFRONT Charity and leads finance, fundraising, and partnership efforts. She also works for the New York City Department of Education as a senior specialist liaison and previously worked for KIPP DC Charter Schools and JP Morgan Sales and Trading. Michelle holds a B.S. in business administration from Georgetown University and a M.S. in secondary education from Johns Hopkins University.