We’re all familiar with charitable donations, but Heifer International uses charity in a unique way. By providing key natural resources, the idea is to build communities that are self-determined and sustainable. In a sense, the decades-old organization works continuously to put itself out of a job.

“Many organizations have used the lens of charity, which in itself is not always sustainable,” Elizabeth Bintliff, vice president of Heifer International’s Africa Area Program, told Organic Connections.“We take quite a different approach at Heifer. We’re working with farmers producing at a small scale in rural communities, giving them access to markets to be able to really create their own livelihoods in a sustainable way; that’s the end game. Once they have access to markets and they can have lucrative sources of income, then their lives are more likely to be sustainable and less dependent on charity.”

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“A cow, not a cup”

Heifer International was founded some 67 years ago by Dan West, an Indiana farmer, volunteer relief worker and Church of the Brethren member. In volunteering for the Spanish Civil War, he was moved by the plight of orphans and refugees as he ladled out meager rations of powdered milk. He realized that people needed “a cow, not a cup.” Cows could produce milk so that families would not have to depend on temporary aid.

It was West’s neighbors who donated the first cows sent abroad, to Europe following World War II. Since that time, Heifer has broadly expanded its mission along with the types of animals it now provides: goats, geese, guinea pigs, bees, silkworms, water buffalo and many others.

“We have been in existence for going on 70 years now,” Bintliff said. “We’ve worked with 8.5 million families or households around the world—men, women, boys and girls. We’ve really impacted their lives in sustainable ways, and that’s something that we’re very proud of.

“We work in the agriculture sphere, primarily though not exclusively with livestock. What we focus on is giving people and communities the tools to build their communities.”