Change the World: A Call to Action

Warner Woodworth is a social entrepreneur and Professor of Organizational Leadership and Strategy at BYU’s Marriott School of Business. He has contributed a kind of New Year’s essay on how Mormon individuals can change the world by helping to end poverty.

Ever dream of combating poverty head-on? Feel powerless to reduce human suffering? Want to make a difference in the world? Then this article is for you. The central thesis comes from the great Mahatma Gandhi who envisioned each of us as the solution to global suffering: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” My interest is not so much to articulate or debate the theological foundations of Mormonism today, but to share examples of praxis, i.e., applications of LDS doctrine in the real world that build socio-economic justice. I hope these illustrations may inspire readers to become “doers of the word,” not just hearers. Maybe they will serve as images of potentiality, inspiring others to design new interventions for bettering the world.

As I put the finishing touches on these pages, the year is almost over. However, I have had some remarkable encounters with individuals over the past two months who have sought to actively engage their beliefs in new and creative activities that may evolve into life-long traditions. Dozens of LDS families have contacted me to say they decided to forgo Christmas gifts for each other, which they had done in the past, and instead, pool the monies they would have spent to fund one of our village banks in Latin America. Theirs is a gift that will keep on giving because when the first 15-20 loans are paid back with interest, another round of loans can be distributed to start another cluster of poor women. Some innovative neighbors this year collected micro-banking funds as private citizens who just happen to belong to the same Relief Society up on the Provo bench. Another is a clan-like structure of individuals from both Salt Lake and Utah counties that calls itself the “One Heart/One Mind Action Group.” They too have raised funds for microfinance for the first time this year.

Yet another group committed two weeks ago to fund the $150 purchase of an Alpaca for an orphanage high in the Peruvian Andes where dozens of indigenous children are in need. By breeding several new Alpacas, a small herd will eventually grow, providing milk and meat for consumption, along with the shearing of wool to be sold in the market for a good return as craftswomen then produce sweaters, scarves, and so on. Some could give generously, others as young couples still getting careers started could only give $20. One young man in the family who suffered unemployment and health problems through most of 2006 donated the entire $50 his parents gave him for Christmas to help buy a second Alpaca.

Approaching midnight at this moment, it is the wrapping up time of a number of marriages my students invited my wife, Kaye, and I to attend this month–temple sealing ceremonies, wedding receptions, costume balls, and so on. I’ve been so impressed with their desires to reform the traditional U.S. marriage industry. New, innovative and Zion-like experiences have emerged from their creativity and commitment to doing good. In one case, the card at the marriage banquet informed us that in lieu of a traditional favor for each guest, the bride and groom “have made a contribution on your behalf to Save Darfur.” The couple also plans to dedicate a month next summer doing village development in Africa. Different newlyweds, also married today, had contacted me weeks ago for advice on where they could serve an impoverished community as volunteers next semester for four months, rather than go on a 10-day honeymoon of luxury in the Caribbean which would cost about as much.

Tonight, at the last wedding of the year we attended, still another couple sought our input in finding them internships in India where they hope to combat poverty for a six month period. In their announcement in the mail, the only wedding gift they had asked for was a donation to the Provo Food and Care Coalition, or travel money to get them to Bangalore, India. In yet another case, some young friends in New York emailed me asking what NGO I would recommend to which they could contribute. They had prayerfully decided that rather than purchase a $5,000 diamond ring, they would give that amount to help reduce human suffering in the Third World.

With such young students and friends, I often feel I am literally in the presence of the millennial generation of whom the prophets of old foresaw in vision. These Latter-day Saints are acutely aware of war, poverty, and hunger. More importantly, they understand that they can “be the change” for which Gandhi called.

As a professor to many such individuals, I’ve been blessed to stand on hallowed ground in a classroom, instructing them, and more importantly, learning from their insights. Together we have focused on key theories and paradigms for understanding global problems. Debates have arisen about conceptual frameworks for changing society. Jointly we have developed cutting-edge methods and tools for building family and community self-reliance in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Innovative, radical strategies for alleviating poverty have been explored: microcredit, literacy, fair trade, women’s empowerment, participatory research, worker-owned cooperatives, sustainability, humanitarian interventions, and the socio-economics of Zion.

In classrooms and outside we have come to embrace the prophetic teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Gordon B. Hinckley, along with spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama who suggests that, “In times of need, one should rise to the occasion and fight bravely for what is right.”

For readers and bloggers of By Common Consent, my goal is this brief piece is to simply share a few examples of what you may consider doing, through stories and websites where more information may be accessed. I’ve been impressed by seeing the articles of my co-author and friend, Jim Lucas. Together we wrote Working Toward Zion: Principles of the United Order for the Modern World, and I continue to admire his thinking.

To read the blogs from so many readers has been enjoyable. In future writings over the coming weeks, I hope to address several points about which some of you raised questions — on microcredit, united order practices, and additional methods for alleviating poverty. Insights about them will serve to explain strategies which I sometimes call “The Mormon War on Global Poverty.”

For now, let me highlight two wonderful cases of LDS humanitarian outreach in which caring individuals came together to diminish pain and hardship, and build social justice. One occurred after Hurricane Mitch swamped much of Central America at the end of 1998. Mitch killed over 20,000 people, left an equal number missing, and a million homeless. When the next semester began in January 1999, my students and I launched a new elective that we initially called the “Stewardship Project” to aid those who suffered. We picked out the most devastated country, Honduras, and formed seven teams to plan the process–fundraising, logistics, Honduran culture, PR, microcredit systems, organizational behavior skills such as teambuilding, etc. Campus bureaucrats said we would be unsuccessful, that these were “just students, not development experts,” and predicted that sufficient money could not be raised, nor would students volunteer. But pessimism clouded their assumptions. In fact, they were flat-out wrong.

Instead of no students, some 85 attended the class and planned the process, many without even getting course credit because the add deadline had passed before they heard about the opportunity. We raised $116,000 and some 46 volunteers went to Central America for six weeks of service, or more. We funded nearly a hundred village banks, and gave 20,000-plus hours of community service–shoveling mud out of schools, teaching English and computer skills, volunteering in orphanages, and even delivering babies!

The experience was so successful that we formed additional projects the next year and went to four countries with 86 volunteers and in excess of $200,000–to Venezuela, Peru, El Salvador, as well as back to Honduras. The name changed to H.E.L.P. International (Help ELiminate Poverty), and we spun it off from BYU so we could be more independent and innovative. Since that time we have trained and sent more than 500 volunteers as a kind of Mormon Peace Corps. Other countries we have worked in include Brazil, Guatemala, and Bolivia. In 2006, as with each of the past 7 years, our HELP International volunteers provided amazing service to poverty-stricken families. This past summer some fifty young people spent at least 6 weeks in either Uganda, Guatemala or El Salvador–training the poor in business skills, setting up family-based Square Foot Gardens, teaching English, and launching other efforts to lift those who struggle. Over the years many of these individuals have had a life-changing experience, and returned home to design and implement other humanitarian projects with college friends, family members, or with business associates in their new jobs after graduation. They have come to understand what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, “Live the life you have imagined.” Readers may learn more at HELP’s website .

For other students and I, a highlight of 2005 was establishing a new social venture by mobilizing, organizing, and training young LDS social entrepreneurs to help rebuild after the horrific Asian tsunami of 12/26/04. The destruction was terrible, killing or causing the disappearance of 260,000 people, and bringing about the loss of billions of dollars in housing, businesses, and so forth. For us it was a tough, but inspiring experience. Out of my BYU course, “Becoming a Global Change Agent,” grew a little band of some 35 registered students. To counter the terrible waves of destruction, our project became called a “Wave of Hope.” Out of it we formed a new NGO known as “Empowering Nations.” From those pioneering individuals, the number of campus participants grew to around 60. Eventually about a hundred individuals raised the funds and volunteered for a month or more rebuilding villages and devastated lives along the hard-hit coast of Khao Lak, Thailand. Led by BYU student leaders such as Sarah Carmichael, Mike Poelman, and Natalie Wilson, we were from 7 countries, as well as from other universities between Cambridge and Berkeley. Kaye and I led a team of a dozen older Latter-Day Saints– housewives, entrepreneurs, CPAs, and consultants, as a sort of “Joseph Smith Tsunami Rescue Brigade” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Prophet’s birth last year.

We all labored together to empower the survivors along the Indian Ocean’s coastline. Horrified by the scenes of destruction we shed tears at the Buddhist temple where thousands of bodies still awaited ID, burial, or cremation. It was a deeply meaningful event for many who gained a new understanding of the Joseph’s enlarged view about families. Instead of the narrow perspective that so many of today’s church members hold, often limited to focusing on their little nuclear family group, the Prophet’s vision was more expansive: “A (person) filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” We studied and then put into practice his extraordinary principles of consecration and stewardship by serving the poorest of the poor, individuals who had indeed lost everything–family members, homes, and so forth. In genuinely spiritual ways we experienced the very essence of Christian life, and the sheer joy and sense of fulfillment to be had through true discipleship.

Together with other volunteers, we succeeded in constructing 120 new houses, cleaned miles of debris from area beaches, engaged in reforestation efforts, reopened and taught at damaged schools, established income-generating projects, and labored along side villagers who we taught how to operate power tools and woodworking skills to make replacement furniture for their homes. Many of us came to understand Anne Frank’s poignant words from her diary: “How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.”

If readers wish to learn more about this project, you can read the full story. Inspired by the impacts of that experience, Empowering Nations expanded in summer 2006 to other nations, most volunteers serving for a month in Ghana, but in Panama, and back to Thailand, as well.

I would enjoy hearing from those who have questions about these efforts, or who might consider joining us at HELP International or Empowering Nations during summer 2007 if you are interested. As we do every year, we will be planning humanitarian expeditions to combat poverty in a number of Third World locations. Together we can indeed change the world!


  1. I want to point everyone who can’t give of their time and efforts right now to the great website kiva.

    I hope the church will do something similar to this, as well.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Warner, thanks for a terrific essay! I’m as excited about the desire to help being shown by our young people as by the actual results of their efforts.

  3. I’ve often wondered if those celebrities who are spending millions on their weddings would forgo them in favor of the charities they claim to espouse. But the money we spent on Sarah’s wedding is surely the equivalent of millions of dollars for us. It was not fun, either.

    Thank you for this.

  4. Awesome article! I’m always looking for innovative ways to get involved and really make a difference, and your essay has prompted me with a couple new ones.

    When I get married I also hope to forgo gifts and a honeymoon in favor of the situation you described above. We’ll see if the wifey is up for that… :)

  5. Warner this is awesome! I read your book in 2001 when I was in India (some humanitarian service missionaries gave it to me) I met a member there who started the Pathway foundation and was very inspired by your work. This is a great organization in India that provides opportunities to help also. I was just asked to give a talk on service in sacrament meeting (being Doers of the word is our theme this year) and will be passing on alot of your resources. Thanks.

  6. Every time I spend any money on me, now, I stop and think who would get the most value from that, and I tend to lean toward someone on kiva instead of me. Not totally yet, but it’s making me rethink how much I fritter away on things I don’t really need. The thing is, I know that if we really cared enough, nobody in the world need go hungry, no child need grow up undernourished, without education, and without clean water to drink.

    We’ve been told that we should do this, take care of one another, and it’s been stressed to us just how important that is. If we aren’t one, we aren’t his. We’re certainly hurting our own selves a great deal, as well, by not doing it. There are a huge wealth of blessings that we could reap (end of terrorism, for one, perhaps?) if we only would follow this commandment. I think it’s something we need to make into a top priority.

  7. Thanks for posting this, Prof. Woodworth. I’m a big fan of microcredit programs.

    One concern I have is that often the extreme poor are not able to participate effectively in these programs. I’m thinking specifically about Haiti, on which I’ve been focused since my mission. There are a large number of microcredit organizations there–some of which do really excellent work. But in Haiti, often those who are the poorest are so destitute that they have no housing, no food, and often suffer with serious illnesses (HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, etc.). As a result, they are not able to participate effectively in micro-credit programs.

    Have you seen initiatives/interventions that can effectively reach these groups? I’m wondering if there is some way to bridge them so that they get to a point where they can be plugged in to the bottom rung of the micro-credit ladder.

  8. Bro. Woodworth-
    I loved this article, and a class that I took from you many years ago. Thanks for the reminder to start the new year focused on the truly important. I’m using what I learned from my BYU education to work with a friend in setting up a medical clinic in Uganda ( for any who might be interested). It’s so encouraging to realize how many people are fighting to lessen disparities and put the Gospel to work.

  9. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    Fantastic post. These are smart and innovative ways to encourage a Mormon culture of peacebuilding and really lend help where help is needed most. I’m really looking forward to your future posts.

  10. Very, very interesting. So much good news.

    For me, serving a mission really opened my eyes about the actual state of the world as opposed to the bubble of middle-class affluence in which I was reared. It changed me deeply, and I was surprised to return to BYU and find so few of my friends unaffected by what they had seen. I found it bizarre and upsetting.

    Does missionary service generally result in a broader understanding of the condition of the world? If not, why not?

  11. Thanks for the post, Warner. I look forward to your posts in the coming weeks.

    Travis: great point. There has been an increased interest in the relationship between health and microcredit recently. I am certainly not an expert on the subject, but I know that Food for the Hungry has had had some success. Kirk Dearden at BYU will be working with this project.

    By the way, I hope this is not a thread-jack, but Kirk, Jini Robi, and Claralyn Hill have been organizing a dinner in Provo with a “microcredit and health” theme in February or March. You can get details here.

  12. Katy Ericson says:

    Please help me understand how people can afford to volunteer in foreign countries. Over the years, I’ve read many articles about young people going to places (domestic and foreign) to help repair places and people’s lives. Rarely is there a report of how much it costs the individuals. I would love to have my children have the opportunities described; however, I found out that for one group it cost individuals $1,500 to go to New Orleans, and another group went to Guatemala for $5,000 each. Are parents paying for these volunteers’ expenses? Their tuition? Their weddings & honeymoons? I think it’s great that these young couples are choosing to look beyond themselves, but do they still receive everything they need after they’ve made a donation? The kids we read about in our area newspaper, who are able to go on these trips, are the kids from the private Catholic high school. Their are many other kids raising money for good causes, but they aren’t traveling around the country/world to help because most of them cannot afford it. How are your students paying for their volunteerism?

  13. Katy Ericson says:

    I couldn’t edit my past post. So I need to add a note here… Thank you for all your efforts. I should have noted that. And, I put “their” instead of “there” in one sentence and that drives me nuts! How did that happen?
    Anyway… THANK YOU for teaching people to think with a global perspective.

  14. Chuck McKinnon says:

    For anyone who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend Hernando De Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else.

    To drastically oversimplify, many people in poor countries do in fact have substantial assets but live in nations without legal frameworks that properly document ownership. Many people in such countries can’t leverage their existing assets to create more wealth, except within a tiny circle of friends and family. In the US (and I suspect in Canada) the most common form of business financing is a mortgage on the entrepreneur’s home. Citizens of countries where it takes 18 years to prove ownership of a property, or a year’s fulltime work and three years’ wages to legally register a business, never have that option.

    Solving systemic problems like those documented in De Soto’s book can have a huge long-term impact on the ability of citizens in other nations to lift themselves from poverty. Which is to say, the opportunities for helping don’t end when you stop being a student and start having kids. On the contrary, if you have the education and influence to tackle systemic problems like these, you may also have the power to effect even greater changes for good.

  15. I’m pleased by the response to my article and the interest readers have in changing the world, not just theorizing about it. To answer Travis’ query, you may want to check out Fonkoze, the largest microcredit institution in Haiti. I met their director and several government officials at a big conference in Halifax, Canada six weeks ago, and was impressed by their success. Clearly the desperate circumstances of most people in Haiti suggest the need to do more than just microcredit loans. But the typical argument is that by increasing people’s incomes, the flow of better food and housing will naturally follow. There are a few microfinance organizations such as Freedom From Hunger, which also require health care, literacy training, etc. based on the assumption that a more holistic approach to development is best. The problem is that many microcredit NGOs feel they may become spread too thin if they try to provide multiple services.

    With respect to reaching the most needy, one of my criticisms of microcredit organizations is that in some cases they suffer from “mission drift,” that is that over time they tend to gradually shift away from the “poorest of the poor” toward clients who are less poor, better educated, and so forth because they believe such individuals will be less risky to give a loan to.

    We saw this in HELP Honduras the first year. Over time our partner NGO began seeking clients who hadn’t been so completely devastated by Hurrican Mitch. Gradually we observed that new clients were being targeted who tended to have suffered fewer losses and who were more literate than the original impoverished families. So my students and I decided to innovate by creating another NGO, which we called Accion Contra la Pobreza (Action Against Poverty). We sought out the very poorest victims of the hurricane and gave them smaller amounts of loan capital independently from our partner. We created smaller solidarity groups and had to provide much more intense business training. But the impressive thing to me was that these so-called “high risk borrowers” actually paid back their loans 100 percent!

    In terms of Norbert’s surprise that so few of his post-mission friends had been affected by the poverty they had seen in their Third World missions, I would agree that this is often the case. The reason is that many individuals are somewhat disconnected from the crushing poverty around them. Some are that way as a kind of self-protection because it can be so disturbing and depressing. Also, they do not really know what to do about it because their calling is one of proselyting.

    You can find interesting statements by Church leaders who were acutely aware of the ill effects of poverty on the conversion process. Matthew Cowley used to comment that until we helped the poor of the South Pacific temporally, doing missionary work would not be effective. Likewise, Harold B. Lee said that we might as well throw our hats in the air as expect the poor to achieve spiritual growth and stay active in the Church without helping them temporally.

    Through our BYU student outreach programs we have discovered that returned missionaries are a huge source of volunteers for summer internships in Third World countries. Many want to go back. For some of them, they really want to understand the suffering that exists and use their new found tools and methods to alleviate the human condition, not only the religious aspects. They are now able to do this because they are not part of a top-down, strict missionary regimen. Instead, they are free to design hands-on iniatives in partnership with the poor that lead to innovative solutions.

    Katy Ericson’s post inquires about the costs of volunteering. Most of the participants who go with our organizations are not the wealthy. They do need help. So instead of just reaching out to those who can pay “full fare,” we offer fund raising events and detailed training for them to generate their own required resources. Through their extended families, along with friends, neighbors, ward members, etc. most of them succeed in raising the $2,100-$3,500 needed, depending on where in the world they will be volunteering. This becomes quite viable to achieve.

    In a later post I’ll send a list of many of these organizations with their links.

  16. Thanks, Prof. Woodworth. I’m aware of Fonkoze, I actually me their Exec. Dir. in Haiti last March talking about these very issues. I think they’re the best microcredit org. in Haiti, but they still barely scratch the surface unfortunately.

    I think the “spread too thin” problem you note is the real issue. The services needed to get people to the point where they can take advantage of micro-credit don’t kick back revenues like the micro-credit loans.

    I think this is one problem with relying on microcredit alone to solve the problems of poverty. It is certainly a powerful tool and should be a centerpiece of efforts to help the poor. But the reality is that the resources for these services can only come from grants/donations from rich people in rich countries. At least, I’m not aware of anyone who’s found a way to enable the very poorest “help themselves” like is possible through the micro-credit option. Hence, rich people in rich countries can provide a subsidy or continue to watch the poorest die.

  17. If Warner Woodworth can’t welcome a twice elected Vice-President without demanding that an opposing view be presented, perhaps all of his classes need to be represented with opposing views. Social engineers stick together and they feed off taxpayer dollars to achieve their aims. Cheney represents a president who believes in giving tax dollars back to the taxpayers not to the social engineers.

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