Cows for Cash

Cows for Cash


On a recent trip to Nepal, Denne participated in a “Passing on the Gift” ceremony, during which the offspring of Heifer’s original gift was given to another family in need. Photo coutesy Heifer International.

In a clay structure lit by a single gas lamp, Steven Denne listened. Denne, the chief operating officer of Heifer International, had traveled to rural Uganda this past March to meet with folks participating in Heifer projects there. One family, the Sabikas, told Denne how 10 years ago they could barely feed their six children and six grandchildren with their meager crops. Then they received a gift from Heifer: a cow, along with extensive agricultural training. Slowly they improved their harvests with cow manure and added other animals, like pigs. Mrs. Sabika proudly showed off her stove, fueled by a new biogas plant that runs on manure. That fuel also keeps their lamp burning after dark, so the children can study. And not just the boys–they can afford to send the girls to school, too. The benefits don’t end with the Sabikas. In a ceremony that Heifer calls “Passing on the Gift,” they donated the first female offspring from their cow to another family in need. The Sabikas have also been selected as “model farmers” to train others.

“The work is really as advertised,” Denne says of Heifer. “It’s transformational and sustaining.”

In 2008, after more than two decades at the American Red Cross, Denne joined Heifer, which works to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth. Through gifts of livestock and training, it helps families like the Sabikas become more self-sufficient. The entry point into communities is typically through the women, since they are disproportionately affected by economic poverty–a fact that Denne admits he didn’t appreciate until he started working there. Heifer has been around for 65 years, but until 10 years ago, Denne says, its work was not well known. Now, Heifer is one of the top 10 most trusted nonprofits in America, according to a recent Harris Interactive study.

One of the organization’s biggest initiatives is the East Africa Dairy Development project, which aims to double the dairy income of 179,000 farming families in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya by 2017. It’s funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with a $42.8 million grant– the largest single grant ever made to Heifer.

The project works by organizing dispersed farmers into cooperatives. It loans them money so they can become stakeholders in newly created chilling plants, giving members of the community access to a key step in dairy processing and tripling what they would typically get paid for their milk. On Denne’s recent trip, he visited one co-op site, which was “like a beehive.” Members turned the plant into a community resource center. People brought in their milk and then received credit slips, which they used for veterinary services or deposited in the village’s first bank. “Being a farmer was a pejorative,” Denne says. “People who had status were people who got paychecks. Now they get paychecks too, and they are incredibly proud of that.”

A common thread of Denne’s career is bringing about change. At the Red Cross, he excelled in taking systems apart and putting them back together in a more effective manner, whether it was the organization’s fundraising model or a marketing campaign. In the midst of that, he spent two years on loan from the Red Cross working as a defense analyst at the Pentagon, addressing economic and performance issues related to the post-Cold War drawdown of U.S. military forces.

He’s an organization’s “secret weapon,” says Kathleen Loehr, a former colleague of Denne’s who now consults with Heifer and other nonprofits. She helped recruit Denne to his fundraising position at the Red Cross and he continues to show up on one of her more unofficial lists: the people she’d want surrounding her if she was deserted on an island.

Published November 2010