Knowledge Center

Banking on KC – Ashley Hufft of Unbound


Listen Now, or read the transcript below:


Kelly Scanlon: Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kellie Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Ashley Huff, the president and CEO at Unbound, an international nonprofit that delivers more than a hundred million dollars in personalized support each year for children, elders, and their families who live in poverty in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Welcome, Ashley. Thanks a lot, Kellie. It's great to be here. Here we sit, kicking off Women's History Month, and you and I'm Kellie Scanlon. Unbound actually had your own historic announcement to make recently. You were recently appointed as a president and CEO of the organization, so congratulations on that.

Thanks a lot. Um, what does it mean to you to be the first woman to lead Unbound? And we're talking about a 43 year history here.

Ashley Hufft: Well, first, just starting personally, uh, this is a dream job for me. If I think back over nearly 25 years of a career so far and the ups and downs and the windy path that led me to this place, um, I think about the times when I didn't really know, you know, each decision made, what was going to be on the next side, what was around the corner.

And it all worked out, trusting my instincts, trusting my decision making, my guts. I get to pursue a life, um, a career in service in an international context and doing it from here in Kansas City where my family is based to raise my sons. So an absolute dream. When I think though in terms of, of women, um, and really being honored to sort of be someone that can chip away.

At that glass ceiling. I was looking the other day at statistics on women leaders and non profits and saw a statistic that for large non profits, those over 50 million, about 20 percent of them are led by women CEOs. Now in the non profit space, 75 percent of Workers, the workforce and nonprofits are women.

So there's a, not, not in the leadership, not in leadership, but in general. But there's a continued, you know, imbalance. But to, to be able to serve and sort of, again, be someone that can, uh, be an example for others is I'm very grateful for. Now at Unbound, I am the first. Women, President and CEO, which is wonderful, but I follow along a history of women leadership.

One of our founders of the Hinson family was one of the sisters, Nadine Hinson Pierce. We've had many, um, Hinson, Pierce and their relatives serve in various leadership roles within Unbound. But looking across our project countries, we work in 17 project countries right now and, uh, within countries there are several sort of mini projects, so for example in Kenya we have three projects, geographic projects.

70 percent of our leaders of those projects are women. So there's sort of many CEOs in the field and many of them have been with Unbound 20, 25 years. They're the, the leaders and then real, the real, real leaders at Unbound are our mothers. Unbound is an organization that's dedicated to walking alongside the poor and the marginalized.

We primarily do that through Sponsorship. Sponsorship of children and youth. The sponsorship money goes directly to a family's bank account and as most people know the CEO of most families is the mother and who has led at Unbound for the past 40 years are the mothers. We have something we call mothers groups.

The mothers get together. This started organically in India in 2001. We now have 12, 500. Worldwide? Worldwide of these groups of women, of groups of primarily mothers, occasionally it could be a grandmother, an aunt, there are fathers involved.

Kelly Scanlon: So how many are within each of these 12, 500 groups? About 30 women.

Okay, so we're talking about a lot of women

Ashley Hufft: leading these, yeah. It's a lot of women, and they get together, they are decision makers, they get together and do leadership, savings and loans, they support each other, and these are the real Uh, leaders of Unbound. So if I think about myself, yes, I have a great position now, um, and a great role I'm very proud of, but I'm really standing on the shoulders of a, of a lot of women throughout Unbound's history.

Kelly Scanlon: They're leading their families that are studying that example and trying to set their children up for opportunity.

Ashley Hufft: We've done studies of this and showing the significant impact on their own empowerment, ability to see, um, themselves as decision makers, having control and being agents of change. And, um, hopefully sometime later in this, in this show, I'll talk about our agents of change program where they actually do, do change projects for the community around them.

They lead and develop and we only provide the funding. The rest is them. So they, they've got an, I can, we can, I will mentality that. What results from, from these mothers groups?

Kelly Scanlon: What incredible stories you must have. But again, you have your own story and as you said, it's full of twists and turns. You have a background in corporate law.

You have worked in other areas of international development. So how do you think those unique experiences of your own have prepared you for this day and for this leadership role at Unbound? Interesting to think

Ashley Hufft: about. And when I spoke about kind of the The twists and turns and the ups and downs, um, you know, I, I start with my, with my family and my upbringing, um, from my parents.

I, um, always envisioned a service career. And so when I, from law school, went to a law firm, really intended to stay for only a few years to pay back some law school debt, and thought I'd pretty quickly move to Missouri and, and pursue a, a career in public service. One thing led to another, um, and I found myself there for, uh, nearly eight years.

It's funny how that happens. It's funny how that happens, and made partners. So, when I didn't think I'd be there very long at all, then, at the moment that I made partner and realized that I really wasn't doing what I was, was meant to be doing in life, uh, I had a lot of people at that time say, well, what are, are you crazy?

Why, you're gonna, you just made partner and now you're going to leave. But was at a wonderful law firm called Alston and Byrd, um, and, uh, was really blessed. They allowed me to take about a year and a half sabbatical. I'd been doing corporate finance work, uh, and went with an economist named Jeffrey Sachs, moved to Kenya for a year and a half.

Uh, and it was my legal background that allowed me to, uh, to do the work and that just, that triggered, uh, uh, my entire career in international development, most of which has been in Africa. I always say, uh, a legal degree is a wonderful degree to have for problem solving. I have to deal with a lot of complex information and across, you know, 17 project countries and lots of moving parts.

The building blocks of who I am and leading to this position really. Date back to childhood with my parents and a life of service and a life of, uh, valuing cultures, other people, and acceptance.

Kelly Scanlon: In addition to announcing you as the first woman, woman CEO in its 43 year history, another milestone that Unbound has reached.

It's one millionth sponsored friend. So what's the significance of that achievement and how does it reflect on Unbound's impact over the years?

Ashley Hufft: Yeah, it is significant. One million. In 2021, we announced that we delivered over two billion dollars of financial support through these individual sponsorship.

What is significant about this is that we are talking one million dollars. Hmm. It's individual sponsors making lives in each individual child, their mother, their family, which is, um, not, you know, not, so it's, it's really been done one by one. We, our founder, Bob Hinson, had a quote that I love. He said, you know, a small amount of money from a whole lot of people equals a whole lot of help.

That's been a whole lot of responsibility and I really think of that's the, the beauty and the power of sponsorship is that ordinary people, you and me, can really make a difference in people's lives. But unfortunately it's not enough. Today in the world, one in ten people live in extreme poverty. Defined as living under 2.

15 a day. That number in places like Sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia is only getting worse. So my goal as president and CEO with Unbound is another 1 million families. Sponsored, uh, impacted in a fraction of the time. So not another 43 years? Not another 43 years. Something that keeps me up every night is, is an urgency and anxiety about how to reach the next million.

Kelly Scanlon: You can pledge and it's a, it's a small amount each month and it's just automatically taken out of your checking account. So you just sit back and the magic happens. Forty

Ashley Hufft: dollars. a month. That's the average sponsorship. That's not insignificant for people, I realize that, but today I went through and had a large latte and after tip it was nine, nine dollars.

So right. Um, 40 for a family that's living on, you know, nearly 2 a day is, is a huge amount of money. Um, and as I, I mentioned, What it also does, it brings you into the unbound community, so there's, there's a multiplier effect starting with these mothers groups and the savings and loan opportunities, um, and other access, other funds that Unbound has available.

We've got scholarship funds and critical needs funds for when disaster hits a family and there's other ways, but it really, it starts with the 40 and opens up really a world of opportunity and hope and encouragement for these families.

Kelly Scanlon: If you're going to reach another million in a fraction of the time, as you say, you're going to have to get innovative.

How do you envision fostering innovation within Unbound to accomplish that goal and perhaps others that you see a need for?

Ashley Hufft: First and foremost, the innovation that's been driven at Unbound in 43 years has come from The families and our project teams, and this is something that also makes us, I think, rather unique in the international development world, certainly, is we don't dictate the innovation from Kansas.

The families are the best ones to know what they need. We have, um, we have over 1, 500, uh, staff in the project sites, half of whom were formerly sponsored individuals themselves. Many of them have social work degrees. So these are Experts in families and individuals, things that I've described, uh, around mothers groups and savings and loan activities, um, our Agents of Change program, all happened organically at the site, driven by what the families need.

So over 40 years now, we have kind of quietly been innovating at the site. My role, I feel, as CEO is to provide the enabling environment. For that to happen, to connect the threads, to build the network, and then help us start to turn outward, to grow our base of not only sponsors, but look at other sources of revenue that we have not tapped into before, um, without changing who we are.

We receive very little, actually. Foundation money, we haven't in the past applied for grants. We receive major gifts, but they come from our sponsors. And I think we've got a, a world of opportunity. in seeking different funding for our existing programs that I hope to tap into to accelerate our growth.

And one example of this, again, the thing I love the most, one of the things I love the most about Unbound is, are the mothers groups. So we are now looking the possibility for funding of whole mothers groups at a time. So mothers groups have formed. via individual sponsorship. So a family gets sponsored, the mother joins a group.

What if we put the 30 mothers together from the outset, find foundation funding, major donor funding, to fund a group of women over 10 years, they still get their direct cash transfer. It funds the, the program activities. They meet monthly and they do a lot of, of training and leadership development. It funds sort of the intellectual property blueprint, the framework around these mothers groups.

And then there's other activities that could be funded, such as matching of their savings, uh, capacity building around the cooperatives. But looking at ways to fund and sort of bring quote, unquote, these mothers groups online quicker, you know, 30 women at a time versus one by one by one.

Kelly Scanlon: You've mentioned Agents of Change Program a couple of different times.

Tell us more about that.

Ashley Hufft: So, Agents of Change Program as a funding program is a few years old. The mothers identified a need in these mothers groups, um, and realized that they were very fortunate. They were getting Cash transfer, financial resources. They were getting the support of Unbound and they were looking around their community and say, well, what else can we do to the, for the community?

So we have set up a program. The mothers themselves come up with a proposal. So they look around their community and identify a need and put a proposal together. It's on average about 500. Um, it might be, Water for the school, it might be a girl's latrine, it might be street lighting, whatever they decide.

The mothers determine the project, they put the proposal together, they put the budget together, and they apply to an Unbound commit, local committee that's also made up of mothers or family members for a grant. Uh, we put these online on our, the Unbound. org website in December for the first time. We had 75 of them online, they sold out within within a week.

Kelly Scanlon: So anybody can go online and say I'll be the 500 funder.

Ashley Hufft: Yep, it's 575 because we add, um, we add overhead to it and you can go and you can look at a country and look at it if you, if it's some, some of them are infrastructure, education, water, and you can fund, um, a commu an Agents of Change project, but these are all, again, not determined by Unbound, these are all determined by, by the mothers.

Mostly the mothers within the community and it's their way of giving back to the community and again it enforces their own leadership and their own sense of possibility.

Kelly Scanlon: This is an incredible program. One other thing that is really notable about Unbound is that, you know, a lot of people, Unbound has a tremendous track record.

You direct more than 90 percent of the monies towards program support. Uh, and so as a CEO, that's, that sounds like it's really probably a difficult thing to do. So, um, you know, there's administrative There's all kinds of things, transportation. How are you going to be able to maintain that efficiency for the long term?

It is

Ashley Hufft: significant. It's very important to our sponsor and donor base. Actually, a lot of sponsors come to us. They, they search the most effective, efficient, top rated. Uh, non profits, and we appear on the list, so, so that is a, um, it's very important to me, it's very important to our board. Something that's unique about the way, the historical way that Unbound has brought in sponsorships is through Um, Catholic Church audiences, the Hinson family and their friend Jerry Toll.

Um, it was a lay Catholic family, uh, two of them, Bob Hinson and Jerry Toll had been missionaries in Latin America. When they formed Unbound, it was a way of, of giving back and connecting, um, with the fam with families, uh, first in Latin America. And the underpinning of Unbound is the Catholic Social Doctrine and the Dignity of the Person.

Um, we have about 30 Catholic priests, uh, mostly retired or semi retired priests, who, uh, go around the country, um, during the weekend. They do what we call weekend appeals. Um, they, they visit a local parish. They do the full mass and deliver the homily and they talk about Unbound in their homily and then people go to the front of the church and pick up a folder and sponsor.

And about 70 percent of our sponsorships have come through the weekend. It's incredibly effective, incredibly cost efficient. We don't have an old army of, of fundraising experts. This is something, um, that I intend to grow, but also we're going, we're working on diversifying that base because we realize the appeal of Unbound beyond, you know, I'm Methodist and it, it appeals to me in my own faith.

Like it would many and to other generations. So we have a really cost effective fundraising model and that's where a lot of organizations, of course, tend to spend a lot of money. The other thing You know, we're continually looking, um, at ways of reducing our, um, our costs.

Kelly Scanlon: Given the current global challenges, I mean, take a, take a pen and put it anywhere on a map, it seems like there's a challenge somewhere in this world today.

How do you see Unbound's role evolving to meet the poor and marginalized communities, especially in those areas where we see so many challenges?

Ashley Hufft: Quite a few ways, and I think about this all the time. Part of our problem is to try and also be focused because we can't do everything. Um, first is just general poverty elimination.

Um, as mentioned that one in ten people live in extreme poverty today. Uh, I really believe we are a direct cash transfer model. I really believe that if you look at the effectiveness, there's been hundreds of academic studies over the past five years on On cash, as, as, direct cash transfers as a poverty alleviation tool.

Giving people the, the control over how to spend, designing the programs for themselves, show, and cash transfers show better program outcomes in nutrition than nutrition programs, or in business development than business development programs. So continuing, one by one, and get the financial resources that people need to start to sort of climb the ladder out of poverty is the first.

The second is in gender. If you look at gender indicators across the world, and especially in the countries where we work, nothing is on track. The UN had a study recently that less than 1 percent of the women in the world live in countries that have good income. Indicators of economic, of gender empowerment and gender parity.

Less than 1%. If you look at our, our model, our mothers groups, are the control, the empowerment that is given to women. And empowerment is just this, the beginning. Um, what it really does is sets them up for program outcomes in education, in how they direct spending for businesses, for their livelihoods. Um, so we can really start to move the needle.

Putting more focus on these women's groups and on women's economic development within these groups. The third and the fourth area in where we're headed in terms of challenges in the world um, over the next 25 years, two ends of the spectrum. One is a grow, growing youth bulge and the other is growing elder population.

Our youth, our, our children are sponsored as long as they're Pursuing an education and that's defined broadly. It could be vocational, uh, but as long as they're in education. So we have sponsors sponsoring youth all the way through, uh, university and postgraduate. And we also have a scholarship program.

So over the next couple years, along with other, with partnerships, I would like to really look at, at growing the impact of our scholarships, of our youth sponsorships, um, and really connecting them from, Education to the job market because what we're seeing, for example, in, in Kenya where we have a lot of educated youth that are coming out with engineering degrees and computer science degrees, then they can't find jobs.

And so really focusing on that part of our sponsorship, that part of our sponsored families and sponsored youth over the coming years. And then On the flip side, elder population. I think right now there's about 8 percent of the world are elderly, 65 and older, and that's going to grow to over 16%. A lot of them will be in the countries that, um, where we work in Africa and Southeast Asia.

We're the only sponsorship organization. That has a program for elders and, uh, our program for elders, we're right now led by our, our project teams are working on that, looking at that model and really with the elders, a lot of them.


Ashley Hufft: have different forms of caregivers around them. Some are families, but not always.

Some of them are completely alone. So we're innovating in the field and looking at the support of caregivers, the support of a community of elders and what that means for them and hoping that, just like with the mothers groups, Several years down the road we'll have a sort of an elder and caregiver model that we can show the world that can be replicated and used, you know, even here in the United

Kelly Scanlon: States.

Are there any new partnerships or collaborations on the horizon for Unbound that you're excited about? Partnerships is an area that I want, I do want

Ashley Hufft: to grow. We've been doing it. Uh, a bit alone, uh, over the past 40 years, but there is one new one over the past, um, couple of years that is a significant one.

It's a foundation out of Paraguay called Fundacion Paraguaya, uh, started by a man named Martin Burt. He wrote a book called Who Owns Poverty? If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. Who Owns Poverty? Who Owns Poverty? It's a mutual meeting of the minds and the way we think about families and the dignity of the person in poverty.

He invented and his foundation invented a tool called Poverty Stoplight that we're in our second year using within our projects. It's a technology tool. It's a self evaluation, uh, of a family's poverty level based on stoplights. So red being extreme poverty, yellow being poverty, green being no poverty against 50 indicators.

So it's everything from nutrition, to domestic violence and a family based on images and a family looks at that, at that tool and they rate, they rate themselves. So again, getting back to each individual family set, looks at this and assesses their own lives and they get a life map out of that and they look and they see where, you know, we're doing pretty well in, um, access to potable water.

But we're not doing so well in savings and, and they determine based on this life, life map what their goals are for the coming six to one year. To give you an example, I met a woman in, uh, in Kenya named Evangeline who is a single mother, a farmer, uh, and a small holder farmer and she showed me her life map.

She was on her second year and she showed me what That's what she prioritized over the past year, um, increased savings, and that's what many of our families prioritize, an improved cook stove, and access to information. Now what's interesting about these indicators is you might not think about access to information, but, you know, in her case, as a farmer in an area of Kenya that suffers, you know, that is constantly suffering drought, how important that was.

So one year later, she brought me into her house and she had Through savings and through the unbound, you know, access to some loans through the groups, she had purchased herself a small little TV that is hooked up to electricity, so she now was accessing local Kenyan TV stations. She had an improved cook stove, so she was no longer cooking over.

and then the savings was still coming along. The pride that she had in not only setting those goals, but achieving those goals. Those are something, you know, myself and the team in Kansas never could have said, this is what you need and here's how you're going to get here. She did that herself and we're replicating that over and over.

270, 000 families. So our part, this is a significant partnership, um, with Fundacion Paraguaya to scale up, to continue using these tools, to continue showing first and foremost for the families but then we're able to show at the group level and at the community level how Unbound is impacting them, how people are starting to change their lives.

Another example at the community level that's pretty interesting in Bolivia. After the families started doing their poverty stoplight for the first year, our project, from the data, we saw that most, many of the families prioritizing trash pickup, a place for sanitation, something that very hard to deal with individually, but then as a community, what they did was they got together and they could see that With all, that they all had prioritized this, they could get together as a, you know, as a political force to work with the local government, work with their agents of change funding, work with their own savings and loans to start to address a community's solutions.

So super exciting tool, matches exactly what we do with Unbound in terms of, that's our program model, working with each individual family with a great partner. And with Martin Burton, his foundation.

Kelly Scanlon: That's incredible. And you talk about the pride that, uh, this woman who had the cook stove now and the television had.

And you talk about, uh, the mother's groups, 12, 500 of them across the world. And it's not just the mother's sense of pride, but it's the example too, that they are setting the model they are for their children. It's a generational kind of shift that is happening.

Ashley Hufft: There's hundreds of these stories and you really, you start to see at an individual and then at a group and community level, you start to see how change can really happen.

Generational change can start

Kelly Scanlon: to, to start to take place. So looking to the future, how do you envision Unbound's role in the The broader context of international development, you're one piece of it, a very important piece, but that broader context of international development, and what legacy do you hope to build as its leader?

Ashley Hufft: Hmm. Great question. Um, I mentioned Martine Burt. Uh, he was visiting us at our Headquarters here in Kansas City, uh, a few months ago, as we were talking about Unbound and my vision for the future, I said, I want us to be known in the international development circles. We're actually not known. We've been part of our humble roots, part of our focus inward on growing, um, within our sponsorships and, um, haven't done much to build.

Our awareness and the first thing I need to do is with with the team that I have here and as well as across our project countries is to change that and actually participate in the conversation. Um, I consider us kind of the best kept secret in international development and along a couple of lines. Uh, first is the power of direct cash transfers.

Uh, I've mentioned studies that that are out there and there's there have been in a lot of the pockets of studies here and there. Well, we've been doing this. We've been doing this for 40 years, and we're doing it across 17 countries. We have incredible network built up and trust within communities, and I think we can contribute a lot to the knowledge of the power of direct cash transfers to alleviate poverty, moving from institutions down to the family.

And so, We want to contribute to that, direct cash transfers, again, looking at individual poverty solutions at an individual level. There are needs at community levels, there are needs at national level. We have a lot to contribute, um, at an individual level, um, and I hope to contribute, you know, data wise, conversation wise.

We've done a small project recently on Uh, Price Index. And we use Mexico, our families in Mexico. The, uh, Consumer Price Index in many countries are, uh, developed from a basket of goods that are set by policy makers in the capital cities, and they're not at all times reflective of, uh, Families, real purchasing powers and what they're purchasing.

So we've been working on what we call the Unbound Basic Needs Price Index. We've been working on that, um, in Mexico. So really kind of changing the conversation, changing the policy landscape, changing the um, thinking around how you do development, um, or contributing to that based on the work that we do.

At the family level and poverty stoplight is is a certainly a tool for that. Then I'm hoping that our mother's group model can be something that could be replicated by other organizations, by governments, um, that will will want to do unbound type of mother's groups, um, as well as our elders program and our our sort of youth.

Uh, Scholarship to Jobs Pipeline that I hope we can build a, a great model for over the, the coming years. Um, for me, uh, my legacy, uh, by the time I, I retire, and I hope this is the job I retire in, that we have surpassed two million, uh, families.

Kelly Scanlon: Doubling that number. Doubling that number. Yeah. Great goals to have.

Ashley, thank you for all the great work that you do, that your team does, and those mothers groups, my goodness, what a force they are throughout the world. And thank you for taking the time out of what's obviously a very busy schedule and coming to share the story with us today.

Ashley Hufft: Well thanks for the opportunity.

I love talking about Unbound and spreading the word.

Joe Close: This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Ashley Huft, CEO of Unbound, for joining us on this episode of Banking on KC. Ashley's story, from a career in corporate law to leading a global nonprofit, reflects a commitment to service and innovation. Her vision for Unbound includes expanding direct cash transfers, empowering women through mothers groups, and building a youth to jobs pipeline.

These initiatives are not just about the aid itself. They're about enabling individuals and communities to define and achieve their own goals. At Country Club Bank, we share a similar goal of empowering our Kansas City community. We believe in the power of individual efforts contributing to a greater cause, much like the many sponsors who have supported Unbound's mission.

Together, we're building a brighter future rooted in compassion, innovation, and opportunity for all. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.