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    Categories: In the Magazine

The Business of Fighting Poverty

written by: Glen Warchol

Choice Humanitarian creates pragmatic solutions to help the world’s poorest.

Tim Valentiner, an executive at dōTERRA who has experience and advanced degrees in international development, stepped on to his career path in 1990 when he was 10. His parents saw a Salt Lake television report about Choice Humanitarian’s work in impoverished villages in Central America. Moved by the report, they decided to take the family on a Choice “expedition” to work side-by-side for a week with villagers to improve lives—the villagers’ and the Valentiners’. “My parents’ goal was to try to help us kids have a more global perspective—that the world is much bigger than Cottonwood Heights,” Valentiner recalls. “They wanted us to have a first-hand look at poverty and how people cope with it.”

For the next decade, the Valentiner family went on an expedition every year. “It had a huge impact on me growing up,” he recalls. Valentiner ultimately studied international development at the University of Utah and went on to the John Hopkins School of International Development. He worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development and later with the World Bank in the Latin American region. “A lot of my perspective I got as a kid,” he says. “My experience with Choice led me to go to school and work professionally in the same kind of programs.”

As director of strategic sourcing at Pleasant Grove-based dōTERRA, a multi-level marketing company that sells essential-oils products, Valentiner has come full circle. He works closely with Choice to source dōTERRA’s essential oils from villages in Nepal and Guatemala under the company’s ethical supply-chain initiative. DōTERRA buysdirectly from the villages at fair market price and offers its distributors trips to the villages where they work alongside the farmers. It couldn’t be done without Choice’s on-the-ground presence, Valentiner says.“The expeditions are a huge hit. [Distributors] get to see first hand the impact their dollars are having. They see the supply chain. And they see that the villages are directly benefiting from dōTERRA’s supply chain.”

It’s the ultimate success story for Choice Humanitarian’s no-nonsense Chief Executive Leah Barker: A 10-year-old Utahn’s life is fundamentally changed by a Choice expedition. He not only goes on to study international development, but later joins a company at which he makes the Choice model a key part of his corporation’s culture. One Utah family’s Choice experience has led to markets for village businesses and a connection to a powerful charitable foundation that help sustain them on a path out of extreme poverty.

Nearly every major company and foundation in Utah has sent somebody on a [Choice] expedition, Barker says. “Companies are looking to offer their employees experiences that will build and strengthen their corporate culture,” she says. “They see it as a way to cement strong relationships with employees.”

Symbiotic compassion

To foster team building and a marketing message of social involvement and sustainability, dōTERRA works with Choice to send its distributors (“wellness advocates”) to the villages in Nepal and Guatemala that harvest its core product.  “DōTERRA’s people are going to meet the farmers. They are going to the distilleries to see the oil come out,” Barker says. “And when they return home, they’re going to sell a ton more essential oil for dōTERRA.”

Note, it’s not that Choice is endorsing dōTERRA’s products—it’s only one of dozens of companies that are working with the non-profit’s partner villages. Barker sees this partnering as a sustainable way to fund international development. “DōTERRA is going to make sure these farmers are healthy and that their kids have access to education. They have a vested interested to provide for the village’s unmet needs,” Barker says. That her eyes gleam like a three-card monte dealer as she describes the corporate largess doesn’t change that villages are being lifted from poverty. The personal transformation of hundreds of Utah “expeditioners” and the villagers they befriend is icing.

Not surprisingly, any marketing message corporate partners exploit comes with Barker’s blessing. “I don’t care if Choice doesn’t get the credit,” she says in a conspiratorial tone. “As long as we are helping these villages and improving the lives of people—they can call it whatever they want. You can white label Choice—just give us money.”

Barker would love to see this symbiotic relationship (she calls it “matchmaking”) between corporations, villages and Choice “become a different model for non-profit funding—instead of having these annoying galas.”

Doing good that lasts

Choice Humanitarian, which has operated from Utah for 30 years, reaches out to more than 1,700 villages in seven countries where villagers in extreme poverty live on $1.90 or less a day. The Choice humanitarian model requires the communities find their own paths out of poverty. Every adult must take part in the decision making. “We are invited in. We don’t create dependency,” says Barker. “We develop the natural leadership of these communities and ask them to come together and create a three- to five-year plan for what they believe they need to move out of poverty.” The goal of the programs is sustainability—the villages must make their school, hospital, farm or water system pay its own way. “They must turn one dollar into five,” Barker says.

Choice only puts one percent of its effort into mounting its trademark expeditions. Ninety-nine percent is leadership building in the villages, Barker says. But the expedition visits bring in $2 million of Choice’s $6 million budget. And the visits provide an unbreakable link between Utah individuals and businesses and the villagers, she says. “When people from this side of the world are exposed to these villages, they are transformed. And it deeply cements the relationship that expeditioners have with Choice Humanitarian.”

But Barker says, “Our expedition model should not be confused with poverty tourism. On an expedition, everyone is equal. Everybody is sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, and everybody is there to work and to serve and to immerse themselves in the village’s future. The community leads on the project. And, by golly, they are the authors of their lives, and they are carrying this out.”

Which is why you won’t find a school, hospital or even a goat farm with “Choice Humanitarian” lettered above the door. “We tell the governments when they are involved, ‘You can take all the political gain,’“ Barker says. “None of the buildings are called Choice Humanitarian. They are owned by the community.” And that means the entire community. Choice will not work just with the village’s leaders or a faction. “If we see the village is not united, we turn around and walk out. I’ve seen it.”

“The process of moving people out of extreme poverty is not a quick fix,” Barker says. “They have to shift centuries and generations of paradigms that are no longer serving them well—while preserving their culture.”

Additional Articles: A Rusty Box | The Young and Grounded | A Village Breaks Free | Built-In Resilience

See more inside our 2017 November/December Issue.

Glen Warchol :