Social Issues

The Business Approach to Fighting Poverty


The fifteen-minutes spent in David Sutherland’s corporate office were completely overwhelming. First, Sutherland was on the phone with a board member from his charity, jumping from discussing fundraising ideas for the USA to expanding operations. There was a knock at the door; could he come right away to discuss the debt consolidation? His office phone rang; transactions in South America and China needed his approval. The research team was sending the latest results and he was reviewing their complex data. Another charity board member called; they breezily chatted about their families, and then jumped right back to the business of launching a new social enterprise, with a conclusion negotiated in a matter of seconds.

Most people would be thoroughly lost – each decision required serious consideration, deep analysis of data and an understanding of the people involved. Lives were quite literally at stake. But Sutherland leapt from hard-headed crisis management to compassionate innovation in the blink of an eye. He was fearless, assured of his decisions, and, most surprisingly of all, he spoke with kindness, grace and a sense of humour.


The former Chief Financial Officer for Morgan Stanley in Asia Pacific, Sutherland is back in the business world in a new role after taking three years away. But his life’s real passion, and where he devotes every ounce of effort that he can spare, is a charity that he grew from a fledgling organization to one of the largest charities in the Philippines, International Care Ministries (ICM).

ICM is a faith-based organisation whose mission is to fight “ultra-poverty” – those living on US$0.50 per person per day, which is far below the global poverty line of US$1.90. “No human being should be forced to live in those conditions,” says Sutherland. “Thirty-two per cent of mothers have had one of their own children die.” ICM’s community training model teaches mothers small business skills, health lessons and builds social capital. ICM is reaching its one-millionth beneficiary in October 2017.

Sutherland’s business approach to fighting poverty is the key to ICM’s rapid growth. “I’m a business guy. So I talk about the return from our investment. We want to maximize the return for the poor.”

With 100 million data points, rigorous academic research and detailed monitoring of operations on the ground, Sutherland’s approach to an often warm-and-fuzzy charity world has earned this faith-based group the reputation of being the best in the business for measuring the impact of their work with the ultrapoor.

Although ICM is still a relatively small organisation globally, Sutherland has shared his methods and the organisation’s research with the United Nations, World Bank, USAID and his team has consulted with some of the world’s largest development agencies. “Our latest research with Yale University provides concrete, independent evidence that ICM’s Transform program improves household income, financial inclusion, hygiene and ‘grit’ – the ability to keep going in the face of adversity,” he says.


Sutherland’s commitment to business data analysis is rare within the faith-based sector. Dr Lincoln Lau, Director of Research at ICM says, “Faith-based organizations are not known to do rigorous data collection and research well. Not being able to speak the language of evidence and data has been a significant barrier between faith-based charities and bigger development organizations.”

Nathan De Lyster, the Hong Kong Executive Director of HOPE International, a faith-based micro-finance organisation agrees that business skills are vital in the non-profit world. “Data carries the potential to be really impacting on how organisations understand their social return on investment.”

Born in Maine, USA, Sutherland excelled academically, became an accountant and then went on to law school. Working on Wall Street early in his career, he then became a tax advisor for the Clinton Administration. In college, Sutherland was the national debate champion and debated all the world’s most pressing issues. “But the issue that dwarfed them all was global poverty, because no other political or social issue affects so many people. Poverty afflicts billions of people,” Sutherland explained. He and his family knew that Asia was the place that they wanted to move. “Africa has the highest percentages of poverty, but Asia had the most poor people – with China, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.”


Arriving in Hong Kong in 1997 to work with Morgan Stanley, Sutherland heard about ICM in 2000. He approached the organization as he would a private equity investment. Working alongside the local staff to evaluate the most effective strategies, he and several expat friends became major donors to the charity, eventually joining the Board of Directors and overseeing the fundraising. They used their business acumen to refine ICM’s programs to reach more people with greater effectiveness and efficiency. “We have a saying ‘we can always do better tomorrow than we did today.’ Nothing is sacred, and innovation is in our DNA,” says Sutherland.

During the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, when ICM’s funding contracted, and eventually ran out, Sutherland lead the organization in a complete overhaul of its operations which lead to the lean program that ICM runs today.

Cold, calculated business decisions may seem out of step with the emotional and compassionate charity world. But Sutherland’s strategic mind is governed by his deep, personal Christian faith. Aged 22, Sutherland had a turning point in his faith. “It really felt like God was speaking to me. So Deanna [Sutherland’s wife] and I decided we want to stay focus on poverty issues.”

A true visionary, Sutherland forges towards his mission at full tilt, barely taking a moment to rest or look back, driven to always do more and do it better. He works 16-hour days, seven days a week. His commitment to this vision has at times caused friction within the organization; other leaders have found themselves with conflicting ideas or struggling to see how a strategy would work. But ICM’s success and reputation are evidence that Sutherland’s sacrifice and mind-set are paying off.


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