Sustainability Patterns

Small Support Group

Small Support Group


The Grameen Bank Project was started in Bangladesh in 1976. It is owned by the poor borrowers of the bank, mostly women. No one who borrows from Grameen Bank stands alone. Each belongs to a self-made group of five friends, no two of whom may be closely related. When one of the five friends wants to take out a loan, she needs approval from the other four. Although each borrower is responsible for her own loan, the group functions as a small social network that provides encouragement, psychological support, and at times practical assistance in bearing the unfamiliar burden of debt and steering the individual through the unfamiliar world of business.

Individuals who receive assistance need support to ensure that they are able to sustain change in their lives.

Members of a community are about to receive help. They are willing to participate in Passing on the Gift.

After a development organization has moved on, the individuals receiving support will encounter problems, but will have no place to go for help.

Organizations that provide aid create dependency as a side effect and become indispensable to those they help. In some cases, recipients may lack the desire to solve their problems feeling that they will lose their assistance.

Leaving individuals on their own does not provide the resiliency to allow them to overcome obstacles that always seem to arise. Without this ability, the assistance becomes a temporary fix that soon fades.


Structure those receiving assistance into small groups where ideas can be exchanged. The members of this small group will provide support for each other.

The goal of successful development is to empower people to solve their own problems. Since individuals in developing communities often do not have the experience needed to be independent, a group of similar others provides an opportunity to learn together and support each other’s learning. The collective knowledge is greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes a member of the support group can lend concrete assistance to someone else. Just being able to share problems and get sympathetic responses can improve an individual’s ability to make progress.

In her book It Takes a Village, Hillary Rodham Clinton says, “I'm obviously not talking just about or even primarily about geographical villages any longer, but about the network of relationships and values that do connect us and binds us together.”

“We must remember that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history” (Sonia Johnson, American feminist activist and writer.)

The community-oriented dynamic of Grameen is an important reason for the success of the system. The positive social pressure created by the group does a lot to encourage borrowers to remain faithful to their commitments. When Grameen members are surveyed about why they repay their loans, the most common answer is, “Because I would feel terrible to let down the other members of my group.” [1]

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Using this pattern helps to build a community, and in many cases creates positive cultural change by encouraging interactions among members from different sectors of the society.

Individuals form a community. Building community extends individual’s feelings of responsibility to a larger group beyond the family. If the group can be comprised of individuals from different sectors of the society, then this will tend to open more general communication.

However, in some cultures it may be difficult to form a diverse group. The culture of a region may discourage interactions among certain groups so an important part of creating a support group may be overcoming these taboos. The opening story for Passing on the Gift shows that it is possible for a group to overcome even the barriers of the caste system in India.

Some critics worry that this requirement seems coercive. As long as no one is ever forced to join and if the only agenda item is to help poor people lift themselves out of poverty, it seems appropriate to recognize the support group as an example of the power of community to encourage people to achieve things they might otherwise find impossible. 


Heifer works with groups to identify their own strengths, to connect to a common vision, and to organize a budget that helps implement their plans. Support is tailored to each project. All groups commit to a participatory process which gives all members a voice in all decisions.

I was in Zacapu, Michoacan, Mexico in the summer of '64. Our project was to begin the construction of a community center in a small slum near the city. It was very poor with just a couple of dirt streets. The only water was from a central tank. A middle class guy helped us get and transport cement for the foundation. The men of the village broke up big rocks into small rocks to make the walls. We didn't really do a lot about formal organization with the locals, but an interesting thing happened over the following winter. Something stalled the work on the community center. The men of the village got together and decided that it was a bummer that the streets were muddy. They realized that what they had for resources was time and (big) rocks, so they spent the winter making small rocks from big ones and paved their own streets. What we contributed was our example that “something could be done,” and that made them look at the muddy streets differently. Joe Bergin

Banco Mariposa, a student-run organization, will give micro-loans to low-income female entrepreneurs in the city of Valparaíso, Chile. It also creates a unique system of repayment, in which group members are responsible not only to the lender, but also to each other. If a group member is unable to make a loan payment, the group will make up the difference for that week. These communities of women support and encourage each other through the process, while developing leadership, building teamwork, and maintaining accountability.

[1] Creating a World without Poverty, Muhammad Yunus with Karl Weber, Perseus Books, 2007.

Web Hosting