Do you know the fable of Stone Soup? It’s an old folk story with many variations, and it teaches a lesson of cooperation amid scarcity. Briefly, three soldiers come to a village during a time of famine. The villagers are reluctant to share their limited food supply. The soldiers throw three stones into a pot of boiling water and manage to encourage the villagers to one by one to add an ingredient. Eventually, a wonderful soup is created, and the village celebrates with a feast. A soldier notes, “One thing is certain: it takes many and all to make a great feast.” From then on the village lives in prosperity.

This fable was the basis of a small group discussion at yesterday’s morning session at the Opportunity Collaboration, a meeting on global poverty alleviation that I am blogging from this week. At the end of our discussion, our moderator turned to Leah Barker, who heads CHOICE Humanitarian, an organization that works “to end extreme poverty and improve quality of life through a bottom-up, self-developing village-centered approach.” The moderator asked Leah if she had a real-life story that was similar to the fable. (CHOICE Humanitarian works with poor, remote rural villages in Kenya, Nepal, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Mexico – villages that might be like the one in Stone Soup.)

Leah shared a beautiful story that was a perfect match with this fable and also spoke to the power and importance of community decision-making. Leah and her team had come to Tamaula, an impoverished village in central Mexico. They asked the villagers what CHOICE Humanitarian could help them build that could start the village on a path out of extreme poverty. The villagers were insistent that what they needed first was a church. This posed a dilemma to the CHOICE Humanitarian team who were not in the practice of starting with church-building to help a community break out of poverty; the organization had no religious affiliation. But more important was CHOICE Humanitarian’s conviction that the community must make the choice of what’s best for the community.

The church was built and became a gathering place for the entire village and a catalyst for many more new projects, including a health clinic, an online learning system for the children, and a goat cheese factory. The village is now growing and thriving, so much so that the many of the men who had left to seek jobs can now find employment in the community. When asked what they are most proud of, the villagers reply that they are most proud of the church. They knew best.

Read the Stone Soup fable.

Read a related post, “An Innovative and Financially Sustainable Nonprofit Model.”