I write to share the sad news that Accion has lost a very dear member of our family. Accion’s founder, Joseph H. Blatchford, passed away yesterday at the age of 86. Joe was a courageous and charismatic leader who overcame cultural and economic differences to help disadvantaged people around the world. His pioneering work built the foundation for Accion, and my colleagues and I continue to find inspiration in his legacy.
Over the last decade, I had the chance to share several meals with Joe and his wife, Winnie, who was also among the founding generation of Accionistas. We often talked about how Accion has changed over the years, but, perhaps more importantly, we spoke about how Accion remained the same. Joe spoke with passion about his vision to give those less fortunate the tools they need to help themselves. Those tools keep changing, but that mission remains the core of our work. I remember asking him how he recruited that first generation. He said he looked for “people with the audacity to think they can make a difference.” I smiled and said, “I like to think we’re still attracting people with that very same audacity.”
Joe founded Accion in 1961 as a recent graduate of Berkeley Law School. He was fresh off a goodwill tennis and jazz tour of 30 Latin American cities, during which he saw firsthand political turmoil and enormous poverty. He was deeply moved. He wondered how young Americans might help in a meaningful and enduring way. At the same time, they would gain a deeper understanding of the challenges around the world.
With the help of fellow Berkeley Law students Jerry Brady and Gary Glenn, Joe recruited Accion’s first class of thirty American volunteers who would work on projects in Venezuela. Accion didn’t try to impose answers; they listened carefully and heard what the community felt it needed. In the early days, for example, they helped build schools and drainage channels. Accion’s volunteers provided technical support and assistance to enable local residents to launch their own projects. They believed that lasting change was built on giving the communities the tools they needed to help themselves.
Joe wrote, “We believe that the collective initiative of hundreds of such communities can bring progress without bloodshed, and champion the most revolutionary idea of all—the dignity of the individual human being.”
Joe expanded Accion in the late 1960s with chapters in Brazil, Peru, and New York. Joe speculated that President Kennedy may have drawn inspiration from Accion when he founded the Peace Corps in 1961. In fact, Joe was appointed Director of the Peace Corps in 1969 by President Nixon. Under Joe’s leadership, the Peace Corps expanded its applicant pool by boosting recruitment efforts in minority communities and allowing couples with children to apply. In 1971, Joe became the first director of the ACTION agency, which centralized all domestic and international volunteer agencies, and which later became the Corporation for National and Community Service. His commitment to service was lifelong.
Joe’s vision for Accion and the foundation he built positioned Accion to become a global leader in expanding financial inclusion to benefit underserved populations around the world.
After Accion issued its first loans to small, informal enterprises in Brazil in 1973, Accion’s clients soon shattered the myth that the poor were bad credit risks. Given access to affordable capital, they could and would improve their lives. From that point on, Accion expanded a network of microfinance programs and partners across Latin America and into the United States, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and beyond. We’ve found, funded, and grown fintech companies leveraging new technologies to reach the underserved. And we’ve converted our decades of expertise into influence, challenging the industry to serve and protect low-income clients everywhere.
None of this would have been possible without Joe. Please join me in sending our deepest thanks and condolences to Winnie and the entire Blatchford family.