Advisers Giving Back: Grant Arends at intellicents

Some people are called to give back and invest in their local communities, while others are compelled to go farther afield.

Art by Iris Lei

Over the course of our Advisers Giving Back profile series, one common thread has been an expressed desire not just to “give back” to great causes and communities, but also to invest in them and to provide people the opportunity to improve their own lives and livelihoods permanently.

Grant Arends, co-founder and president of retirement services at the fiduciary advisory firm intellicents, says this theme is front and center in his giving efforts. Whether he is driving shallow water well supplies across the open bush in Malawi or teaching children about financial literacy in impoverished regions of South Africa, Arends says his focus is on “teaching people how to fish.”

“We in the advisory business know all about investing,” Arends says. “In my experience over the years giving back in an international setting, I have seen that even just the phrase ‘giving back’ can have the wrong connotation. Really we are not giving back, we are investing in people and causes. It’s not a new idea, but it is important—rather than giving someone a fish, we ought to teach them how to fish. What better industry is there than ours to promote this concept?”

Arends’ giving efforts match his personality—they are adventurous. At the same time, he says, Arends required a bit of a push to get going.

“My friends and my wife will tell you I’m not super handy,” Arends jokes. “I do the cooking at home, and my wife does the handiwork. That was always my excuse for not doing anything in the mission field, either at home or abroad. I had always equated giving back to pounding a nail or building something with my hands, so I felt happy just writing a check now and again.”

That was the case until a pastor in Arends’ church put him on the spot.

“He came up to me years ago and said, ‘Grant, I need you to go to Africa,’” Arends recalls. “I said, ‘What the heck am I going to accomplish there?’”

As it turned out, the church community had been working directly with the World Bank to develop a curriculum focused on teaching impoverished women in Africa to start their own businesses in order to supplement their family’s income. They needed a group of business people to go and teach lessons “on basic business 101.”

“He looked at me in the eye and said, ‘You can do this,’” Arends remembers. “That moment changed my life, really. My wife and colleagues supported me, and so I went and it was one of the most life-changing things I’ve ever done. I found myself in Malawi in Africa—it’s the third poorest country in the world. We went and we taught these women who were actually so brilliant. All they needed was someone to invest a little time and effort to change their lives permanently.”

From there, a bit of serendipity opened other doors for Arends.

“As you can imagine, the vast majority of people in the hotel in Malawi, besides our mission group, were folks who were black,” Arends says. “It was not common to see another white person while you were there. But one evening when I walked out of my hotel room, I bumped into an older American gentleman and we started talking. We asked him to tell us his story over dinner and this was a gentleman who educated me on the issues surrounding water and sanitation, and how a lack of water and sanitation were a leading cause of death in that area.”

The man was the leader of an ecumenical nonprofit called Marion Medical Mission.

“He had started a nonprofit as a way to build water wells in the most remote portions of Africa,” Arends says. “They do shallow water wells, in particular. Most water solutions you see are much larger and more capital intensive. The idea is that you dig a big centralized well, and that’s great in some regions. But in Malawi, the average village has between 25 to 100 people, and they are so far spread out that the centralized model doesn’t work so well.”

Marion Medical Mission, Arends explains, is doing something different with its less capital intensive shallow water wells. He also commends the organization’s commitment to allowing the local African people to decide for themselves where the wells should go.

“The local people would dig the well and maintain it, basically doing everything apart from shipping in and installing the final pumps and pipes,” Arends says. “Our job as Americans coming in was largely to drive and transport people and materials all over the African bush, as 97% of people in that region do not drive. As a group, we were doing over 3,000 wells per season, and I would personally work on about 120 wells per trip over a three-week period. It has been amazing. You go in and get training and are paired with a local person, and then you are given a cellphone, a GPS tracker and a truck full of supplies. My love of adventure certainly helped. It’s not for everybody.”

In addition to working with Marion Medical Mission, Arends has led two additional mission trips with American youth.

“I’ve had the chance to take two of my own three children over to do work in Africa, and it has been life changing for them,” he says. “Let’s be honest, we really protect our children and keep them in a bubble. So, for them to see other cultures and to work for two weeks teaching preschool children in a city that was literally built on a trash dump in South Africa, it’s so meaningful for them.”

Arends notes that it is by no means necessary for everyone to travel so far to give back. In fact, he says, most people should not.

“I always like to tell the extreme story but, of course, most people won’t be able to do what I’ve been given the opportunity to do,” Arends concludes. “The extreme story provides, hopefully, some motivation for teaching financial literacy in our junior highs and high schools, for example. Nobody in our education system is teaching my kids how to balance a checkbook or to understand things like debt management. That’s investing in our community in ways that will have an immeasurable ROI [return on investment]. Hopefully the big stories lead people to do just a little.”