Shared from the 10/15/2017 Star Tribune eEdition

Brehm found purpose beyond a monetary measure of success


Opportunity International Teleza Chisi operates a fish business in Malawi, Africa, supported by a microloan from nonprofit Opportunity International.


Ward Brehm, shown with former Cargill CEO Greg Page, right, told his story of entrepreneurial awakening at an Opportunity International event hosted by Cargill in September.


Ward Brehm has a plan to beat estate taxes at death. No elaborate trusts or legal diversions.

Brehm, 66, former owner of an insurance business, plans with his wife to leave something to their children . But not enough so they can quit work.

And the rest will go to the likes of Opportunity International and the American Refugee Committee, nonprofits that work with the poorest of the poor in Africa and elsewhere to finance grass-roots entrepreneurship around clean water, small-scale agriculture, food processing and shelter.

“No estate taxes,” quipped Brehm, who once worked on estate protection plans for families worth tens of millions.

Brehm realized on a mission trip to an impoverished community in Africa in 1993 that most of the “poor people” he met were happier than he was.

Brehm was a self-described business jerk focused on money and possessions. He was spiritually empty and lacked purpose.

“The more someone achieves without humility and the older they grow without their arrogance being checked, the bigger a jerk they become,” he wrote in his just-released book, “Bigger Than Me,” that describes his imperfect journey of deepening faith, empathy and charity. “Africa was my humbling experience. It brought me to my knees. I worked on being less Ward-centered and more God-centered.”

Brehm spoke last month and gave away books at an Opportunity International gathering attended by 350 people, hosted by Cargill. It was the largest such after-hours community event ever hosted there.

Minnesotans raise more money than any other state for this pioneer of microlending and small-scale economic development that helps small farmers and tiny businesses in the developing world invest, expand and improve their lot.

Opportunity has 9.6 million savings-and-loan clients, 89 percent of whom are women. Last year, borrowers got $1.6 billion in loans, averaging about $200 apiece, that also created 1.45 million jobs. As loans are repaid locally, local lending committees recycle funds to new and expanding enterprises.

Brehm has been to Congo, Rwanda and elsewhere dozens of times and is a nationally known expert on African humanitarian aid and development.

He was appointed by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama to the board of the U.S. African Development Foundation. He is a major donor and hands-on volunteer with small-scale African development projects , conceived and staffed by local people.

In short, his faith tells him that he is called to listen, respect and give voice and assistance to those we would consider disadvantaged.

“I discovered how small, how Western and how monetary my complex world was,” Brehm wrote of his early travels to Africa. “Over there, none of the materialism mattered. My ego and self-importance meant nothing at all to the kind, calm souls that I met. I was just a guy.”

Brehm still likes playing in the big leagues. His book is endorsed by many political, business and other luminaries he considers friends.

However, his mission is to walk with and give voice and open doors to those who need more opportunity and capital to survive, if not flourish. And he’s stumbled at times over the past 25 years because he’s human and fallible.

“I realize that for some … putting aside the pursuit of money, status and joyless excitement might seem like too big a sacrifice,” Brehm writes. “But what I have discovered is that any true sacrifice … is overwhelmed by what comes back my way; relationships, adventure, wisdom, a powerful sense of purpose and contentment.”

Brehm, who calls himself a follower of Jesus, embraces interfaith dialogue and collaboration in the name of peace, commerce and charity. He is a Republican but not partisan and is an advocate for more foreign aid that helps people help themselves.

He talks of gratitude and the scriptural mandate to give sacrificially.

Dr. Rajiv Shah , Obama’s director of USAID and a friend of Brehm’s, gave the book a hearty thumbs up from his post running the Rockefeller Foundation. Shah, a medical doctor, calls Brehm “an extraordinary individual who brings keen business acumen and a big heart to his work on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable.”

Cassidy Burns is a principal with wealth management firm Riverbridge Partners , also a sponsor of the event for Opportunity International.

Burns said a growing number of clients are interested in doing good with their wealth.

“At Riverbridge, we are intentional in working with clients who have an interest in giving back and being active in the organizations they support,” Burns said. “We view our role as being stewards of not just their assets but their values and their goals to leave a legacy of serving others. It is common for our clients to leave a significant portion of their estate to charity.”

More on Brehm’s work is at . All proceeds go to charity.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at

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