What is your elevator speech?

A colleague asked me this recently, challenging me to write down my two-minute (or less!) spiel about what I do. Here’s the thing. The work that we do is not sound-bite friendly. But I break it down as much as possible. And I keep a sharp eye on my listener. If their eyes glaze over after three sentences, I cut my words short. Ready? Here goes:

I do communications for an international office at Virginia Tech. We manage projects that help raise the standard of living in developing countries around the world. The projects are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. [Here, I look for a nod of recognition. If no nod, I continue.]

USAID is the branch of the U.S. government charged with giving out foreign aid. The foreign aid budget, by the way, is less than 1% of the U.S. federal budget. [If I’m feeling interactive, I’ll ask my listener what they think it is. Most Americans say 25%!] It’s $23 billion dollars, which sounds like a lot of money—but it’s less than 1% of the U.S. federal budget!

[If I’m speaking to high school students or even college freshmen, I explain foreign aid a little further: When the U.S. government gives out foreign aid, it doesn’t usually just hand over money to foreign governments. If it did that, with some governments, the money would fall into the wrong hands. So what the government does instead is have an office that looks into what that country needs—and then hands the money over to a development organization that agrees to do work on that problem in that country.]

We work with scientists in developing countries to increase agricultural production, and to do so sustainably, by not using pesticides, for example. So we’re helping other countries help themselves. Our programs also promote such things as micro-enterprise, and water and natural resource management. We do “train-the-trainer” type programs—training agricultural extension workers, for instance, in new agricultural tactics and techniques. And all of our projects incorporate gender as a conscious part of the program design, because we know that development projects are more successful when they’re set up this way.

In the developing world, about 80% of people make their living in some way, shape or form from agriculture—many more than the 2% here in the United States! So agriculture is a vitally important part of local economies. [I usually end here, but if the person seems particularly interested, I’ll continue.]

You might wonder: Don’t the local people already know best how to grow their own crops? They do, but there are always new pests entering an area due to increased commercial activity, or even climate change. For example, as certain areas experience warmer weather, an insect will change its range, moving higher up a mountainside.

Interesting, you might think, but why would a university do this kind of work? USAID understands that universities have tremendous resources with all the experts they have who understand tropical plant diseases, nutrition issues in the developing world, ways to deal with climate change, soil erosion, farming on increasingly marginalized land as populations grow—all that kind of thing. By enlisting the help of American universities, USAID knows they have a reliable way to get their job done. Big American universities have a good reputation, and they aren’t going anywhere. And the benefit for Virginia Tech is that it gives our faculty and students great experience overseas in an increasingly globalized world.

But why do we need to help other countries feed themselves? Well, even if you don’t have a compassion gene, it’s helpful to help others because when you give people the ability to make a decent livelihood, they are much less likely to join militias or terrorist organizations. Having other stable countries around the world with happy people is in the United States’ best interest. Most people just want to make a decent living and see their children grow to adulthood, get jobs, and live happy and successful lives. In other words, most people, even in distant parts of the world that you may never travel to, are just like you.

[And for a really excellent exposition on the “The three myths that block progress for the poor,” see Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2014 annual letter.]