A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Donors can be Choosers

I find it interesting how the web is changing the face of philanthropy and nowhere have I noticed it more than in the US. A great example of that is Kiva; the online peer to peer lending organisation. Another permutation of the concept is Donors Choose, a web based connection space for giving.

Charles Best, the founder of Donors Choose was a teacher in the Bronx, NY wanting to initiate projects with his students but struggling to find the resources to do so. He set up a website where teachers post proposals for funding and potential donors can then select the project they want to fund. In return the donors get back photos of how their money was spent, and student reports about their perceived impact of the donation.

Behind the scenes Donor Choose acts as a vetting and distribution centre. Proposals are all double checked to make sure they are genuine, and once confirmed the resources are purchased and mailed to the teachers, and bingo, things start happening. Donors Choose has generated over 11 million of donor dollars for schools all across the United States to date.

That’s a lot of giving, and a lot of choosing.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Young and Able.. meet AYUDA

American Youth Understanding Diabetes Abroad may seem like a bit of a mouthful, but there is indeed bite to their work. AYUDA started out when two 15 year olds, Nick Cuttriss and Jesse Fuchs-Simon when to Equador for a summer. They encountered a young boy with Diabetes, whose parents were doctors, who could not afford his medical care. Nick and Jesse ended up raising finance and support to bring the boy to the United States for care, but they soon realised that they could not do this for every child. Instead what they realised was that they could help deliver diabetes management skills to those with the illness- which was a huge gap in medical provision in Equador.

To bridge the gap Nick and Jesse start summer diabetes camps for children with the illness, enlisting local and international volunteers to run the camps. It had a two part knock on effect. Firstly, the children who needed access to information on how to look after themselves could not access it more readily, and secondly, by engaging a whole band of young volunteers, it catalysed a wave of young support and commitment to tackling such problems.

I got to meet Nick in Ayuda offices in Washington, along with Merith Basey, a former volunteer which the team who is now working full time.

Still in their early twenties, Ayuda is a prime example of the potential of young people to effect solutions- when given the opportunity. At 24, Nick is an old hand!

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A First for Books?

FirstBook is a clever organisation, very clever. What makes it work, and work at scale, is an approach to resource which is not typical, but which makes a lot of sense.

FirstBook aim’s to give children from low income homes the magic of their first books.

What’s cleaver (aside from the concept) is the way they have managed to team up with corporations to form mutually beneficial deals.

Take FirstBook’s marketplace as an example; an online book sales site which sells to local reading groups at discount rates. The publishers often have excess books which they can not sell, and to store them costs money. Those in local reading groups often have access to some finances, but not much. If publishers were to post out books in small numbers to these small groups it would not be cost effective- and so they don’t. In come FirstBook, acting as a mass purchaser of low cost quality books, and a mass distributor. The publishing companies are happy, and the books are getting into the home, which ordinarily would not be buying books. BINGO.

Clever, hey?

Another example is marketing deals. The majority of revenue for FirstBook come though marketing deals, being a leader in what they term ‘cause based marketing’. Teaming up with Cheerios as an example, FirstBook were able to distribute five million books in cereal boxes. In turn, Cheerios or the like, get to co-brand books with FirstBook, having positive knock on effects for the reputation of those companies in the marketplace.

That’s just a couple of example. The organisation is full of them.

Kyle Zimmer who was one of the founders of FirstBook started out 15 years ago. Back then she thought it would only be a job for a year or two.. little did she know. At the time she was a Washington lawyer and her lawyer friends found it hard to believe that she was leaving the profession. But Kyle continued and ended up using her lawyer boardroom experience to negotiate deals for FirstBook- and continues to do so. Millions of books later, she and the team not only still going strong but getting stronger.

Call me a five year old..

Metro commutes are usually not that entertaining, but while in DC I had a little giggle every time I passed through the following station; Foggy Bottom.

Call me a five year old- I don’t care. I still think it is funny!

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Making a Mark on the Rug Industry

For those of you who have been following my blog, you may remember that back last October I paid a visit to Bal Ashram, a rehabilitation centre for former child labourers in Rajasthan, India, established by Kailash Satyarthi. My visit there has stuck with me, I have told the story to many people I have met along the way, and the photos I took there are some of my favourite.

One of the many interesting dimensions to Kailash’s work are his efforts to eliminate child labour, industry by industry. One of the places he started to do this was in carpet factories. Through is work emerged a particularly effective intervention- the creation of a certification standard label which guarantees a rug a child labour free, know as Rugmark.

It is innovative in that it is tackling the problem through market demand, allowing consumers of conscience to purchase, knowing that the rugs they buy are not made with little hands. Rugmark is the fair trade label of the rug industry and since the introduction of the label the numbers of child labourers in the industry has fallen from about 1million to about 300,000. The numbers are still huge, but they are going in the right direction.

To find out more about Rugmark’s operations in a ‘developed country’ setting, I met up with the lovely Nina Smith, who is the Executive Director of the Rugmark Foundation USA. (She is also a new Mum, so I also got to meet the equally lovely Sammy). Nina came to Rugmark from 12 years of work in the fairtrade moment and an involvement with the ‘The Craft Centre’, a non-profit which promoted the fair trading of handicrafts from artisans mainly from South America… so in many ways Rugmark felt like a natural progression.

Talking to Nina was a certain insight in the level of work which is required to make system-wide change. It’s as much about rescuing the children for the factories, (as Kailash does), to how the product is labelled on shelves back in the US. Making the link between the two is one of the reasons why Rugmark has been successful.

Looking at it’s website, you would think that Rugmark is a many person operation, but as Nina surprised me, up until recently it was a one shop wonder back in the US- only her full time, with the backing of a board. What I found interesting is how she leveraged the connections and skills of those around her to make it all happen.

To me Rugmark is a great example of collaborative social entrepreneurship and thinking about how problems can be approached through incentivising positive consumer choice, rather than just laying blame.

Here is a photo of Nina and Sammy;

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Never Again, Never Again

‘Never again’.

After the Holocaust.

After Cambodia.

After Bosnia.

After Rwanda…

And Sudan?

‘Never again’ are words which Mark Hanis wants to stick this time round with Sudan. But 400,000 people have already died in Darfur, and the lessons of history are not sticking.

However, Mark and the team believe that something can be done. He himself is a result of genocide survival. His four grandparent, all Jewish, survived the Holocaust, and this belief in hope and optimism led him to set up the Genocide Intervention Network while still at college student.

The network works through primarily rallying political support, putting the issue on the agenda- and keeping it there. He believes that by creating a movement of people who keep saying ‘Never again’, and saying it enough times and in enough ways, that the message will start to stick. But more than that, the network also raises funds for African peacekeeping troops in Darfur and has an education campaign to widen public awareness about what is happening in Sudan. Their website also hosts ‘ten things you can do’ to play your part in saying ‘Never again’.

His advice to young people? Simply; Get Political.

Mark was awarded an Echoing Green fellowship for his work last year. You can read more about him here

What to play your part? Check out:

From an Irish Lass in New York

Happy St Patrick's day... Cold and snowy in New York, but fun never the less; here are some images from my day.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Some Urban Images from My City Wanderings

Technologist Serving Humanity

Outside Jim Fruchterman’s office is a picture of a rocket ship exploding. Most people would call the picture art; but for him it’s a reminder; he helped to build the rocket, and it exploded on takeoff.

It’s not that he was a ‘bad’ scientist. The picture is more a reminder that sometimes its just as well that things explode. Were it not for that, its unlikely that he would be where he is now; the founder of Benetech, a company based in the Silicon Valley, which builds technological solutions for social need.

Thinking about what else could be done with the technology behind pattern recognition- other than building missiles for the military- Jim’s ‘one big idea at college’ (his words!), was to invent a reading machine for the blind. The idea stuck with him, and it was not until some years later after realised that rocket ship building may not be his only path in life, that he forged ahead to build the reading machine.

So stared Benetech, which now, with a staff of 20 and 5 different projects, is leading the way in Silicon valley in the mergence of technology and social entrepreneurship.

By Jim’s own admission he is a nerd, or as he described himself, ‘an anorak’. But he is also proof of what brains can do when applied to solving the world’s problems. Take Bookshare.org, one of Benetech’s core projects, now the largest online library for people with disability- and it’s all legal. Recognising a provision in copyright law which enables books to be copied/ reproduced for the disabled, Bookshare now houses some 31,000 books and 150 periodicals which are converted into more accessible formats.

Other Benetech projects include project management software for the environmental sector, data management software for human rights activists, and literacy tools for individuals with reading difficulties.

One of Jim’s nuggets of advice was about risk taking. The venture capital model, when applied to business, expect some businesses to succeed, some to do moderately well, and other to fail. However the same thinking has not been applied to the social sector, where, he agrees, there is a general fear of failure. To Jim though, experimentation is the route to success. ‘I am known for setting up three different companies’, Jim jokes to elaborate, ‘but I actually set up seven!’The ones that were successful were the result of the risks and learning that happened as a result… and now look what is happening.

Jim and Benetech have been the recipient of many a prize. Recently Jim was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his endeavours.

The anorak has done well! Watch this space for more geek brains at work.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

My Magnetic Poetry

I was opening a fridge door, and got a bit distracted, here is the result.

Now, what was I looking for again??

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He Sees Beyond Sight

(Tony Deifell, Mardie Oaks and their Kitchen Table)

(At the opening of the Seeing Beyond Sight Exhibition)

On my travels the combination of blindfold and camera have made for some exciting adventures. Blindfolded I walked through a forest in Thailand and then a market in Cambodia. I wouldn’t have done it without the push from Tony Deifell, a San Francisco photographer/ social entrepreneur, who I ‘met’ through the Omidyar Network. Passing through the city, I made it a point to meet up with the mischief maker, whose photography exhibition, Seeing Beyond Sight (a collection of photos by blind teenagers) was just opening in a gallery in the city.

Tony Deifell is a talent bundle. He is has that unusual blend of analysis and creativity which lead him in fascinating ways. As well as teaching photography to blind students (which led the Seeing Beyond Sight Project), he was a founding director of KaBOOM!, a non profit which build playgrounds in neighbourhoods across the States, was the Executive Director of the Institute of Public Media Arts which promoted diversity across colleges in the States and obtained an MBA from Harvard Business School. A busy man indeed.

It’s a diverse mix, which Tony calls, ‘living in the slashes’. For him, innovation happens where disciplines meet. For him its art and business, used in combination to create social profit. Or, as he has written himself, “my ‘calling’ in life is to use my skills across different disciplines- business, social enterprise, art, media, religion, social justice to notice the cracks and help others notice them too. They are many- and the more we pay attention, the more we can work together to make the world whole again.

Fancy joining in?

Interested in the Seeing Beyond Sight Challenge- here are the instructions from Tony;

This experience isn’t about blindness – it is about seeing, noticing and paying attention with more than your eyes.
We dare you to take on the challenge of photographing blind. Sign up to do the Seeing Beyond Sight Challenge (some time in the coming year), or just check out what other people are doing.
People have done it in Africa, Cambodia, Australia and the United States.
-Blindfold yourself.
-Go out in public and make your way in the world.
-Photograph things you notice. And, just notice.
-Embrace the whole experience as much as the picture taking.
-Challenge some friends to do it.
(send them the link: sf0.org/seeingbeyondsight)

We avoided doing our own assignment – mustered a thousand excuses at first. Then, we did it, and it was as amazing as it was challenging.
Take the plunge – we dare you.

Tony’s book, Seeing Beyond Sight, a collection of photos taken by the pupils in his blind photography class, has recently been published by Chronicle Books. It was can purchased on Amazon here.

(Tony happens also to be married to the wonderful Mardie Oaks, fellow social entrepreneur – see next blog- I’m telling you, that’s one heck of a household!)

Architect with Attitude- Meet Mardie Oaks

Mardie Oaks was trained as an architect. Only it is not just houses she now builds, but communities, helping to integrate those on the margins of society.

Walking down the streets of San Francisco it is clear that there is a housing crisis. The homeless are everywhere. I’m not sure of the exact number, but it is in the thousands; many thousands. So when Mardie mentioned the margins, I assumed she meant this group. However, those who she works for are often the forgotten group; people living in institutions who in order to be able to function in mainstream society need special housing conditions. So, thinking about these needs, Mardie and her team at Hallmark Community Solutions design and renovate homes with these criteria in mind. High quality, affordable housing is the aim and finances are sourced though mainly government streams and revenue, in ways which have not previously been done.

Mardie was recently awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship for her innovative efforts.

Mardie and Tony Deifell (her husband, fellow social entrepreneur, see next blog), handed me the flowing quotation as I was leaving their home. It’s a reminder to them of the power of commitment, both in their work and marriage. It is a reminder to me too- it is the same end quote from Goethe which I had on my fridge door, urging me on.

Thanks Tony and Mardie.

We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money – booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:

‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’

[The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, 1951]

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Mission Murals

San Francisco is a mural mecca. I went wandering and came across many a colourful encounter. Here are just a few.

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Living on the Social Edge

Victor D’Allant’s CV is almost intimidating!

He speaks five languages, there is barely a country in the world he has not been too, he has been a photo journalist, a magazine editor, ran a media consultancy, has degrees from the Sorbonne in Paris and Berkley in California.. and has a family. Now he is in a job which he feels is a culmination off all the experience applied to social change; Executive Director of Social Edge.

Social Edge is an online community which support social entrepreneurs and nonprofit professionals. It is about inspiring others with stories; sharing resources and building a global network for social change.

But for Victor his interest in social entrepreneurship didn’t start with cameras or computers or the internet. For him, it was eggs. Yes, eggs.

Here is the story.
In his late teens Victor volunteered in Burkino Faso as a community worker. Growing up in France, Burkino Faso was part of his history and so he decided to travel and explore more. While there he was living in a village and noticed that malnutrition was a serious problem. So he decided that eggs would be a good source of protein. He raised some money through contacts back in France, and donated a hen house to the local community. Eggs= fuller bellies.

A couple of years later, a friend of his was visiting Burkino, and Victor asked him to return to the village to check on the egg population. But, when his friend returned, there was no sign of eggs, or chickens.

This was Victor’s lesson. He realised that had he given the hen house to someone, and set them up in business the probability of the hens and eggs still being there was much higher. Plus someone would still have a job.

For Victor, the growing field of social entrepreneurship represents a more sustainable form of aid. So, for Victor, the long held ‘Chicken or Egg’ dilemma is no longer. Which came first? Well for him, it wasn’t chickens.

Lending Peer to Peer- by Proxy

I have been following a fellow blogger, Matt Flannery, for sometime now on Social Edge, an online forum for social entrepreneurs (for more about Social Edge, see my interview with Victor D’Allant). Some when in town I popped over to meet Matt in person.

Matt’s blog is an insiders guide to setting up a social venture. He should know; he has been doing it for the last two years. The result has been Kiva.org, an online peer to peer micro finance lending platform. Sound complex? Well it’s not. The idea is rather straightforward really. I’ll give an example.

Take, let’s say, John, a 25 year old man in Kampala, Uganda who is setting up a bike repair business. John has a wife and family, has the usual bills to pay, and is also supporting his younger brother’s education. He can’t do that until he can get his bike business off the ground, and in order to do that he needs a loan. So he goes to a micro-finance institution (small loan bank) to ask for the money.

Pause there and meet Joan.

Joan lives in Dublin, a 30 year old school teacher. She has never visited Uganda, but has been following the news and is interested in getting more involved with development issues; but she a bit at a quandary how. She has given money to larger charities before, but would like to know more about where her donation exactly goes.

Basically, Kiva help to make some introductions. John meet Joan, Joan meet John.
Joan reads about John’s business online and decides to directly invest with him. The loan is made via the Kiva website, to John’s local micro-finance institution and then on to John. When John pays back the loan, Joan can track it online, and John can add some photos and stories.

John and Joan introduced. John’s business off the ground. Joan eventually paid back. And this year, it will be with interest.

That’s Kiva in a nutshell. It was Matt and his ‘amazing wife’ (his words- ahh) Jessica who got it off the ground, have rallied the support and continue to build the website along with a growing team in San Francisco. Other unrelated but fortuitous events have helped to speed Kiva’s growth, including Muhammad Yunnas winning the Nobel Prize for building the micro-finance field with Grameen Bank.

Other than that, it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of commitment, and a lot of introductions, oh, and broadband is a bonus.

To follow more on the Kiva story click here, and to make a loan, click here. There are lots and Joans and Johns to meet, and many more business’ to follow.

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Cafe Culture gone Cyber

In a city which seems to have more cafes than clients, what happened to café culture?

Here in San Francisco, cafes are more akin to libraries. Talking is almost a faux pas- this is laptop land, so wired it is wireless. If someone speaks, others look up with that same furrowed brow which condemn wandering whispers in the dens of college reading rooms.
Here it feels as if the entire café going society is about the sit a national exam; their backs bent over their keyboards, their looks worried. This is pin drop, hear it territory.

Want to meet me at a café to chat? Too risky. I’ll meet you at the library instead. In the meantime I’ll just order another coffee and check my email!

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Closing the Circle

Its funny, the further away from ‘home’ I travel, the closer I eventually get. I’m not trying to be philosophical here, it’s just the geography of round the world trips. Now that I have reached San Francisco, I’m three quarters (ish) of the way back to Ireland.

I have put ‘home’ in inverted commas for a reason, because the more people who have opened their doors to me, and the more places I feel are ‘home’.

This time round I am in the home of Susan Megy, one funky lady, who I ‘met’ virtually through the Omidyar Network and who has been cheering me on while I loop around the globe. Another funky such person is Jean Russell, who has been helping me all along with contacts and suggestions for people to meet. When she heard I was going to be in San Francisco she flew down from the Chicago region to catch up in person. It’s been fantastic to put faces to these names and I feel so privileged to be able to connect such good good people. Thanks Susan and Jean.

Irish doors will open in return… just let me get back ‘home’ first!

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