Photo Courtesy of Water.org
This originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle.
Water.org isn’t your typical nonprofit – it has its own venture fund and a growing number of supporters in Silicon Valley who want to use their tech savvy to help provide clean water to 1 billion people around the world.
“When you think of nonprofits, you think of old, large, traditional, bureaucratic organizations. But today a new crop of progressive charities are aligning themselves with the valley, and there’s a mutual sharing of culture taking place,” said Michael Birch, an investor in the cause, founded by water expert Gary White and actor Matt Damon.
One product of this cross-pollination is the adoption of a venture capital model to jump-start projects without having to rely on lengthy grant application processes.
Water.org’s New Ventures Fund aims to “quickly green light investments for ideas that can be game changers,” White said, instead of spending one or two years applying for grants.
Michael Birch and his wife, Xochi, who created social network Bebo and later sold it to AOLfor $850 million, have invested $1 million. They, like other investors, are invited to annual advisory meetings to make sure they’re plugged in to how the money is being used.
The goal is to raise $10 million by 2014.
“When you’re trying to innovate, you have to experiment. But traditional sources of funding require statistics and data, illustrating impact. Yet, in R&D that’s not possible,” Birch said. “That’s why I was keen to support some of these ideas that have long-term impact but are high-risk investments, perhaps, in the short term.”
With the New Ventures Fund, Water.org can initiate a project with a small amount of capital, illustrate its need and then bring in a foundation, company or international development agency to fund the rest.
For example, in Haiti, Water.org is partnering with local mobile phone provider Digicel on a pilot program that will offer Port-au-Prince residents information on clean water sources nearby through the ubiquitous cell phone. Water.org will use about $50,000 to launch the project, conduct surveys and determine local needs, White said. The remainder – about 10 times that amount – would come from another source, such as a foundation or international aid agency to actually deploy the idea in the field.
“It’s hard to get traditional philanthropists to sign up for risky innovations. You can’t measure the impact of these ideas immediately. But in the long run, they could be more cost-effective and sustainable than the common well project,” he said.
Markets to be tapped
Water.org hopes to use the New Ventures Fund to illustrate to investors that there are markets to be tapped.
White has been arguing for more ingenuity in development for some time, wanting to adopt an entrepreneurial outlook on philanthropy in order to build long-lasting solutions.
That comes from his more than 20 years of experience in the field, which have taught him that handouts don’t work.
White and Damon agree that donating more wells is not the answer. In fact, White said that many wells or latrines, granted by well-meaning organizations, are not even used for water and sanitary purposes. During a trip to Honduras, he saw latrines being used as storage units, filled with such things as grains and tools.
Instead of just providing wells or toilets, Water.org uses the microfinance approach to get local families to take out loans to build the water supplies in their villages. The concept, dubbed WaterCredit, was pioneered by White. Opening lines of credit that enable communities to pool funding for pipelines encourages communal responsibility, White said. It also can alter the family dynamic, as women spend less time fetching water and more time working on a side business.
Water.org has helped dispense more than 50,000 loans with the help of local banks, microfinance institutions and water-sanitation nongovernmental organizations in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Uganda, affecting more than 300,000 people and maintaining a repayment rate of 97 percent.
This year, Water.org hopes to extend its WaterCredit program to a new market – Peru. With support from the venture fund, it will be able to do the field work in adapting the WaterCredit model to the local needs of the Peruvian population and see if it fits.
Because, despite all the global alliances, White said, the solution is a local one.
Last year, a book was published that narrated the story of an eye doctor who was performing free surgeries for the poor.
The book, “Infinite Vision,” had nothing to do with American health care. But this past week, as commentators fought ruthlessly on cable shows about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, I couldn’t help but think of that story.
Why? Because there was a humanity, a spirituality infused in the health care system of “Infinite Vision.” Something that I feel is lacking in our modern health care system. There is no soul to healing, it seems.
“Infinite Vision” tells the story of Dr. V, a young, tenacious and headstrong doctor determined to give eyesight to those who couldn’t afford it. But beneath that drive and tenacity was a sense of service, a sense of understanding that his profession was not for himself but for others.
And though he was part doctor, part businessman (and a shrewd one as well), he also was a volunteer, a member of the community, a man of service. So, what dictated his profession was not his finances but his vision — that his skills should be use for the betterment of society.
Long before “sustainability” became the most exciting word in business, uttered far too loosely by giddy corporate executives, Dr. V created a tiered-pricing model to help “sustain” this eye clinic.
He stripped the bells and whistles of patient care to give those who couldn’t pay for eye surgeries the treatment they needed without all the overhead costs. He used doctors tactfully for their services, having them perform surgeries and specialized care that couldn’t be performed by nurses and medical staff.
He charged those who could pay and those who could partially pay — but always in correspondence with their income level. There was a dignity, a consciousness that medicine is meant to aid not only the rich man, but also the poor, without stripping him of his belongings.
And this vision that stirred Dr. V, until his recent death, was adopted by his family and staff who operate the countless Aravind Eye Care centers in India today.
In many ways, that was his true victory — to assemble a team that was as passionate and empathetic as him.
In the modern world, where monetary incentives have to lure employees to work hard, getting a team together of selfless individuals is the greatest task.
Dr. V’s team, however, did eye surgeries in the middle of the night, starting at 1 a.m. in makeshift clinics in rural schools to beat the heat of the Indian sun. There was a pride in the work, a sense of satisfaction that serving another human being with dignity is a paycheck in itself. And nothing more is needed.
I was humbled by his ingenuity. At the end of the day, he was a businessman as well, running clinics on frugal accounts. Hence, it was not just purely humanitarian efforts or philanthropy but a “sustainable” business model that balanced finances with services.
But, if I could ask him today how he would rank the various “hats” he wore, he’d probably say, a man of service first, a doctor second, a businessman third.
He had a clear understanding that his business should be a service, it should offer a product that is much needed, it should meet a requirement in society, it should not be extraneous, it should not be a burden to the customer and it should not be crafted to benefit him primarily.
That’s a much more layered meaning of business and even medicine, for that matter — one worth examining closely.
These days, we often look to prestigious business and medical schools for ingenuity and innovation in health. We look to “successful” developed nations that have a constant stream of resources for examples to replicate.
But, I have found that some of the better examples, the ones worth emulating and studying, come from those who live closer to the earth, those who live in conditions that are not so easy and comfortable.
Because they tend to have fewer bells and whistles, less of the idiotic paperwork, greater creativity (due to their limited resources) and, quite frankly, a frugality that drives their survival.
In all the useless banter on health care reform that I heard on television this past week, I didn’t hear anything about the soul of medicine — the reason that it was crafted to begin with, the healing that it’s meant to provide, and why it may be one of the most spiritual professions.
Because to do so would mean that we have to put the numbers aside, we have to put our partisanship aside, we have to put competition aside and humble ourselves with the question: “What is at the core of health care?”
And the answer to that is not a number, not a campaign sound bite and not a business card, it’s about humanity, which requires empathy, not Excel spreadsheets.
This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.
This originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
July 11, 2012
“Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization” is part of a new series of e-books from TED, the nonprofit technology think tank. In it, authors Ayesha and Parag Khanna look at the latest trends in technology – in particular, how they can be managed, adapted and utilized for society’s benefit. The couple, who have extensive Silicon Valley connections, cite examples from around the globe, including from Sweden, Singapore and Japan.
Parag Khanna, who hosted the annual TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, last month, is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and is the author of two best-sellers, “The Second World” and “How to Run the World.” Ayesha Khanna is a faculty adviser at Singularity University at NASA Research Park at Moffett Field and directs theFuture Cities program at the London School of Economics. The pair travel almost constantly, but together, they run their online project, the Hybrid Reality Institute(hybridreality.me), a research and advisory group devoted to questions of human-technological co-evolution.
The authors spoke with The Chronicle about their new book. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: As you point out in your book, technology, or more specifically geotechnology, is not new. It’s been a part of our history from the time of the wheel. But is it working at an accelerated pace now?
A: Technological innovation is certainly accelerating. But it is doing more than that as technologies combine with each other. Hence we write about biomechantronics, synthetic neurobiology and other hybrid fields that are arising as scientific fields merge.
So what we are witnessing today is not just linear acceleration, but a complex accelerated co-evolution of technologies – and humans with technology.
Q: You mention that the West is losing dominance in technology. Is this the case even with Silicon Valley’s growth in recent years, and the emergence of East London and Berlin as tech/innovation hubs?
A: This is where “geo” comes in, as in geotechnology. The West is still the leading source of invention in many areas, but (new ideas) are also being rapidly innovated and commercialized elsewhere, particularly Asia.
You could have 10 more Londons, Berlins and Tel Avivs, but when Singapore and Shanghai – or rather Beijing – start spending hundreds of billions on moving up the value chain in semiconductors, DNA sequencing and green energy, you will have enormous competition in technological sectors for economic gains.
Q: In the book, you write that smaller can actually be better, citing Sweden and Singapore as examples. But the United States can’t be smaller. So how can it “think smarter” and compete with these nations?
A: Its cities and states can be better labs for innovation that spread around through learning networks. We now have initiatives among governors and mayors that do this.
There is more investment going into smart transport in Silicon Valley, and New York Mayor (Michael) Bloomberg is doing a lot on climate and immigration.
Q: Of the many “city-centric info-states” you discuss in the book, which one did you find most intriguing?
A: We’re most intrigued by Singapore because their model of “managed innovation” would seem an oxymoron to most people in America.
Small states can’t afford to make mistakes, so Singapore thinks long-term about its geography, the needs of the markets around it and the capability of its citizens, and makes strategies accordingly.
Q: ”Technik” is the backbone of the book. Loosely, the term can be translated as adaptability, and, in this case, a country’s ability to harness all these new technologies for social impact. How would you summarize it?
A: Adaptability, yes, but to emerging technological conditions which no one person controls. It’s about preparedness and a skill set to harness those technologies to stay on top or ahead.
The U.S. as a whole has amazing pockets of Technik, whether it’s Silicon Valley or New York City. But with the highest high school dropout rate in our history, one has to worry about the Technik of our citizenship more broadly.
Q: You write about the changes in education thanks to technology, referring to Sal Khan’s success with the free, web-based Khan Academy and universities offering free online courses. How do universities cope with all these free, open platforms and still survive?
A: Some universities are coping by actually producing the open online content that is portrayed as a threat. MIT and Stanford, for example.
But it enhances their brand, garners corporate investment and boosts the appeal to future students worldwide, so it can be a win-win.
Many schools may indeed see declining interest if suddenly everyone is taking thousands of online courses for free and managing to get jobs that way, and we believe that time will come. But freezing out technology won’t work as a strategy.
Q: Are transparency and open data projects, which make public information available online and accessible to everyone, a risk for governments?
A: Pressure will come to bear on governments to be more efficient and accountable with or without data transparency. Just look at Occupy Wall Street!
Open data is crucial to enabling citizens to accelerate the government’s ability to do its own job.
Those pushing open government have been changing some of the most egregious and wasteful government practices, such as databases that don’t connect or talk to each other. So there are risks, but it is also an inevitable trend.
Q: You speak of technology haves and have-nots, and a “shadow economy” surfacing. Can you speak about this in an American context?
A: The rise of peer-to-peer virtual currencies and skills exchanges – whether it’s Bitcoin or TaskRabbit or Mechanical Turk – aren’t shadow economies by any means. They are the frontier of finance.
Physical money could become an artifact one day. Virtual currencies allow individuals to determine the value of their goods and services, and trade in them especially in times when dollars are tight.
Millions of Americans are now finding ways to earn a living off these services, and using online platforms like eBay as well.
Q: Tell us about your work with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford.
A: We are great admirers of the work of Jeremy Bailenson and his team at the Stanford VHIL. They have created real-life simulated environments in which your avatar’s behavior teaches the “real” you how to be more ecologically conscious and self-confident.
They are showing how time spent in virtual environments can even substitute for antidepression drugs. They are paving the way toward your avatar being semiautonomous, a second you.
Q: You mention that there is an overemphasis on information communication technologies – the smart phone and tablet culture.
But countless other areas of technology are also rapidly advancing. Which aspect of technology fascinates you most?
A: We are fascinated by the hybridization of IT with biology, physics, neuroscience and other areas; these are the causes of such rapid advances in research.
Nano-materials will have a tremendous impact on spreading access to clean water in developing countries, and reducing the weight and fuel consumption of vehicles. The more technologies we look at, the more hopeful we can be about the future.
This originally appeared in the Economist.
June 27, 2012
IN THE summer of 2010, a team of self-confessed “socially conscious nerds” came together to create TechChange, a start-up to further the use technology for development. But instead of moving to Silicon Valley, they picked Washington, DC as their home. And instead of talking to venture capitalists and incubators, they reached out to government offices and international organisations—even amid budgetary cuts and a recession.
Why? At the time, the hype around mobile services in the developing world, such as M-PESA, Safaricom’s hugely popular mobile payment service in Kenya, was at its peak. Kiva.org, an American crowdfunding site for development projects, was widely praised. As a result, more and more NGOs were seeking to use mobile phones for development and adopt crowdfunding platforms. But they didn’t know how to best use these new tools, which also include text messages and social media.
That left a gap in the market for TechChange. “There was a divide between those who create tech tools and those who wanted to use them,” says Nick Martin, the firm’s founder and chief executive. “We started by taking dozens of online courses—and found that most online learning was pretty awful, leaving us tons of room to innovate.”
Two years later TechChange has taught more than 600 students in more than 70 countries through their online classroom. Its most popular course to date has been “Mobiles for International Development”. Enterprises such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS have developed open source software that lets NGOs collect information via text messages and look at the results in real time. Students gain hands-on experience, for instance by analysing data gathered by mobile-phone surveys in Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those interested in conflict resolution can dig deeper by enrolling in a special course designed around case studies from Libya and Syria.
A new course, which will take place in November this year, will show how to best use mobile technologies in public health. Mobile services already connect rural patients with urban doctors, enable basic diagnostics in the field and help collect other data from patients. The course was put together with the help of mHealth Alliance, an initiative led by the UN Foundation. It includes case studies from successful social enterprises such as MedicMobile, which illustrates how mobile phones can be used to deliver health services in remote areas.
For complete article, please go to Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/21557706
This originally appeared on www.dowser.org
DC-Based Calvert Foundation announced a new initiative WIN-WIN, which will invest $20 million in organizations and individuals that support women, in the US and globally. Dowser spoke with Lisa Hall, President and CEO of Calvert Foundation.
Given the recent Jobs Report, which shows that US economy is in a stagnant state, how do you feel that your organization is addressing the unemployment/underemployment problem?
Last Friday, just before I took the stage at CGI America with others working in sustainable finance, the Clinton Global Initiative announced a commitment to supporting small business. Start-ups used to add about 3 million jobs a year, but we’re now down to 2 million. And whilewomen are founding businesses at 1.5 times the national average, only 3-5% of all women-owned businesses receive venture capital funding.
Calvert Foundation contributes to this by making it possible for the public to invest in low-income communities, providing capital where there is none – capital that supports the financing of affordable housing, charter schools or health centers, we are supporting investment and job creation in lower income neighborhoods around the country.
There are countless MFI institutions in America (and especially globally). How would you distinguish yourself?
We call this “impact investing” – it’s a way to invest for a financial and social return. We then use the money we raise to make flexible and affordable loans to nonprofits and social enterprises around the world, to help them provide affordable housing, small business loans, microfinance, education, and more. We are the only organization that offers a product with global diversity delivering social good to such a wide range of investors – those investing $20 online through Microplace to those purchasing $1,000 (or more) by investing through their brokerage accounts under the guidance of their financial advisor. We also advise large institutions like Citi, which is committing millions to impact investing.
While you do support women entrepreneurs in the developing world, your main focus is in America. What differences do you find in working with entrepreneurs here at home as opposed to abroad? The biggest difference seems to be that the money goes much further in developing nations but there’s just as much need here in the US.
It’s true that in absolute terms, dollars go further in developing countries than they do in the USA. A $200 loan provided by one of our clients to poor women in Africa or Latin America is frequently enough to begin the journey out of poverty for these women and their families. Besides this, it is frequently much harder to serve the working poor in developing countries because their legal systems often do not favor business and their markets are small and fragmented. Our capital is that much more important to support the efforts of small entrepreneurs to seize the opportunities to grow their businesses and communities. Women entrepreneurs are each different but all the same around the world: they are dedicated to building businesses that serve their communities and provide more opportunity for their children, their families, and their communities.
Can you tell us a bit about the model of WIN-WIN? The emphasis is on investment, not loans necessarily. So, how does a typical investment work?
The Women Investing in Women Initiative (WIN-WIN) – is a new project of Calvert Foundation that carries a simple message: investing in women is smart economics. The goal of WIN-WIN is to raise capital to invest in products and services that empower women living and working in disadvantaged communities, such as access to credit, health care, and affordable housing. That capital will come from investments by other women – and people who care about women. Women control $20 trillion dollars of wealth globally. We want to get some of that money invested in women who need it – both here in the United States and internationally.
WIN-WIN was launched this year in partnership with Citi Foundation. How did the partnership with Citi come about as they’ve put in $1 million into the initiative? Do you feel that for non-profits it’s essential to have such a private sector partner? What do you feel that they bring to WIN-WIN (aside from just the funds) that you’re truly grateful for?
They have been a terrific partner. Due to a $1 million grant from the Citi Foundation, Calvert Foundation was able to launch WinWin – the Women Investing in Women Initiative earlier this year on International Women’s Day at the United Nations in NY. This initiative is well on its way to raising $20MM in donations and investment from women and those who care about women to be invested in organizations that are women-led, empower women, and provide services and support to women. Earlier – in 2010, Citi also made a $200MM commitment to the Communities at Work Fund, which makes loans to Community Development Financial Institutions for investment in small businesses.
Speaking more broadly, the US has been struggling with underemployment and unemployment for almost 5 years now. What do you feel that we’re doing wrong and where can we as a society make improvements (whether you’re in public, private, or third sector)?
Let’s face it – we need jobs. And we all need to play a part.
You can do so by investing as little as $20 in women’s economic empowerment on Microplace. You can serve as a mentor to an entrepreneur just starting out. You can give to a community organization providing job training. We’re not the 99% or the 1%. We’re the 100%. Economic recovery rests on ensuring sustainable access to capital, both to grow existing businesses and to finance new ventures. These models are also demonstrating new and sustainable ways to grow wealth and help communities adapt to a changing economy.
We believe in economic justice. This means allowing a family in Cambodia to send their children to school – the education they never received. This means being able to stay in your home after being a victim of predatory lending. Those left behind by traditional financial systems are growing. And our current financial systems are not enough to meet the challenges and needs in these turbulent times. Calvert Foundation offers a solution through our Community Investment Note. We encourage everyone to take part and be part of the solution to create economic opportunity for all.
June 18, 2012
This originally appeared in Dowser.org.
Jim Gowen, Corporate Sustainability Officer of Verizon, was recently at the UN Social InnovationSummit. He spoke to Dowser about the “green” strides that Verizon is taking within the community and globally. A move in the right direction for corporate America?
Dowser: When deciding what to focus on as a company for impact, why did Verizon place such emphasis on environmental programs?
‘Going green’ is a great opportunity to not only reduce our environmental impact, but also reduce our company’s costs. With the current tumultuous economy, every penny counts. Sustainability initiatives put us in a position to move forward in the most productive way. After all, sustainability, by definition, implies a focus on delivering consistent value over the long-term. Through our sustainability programs, we ease our burden on the environment and continue to provide high quality services to our customers- a win-win!
An important goal we have set is to cut our carbon intensity in half by 2020. Innovation is vital for our success. So far, we have developed and set solid metrics in order to measure our progress. Our current 30% reduction in carbon intensity has placed us in a great position to achieve our goal on time, if not earlier than expected. Our efforts have reduced air pollution, electrical and water consumption, deforestation, toxins in our landfills, and computer congestion. Additionally, our costs for electricity, water, paper, and waste have been reduced.
Of all the programs that you’ve done in sustainability, which one has surprised you – something that you found truly innovative or was a good learning experience for you personally?
The Office Supply Swap is one of our successful and engaging programs. Our employees love this mini one-day office flea market. After all, what is one man’s garbage is another man’s gold!
Additionally, Verizon holds recycling rallies where both employees and community members can recycle their electronic waste. We recognize the pervasive problem of electronic waste and understand our role in reducing the amount of waste thrown into our landfills. Since 2009, our Recycling Rallies have kept over 800K pounds out of landfills.
Another great initiative is our whiteboard program. This program also aims at reducing waste. Each Verizon call center employee uses around 67 pages of paper per month. In order to reduce the amount of paper used, an employee suggested using whiteboards to write down notes instead of notebook paper. If the entire Lincoln Call Center uses our whiteboards, more than 4,100 pounds of paper – the equivalent of saving 162 trees per year. And this is just ONE call center.
Overall, carbon minimization from this campaign has achieved a reduction of 188,310 pounds. Each of these initiatives have been extremely successful with engaging employees and reducing our company’s overall environmental impact.
Why did you get into this space – social impact in the corporate space? What led you to this role?
Personally, I have five children who have grown up teaching me about ‘going green’. It’s always been something important at home. Now we’re able to talk about environmental issues in the business world too. I think that’s part of the reason that many of our employee engagement efforts focus on encouraging green practices at home too.
There’s an ongoing conversation about transforming corporate philanthropy so that it’s more focused, and geared towards long-term investments, less so about charity. How do you feel that Verizon is doing this, going beyond just charity and looking at innovative programs for impact? Do any of the programs that you have currently echo this?
Verizon’s philanthropic arm, the Verizon Foundation, has been very focused on giving not for charity, but for long-term investments and to truly make a positive impact on society… our community.
Exemplifying this priority, the Verizon Foundation gave a grant of $90,000 recently so Clean Air-Clean Planet’s university carbon measurement excel spreadsheet can be web-based (and more user friendly).
Clean Air-Clean Planet’s calculator is already used by over 2,000 colleges and universities. Through Verizon’s grant, the measurement capabilities developed through this organization (called the Campus Carbon Calculator) can be improved in order to have a greater impact and be more easily accessible to not only more university looking for solutions for wide carbon reduction, but corporate campuses too.
The big story in the developing world has been using mobile phones for social impact. Do you see that happening in America where ICT4D seems to happening at a slower pace? Does Verizon have any projects that use the mobile device itself for social impact? (the telemedicine program in VA, for example)
For five years now, Verizon has collected and donated over 1 million used phones to HopeLine, an organization that assists people affected by domestic violence. Verizon’s partnership with Hopeline helps many people in need of the added security cellular phones provide. This recycling program also innovatively reduces electronic waste. This component of our electronic waste minimization plan has produced both socially and environmentally beneficial results.
Additionally, the Verizon Foundation has recently awarded a $20,000 grant to the Department of Nursing at the University of Virginia-Wise for the development of telehealth curricula. The goal is to teach nursing students how to use telehealth capabilities. Telehealth can connect patients in rural areas with top-notch medical resources. This capability can provide the much need medical attention rural inhabitants may not normally receive.
E-Waste is a growing problem and is on the Verizon agenda. Is there anything we can do other than simply donating old phones for recycling? How can we truly address the root of the problem – electronic devices that don’t last long and need to be replaced every year?
Recycling electronic devices is very important. Not only can these devices be donated to victims at Hopeline, but they can also be taken apart and used in the production of new phones. Additionally, the purchase of an eco-friendly cell phone is a fantastic alternative to a “normal” phone. The Motorola Citrus, for example, is a chic phone with minimal impact on the environment. It’s the world’s first certified carbon neutral smartphone. Verizon also has many options for set top box users to reduce energy consumption and recycle their old boxes.“Green” devices also save our customers’ money too!