Archive for January, 2008

The Age of the Social Entrepreneur

Along with many others, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof spent the week in Davos. What impressed him most? The gathered social entrepreneurs. Not only because they were half as old as the other participants, the statesmen, entrepreneurs and celebrities, but also because don’t wait for others to change the world, but do the job themselves.  

“In the ‘60s, perhaps the most remarkable Americans were the civil rights workers and antiwar protesters who started movements that transformed the country, In the 1980s, the most fascinating people were entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who started companies and ended up revolutionizing the way we use technology. Today the most remarkable young people are the social entrepreneurs.”   

Ashoka, the leading organisation for the new breed of activists, defines social entrepreneurs as individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps.

I share this enthusiasm; for people like 28 year old Sonam Choki, who established the first non-profit traditional art school in Bhutan, where poor children from rural areas get a sound training in the traditional painting and woodcarving techniques. At the same time the school aims to contribute to the survival of the Buddhist cultural heritage of the small kingdom in the Himalayan. Sonam grew up close the art – her father was a leading figure in the national art scene, endorsed by king Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. Her brother runs an artisan shops in Thimphu. When we visited the school in 2006 only boys were able to attend. Now Sonam wants to build a girls hostel as well, and has many other exciting plans such as the construction of a basketball court. 

Another low-key social revolutionary is Youchaou in Mali, initiator of the Mali Initiative, an organisation aiming to break the poverty cycle of the West African country, which ranks as the forth poorest country in the world and were 4 out of 5 people can’t read or write. Youchaou started life as a street child himself, but then got the chance to attend a school he loved. He worked his way up to become a successful interpreter, before building a school from scratch in Bamako in 2004, where poor children can get a quality education through scholarships. The school is deemed to be one of the best in the country, teaching children from a healthy mix of social backgrounds. 

Social entrepreneurs are demonstrating a lot of self-initiative – thereby breaking the cycle of dependency which all too often accompanies Western aid. Yet they also need active support from others: Sonam Choki was lucky enough to meet David Bidwell of the Himalaya Youth Foundation, which supports her with advice and financially. In Bamako, Youchaou joined forces with Australian youth worker Elise Klein und German Jürgen Nagler in order to realize the large vision of reforming the national education system. 

At betterplace we want to enable initiatives like these to take off. As Kristof writes at the end of his column: „There is no limit to the number of social entrepreneurs who can make this planet a better place.“


The new Philanthropists

It is often only after new role models have been established (who a critical number of people want to emulate) that new socio-economic trends gain momentum and are sustainable. With this insight in mind, Irish economic philosopher Charles Handy has assembled 23 portraits of good-doers in The New Philanthropists. 

What is new about these benefactors? Unlike many of their predecessors most of them are entrepreneurs who have made money while still relatively young. Now they set out to apply the same principles which have made them successful in the world of business to the social realm. They don’t (only) donate their money, but initiate and actively manage social projects.

Among them are celebrities such as Bono and Bill & Melinda Gates, but also many others who operate under the radar of media attention. It is the latter The New Philanthropists concentrates on, people such as Irish real estate developer Niall Mellon, who gets volunteers together to build new housing estates in South African Slums and Jeff Gambin, a well-known Australian chef, who started Just Enough Faith to hand out quality meals to the homeless in Sydney. Or Michael de Giorgio, who’s Greenhouse Organisation offers underprivileged kids in London valuable sports opportunities.  

The interviewees stand out due to their mix of social engagement, management abilities and economic expertise. Initially investing their own money, some nevertheless expect the initiatives to stand on their own feet after a certain time. Thus Greenhouse is planning to sell their expertise to companies, who could book them to organize staff sport days or team building workshops.

As mentioned, Handy wants readers of his book to identify with the protagonists, saying: “I want to do what these guys are doing”. But somehow this effect was lost on me.

Why? Maybe some of the portraits were too sleek for my liking. And there were only 2 women among the 23 (mostly British) philanthropists. This imbalance may reflect power relations in the real world. But then 51% of all assets in the US are held by women, and the trend towards female philanthropists is increasing. Thus for a book aiming at establishing new role models, this omission is incomprehensible.  Everybody knows the late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, who started among others Children on the Edge . Also a woman such as Mahnaz Malik, the young British-Pakistani lawyer, acting on behalf of underpriviledged children in Pakistan and offering (through the Advocate Foundation) free legal aid to under-aged prisoners, would have enriched this volume. 

I would welcome readers suggestions for their “favourite female philanthropist”!

A basis for informed choices

On my desk today was a video of a (very respectable, “senior”) round table discussion at the National Press Club in Washington about Charity Fraud and Reform, posted on the online site of Contribute . At the same time, a reader of Aishahs latest blogpost on online fundraising platforms, pointed us to an article critical of GiveMeaninga Canadian-based donation platform (Thanks, Tom Newman). 

The charity reformers in the video are highly critical of excessive compensation of many top-end executives in the non-profit sector, some of which make 1 million US$ p.a. and more. They also point out that charities in the US are mainly accountable for very formal legal and financial aspects of their work, but not for the actual use of their money. One participant, Trent Stamp of Charity Navigator, highlights the fact that tax-deductable charity 501(c) status is handed out in the US like “candy to babies”, i.e. is far too easy to get. As an indication of their dubiousness a number of non-profits are operating in all US states, except the one they are residing in, thus evading official scrutiny. 

Every start-up has to spent money to get going. Self-exploitation is fine for a start, but you need a sound business model taking over pretty soon in order to sustain your efforts. betterplace has opted for a model, whereby the operating costs as well as the transaction costs are covered by fees companies pay in order to be able to present their CSR engagement on betterplace. Until we are able to fully rely on those fees to cover our operating costs, we pay minimum wages to some team members (others work on a completely pro-bono basis) and are fortunate to have enlisted the financial backing of individual supporters, who believe in the idea of betterplace and are also actively engaged in its day to day operation. 

We also believe that transparency is of utmost importance to create trust, the backbone of betterplace. Thus we fully disclose our business model and partnerships, 100% of donations are forwarded to the projects they are intended for. And we make sure to work as efficiently as possible. Here the internet helps us a lot: we rely on viral marketing, we cut communication and other operating costs.  

With Trent Stamp of charity navigator I cherish the vision that open and transparent platforms such as betterplace will lead to a real basis of comparison between different charities and grassroots-initiatives and that the fraud, apparently as pervasive in the non-profit scene as in the corporate world, will be more visible to the individual donor, who will be able to make much more informed choices of how to make a difference. I am convinced that we are not part of the problem, but of the solution. and the others – online fundraising platforms

When observing yourself you can learn a lot about others, too (and vice versa). As far as we – and the author of the German Das Kulturmanagement Blog know – is the one and only. In Germany, that is. On a global level, however, there are many online fundraising platforms, and that’s a good thing. Especially North America is ahead of Europe when it comes to understanding and using the power of the social web. Thank you, dear Kulturmanagement Blog, for linking to Peter Deitz’ blog About Micro Philanthropy and its list of online fundraising platforms, some of which are, like, also web communities.

Are we comparable? I’d definitely encourage comparisons. Take Montreal based GiveMeaning, for instance. We are quite similar to each other – but then again so different. I like the idea behind their voting system: a project proposal has to receive 100 votes within 30 days in order to become a project and qualify for fundraising. Nonetheless (I won’t even pretend to be objective about this…) to me betterplace is more appealing. What do you think?

Lilian’s and Julius’ location check: a betterplace project in Mali

This is an excerpt taken from an article that was written in German. It was posted on our German blog by 15-year-old Lilian and 14-year-old Julius (both members of betterplace junior) who are visiting Mali, Westafrica, right now. It would be great to hear more about their experiences!

In Bamako we visited a school that will soon present itself on betterplace: it’s the showcase of the so called ‘Mali Initiative’. […] One of its main initiators is a Malian, who used to be a street kid himself, and who step by step worked his way up to first become a teacher, then an interpreter for international organisations, and who now wants to improve the Malian educational system (81 % of the adults can’t read or write, 24 % of the boys and only 12 % of all girls attend school. Mali is the forth poorest nation in the world. 70 % of the population lives on less than 1 US $ a day). His name is Youchaou Traore and he presented his school to us full of pride. The classes in his school shall be limited to 30 children each to guarantee the quality of education. 10 US $ is the monthly school fee per child, a small amount but yet unaffordable to many children from poor areas. […] They are supported through scholarships and donations. The school is said to be one of the best Malian schools. […]

Lilian Breidenbach & Julius Winckler


Learn more about Mali – and watch out for the ‘Mali Initiative’ on!