November 6, 2011
Confessions of a Passionate, Right-Brained & Yes, Effective International Donor – K. Ansara for BPART, Boston

My three Ecuadorian daughters -- Mari, Ali, and Lucia -- and me near Cuenca, Ecuador.

 

 

Presenting alongside two leading researchers in the field of international development and philanthropy on November 2, Paula Johnson of The Philanthropic Initiative and Rachel Glennerster of the Abdul Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, I boldly confessed my passionate, right-brained approach to international philanthropy, and my discomfort with metrics. 

 

I believe I was invited onto the panel  – hosted by Boston Philanthropic Advisors Roundtable – for two reasons:  First,  I must have more advisors than any other donor in Boston!    Second, I offer a right-brained counterpoint to the brilliant, left-brained, analytical perspectives of my two colleagues!   

 

In that role, my first point is that effective international philanthropy needs both right-brained and left-brained donors.   

 

As any of my advisors will tell you, left-brained business plans, numbers and graphs are not my forte!  I get far more out of the footnotes to audits than the line-items.  I could never suggest a business plan or a specific micro-economic assessment of an intervention to end poverty.

 

This is not to say that I shouldn’t employ my left-brain more if I want to be effective in my philanthropy; but rather to admit, that invariably, like a car out of alignment, I will be pulled towards the right – to qualitative rather than quantitative assessments of impact:  to stories, to relationships, to a founder’s drive, to the internal capacity of a team to carry out a vision.  So, it should come as no surprise that I was not asked to speak about trends or metrics, but about the intangible ingredient of PASSION in effective international philanthropy!  I was also asked to tell my family’s philanthropic story, which I will use to illustrate my points.

 

My second point is that effective international philanthropy often requires a passionate commitment to mission (not a detached one) – born of personal experience.

 

Cultivating passionate generosity shouldn’t be too hard – because we all know giving feels good!  Because we seem to need metrics to verify everything, Nicholas Kristof, in his October 30 editorial in the New York Times explained that researchers from the University of Oregon presented three groups of women with small amounts of money while they were hooked up to brain scanners.  “Sometimes the money was ‘taxed,’ sometimes they were given the chance to donate to charity, and sometimes they were given additional money.   Their pleasure centers (the same ones that regulate sexual activity and addiction) lit up when they received money, as one might expect…”  And yet, about half of the women seemed to derive just as much pleasure, based upon their brain patterns, from giving money as from receiving it!   Kristof’s conclusion:  “altruism and generosity can be hedonistic pleasures.”  Maybe that explains why I do what I do!

 

Cultivating an individual donor’s passion – rather than a detached and analytical regard for mission — requires, I believe, helping him or her make a personal emotional connection to an international organization’s purpose. This connection is more challenging to achieve with international giving because of the geographical, economic and cultural gulf between the donor and the beneficiaries.  It is hard to empathize with a person you will never see in a land you can only imagine.  This is why my colleagues are having so much trouble raising money for the worst famine in 100 years, now strangling the Horn of Africa.  For people who do give overseas, philanthropic passion is often the result of travel, of a first-hand experience of the acute suffering endured by most of humanity.  That was certainly the case for Jim and me.

 

Thirteen years after Jim and I met, while he was rapidly building his construction company, Shawmut, and after I had completed a graduate degree, we adopted a baby boy.  The following year, little Michael stayed with relatives, while we traveled to Peru with close friends.  Jim, always eager for a greater challenge, was a mountain climber and set out to scale an 18,000 foot peak.  Despite the fact that I had studied international development in college, this was my first trip to a developing country, and we couldn’t have chosen a more magical one.  Jim and I fell in love with the mountain scenery, the culture, and especially its children.

 

After two different indigenous women on the street tried to hand me their children, Jim and I felt called to adopt a second child from South America.  Over the next three years we actually adopted three little girls from the Ecuadorian Andes.  We saw first-hand the poverty they were born into, and from which they will never fully recover.  I think often about their birth families — of their losses, of their wounds that won’t heal. 

 

When Jim had the opportunity to start selling his company to its employees, beginning slowly in 1999, there was no question what we would do with the proceeds.  Jim said we should set up a family foundation to “give back” for the gift of our children.  At first our grants were quite small and ecclectic:  we funded a few orphanages, a school in Ecuador; and the preservation of mountain habitats for climbers like Jim!   That was mission connected to passion.

 

My third point is that effective international philanthropy requires strong partnerships.  These partnerships are even more critical than in domestic giving.

 

In 2005, Jim sold the rest of Shawmut in an ESOP transaction.  Having more resources to give, we knew we needed to be more professional and more strategic.  To handle more grants, we would need to hire staff, and I knew that managing staff was not what excited me about philanthropy.  So we chose a much simpler vehicle, a donor advised fund at the Boston Foundation – a hybrid, really, because we would solicit proposals and make grants, with occasional support and counsel from the Boston Foundation staff.  This flexible arrangement with expert partners lets me pursue my passion – getting to know programs and leaders — rather than worrying about investments, tax laws, and monitoring the budget.

 

This flexibility also allows Jim to practice philanthropy in the way he loves best:  while getting his hands dirty.  Jim has never been one for reading proposals or hashing out grants in long meetings – as Kate Guedj of the Boston Foundation and I have discovered the hard way!  Jim dives to the ground, digs into the challenge, and makes the impossible real – as he is now doing overseeing the construction of a national teaching hospital with Partners in Health in Haiti.

 

Strong staffing partnerships have helped us think more strategically and provide left-brained/right-brained balance and occasional checks on my run-a-way passion!  After five years it became clear that by sponsoring orphans and schools we were only addressing the symptoms of a much bigger problem. So we began to look upstream and changed our mission to eradicate the poverty that leads desperate parents to abandon their children.  We framed our “theory of change” as “providing access to the basic rights and resources the poor need to work their way out of poverty.”

 

My fourth point is that effective international philanthropy can be small-scale or big-scale.  Effective philanthropy can impact one life or hundreds of thousands.

 

We’ve heard examples of effective large-scale, evidence-based interventions, funded by highly strategic givers.    Yet, some donors are moved by compassion to impact one life at a time – to cure one child with club foot, to sponsor one orphan, to provide weaving skills to one woman survivor of conflict.  We all know that individual sponsorships can be incredibly meaningful for the donor, as well as the recipient, and over time, and with a little faith and mentoring, have lifelong impact.

 

Four years ago I met a brave young woman named Zuhra through a local mentoring organization called Summer Search.  She was one of 9 children who had immigrated here with her parents from Afghanistan in 2000.  Her family, led by her father, a Red Cross physician in Kabul, had fled Afghanistan after Zuhra had been discovered by the Taliban teaching her younger siblings in a makeshift classroom in her basement.  One night they escaped over the Khyber Pass, survived three years in a refugee camp in Peshawar, and as political refugees were resettled in the mixed-income housing project near the JFK Library.  Two years after arriving, at the age of 16, Zuhra became the sole breadwinner and English-speaker for her family. 

 

Zuhra‘s determination enabled her to earn a full scholarship to a Catholic high school.  She was accepted by Summer Search and mentored in their program.  She got another scholarship to Regis College in Weston.  On my urging she applied to the Sustainable International Development Program at the Heller School at Brandeis.  When she was awarded a half-scholarship, we helped provided the rest — doing the same when she entered her second Master’s Program in Conflict Resolution. 

 

Today this 27-year-old woman is living her dream:  she is stationed in Afghanistan as the Program Director for a small Cambridge-based NGO that educates women and girl rug weavers.  There are no metrics to capture Zuhra’s self-esteem or the value of her service to her homeland.  There are is no way to measure my pride at being her sponsor.

 

My fifth point is that effective international philanthropy must be defined not just by donors or even by program planners and implementers, but by the beneficiaries.

 

When large-scale interventions are designed from afar, they risk being skewed by the lens of the donor or practitioner.  Whether determining how much to charge for anti-malarial bed nets, or how much fertilizer to offer men or women, or whether to provide cash-incentives to spur healthy behavior changes, we are in essence engineering social change based on our perception of the problem.  That is why the Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s work is so critical:  through micro-economic studies of on-the-ground behavior, we can peel away our blind-spots and view the situation through the eyes of the poor, learning why they make the choices they do, and thus engineer more effective interventions.

 

But what if the anti-poverty intervention started with the poor community’s own assessment of its strengths and weaknesses?  And ended with its own evaluation of successes and failures?

 

In the most remote and poor regions of Eastern Nepal, the dZi Foundation gathers a village together – men and women – for an “appreciative community development” meeting.  They lift up the strengths of the community – the tangible asset of a well and the intangible asset of mutual cooperation.   Then they form a consensus on what would make their community better – a bridge to the next village, latrines to prevent illness, a parent-teacher committee to press for better quality instruction.  They receive simple training on developing an action plan, a budget, and a proposal and then apply for a starter grant of $500.  After three years, three grants of increasing size, and three projects — the tangible impact is usually unmistakable.  But what is just as important to measure is the quality of the process – and the degree of satisfaction of the villagers. 

 

Gathering for a final community meeting, a requirement for receiving the last “draw-down of the grant,” villagers are each given five colored beads.  Each color represents a level of satisfaction, from white for extremely satisfied, to red for very dissatisfied.  Each villager approaches a bucket, reaches down deep with a fist full of beads, and secretly releases the one bead that symbolizes his assessment.  After all have “voted,” the colors are counted and the sense of the community is announced.  This is community-driven evaluation – measurement by the people.

 

My sixth and last point is that passion for effective international philanthropy can be fostered in a community of givers.

 

Several years ago I was struck by a statistic:  at the time only 2.4% of all US philanthropic dollars went overseas.  This pittance represented myopic donor thinking, in my view, for when global problems go unaddressed, they invariably come back to haunt us.  It also reflected the fear many donors have of giving overseas:  “How can I choose among so many charities?  How can I tell if my gift makes a difference?  What if corruption undercuts progress?  What if my gift just disappears down a black hole?”  All valid concerns.

 

At the same time I heard that Greater Boston is home to over 175 international NGOs and research institutes.  We are a hub for international development – and yet few of us know it!  A good many of those who are giving overseas, must live right here in New England!

 

How could we encourage these funders to overcome obstacles and concerns and give even more?  How could we learn together how to give more effectively – while stoking the fires of passion to keep us committed over the long haul?

 

A group of New England funders and advisors gathered to answer these questions… and ultimately formed New England International Donors.  During the last three years, guided by a diverse Steering Committee, NEID has offered roundtable discussions, dinner book discussions and networking lunches.  The response has been quite positive.  We find that those deeply engaged in international giving, as well as those exploring the options, are thrilled to discover others with similar passions. 

 

This coming year NEID will begin a series of local site visits to international NGOS to examine their issues and strategies, and learn how to use our left-brain as well as our right in making philanthropic decisions.  In our events we make room for tough analysis, as well as the sharing of the personal stories that fuel our passion to keep giving to places on the other side of the globe – places we may actually never visit.

 

In short, international giving is an incredible adventure and can be extremely impactful – not only on the beneficiaries but on the lives of the givers.  Please join us left-brained and right-brained donors, funders and advisors at New England International Donors, if you haven’t already! 

 

Thank you to my many invaluable advisors and friends:  Charlie Walsh and John Przyblyski of Federal Street Advisors; Paula Johnson of The Philanthropic Initiative and New England International Donors; Kate Guedj and Christopher Harris of the Boston Foundation; Sara Hall of New Philanthropy Advisors; Anne Ellinger of Bolder Giving; and Jule Meyer of Oxfam America.  It clearly has taken a village of advisors to raise a right-brained donor like me!