When feminist writer Courtney Martin wanted to raise money to fund research into the future of online feminism, it made sense to turn to other women for funding.
She called in Jacquelyn Zehner, chief executive of Women Moving Millions, a philanthropic organization made up primarily of women who have donated at least $1 million each to women's causes. Ms. Zehner arranged for a conference call with a small group of wealthy women and Ms. Martin this spring.
"They responded immediately and enthusiastically," said Martin. In a month, this audience raised $24,000 to fund the research. For Martin, it was a satisfying and natural extension of some of her earlier activities. In 2006, she created The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy, an annual gathering that began with a gift of $100 each to 10 friends, with instructions to give it away and then tell how.
Welcome to the world of female philanthropy – it's not your father's United Way.
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"Women are taking ownership," said Andrea Pactor, associate director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, which has found that female-headed households are more likely to give to charity than male-headed households, and that in nearly all income groups women give more than men.
Women are exerting a greater influence on how philanthropy is done as they accumulate wealth and use their clout to change the way funds are raised and distributed. Roughly 1 million women in the United States each have assets of at least $2 million, according to 2007 Internal Revenue Service data, the most recent available. Wealth controlled by charitably minded women can be expected to grow as they build careers and inherit money from their parents and their husbands.
As more women give, they are likely to change not only what is funded but how they raise money, because female philanthropists often prefer to raise money in a group.
Three years ago, the Red Cross raised the ante in its women's program, called the Tiffany Circle, to $100,000 a year, and pulled in 61 new members the first night.
"We raised over $6 million in 30 seconds," said Melanie Sabelhaus, a former deputy administrator at the Small Business Administration who heads the Tiffany Circle, "and not one of the women picked up the phone and asked her husband."
Another group, the Women Donors Network, has 175 members who combine individual gifts in the $100,000 to $200,000 range and give $200 million a year to women's causes. And Women Moving Millions, after five years, has more than 150 members.
Insiders say women have their own culture in grant-making.
"We really believe the solution lies with the people on the ground. We don't think we have all the answers," said Zehner of Women Moving Millions.
For example, the Global Fund for Women (GFW), unlike most grant-givers, accepts handwritten proposals of any length and in any language, and is unusually open to grants for general purposes rather than specific projects. It also funds meetings to create networks of women activists.
The approach demonstrated its power during Egypt's Arab Spring, said Christine Switzer, GFW's director of development. "Our women were able to mobilize together," she said, pointing to 77 grants totaling more than $1 million GFW has given to Egyptian women, young and old.
Women have also helped establish a new model for medical research grants. For example, lupus, an autoimmune disease, typically hits women of child-bearing age, and often strikes minorities. Research was at a standstill in the late 1990s, so the lupus community created the Lupus Research Institute in 2000 to give small grants to fund experimental research on projects not necessarily likely to pay off quickly.
Few private groups were doing anything like it at the time.
"We were open with each other about our frustration, and that led us to be able to take risks," said lupus activist Jennie DeScherer. Now the foundation is going international, and the small-grant approach has spread.
It is obvious that with everyone glued to their cellphones, nonprofits would miss out if donors couldn't text money. But the United States lagged Europe in mobile donations until American women broke the logjam.
A $34.7 million Red Cross text campaign to aid victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake was put together by a team of women that included a special adviser at the State Department, leaders at the Red Cross, and Jenifer Snyder, a lawyer who created the platform with women technologists.
Snyder spent two years working out financial arrangements that are still in place with carriers. For every $100 texted, $93 goes to the charity, $6 covers costs, and $1 is donated to the mGive foundation, which Snyder co-founded to vet nonprofits and help them use texting imaginatively, not just for fund-raising.
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The text-for-Haiti effort wasn't the first time that women innovated in the field of philanthropy. Giving circles were embraced in 1991 by the Ms. Foundation, and they have caught on and stuck. Members decide together where to give their dollars. Many groups don't stipulate how much each person must contribute. Community foundations often manage the money.
Female philanthropists now are also establishing private family foundations and donor-advised funds to funnel money to the charities they care about most.
But the real surge in woman's philanthropy may be yet to come.
"I'm waiting for the whole women's funds movement to come to scale, understanding the interchange between economic security and health and civil rights and violence," Zehner said.
When that day comes, expect a mobile-giving campaign, and a whole lot of lucrative conference calls.
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Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is all about action, whether it’s on a film set or working to terminate fossil fuels.
“When I was governor, I believed in the important role government played in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but I also knew that leadership was not going to come at a national level,” now former Governor Schwarzenegger said in a statement to The Christian Science Monitor.
This idea – that local and state-level efforts can more effectively combat climate change than complex international agreements – led Schwarzenegger to found R20 Regions of Climate Action. The nonprofit organization counts states, cities, financial institutions, foundations, and various United Nations programs as its members, partners, and observers.
The year-old group isn't waiting for political gridlock to break free or national laws to be passed – obstacles that can block needed actions in the United States and around the world, Schwarzenegger says.
Not that Schwarzenegger opposes government action. While governor, he signed legislation for several environmental initiatives, including the Hydrogen Highway, the Million Solar Roofs Initiative, and the Global Warming Solutions Act.
“I worked with governors in other states to create the Western Climate Initiative, and then I worked with leaders in the European Union and Canada to launch the International Carbon Action Partnership. And the results were unbelievable,” Schwarzenegger says.
These efforts have made a difference, he says. The average Californian now uses only 6,700-kilowatt hours of electricity per year, compared with the national average of 12,000, Schwarzenegger says.
State, local, and private climate initiatives are important. According to the United Nations Development Program, between 50 percent and 80 percent of the actions to reduce carbon emissions happen at the “sub-national level.”
Enter R20. Through its Green Finance Network, the nonprofit helps state and local governments, as well as financial institutes, pair with green technology companies to increase energy efficiency and sustainability. More than 100 financial institutions, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in the Philippines, participate in R20.
“We are the marriage brokers between government, finance, and green technologies. It’s a well-kept secret that what’s good for the environment is good for the economy,” says Terry Tamminen, strategic adviser to the founding chair of the R20.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified Mr. Tamminen's role at R20.]
For example, General Electric plans to build the largest solar-panel factory in the United States. GE is already one of the world’s primary manufacturers of wind turbines. In China, WestTech just joined R20. Its solar-thermal products are about 60 percent more effective than any other products out there, Mr. Tamminen says.
The Chinese "recognize their future is in saving energy. They know they can’t gobble up fossil fuels without choking to death,” says Tamminen, the
former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency under Schwarzenegger.
“Companies and organizations were frustrated with so many years of inaction – or slow action – at the political level,” says Jeffrey Hunter of Sustainia. “They agreed a new approach was needed. Sustainia is that new approach – a sustainability movement that's attractive to normal people.”
Sustainia aims to dissuade people from imitating Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” when they think about climate change. In short, it doesn't talk about melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. Instead, Sustania wants people to realize sustainability won’t lower their living standards and is economically viable.
“A stronger 'bottom-up' movement is needed if we want sustainable societies faster than the world's governments are giving them to us,” Mr. Hunter says.
While eco-friendly and energy-efficient technology may initially cost more, prices come down as production steps up. Renewable energy and energy efficiency result in more long-term savings.
“And that’s what R20 is all about: It’s about action,” Schwarzenegger says.
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It’s easy to talk about the importance of the commons in grand terms – vast stretches of breathtaking wilderness, publicly funded advances in science and technology, essential cultural and civic institutions, the air and water which we all depend on for survival.
But let’s not forget the lowly commons all around that enliven and enrich our lives. Things like sidewalks, playgrounds, community gardens, murals, neighborhood hang-outs, and vacant lots. Especially vacant lots.
Modern society’s obsession with efficiency, productivity, and purposefulness sometimes blind us to the epic possibilities of empty spaces that aren’t serving any profitable economic function. The word “vacant” itself implies that these places are devoid of value.
In many places today commoners are working to make sure that vacant lots can delight successive generations of kids.
But think back to all the imaginative uses you could discover for vacant land as a kid. In my neighborhood we squeezed a baseball diamond, 6-hole golf course, horseshoe pit, and vegetable garden (right behind the third base line) into the lot behind my house. My dad mowed the expanse of weeds every week, but it belonged to every kid in the neighborhood. All summer long, we’d gather there after breakfast to plot our adventures for the day.
In the back of my mind I always knew that someone else owned the land and that some sad day a house would rise where we swung five-irons on bumpy fairways and picked ripe cantaloupes, but I am so grateful it was ours for a while.
Thankfully, in many places today commoners are working to make sure that vacant lots can delight successive generations of kids.
Jonathan Rowe, who wrote with keen insight and love about the commons until his death last year, became a champion of shared public space in his town, Point Reyes, Calif., where several vacant lots on Main Street serve as social hubs for the community.
The 596 acres website offers detailed information on how to begin the process of turning vacant lots into community commons.
Rowe and his colleague Elizabeth Barnet of the West Marin Commons highlighted the importance of these privately owned spaces, and the threat that one day they may disappear from the public realm. Just a few months before his death, the group secured a long-term lease for land at the corner of Main and 4th, which is now commonly called Jon Rowe Park.
Even more ambitious is the 596 Acres project, which identified every last parcel of publicly owned vacant land in Brooklyn with an eye to opening them up to the community for gardens and informal parks. The project is now expanding across the city, and the 596 acres website offers detailed information on how to begin the process of turning vacant lots (including those now locked behind fences or privately owned) into community commons.
• Jay Walljasper is a contributing editor to YES! Magazine, author of All That We Share, a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler, a senior fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, a contributor to Shareable.net, and editor of OnTheCommons.org, where this article originally appeared.
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When it dawned on Milo Cress that restaurants were constantly serving drinks with a plastic straw, whether he wanted one or not, he thought about what a waste that was – and decided to do something about it.
But he was not your average activist or even restaurant consumer. He was nine years old.
In February 2011, Milo set to work. He approached Leunig's Bistro in Burlington, Vt., where he lived, to see if it would consider offering straws to customers instead of serving them automatically.
"The goal is to reduce the use and waste of plastic straws that go into our landfill, and to encourage restaurants to adopt an "offer-first policy," says Milo, now 10.
Leunig's said yes immediately, and Milo's' BeStrawFree campaign has snowballed ever since.
"Now there are restaurants all over. There's a big restaurant chain in Canada, and restaurants across the country. Thousands of restaurants," he says. "People in more than 30 countries are interested and are participating."
Giving out disposable plastic straws is so common that, according to Simply Straws, more than 500 million of them are used in the United States every day. (That doesn't include straws attached to juice boxes.)
To put it another way: Over a lifetime, the average American will use nearly 40,000 straws. That's a lot of plastic, considering the material never breaks down, is made from the same stuff that fuels our carbon-spewing vehicles, and its chemicals are turning up in the most unexpected places, including remote ocean locales and in human bloodstreams.
Trine Wilson of Leunig's estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of its customers – who range from about 250 to 700 daily, depending on the season – do ask for a straw. Otherwise, she says, "Most people are really fine with it and supportive of it, or don't even notice it. And then if they do ask for a straw, they certainly appreciate the effort [to reduce plastic waste]."
That's typical. Once restaurants start offering straws first, Milo says, they see a reduction of about 50 to 80 percent – which means a cost savings as well as a reduction in plastic use.
At least one restaurant has taken the practice a step further: Sneakers Bistro in Winooski, Vt., simply doesn't offer straws, although it does keep them on hand for people who request them.
In the last year and a half, Milo has met with the mayor of Burlington and members of Congress, persuaded the National Restaurant Association to recognize "offer-first" as a best practice, and spoken at conferences across the country. He has an inexplicably large following in South Korea: His mother, Odale Cress, says he will be featured in next year's edition of a textbook there.
The Cresses are even more excited about the latest development for BeStrawFree: a partnership with Eco-Cycle, a Boulder, Colo.-based waste-reduction organization. The goal is to expand the campaign even further.
Just how far BeStrawFree has reached to date is hard to say. Ms. Cress says they've stopped keeping track because the letters of interest, and the restaurants participating, have skyrocketed.
"People will email us when they go traveling and say, 'I was in this little tiny town, and people said there was a little kid in America who started this,' " says Ms. Cress. "That’s so cool to hear, but we don’t keep track anymore."
It's a win-win for restaurants and the environment because when straws are served to customers who don't want them, Milo says, "they simply become very expensive plastic trash."
"I'm not out to ban plastic straws," he said in June at a conference in Boulder, Colo. "Just cut back on them. Way back, if possible."
Three affluent families are forming a fund with the purpose of raising $30 million to support programs that serve military veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America announced today.
The families have donated more than $1 million and plan to seek contributions especially from other wealthy people, including those without personal connections to any service members.
Philip Green, president of PDG Consulting, a health-care consultancy, and his wife, Elizabeth Cobbs, chief of geriatrics at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C., joined with their friends Glenn and Laurie Garland and with the Jim Stimmel family to create the fund, Mr. Green said in an interview with The Chronicle.
The money raised for the new Veterans Support Fund will be funneled to five nonprofits that help returning service members and their families.
In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which will operate the fund and conduct fundraising for it, the other beneficiaries include the National Military Family Association, Operation Homefront, Operation Mend, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Mr. Green and Ms. Cobb have donated $600,000 to start the fund, and the Garland and Stimmel families have each contributed $250,000.
Michelle McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the fund will focus fundraising appeals on people who can give at least $250,000, but will accept donations of any size.
The announcement of the fund comes at a crucial time. A recent Chronicle article reported that many charities that serve veterans are desperate for money.
The impetus for the Veterans Support Fund came from Mr. Green and his wife, who said they realized how fortunate they were that their three grown children were not involved in the wars and came to believe that soldiers and their families are owed a special debt.
“The message we’re trying to communicate to these families is this is a moral obligation rather than a decision to give a charitable donation,” Mr. Green said. “This is different because you really have a moral obligation to give, you actually owe [military families] money.”
When Evelyn Mukami, a form three student, joined Gachoire Girls Secondary School in January 2010, she was very surprised to learn how the meals at her school were prepared.
The charcoal and firewood that are typically used for cooking in Kenya were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the kitchens cooked with biogas produced from the students’ own toilet waste.
Since 2006, biogas has been a key resource for the 36-year-old school in Central Kenya, saving the expense of buying fuel and emptying latrines, while also preserving a significant number of trees and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood.
In the process, Gachoire has become a model of how the effects of climate change can be mitigated at the local level.
“If all schools, both primary and secondary, took up this initiative, I think after a few years we can count how much carbon we have saved from the atmosphere by sparing the trees and our forests,” said Esther Lung’ai, a local project officer at the Arid Lands Information Network, a nongovernmental organization.
Lung’ai added that she had eaten food from the school kitchen and there was nothing in the taste to indicate that it had been cooked using by-products of human waste.
Waste from toilets at the school is deposited into large pipes and pumped automatically into a bio-digester buried underground. Bacteria are added to break down the waste, and gas is produced as a by-product of this process. A pipe transfers the gas from the digester to the kitchen, which is about 200 metres (220 yards) away.
When the bio-digester is full, excess water and waste go to other chambers called breeders. As gas is used up, the water and waste in the breeders return to the digester for further processing. After the waste has been fully digested, remnants are stored in tanks from which they can be collected and dried to produce fertilizer.
Peter Muraya, a teacher who was involved in the project from its inception, said the bio-digester was built with the school’s planned expansion in mind. It has a volume of 21,000 litres (about 5,500 US gallons).
“When we started we had around 600 students,” Muraya explained. “But now we have 849 students and the number is increasing each year. So the bio-digester is large enough to supply the gas to the kitchen” for all the children’s needs.
The Gachoire biofuel project was initially funded by the European Union.
The project is saving wood that would otherwise be needed to cook the school meals. Muraya said that Gachoire previously bought three lorryloads of firewood for each three-month school term.
“That was 21 tons of wood, which would translate into 50 mature trees,” said Muraya. This means that the school is now conserving 150 mature trees every year that would otherwise have been felled to cook for the students and staff.
Gachoire’s principal, Naomi Njihia, said the school has been able to save more than 10,000 Kenyan shillings (about $117) each month on fuel.
“It is very helpful,” said Njihia. “The school has also saved money by (not having to empty) the pit latrines.”
Samuel Githumbe, a Gachoire cook who has worked at schools that used wood for cooking, believes that cooking with biogas has a number of advantages over firewood.
“This gas is very fast,” he said. “If you have a big number of people to cook for, the work is faster, you don’t waste time splitting the firewood, and besides that the gas does not produce smoke that is dangerous to the health and the eyes.”
Githumbe, who was born locally, has also seen the negative consequences for the environment of using fuel wood. He says the climate of the area today is different from when he was young.
The hills across from the school are treeless, cleared for firewood, farming, and construction by the growing population. This has allowed strong winds to destroy crops, while floods wash away the soil during heavy rains, according to Githumbe.
The school has been able to preserve four acres of its own woodland that without the biogas project would eventually have been felled for fuel. School officials say that the trees not only absorb carbon dioxide but help create a cooler microclimate around the school.
Gachoire is also growing vegetables on school land. There are plans to produce fertilizer from the by-products of the biogas production.
The project has excited the communities around the school. When it began, the school hung a banner at the gate, and local residents came to see how the bio-gas was being produced, according to Muraya.
Now they have started producing their own biogas at the household level, using animal dung.
“The whole world ... is talking about climate change,” Muraya said. “But many people are just giving lip service. I know in our small way we are helping to address the impact of climate change by saving the trees and using this clean energy source.”
Student Evelyn Mukami is now gathering youths from her church and the community to tell them how human waste can save the trees.
“I can tell the world that the waste we produce is really not a waste, but we can combine it to produce biogas,” she said.
Samuel Githumbe put it even more bluntly.
“I urge every person here to start using biogas so that we can save our environment,” he said.
• Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Though the company's beta test was invitation only, the service spread by word of mouth, and SideCar enjoyed high numbers of repeat participants in both the driver's and passenger's seats. The peer-to-peer ride-sharing service claims to be more than just a platform — it's being dubbed a transportation community which brings one more option into the shareable transportation fray.
Using the free SideCar mobile app, drivers and passengers can find each other instantaneously and share on-demand rides. Rather than call a cab, riders can use their smartphones to find a SideCar ride. Passengers use the app to set their pick-up and drop-off locations, then track their SideCar driver in real-time to get an estimated pick-up time.
The app also tracks progress to destination in real-time, offers a constantly adjusted ETA, and lets riders easily message arrival information to those at the destination. I especially like the progress tracker that uses mapping software. It offers added assurance that you're actually headed in the right direction.
The mobile app includes sharing and rating features (for both riders and drivers), as well as an electronic tip jar so the rider can help cover the driver's expenses. SideCar is finding that the contributions often cover drivers' vehicle maintenance and operation costs. And voluntary online donations keep the service within the definition of ride-sharing instead of a taxi service, though the latter is exactly what Sidecar aims to disrupt.
But, as SideCar driver Eric Janson notes, it's not all about the money: “I started out driving to cover the cost of my car, but now I just love meeting all the interesting people this city has to offer. I often see the same people, and I'm getting to know them. It’s more fun than you can imagine at first. The other great thing is I can log in to the app whenever it suits me, so it’s completely flexible for my schedule.”
To bolster trust and safety of all concerned, SideCar offers a number of impressive features. They seem to have taken this aspect of the service quite seriously, and for good reason given high-profile incidents at sharing economy leaders Airbnb and RelayRides. For passengers' safety, SideCar offers:
- Criminal background checks for all drivers.
- Confirmed drivers license and screening of DMV records.
- Interviews with all drivers before allowing them onto the system.
- The location of the vehicle is tracked by GPS. This location is recorded by SideCar and the passenger can also share this.
- Tracking with friends during your ride.
- Passengers rate drivers, and SideCar investigates any low ratings and removes members who get consistently bad feedback.
- Photos of the driver and the car are provided through the app.
For drivers, SideCar encourages civility by passengers in a few ways:
- No anonymity: a valid credit card and smartphone are required to be a part of the community.
- Drivers rate passengers, and repeat offenders are removed from the community.
- No cash changes hands.
SideCar's CEO and co-founder, Sunil Paul, boasts, “SideCar is more than just the easiest way to get around the city. We have created a platform for the first-ever crowd-sourced transportation network. With SideCar we can help reduce urban congestion, fight climate change, and bring back a sense of community and connection to our cities.”
How will Ethiopian farmers cope with the climatic conditions that are likely to prevail in 20 or 30 years time? One of the answers lies in an unexpected place: the genetic diversity of crops stored in the country’s own gene banks.
Traditionally, gene banks have been established to store material for plant breeders to use when developing new varieties, not for direct distribution of seeds to farmers.
However, a new project led by Bioversity International, a center of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is reconnecting farmers with landraces. These are varieties developed by farmers over millennia – but never been bred by scientists – that have been largely lost from the landscape.
Researchers working with the "Seeds for Needs" project, which is jointly implemented with Ethiopia's Institute for Biodiversity Conservation and the National Agricultural Research Institute, have developed a tool to help farmers choose varieties to suit their future needs.
The research initially focused on providing new varieties of barley and durum wheat to 100 women farmers at three sites of varying elevation.
During the first phase of the project, information about more than 12,500 samples of seeds of different varieties was gathered to identify the ones from areas currently experiencing the climatic conditions – in terms of rainfall and temperature – projected to occur at the pilot sites in a generation’s time.
The most promising 100 varieties of each crop were then tested on-farm by the women, using their land and labor.
After the first growing season, the women selected the varieties with the traits they considered most valuable. These were then distributed to other women within their communities to be grown during the next cropping season.
Even though the women did not specifically choose varieties for their ability to cope with future climatic conditions, the initial selection provided them with a range of seeds and options that they didn't have before.
"If they grow a few varieties that are tolerant of climate change, then they will be in better shape to face the future than they would be otherwise," said Laura Snook, an expert on forest genetic resources with Bioversity.
The project “is also drawing the attention of agricultural ministries and research institutions to the important role gene banks can play in climate change adaptation strategies," she said.
In Papua New Guinea, farmers and scientists are using a similar methodology to identify varieties of sweet potato and yam – both crops that can’t be stored or sown as seed and are instead reproduced as clones of the parent plan t– that will help farmers cope with climate change. ‘Seeds for Needs’ projects have also been launched in Mali and India.
While in some areas of the world farmers will be able to adapt to climate change by switching the crop breeds they use, in other areas they may have to plant different crops altogether. In Colombia, for example, farmers in some regions have had to abandon growing coffee due to rising temperatures and are now planting crops such as peppers and pineapples.
In other areas, farmers may have to abandon activities altogether if the climate becomes too harsh for farming. The CGIAR, through its research program under Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), is working worldwide to understand not only how climate change will impact crops, fisheries, livestock, and forests, but also to help develop and disseminate the best opportunities for farmers to adapt to, and help mitigate, climate change.
• Charlie Pye-Smith is a science writer for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS).
Programmers in San Francisco and Berlin got together recently to attempt to build a system that would allow immigrants to tell their families they’ve arrived safely at their destination without anyone else finding out.
All of them were volunteers, willing to lend their technological expertise to nonprofits and causes.
These projects and others were part of the “Random Hacks of Kindness” weekend, a twice-yearly, 36-hour work session for designers, programmers, and technology experts to solve problems facing nonprofits and other organizations interested in doing good. The most recent events, held this month in 25 cities worldwide, drew 900 participants, according to organizer SecondMuse, a consulting firm that works with companies and individuals on better ways to collaborate.
The event spawned from a 2009 “crisis camp” in Washington that focused on ways technology could help in natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, says Elizabeth Walker Sabet, a consultant at SecondMuse and an organizer of Random Hacks. At that event, employees of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, the World Bank, and NASA decided to work together to start regular “hackathon” events to put ideas in to action.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency joined in support and helped create software at the first Random Hacks of Kindness event that was later used to help Haiti and Chile following earthquakes in those countries.
From there, the events grew.
“The community really took over,” says Ms. Sabet. “There was an outpouring of interest from all over the world.”
Groups in different cities have gathered for six weekends—one in June, one in December each year—generating about 229 solutions to 444 proposed problems. The events are entirely paid for with donations from private sources and organized by local volunteers, helped with logistics by SecondMuse.
Local groups of technology experts are always looking for problems to solve, Ms. Sabet says, and are happy to work with nonprofits. All those groups need to do is submit their problem online and be prepared to do some work to sketch out what they need.
During the weekend of the hackathon, nonprofits work with the technology experts to explain more about what problem they need to solve to help guide the solution.
“That’s what gets people so excited about volunteering their time,” says Ms. Sabet. “The most rewarding thing we consistently hear back from the programmers is, ‘It was so amazing to be able to work with this nonprofit that knows the situation on the ground.’ ”
• In a video, Ms. Sabet explains how nonprofits can get involved with a local Random Hacks of Kindness weekend.
For a man who has spent most of his life cracking jokes, Myanmar's most famous comedian and political dissident, Zarganar, has a sober view of the world and takes his self-appointed role as a custodian of the past seriously.
Since his release from jail in October under an amnesty for political prisoners, Zarganar has focused on ways of ensuring the atrocities of the past are recorded and not forgotten by future generations.
Zarganar hopes a similar center can be built in Myanmar (formerly Burma), perhaps by 2013. It would be a test of the Southeast Asian country's transition from military rule to democracy, since many of those implicated in the abuses are still in power today.
"As we embark on the democratization process, 1988, 1990, 2007, and 2008 are four historical years we cannot forget," Zarganar, whose real name is Ko Thura, told AlertNet.
"We need to document what happened," he said, denying that revenge was a motivation.
"We know who committed those atrocities, but we don't want revenge. We have a saying that you shouldn't retaliate [against] hostility with hostility. It would be a vicious cycle. We won’t be able to move forward."
Zarganar said individuals should no longer face being thrown into jail or being forced to take up arms because of their political beliefs.
"We can forgive but it's impossible to forget what happened because we were the ones who suffered," he said.
In 1998, soldiers from the military junta that ruled former Burma for nearly 50 years following a 1962 coup gunned down hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy students and protesters, arresting hundreds more.
Two years later, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won the 1990 election by a landslide but was never allowed to take power.
There were pro-democracy protests again in 2007, with Buddhist monks leading the so-called Saffron Revolution. It was brutally quashed with scores of monks and civilians killed and arrested.
Zarganar, who had been a focal point for the informal relief effort by private citizens into the delta, was sentenced in 2008 to 59 years in prison after criticizing the junta for its slow response to the cyclone.
Clad in a white T-shirt and colorful shorts, and sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of his living room in Yangon, Zarganar said he hopes the new center would record past and present events, from revolutions to land grabs and rights abuses.
"There's a village in Monywa where a company is trying to evict the villagers. We've gone there and documented what's going on," he said proudly.
Scrutiny of donor aid
Zarganar's voice croaked from overwork and he apologized for the state of his apartment – with books and papers scattered on the floor and no furniture in the living room – and the constant ringing of his mobile phone.
He's been busy. In January he organized Myanmar's first film festival and screened a documentary about the military's crackdown on the 2007 protests, an unprecedented event in a country previously known for its iron-like grip on the media and intolerance of dissent.
He continues to call for the release of more than 470 remaining political prisoners. He’s also providing money, food, and clothing to current and former political prisoners and their families who are struggling to make a living.
He set up a company to produce documentaries, is involved in a biopic about Myanmar's founding father, General Aung San, and travels abroad and within the country extensively, taking his messages to international donors and the Burmese diaspora.
Zarganar had a specific appeal to foreign donors looking to ramp up their assistance to a country where a third of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.
"Please scrutinize carefully to ensure that the money gets to the people who are actually doing the work," he said, adding that civil society in Myanmar is still in its infancy.
The Burmese have seen Zarganar transformed from a dentistry student telling jokes at university fairs to a successful comedian and national treasure, and now a fierce critic of the government.
Despite his outspokenness against the government, he said it was equally important to applaud the authorities when they did something right.
For example, last year, in what was one of the first signs of Myanmar's new era, President Thein Sein bowed to public pressure and cancelled the Myitsone dam being built on the Irrawaddy River by the Chinese. Power generated from the $3.6 billion project would have gone to neighboring China.
"That was good, and we should encourage them to do more good things like that," Zarganar said.
He still has misgivings towards the year-old nominally civilian government, especially over its treatment of former and current political prisoners, but said the situation in Myanmar has improved vastly.
The government has been lauded by the international community for introducing unprecedented reforms since coming to power last year. Its efforts to reform have also prompted the European Union and the United States to suspend their sanctions.
"There's a lot more opportunity to do things and more authority to speak," he said.
"I was only released from prison seven months ago. I've been working nonstop since. Some say I'm going too fast. But I think I'm actually quite slow," Zarganar concluded. "I have a handicap – I spent 11 years in prison."
• You can read the full interview on AlertNet.