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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

A farmer uses a foot pump to irrigate his crops in Mwingi, Kenya. Foot pumps are useful in areas where electricity is unavailable but still have a limited capacity. Solar-powered irrigation pumps, such as one being developed by SunWater, could greatly increase crop yields. (Ken Oloo/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Reuters/File)

Solar pumps could boost farm yields in poor countries

By Kyla YeomanGlobal Envision / 06.07.13

A guest post by Paul Polak, author, “Out of Poverty,” and founder of International Development Enterprises:

What if we could harness the limitless power of the sun to carry water to the crops of millions of small poor farmers around the world?

If I want to water my petunias, I turn on the tap outside my house, hold my thumb over the end of a battered green hose, and water away.

If a small farmer in Ghana or China wants to water a small patch of vegetables he’s growing to sell in the local market, he breaks his back hauling water in two buckets or sprinkling cans from a nearby stream. It takes six hours a day every other day for three months to water a tenth of an acre of vegetables which might sell for $100 at the most.

The 1 billion of the world’s rural poor want out of poverty.

But to escape poverty they need to grow more cash crops to increase their income. The only way to grow more cash crops is to pump water. The current ways of doing it don’t work very well.

Foot pumps, diesel pumps, and solar pumps

A foot-operated pump that costs $25 will irrigate as much as half an acre with about four hours a day of work to earn a transformative $100 or more in profit. But it’s hard work, and anybody in his right mind would prefer to use a mechanized pump if he were able to afford it.

A five-horsepower diesel pump irrigates two-and-a-half acres of vegetables, but costs $350. And $450 a year for diesel [fuel], plus another $150 a year for repairs means $2,100 over the course of three years, not counting the cost of crop damage when the diesel pump requires repair.

It’s just too expensive for poor farmers.

But what if the same farmer could use a 2-kilowatt electric pump powered by solar photovoltaic panels instead? The fuel costs and operating costs would be close to zero, but there’s a big catch. It would cost about $7,000.

Most small farmers in Asia and Africa could never afford to buy an electric pump either.

What if we could find a way to cut the cost of a 2-kilowatt solar pump system from$7,000 to $2,500? And what if we added a $1,400, 2.5-acre low-cost drip system and used the solar pump/drip system to grow 2.5 acres of diversified off-season fruits, vegetables, and spices? If done correctly, farmers could clear at least $4,500.

That’s enough to make payments on a three-year loan or lease and make a profit.


The SunWater project aims to achieve breakthrough affordability for photovoltaic pumping and irrigation, enabling small farmers all over the world to move out of poverty. Farmers using these pumps will also provide jobs for their neighbors to plant, weed, harvest, and market the crops they grow.

Today, 19 million diesel engines are being used to pump irrigation water from shallow wells in India alone, spewing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. If marketplace forces could replace a quarter of them with radically affordable photovoltaic-powered pump systems, we could transform small farmer livelihoods and radically reduce rural carbon emissions.

The team is developing a two-kilowatt solar-powered pumping system that can do the same job as a five-horsepower diesel pump, the most commonly used size. We’re taking a whole-systems approach, for example, using mirrors to concentrate the sun and bring down the cost of the solar cell.

The pumped water cools the solar cells, which increases their efficiency. An inverter is hooked up so it can use AC pump motors, which are widely available and cheap. Then we tune the mirrors, solar cells, cooling system, and pump so that it gives the right output for the right cost.

These pumps only pump during the day, but they don’t use diesel fuel, and they rarely break down. The SunWater system also has very low operating costs compared to a diesel pump.

The system will cost $2,500 instead of $7,000, and when paired with a low-cost, efficient drip-irrigation system, a farmer can pay it off in two years. The quick payback time makes all the difference for those living in poverty. What’s more, once the system is paid off, there is no fuel to buy.

At this price, the solar pumping systems should fly off the shelves.

In India, the government has a 20 percent subsidy on these systems, so the cost for farmers is actually closer to $2,000.

SunWater will transform water pumping for farmers in developing nations by bringing electricity to a billion people who will never connect to the grid.

To learn more about SunWater technology, visit the team's Indiegogo SunWater site.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

Women in Niger beat stems of millet in Salewa village, about 250 miles from the capital Niamey. Aid groups have begun women-run cereal banks to help ensure steady grain supplies year round in the drought-prone Sahel region of Africa. (Samuel de Jaegere/Reuters/File)

Cereal banks empower women and fight famine in Africa's Sahel region

By Caitlin AylwardNourishing the Planet / 06.06.13

Drought and high food prices in 2012 threatened the food security of more than 18 million people in the Sahel region of Africa, which includes parts of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, and northern Nigeria.

The Sahel is prone to drought, and is becoming increasingly so with climate change. Consequently the people in this region are experiencing more frequent bouts of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Fortunately, organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP) and Care are joining forces to create all-women-managed cereal banks in villages throughout the Sahel that not only help protect against seasonal famine, but also empower women as agents of food security in their communities.

Cereal banks are community-led grain distribution projects that store grain after harvests and then loan grain when food is scarce during what is known as the "lean season."

In 2009, WFP and Care established exclusively women-operated cereal banks to help ensure the availability of grain supplies year round. These community cereal banks loan grain below market price, helping protect against market speculation and enabling even the poorest women to purchase food for their families during times of scarcity. The women are expected to repay the loans, but at very low interest rates and only after they have harvested their own crops.

WFP and Care also fund educational enrichment programs that give lessons to women in arithmetic, reading, and writing, which give women the skills needed to manage the village granaries, including bookkeeping, monitoring stocks, and administering loans.

Education is of critical importance for the advancement of women in the developing world. As the Girl Effect reports, an extra year of primary school results in an increase in women’s eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent, while an extra year of secondary school increases potential wages by 15 to 25 percent.

Given women’s traditional role as primary caregivers who invest 90 percent of their incomes into their families (as compared to the 30 to 40 percent invested by men), it makes sense to employ them as managers of community cereal banks.

“Women traditionally feed the village; we know when our children and neighbors are hungry,” says cereal bank treasurer Sakina Hassan, “Our intimate knowledge of hunger drives our management of the cereal bank.”

Cereal banks decrease communities’ dependence on unpredictable weather and provide villages with a much needed safety net during times of drought and famine. In addition to emergency food relief programs, these cereal banks helped save thousands of families throughout the region from hunger and malnutrition during the most recent food crisis in the Sahel

These community granaries have also led to improved educational opportunities for women, empowering them to better provide for their families and their communities.

• Caitlin Aylward is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

• This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

Bangladeshi economist and founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus, arrives at the Clinton Global Initiative Reception in New York in September 2011. In trying to improve technology – or societies – 'if we imagine it, it will happen,' he says. (Allison Joyce/Reuters/File)

If sci-fi spurs technology, can 'social fiction' spark change?

By Laurie GoeringThomson Reuters Foundation / 06.05.13

Ever notice how the gadgets of science fiction – the personal communications devices, the 3-D copy machines, the killer drones – become reality in time? Putting an idea out in the public imagination is the first step to making it real, says Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the microcredit movement.

“Every day, we see what used to be impossible become possible, and routine,” he says.

So why is social change harder to achieve than technological change? In part because there are fewer visions available of what a better future would look like, he argues.

“Science follow science fiction, but we don’t have social fiction, so society doesn’t move as much,” he noted while receiving an award for his life’s achievements at the Skoll World Forum gathering in Oxford, England, this week [April 10]. If more movies, television series, and other media could be created to help people envision better future societies, “I bet we’ll create the societies,” he said.

He urged people trying to improve society to follow their instincts, to notice small chanced-upon things that spur ideas, and not to be afraid to move forward with half-baked ideas.

His microcredit revolution – providing tiny loans at market interest rates to the world’s poorest, helping them escape what he termed a “slavery” relationship with loan sharks – came about by accident when he discovered, while talking to a bamboo weaver in a village in his native Bangladesh, that he could pay off the debts that were crushing her and limiting her income to 2 cents a day with the change in his pocket.

That day he paid the debts of 43 village women – a total of $27 – and his idea was born.

Many great social enterprises come from such moments, not from careful business plans, he said.

“You persuade yourself along the way that what you do is right,” he said.

He pointed to the example of another honoree, Salman Amid Khan, who spent two years in a closet in California creating video lectures for students on math topics, science, and history, then putting them all online, free, under the name Khan Academy.

Today his lectures, translated into dozens of languages, are used by everyone from Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ children to orphans in Mongolia, giving everyone in the world with Internet access the possibility of having the same high-quality education.

Now “we need only one global university – the best,” Yunus said.

In trying to improve technology – or societies – “if we imagine it, it will happen,” he promised.

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. The foundation provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

Members of VietUnity in Oakland, Calif., hold a planning session. The group brings Vietnamese-identified people together to work on issues that members have identified as most important to their daily lives, including affordable housing, education, employment, and gang and domestic violence. (Courtesty of VietUnity)

2013 Torchlight Prize honors grass-roots US community groups

By Staff writer / 06.04.13

When people are in extreme need, their ability to help themselves may be severely limited. Finding food and shelter alone may be an overwhelming task. In these cases, outside aid groups must take the lead and offer a vital helping hand.

But most poor people in the United States aren't in crisis; they're struggling, but they have a capacity and desire to help themselves. The Torchlight Prize, a project of the Family Independence Initiative now in its second year, recognizes homegrown groups that are finding their own unique ways of solving community problems.

“Too often in this country, low-income families are stereotyped as shiftless swindlers or helpless victims,” says Mia Birdsong, vice president of the Family Independence Initiative (FII), in announcing this year's winners. “The Torchlight Prize is changing this narrative. It showcases the knowledge, skills, and initiative that exists in under-resourced communities, and the tremendous contributions they make to our country as innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.” 

Four grass-roots community groups around the US will each receive a no-strings-attached prize of $10,000 over the next two years.

"The Torchlight Prize really shows us that there are solutions being developed and tested in communities," Ms. Birdsong said in a Monitor interview last week. The idea, she says, is to inspire other communities to act by showing, "Hey, look what's possible if we work together."

For a dozen years the nonprofit FII has emphasized this grass-roots, family-led approach to improving the lives of low-income families.

The idea? The movers and shakers should be those in need themselves, with the FII acting only as a resource. If a charitable group such as the FII announces that it will "invite the community to the table," that sounds like the community members are still only guests at the party, Birdsong says. "They really should be the hosts. It's not about including them, or asking them. It's about the leadership that exists in families and communities, and us following them."

In the dance with FII, the community group takes the lead. "Over and over again, what we find is that if you stop directing people, and you create space for their own leadership to emerge, they move forward," she says. "We've demonstrated this in four cities across the country with probably a thousand families … thousands of folks."

This year's Torchlight Prize winners, announced today, are Camp Congo Square in New Orleans; Freedom Inc., in Madison, Wis., Somos Tuskaloosa, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and VietUnity, in Oakland, Calif.

Shaka Zulu cofounded Camp Congo Square with his wife, Naimah Zulu. The summer camp program opened in 2006 after hurricane Katrina had devastated the city. The camp meets in New Orleans' historic Congo Square, a place where centuries ago native Americans and African-American slaves would gather on Sundays.

The campers learn about their heritage and the city's history, as well. They study art, reading, writing, and math, and learn respect for the city's many cultural and ethnic traditions.

“One of our students … has really used the camp experience to make a very positive impact on his life…," Shaka Zulu writes in an email. "Ngozi McCormick has now become an example of what can come from the positive experience of the Camp … he has purchased land for a business and a home, and he also teaches what he learned at Camp Congo Square to his nephews and started his own performance group. (And he’s only in his early 20s!) He has become a role model in his community among young people and we are proud to say that we at Camp Congo Square along with his parents played a role in giving him the confidence and information to be an impressive young adult.”

The FII's founder, Mauricio Lim Miller, was honored in 2012 with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "genius award" for his work in helping low-income working families – who often struggle in isolation  – join together to build self-sufficiency.

The Torchlight Prize received its name from the Freedman’s Torchlight, an early African-American newspaper published in New York before slavery was abolished.

Of this year's four winners, only Freedom Inc. has registered itself as an official nonprofit organization. The others are still operating as small informal groups. Some of their minuscule budgets can be measured in the hundreds of dollars, Birdsong says.

That's one reason the $10,000 prize is given over a two-year period, she says. "We don't want to mess them up" with too much money all at once, she says. The groups want to keep close to their roots "of, for, and by the community."

• For more on the Family Independence Initiative, visit

Yasmene Mumby co-chairs the Baltimore Education Coalition, a partnership of more than 25 schools, organizations, and religious institutions that helped to pass an unprecedented $1.1 billion financing plan to rebuild and renovate Baltimore's schools. ( Matthew Stern)

Law student Yasmene Mumby already is a veteran education reformer

By Rich PoltTalking GOOD / 06.03.13

Just a few weeks ago, Baltimore residents celebrated the passage of an unprecedented $1.1 billion financing plan to rebuild and renovate city schools. Leading the charge to make this happen was the Baltimore Education Coalition (BEC), a partnership of more than 25 schools, organizations, and religious institutions comprised of 3,000 parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community leaders.

It was a feat of organizing tenacity worthy of a veteran education advocate. So you might be surprised to learn that a primary player behind this coup was a 26-year-old educator and law student, Yasmene Mumby. I say “might be surprised” because if you already know Yasmene, then you know that she gets the job done!

Yasmene, along with her BEC co-Chair, Jimmy Stuart, were able to galvanize the collective passion and commitment of this community and affect meaningful change. That ain’t easy to do.

My challenge with this intro is that I need to keep it succinct, yet I could go on and on about Yasmene and all of her accomplishments. So in the interest of brevity, I now present Yasmene’s prolific résumé in the length of a single tweet: Cochair @becforourkids, Dir. Cmty-Engagement @KIPPBaltimore, founder Team ORGANIZE, co-founder @theintersection, student @UMDLaw #driven

Who said tweeting can’t be an expressive form of prose?

Yasmene is a Baltimore girl through and through. A graduate of The McDonogh School, The Johns Hopkins University, and now a student at The University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, she is using her excellent education to ensure that “all children in Baltimore City receive an excellent education.”

Keep up the amazing work Yasmene, and thanks a ton for answering our Talking GOOD questions.

1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? My purpose in life is to live presently and to travel the world honoring the light in every human being.

2. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?  I get a sense of calm and existence. I feel as if I am contributing to the world, and valuing the time I have living.

3. HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU? This work has led me to my truer self. A giving self. I grew up in Baltimore and tied much of my identity to school work. What else was there to focus on from age 6 to 21? As soon as I graduated from college, I headed straight to West Baltimore to teach. Being a teacher, creating Team ORGANIZE, and now co-chairing the Baltimore Education Coalition have allowed me to focus my day around giving to others. I get that from my grandfather, Dr. Shirley (Rex) Clinton, my first best friend. He was a pediatrician in West Baltimore during the late 1960s to 1990s. My grandfather loved honoring West Baltimore’s growing families by bringing their new light into the world. He became a pediatrician because he’d rather bring new life into the world than risk losing one. I wanted to be like my grandfather, but I knew my weaknesses. So I decided to help bring new life into the world as a history teacher.

4. WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE? I absolutely look up to California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, her classic grace and intellect. Attorney General Harris inspires me as I continue to develop as a law student and young woman in leadership. All the while, Harris seems grounded and modest. Quiet power. I’d like to ask her, from where did she learn her strength and resolve? And can we meet for coffee?

5. WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS? The Baltimore Education Coalition works because everyone voluntarily pitches in. We have no paid staff. This is a labor of passion and commitment for all involved. [SEE BELOW FOR A DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF BEC AND WHO IS INVOLVED.] It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort. We worked with 120+ parents, teachers, administrators, and community members to execute this 3,000 person rally for better school buildings in Baltimore City. We can use volunteer talent in many areas: oral historians, a website designer, bus transportation to and from events, printed materials, audio/visual stagers. You name it. Just email me:

6. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY? What was the moment when you realized your purpose in life? Are you fulfilling your purpose or running from it?

7. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE? Don’t fight the universe! Life eventually falls into place. I am a person that NEEDS answers; I don’t really do well with uncertainty. So often I have to remind myself to stop searching and finding more to do. The path I am to walk is already laid out in front of me. I have to remind myself that I am where I am supposed to be. Remember, I have a problem with standing still!

8. TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC? If I’m not moving, involved in something worthwhile and uncharted, I feel wasteful … as if I am not maximizing life and its given experiences during the seconds, minutes, hours allotted. So I practice yoga  to help me stand still and reflect. Yoga is the only thing that surrenders me. 

9. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS? Be honest. Value other people. Share your appreciation for them. Recognize their collective work.

10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER? QUESTION: Why are you still in Baltimore? ANSWER: I am one of the very few kids that stuck around Baltimore. Many of my friends from high school and undergrad could not wait to leave this town. And they did. I can’t. Every time in my life I have tried to leave and build my life somewhere else, Baltimore never lets me go. There have been moments and experiences that ground my commitment to Baltimore. It makes it hard to leave. I have never lived anywhere else. Yet.

LINKS: Baltimore Education Coalition Main Page, BEC on Facebook, BEC on Twitter, KIPP:Baltimore’s Advocacy Page

More on the Baltimore Education Coalition (as written by Yasmene): The Baltimore Education Coalition is the broadest citywide linkage of 25 organizations working for Baltimore’s children. We have stopped over $100 million dollars in proposed cuts to city schools. We supported and won the bottle tax that will leverage $155 million for school construction. Most recently, we successfully advocated and won the passage of an unprecedented $1 billion financing plan  to improve school facilities with 3,000 parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community leaders for Baltimore City’s 85,000 students.

We are public schools, traditional, and charter. We are after-school programs and neighborhood associations. We are education policy organizations and religious institutions. We are: ACLU of Maryland, Advocates for Children and Youth, Afya Public Charter School, Baltimore Curriculum Project, BUILD, The Cathedral of the Incarnation, Child First Authority, City Neighbors Foundation Council, The Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools, Community Law in Action, Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, Elev8 Baltimore, Greater Homewood Community Corporation, KIPP Baltimore, League of Women Voters of Baltimore City, Maryland Education Coalition, Mt. Washington Elementary/Middle, PTA Council of Baltimore, Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, Roland  Park Elementary/Middle School Parents, School Social Workers in Maryland, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, and Supporting Public Schools of Choice.

This article was originally posted at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. Talking GOOD was launched in 2012 by Rich Polt, principal of the Baltimore-based PR consultancy Communicate Good, LLC. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, please fill out this form, or email

Elaine Hamel teaches at-risk young girls the proper way to use a nail gun at her nonprofit Girls at Work Inc. 'My purpose in this life is to enable girls that feel defeated, neglected, and abandoned to discover their "inner power tools" of strength and courage through the experience of building,' she says. (Manchester Chamber of Commerce)

Elaine Hamel uses power tools to teach girl power

By Rich PoltTalking Good / 05.31.13

Elaine Hamel likes her power tools. She likes them a lot. And although I’ve never met her in person, I have this cockamamie image of Elaine, running around her wood shop like Tim “The Toolman” Taylor from Home Improvement, grunting as she brandishes a power sander and exhorts life lessons to her class of young female students.

Elaine is the Executive Director of Girls at Work Inc., a nonprofit organization that empowers at-risk girls to discover their inner power tools of strength and courage through building. Elaine founded Girls at Work in 2000 after nearly 13 years in the construction industry as the founder of EMH Remodeling, specializing in residential renovations. On a website about marrying one’s passions with their profession, Elaine said: “I’ve seen girls shy away from woodshop in a school setting as the majority of the class consists of boys. But a girls’ camp, or our workshop full of girls, breaks down those walls and allows girls to try many new and different things they probably would not have attempted otherwise.

Right now, Elaine is working to raise $25,000 for her program through this Indiegogo campaign. The video on the site (and embedded at the end of this blog post) does a great job of bringing her program to life. I encourage you to check it out … and to think about throwing a few dollars her way. In addition to this work, Elaine spent time over a period of four years as a volunteer in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina where she trained and managed volunteers rebuilding for those in need.

Thanks for being a citizen philanthropist and nonprofit leader Elaine. And thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!

1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE? My purpose in this life is to enable girls that feel defeated, neglected, and abandoned to discover their "inner power tools" of strength and courage through the experience of building.

2. HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU? It has opened my eyes to the enormous amount of neglect and abandonment that exists within our youth. This work has enabled me to shift my career from a general contractor specializing in residential renovations to taking girls at risk out of their comfort zone and putting them in a place that leaves them feeling successful, competent, and confident.

3. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING? An incredible amount of satisfaction knowing that this experience is helping girls at risk to alter the lens through which they view themselves. No longer are they merely defined by failing grades but encouraged by their accomplishments from building with us.

4. WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE? I thought a lot about this. While there are many people that would fall under the definition of hero, I have to say so many of the girls we work with are my heroes. Our little builder that had several surgeries on her spine to remove tumors, the last surgery leaving her with one paralyzed arm. That didn’t stop her from building with us; never even slowed her down. Or the little girl that spent two months living in her car with her mother since "the boyfriend" kicked them out. That didn’t stop her from being fully in the moment with us and building a shed. Or the little girl that had no idea where she was going to live after her summer camp session was over. She was no longer able to live with an aunt—her mother never wanted her, she was told—because the man her aunt was dating would sneak in her room at night…. So many girls we build with need to overcome horrible obstacles on a daily basis. Those are my heroes.

5. WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS? I’d have to say two things: one, lumber. Always lumber! Another is anything with our logo, T-shirts, wrist bands, dog tags … we are really working toward a tangible reminder of their experience while building with us. This is such a powerful experience for our builders and a reminder of how capable and strong they are, despite everything that holds them back, is incredibly important.

6. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY? Who believed in you as a kid and how much of a difference did that make in your life? Do you truly know how much of a difference you can make in the life of a little girl or boy that is neglected?

7. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE? The Power of Believing in Kids.

 8. TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC? Beneath it all, I still struggle with voices of self-doubt that were programmed very early on.

9. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS? Push past your fear of failure and listen to that inner voice telling you that you can make a difference, that you have purpose and a mission awaits you. My life is so much richer, knowing I can help a little girl that has struggled with neglect from day one, to begin to see herself as strong, powerful, and so very capable.

10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER? QUESTION: Why should people invest in a program that teaches girls how to build? ANSWER: Because so many of the girls we work with do not have supportive adults in their lives. While we cannot provide safe and supportive homes for all of them, what we can provide is an experience that will take girls pretty far out of their comfort zone and test their ability to trust themselves and each other. They overcome the fear associated with power tools, and they learn to be in the moment and fully focused. They also learn that they are capable and powerful and as many of our evaluations report “awesomer” than they ever imagined. This is the lens they need to have in order to survive and to be so much more than they ever believed possible.

• To view the video go to the original article at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. Talking GOOD was launched in 2012 by Rich Polt, principal of the Baltimore-based PR consultancy Communicate Good, LLC. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, please fill out this form, or email

A Bell news helicopter hangs in the atrium of the Newseum, a five-story building dedicated to the history of news gathering, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The Newseum is hosting the Ashoka Future Forum May 30 and 31. (Jason Reed/Reuters/File)

Ashoka Future Forum tackles 'Tomorrow's Media,' 'Leadership'

By Ashoka / 05.30.13

How do we navigate a constantly changing world? How do we thrive, as individuals and as a society, when the institutions and systems that form our shared bedrock emerge, shift, and fade – or collapse – with breathtaking speed?

At the Ashoka Future Forum on May 30 and 31 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., 400 social innovators, business entrepreneurs, and philanthropists are exploring this challenge through the lens of social innovation. For Ashoka, the answer is about creating an “everyone a changemaker world” where ever more people are equipped with the skills and the motivation to solve problems in their families, communities, and workplaces.

That transformation is fraught with disruption. For generations, much of what has happened in the world was determined by centralized, hierarchical institutions; by command-and-control leadership; and by information that flowed from a few experts to mostly passive audiences. Those systems and structures very arguably limited democracy, but they had the appeal of feeling secure and predictable.

Look at those institutions today. The news profession (the subject of the session entitled “Tomorrow’s Media”) is wrestling with the social and commercial limitations of its historic function – and beginning to embrace a new role that considers solutions and provides pathways to civic engagement. June Cohen, who brought TED Talks to life; Jonathan Wells, publisher of The Christian Science Monitor; and others discuss.

Likewise, organizations in every realm are moving toward complex, information-driven networks of networks, where decisions are made and shared rapidly across functions and geography. This change promises leaps in effectiveness and impact, but only if leaders apply very different skills and values (discussed in the session “Leadership for Tomorrow’s Organizations”). Ashoka CEO Bill Drayton, Susan Peters of General Electric, and Babson College President Leonard Schlesinger consider this new reality.

Reem Omran, co-founder of Gaza Sky Geeks Laboratory, hopes to help young tech entrepreneurs in the Gaza Strip excel. (E. Baba for Mercy Corps.)

Gaza Sky Geeks backs tech startups in the Gaza Strip

By Laura MortaraGlobal Envision / 05.29.13

In the isolated Gaza Strip, economic instability is a constant. But a startup accelerator called Gaza Sky Geeks Laboratory plans to help the region capitalize on one of its biggest assets: its technical graduates.

Between Gaza’s five universities, more than 2,000 young people graduate with technical degrees every year. Mercy Corps started the Arab Developer Network Initiative (ADNI) with a grant from a few years ago, and a number of programs supporting young entrepreneurs have come out of it, including Gaza Sky Geeks.

The laboratory will support standout technology entrepreneurs in Gaza, providing a wide range of free services designed to help them turn their ideas into viable investments. Global Envision connected with Reem Omran, co-founder of Gaza Sky Geeks, to talk about the effort – and whether Gaza could become the next IT hub in the Arab world.

What’s the blueprint for helping start-ups?
Reem Omran: The primary objective of Gaza Sky Geeks is to prepare start-ups for the next stage. We will provide logistical and consulting services, as well as workshops that can help them turn their ideas into concrete business plans capable of securing investment.

What resources does the accelerator offer?
Gaza Sky Geeks is outfitted with high-speed internet, desktop computers, iPads, and Androids[mc1] so that members have a reliable space to work on their projects. Members also have access to meeting spaces and a coffee shop, where they can network and collaborate on ideas.

What about events?
The accelerator hosts three types of events: workshops, hackathons, and mentorship programs and lectures. The workshops are held on a weekly basis and are designed to help with product development and promotion. Hackathons are held so that programmers have a forum to share ideas and explore software development. And the mentors are brought in to give developers feedback on their ideas and critique their business plans.

At the accelerator, are the resources and events free of charge?
Yes, you only need to be a member to use them.

What are the biggest barriers facing members?
Electrical shortages are common, and Gaza’s reputation as a conflict zone makes it difficult to attract investors. However, at the core the issues are the same as those facing start-ups everywhere. Many technology entrepreneurs are passionate about their field and ideas, but transforming a vision into a viable business plan is tricky. Most people in the IT industry in Gaza don’t receive a business education, let alone have experience running one.

How is Gaza Sky Geeks helping to bridge this gap?
This is where the mentors are key. As I mentioned, most programmers in Gaza don’t have experience running a business, and so sometimes their target audience is off or their marketing strategy isn’t practical, and so on. Mentors can provide valuable constructive criticism so that start-ups can strengthen their goals and infrastructure to become a feasible investment.

In the coming months, Gaza Sky Geeks will select the top five startups to participate in a three-month intensive acceleration program. Selected startups that participate in the acceleration program will be linked with five dedicated mentors who have varying backgrounds and experience. The three-month accelerator will also provide targeted business and technical training so each startup has a scalable business plan and validated prototype at the conclusion of the accelerator. Throughout the three-month program, each startup will work on a one- and three-minute pitch that they will give to potential investors at a Gaza demo day and regional road shows in cities such as Doha, Qatar; Amman, Jordan' and Cairo.

• Stay up to date on Gaza Sky Geeks on Facebook and Twitter: @GazaSkyGeeks

• This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

From left, director Mira Nair, actress Kate Hudson, and actor Kiefer Sutherland participate in a photo call and press conference for the film 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' at TIFF Bell Lightbox during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, September 2012. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File)

Filmmaker Mira Nair tells stories 'no one else will'

By Esha / 05.28.13

Mira Nair’s mantra is “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.”

In her latest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, she’s exploring her roots in Lahore, Pakistan, with her contemporary lifestyle of crisscrossing borders to tell another tale of East meets West.

Adapted from the award-winning book of the same name by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, the film aspires to show the human side of terrorism.

Ms. Nair is known for her earlier films such as the Oscar-nominated "Salaam Bombay!" "Monsoon Wedding," "Vanity Fair," and "Namesake."

Esha Chhabra spoke with Nair about her latest film and her vision to bring to filmmaking to communities that lack the resources. She starts close to home in Kampala, Uganda, with Maisha Lab that’s nurturing the talent of East African filmmakers.

What propelled you to make the Reluctant Fundamentalist?

Actually it came from visiting Pakistan for the first time in 2004–2005. My father was from Lahore. So even though I grew up in India, I grew up like a Lahori- speaking Urdu, learning poetry. My movies were already popular there, and I was invited to come speak. So, here was a culture that was deeply familiar and yet forbidden to an Indian. That’s why I was inspired to make something contemporary about Pakistan because as Indian directors, we only tend to address Pakistan in partition stories – more historical, less contemporary.

So I was eager to do that, and then in a time when there is increasingly a separation between the Western world and Islamic world.

Around the same time, I had been given a manuscript of the book, before it was published. And I just loved it – it gave me the opportunity to make modern Lahore but also create a dialogue with America. I, like [the book's author] Mohsin [Hamid], have lived half my life in these worlds, so I know these worlds intimately and [they] speak to me in a deep way. And politically it was very exciting – so this script gave me that chance.

To bridge East and West in a film is a tall task. Did you have a specific intent with this film that you wanted to achieve in this rather global debate?

The intent of the film is to create a real dialogue – to show how there are different points of view. And so often the world is reduced to myopia, not knowing the other side. And also there are so many people like us who cross borders. We are in a more globalized world, more so than when I was growing up.

So I wanted to make a film to show the complicatedness, the interconnectedness of our world on a fundamental level – spiritually, economically, and in the realm of terror. And to create a genuine dialogue, a bridge.

In another world, the Pakistani man and the American man would really understand each other. But the world will not allow them to mix.

So, it’s about what we think of America and what America thinks of us. But made from love on both sides – I am at home, literally, in both of these worlds.

Over 10 years after 9/11, as a storyteller, do you feel that we are trying to understand each other better or is that schism still strong due to politics?

My feeling is that we really want to understand each other now. People are fed up with war. The Americans themselves, which is a nation of 350 million or more, and I’ve met with many of them in presenting this film to audiences. And they’re saying that it’s about time we know – after all, there are human beings on both sides. And it’s about time to get rid of the stereotype. But how do we get rid of the stereotype?

Were you able to shoot the film in Lahore or did it have to be staged elsewhere?

We shot for four days in Lahore – all the exteriors. I couldn’t bring actors into Pakistan without insurance. So, that’s why we did it this way.

Delhi and Lahore are sister cities. They were built in the same time, same style. So, if you know Lahore, you can recreate it in Delhi.

However, all the music came from Lahore for this film. The draft of the script was written in Lahore.So, we did a lot of work there, and I love it there, but it would have been very risky to bring a whole crew there.

What kind of misconceptions would you like to erase about Lahore, which was such an inspiration for this film? 

Lahore is the like the Venice of the East or I would say, Venice is like the Lahore of the West. It is a deeply refined city from where poetry, singing, craft, food – all this sensuality comes from there at the highest expression of self.  The National Institute of Arts is in Lahore, and just the sheer amazing talent that comes of it is astounding to me.

So, one would never know this if you read the newspapers. You would think that it’s just drones, hijackings, and killings, which sadly the nation is ridden with. But life goes on. There is this line in the film that Pakistan was born into chaos. But as the chaos increased, the biryanis got tastier, life got more raucous  (laughs). Life continued! Life in all its forms exists in Lahore in a way that’s powerful, not ordinary.

In a lot of these films that are a dime a dozen on Pakistan, you never see the family life, you never know about the family that was bombed in the name of democracy, you don’t know their names, sometimes you don’t even know the character’s name. So, in this film, [the protagonist] Changez’s family is very important to me. In fact, Mohsin used to joke with me that we should [call it] “Monsoon terrorist” (laughs).

Changez’s family isn’t necessarily impressed by his career in finance and Wall Street. They’re not pandering for that.

What role did Mohsin play in the filmmaking process? You’ve worked with several texts now – "Namesake," "Vanity Fair."  How do you wrestle with these pieces of fiction?  Any different than a traditional script?

It’s genuinely just an organic process of building a relationship. If I love the story so much to inhabit it for several years and make a movie, I will love the author. There’s no question of it.

One of the greatest gifts of the Namesake has been that Jhumpa and I are like sisters now.

Both Jhumpa and Mohsin understood that film is a different medium than a book. So they were happy to have me tell their story in a manner that’s most fit for film. Mohsin took a more direct role and was one of the writers for the screenplay with Ami Boghani and William Wheeler. And he’s a complete kid at the cinema – so he loved it.

I reinvented Erica in the film; she didn’t agree with me, the way she was in the book. But there was no resistance from Mohsin. And then I wanted a third act to the book that doesn’t exist in the story – what happens to Changez after he comes back from America, what does he do in Pakistan?

Mohsin was very experimental in the book – in terms of the layout, the voice – and it was a largely internal book, consumed in Changez’s thoughts, feelings, and frustrations. How do you translate that into a film – is that a challenge?

We kept the structure of the tea house, the nonlinear flashbacks. We had to create a reason for them to meet. And we created a final act on his present day life in Lahore. Also, the ending in the book was very ambiguous. In a film, we could not leave that vague; we had to determine what happened.

That is always a challenge on how to make it less internal. That’s what I love to do in cinema – how to have the images speak of emotions and remove the words.

We also had Riz Ahmed, who plays Changez, and he spent time with Pakistani Wall Street bankers to get a sense of their high-flying life – and a lot came from that. Imagine you work all day, enjoy in the evenings but then come home to an empty flat with a beer bottle in the fridge and no one to greet you. So, that’s a cinematic moment where I can convey emotions and ideas without text. That adds a lot of layers and textures.

You have said many times that you only choose films that only you can do. And many of these films fall outside the parameters of the big production houses. Do you ever find it frustrating as a filmmaker to have to find alternative sources of funding and support?

No, I prefer to be poor and free. I refuse to say harder, or I refuse to do it. I like to work with studios when the subject is right for it. This subject would have [been] censored and hindered if I had gone to the studios – it would have never been what I wanted to do. So, there was question that I wanted to do this independently.

I am just so grateful that Doha Film Festival stayed with us as steadfast partners till the end. And there are other films that should be made with the studios, and I will make them.

You’ve also been pushing for the voice of new, young filmmakers with your film lab in Kampala, Uganda. Can you give us an update on Maisha?

It’s for East Africa – Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. It’s a free school and we have now trained over 600 alumni over the last eight years, and all of them are literally working in media. I’ve just come back from Doha[, Qatar,] where we had a Maisha documentary lab where we training all kinds of filmmakers – Qataris, Palestinians.

The mantra is “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will." So it’s necessary for us to tell these stories.

We have 10 labs in the course of a year in these four countries. We [have] two big annual labs in Kampala – they make 20-minute films. Our films have won 26 awards internationally.... And we have created six feature filmmakers.

My goal was to create local cinema and of the highest standards. It’s become a beacon for artists here since there aren’t too many places to get good training on the continent. And I invite writers, directors, actors from my film circle to come and lead workshops. People want to do good, they just need to know how. So Maisha is a place for them to share their skills.

• "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is now playing in limited release in the United States. To see a trailer, go here.

This article originally appeared at

Members of two local cassava associations gather in Malawi as a part of the Rockefeller Foundation's AGRA program, a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AGRA aims to sustainably increase the productivity and profitability of small-scale farmers in Africa. The Rockefeller Foundation is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. (Rockefeller Foundation/Jonas Bendiksen/AP/File)

100 years on, Rockefeller Foundation still promotes 'the well-being of mankind'

By David CraryAssociated Press / 05.27.13

For the richest American family of their era, the goal was fittingly ambitious: "To promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world."

With that mission, underwritten by the vast wealth of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the Rockefeller Foundation was chartered 100 years ago. For several decades, it was the dominant foundation in the United States, breaking precedent with its global outlook and helping pioneer a diligent, scientific approach to charity that became a model for the field.

"They were in a very small group of foundations that practiced idea-based philanthropy as opposed to just charity. They are willing to invest in ideas," said Bradford Smith, who as president of the New York-based Foundation Center oversees research on philanthropy worldwide.

The Rockefeller Foundation is celebrating its centennial by touting an array of forward-looking projects, ranging from global disease surveillance to strengthening the resilience of vulnerable cities in the US and Asia to future calamities. It is also looking back, at a 100-year history replete with triumphs and controversy.

The Rockefeller Foundation played pivotal roles in introducing Western medicine to China, developing a vaccine for yellow fever, combating malaria, establishing prestigious schools of public health, and spreading the lifesaving agricultural advances of the Green Revolution. Recipients of its grants included Albert Einstein, writer Ralph Ellison, and choreographer Bill T. Jones.

Still, detractors challenged the foundation's work. From the left, activists accused it of being a front for US corporate and national security interests. From the right, critics over the years faulted its support for population-control programs and for research by Alfred Kinsey and others into human sexuality.

During the 1930s, the foundation provided some financial support to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Germany, which, among other projects, conducted research related to Nazi-backed eugenics and racial studies.

The foundation says that its grants to the institute were focused on straightforward genetic research, and that it cut off support for any projects that veered into social eugenics.

Also during the 1930s, and continuing after the start of World War II, the foundation funded a project to relocate scholars and artists, many of them Jewish, who were losing their positions in Germany under the Nazis.

The next generation of philanthropists would be wise to study the history of the Rockefeller Foundation and its handful of peers, Smith said.

"The new money goes about this as if there wasn't any history," he said. "I think there is a lot to learn — what worked, what didn't work."

Now dwarfed by the largesse of Bill Gates and other contemporary philanthropists, the Rockefeller Foundation remains ambitious and well-funded, and is increasingly eager to work in partnerships.

Even before the foundation was first proposed, there were sharply mixed views about John D. Rockefeller Sr. and the fortune he amassed as the founder of Standard Oil.

Rockefeller was "perhaps the most reviled as well as the most generous man in America" in the early 1900s, according to a just-published history of the Rockefeller Foundation that it commissioned to mark its centennial. The book depicts Rockefeller as America's first billionaire, with a fortune that today would be worth $231 billion.

On the advice of his inner circle, Rockefeller sought a congressional charter for a foundation that would coordinate his already substantial charitable giving.

Some government officials were suspicious of the endeavor and some newspaper editorialists suggested the project was a cynical effort to improve the family's checkered image. The measure proposing a charter died in the US Senate, prompting the Rockefellers to turn swiftly to New York state, where lawmakers unanimously approved a charter that was signed into law May 14, 1913.

It was one of three major, still-operating foundations founded in that era, following the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907 and the Carnegie Corporation in 1911.

Judith Rodin, who has been the Rockefeller Foundation's president since 2005, noted in an interview that the Rockefeller family started channeling huge sums into philanthropy at a time when the tax code didn't reward such practices.

"Clearly they were improving their own images," Ms. Rodin said. "But they had strong views that people with that much money should give it back to society."

She also credited the family with establishing a broad, flexible mandate for the foundation so that its leaders, over the decades, could tackle a wide array of challenges, both in the United States and worldwide.

"We have the luxury and responsibility of picking the big, thorny problems, without worrying about offending governments or our donor base," Rodin said.

Much the creative work has taken place at the foundation's Bellagio Center in northern Italy. Maya Angelou and Susan Sontag did some of their writing there, and novelist Michael Ondaatje worked on "The English Patient" while in residence at the center.

Among the foundation's proudest achievements was the Green Revolution — the nickname for a series of initiatives between the 1940s and 1970s that dramatically boosted agriculture production around the world. The concepts — such as improvements in irrigation, wiser use of fertilizer and pesticides, development of high-yield grains — were pioneered by agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, and then spread to other nations via Rockefeller Foundation programs.

After several decades of dominance, the Rockefeller Foundation was overtaken by the Ford Foundation as the nation's largest.

Now, according to the latest rankings compiled by the Foundation Center, the Rockefeller Foundation is the 16th largest, with total assets of $3.5 billion, compared to $34.6 billion for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In terms of total giving, the Rockefeller Foundation ranked 39th with gifts of $132.6 million in 2011, compared with more than $3.2 billion given by the Gates Foundation.

Those financial realities have prompted the Rockefeller Foundation to do most of its current work in partnerships, rather than operating solo.

Dwight Burlingame, a professor at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, said such partnerships have become crucial to effective grant-making.

"Foundations need to be more nimble," he said. "The number of players has dramatically increased — foundations have pushed recipients of their grants into getting more partners, so it's not a single source."

The number of foundations in the US and worldwide has surged in recent years, and a new generation of billionaires in Asia and other regions is showing increased interest in philanthropy.

Rodin says the Rockefeller Foundation, in addition to its other projects, is holding conferences for aspiring philanthropists from developing countries to provide advice on effective giving. It's been a leading proponent of "impact investing" — investments that can spur social and environmental progress as well as earn profits.

"We've tried not to be out there hectoring others to become philanthropists, but to be there as a resource for those who do want to give," Rodin said. "We'd like to help them not make the same mistakes over and over."

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