On October 28, the list of people testifying before the Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Public Property and Public Works seemed endless: Hour after hour, witnesses from every corner of the city were agreeing that living next to a vacant lot is an awful experience.
“It’s become this area where people dump their trash; it attracts stray animals; people go in to hook up and do drugs; it’s just nasty and dangerous,” Rachel Sensenig told me, reiterating her testimony about the “huge” vacant lot next to her home in Northwest Philadelphia. “We do good stuff in our back yard, but there’s just a fence separating it. … No one wants to barbecue next to a pile of trash.”
Sensenig is an administrative pastor with Circle of Hope, a youth-oriented Christian church that is one of 46 members of the grassroots Campaign to Take Back Vacant Land. She was referring to the testimony of another attendee, who no longer holds gatherings outside of her North Philadelphia home due to the huge accumulation of dumped garbage in the vacant lot next to her house. She woke up one morning to find trash piled taller than the top of her head.
Not all of Philadelphia’s 40,000 parcels of vacant properties are creepy lots, though: There are also storefronts and boarded-up row houses in bustling commercial corridors and middle-income neighborhoods, properties that are owned by a variety of unsavory types who sit on them waiting for the value to rise higher.
Blighted properties drain public coffers, contribute nothing to the tax base, and serve as havens for crime and trash. After years of work, Sensenig and other activists hope that a bill passed this December will finally provide Philadelphians with a tool to confront this colossal problem: a land bank.
The land bank law, which was championed by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, will create a public agency that could potentially bring many of those vacant parcels under one roof while simplifying the acquisition process for those interested in obtaining property. Philadelphia will be the largest city yet to adopt a land bank.
Vacant land policy doesn’t generate the eye-catching headlines of a homicide or the readily apparent tragedy of the ongoing underfunding and privatization of schools. But it is an important factor in the city’s efforts to recover economically from the post-industrial blues. Blighted land and crumbling buildings are millstones around the necks of the population (which has recently been growing for the first time in decades).
Many Philadelphians believe the land is being squandered because the city's land management system is broken. The current structures in place are inadequate to deal with the 30,000 parcels held by private owners, a majority of them tax delinquent, and the 10,000 parcels controlled by a snarled thicket of four public agencies, each with their own distinct and intricate acquisition process that can last years without conclusion. (According to the Philadelphia Land Bank Alliance, these four entities annually sell a mere 1 percent of their properties back into productive use.)
Meanwhile, a report from the consulting firm Econsult estimates that those 40,000 parcels cost the city more than $20 million a year in maintenance costs. The 17,000 parcels that are tax delinquent accrued $70 million in back taxes by 2011, with an additional $2 million added each year. Then there’s the immense drag these eyesores have on surrounding property values, which Econsult says ranges from reductions of 6.5 to 20 percent, depending on the extent of a neighborhood’s blight.
“[Vacant parcels] tend to be in neighborhoods with particularly high concentrations of poverty, which is why the land bank is a very critical public policy initiative: It’s really unjust to saddle those residents with this vast map of blight and vacancy,” says Beth McConnell, policy director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. (The organization is a major booster of the land bank because they hope to use it to establish more affordable housing in the city.)
That’s why the land bank bill has absorbed so much of Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez's time and energy. Her district is home to the second-highest concentration of vacant land in the city, which relates to the fact that, as she puts it, “44 percent of the folks live [on] under $20,000.”
To rid her neighborhoods of some of the blight, the land bank would, potentially, do two things: Unite the 10,000 parcels of vacant, publicly held property under the auspices of the land bank, and imbue the new agency with the authority to buy private parcels and scrub them of debt.
Because so many of the privately held parcels are tax delinquent, it is currently too expensive for many potential investors to take a risk. Pre-land bank, the only thing the city could do to address this was to put the property up for a sherriff's sale, a blunt process where the only consideration is which bidder has the most money.
The land bank will be able to obtain properties, erase their debt load, and then sell it to private bidders based on whatever standards it chooses to adopt (which could potentially include an emphasis on those who have an actual plan for the lot, not speculators who will just sit on it.)
These sales would be subject to the approval of the city council and, per an amendment introduced by Council President Darrell Clarke, the Vacant Property Review Committee, which consists of representatives of numerous city agencies.
Although the internal regulations to govern the land bank have not yet been written, supporters hope a criteria for sale will include an evaluation of how it will benefit the community: The legislation requires a plan assessing community needs, setting targets for community beneficial uses, and evaluation of whether those targets are met.
Philadelphia isn’t the only city to deal with blightlords and the vacant detritus of the postwar urban crisis. And land banks aren’t a new response to these too common issues.
One of the first was established in St. Louis in the early 1970s, and in recent years they have spread across the Midwest. Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, is convinced that the policy stands a far better chance of success in Philadelphia than anywhere else it has been tried.
Access to land is, of course, essential if a community is to realize its development capacity—but there has to be the population and capital to support it as well.
“A land bank is not a panacea. It will not create a market for land where none exists,” Mallach told the City Council committee in October. “People who expected land banks to turn around distressed Rust Belt cities like Flint [Mich.] have been disappointed."
But, Mallach added, Philadelphia is different: "Philadelphia has made remarkable strides in stabilizing its population and housing market over the past decade. … In many parts of the city, housing demand is strong. With the right steps, that demand can spread to areas which, up to now, have seen little progress. Demand is still fragile in many areas, but it’s there.”
The list of groups that testified at an October hearing in favor of the legislation certainly augments that notion: The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) testified about the need for public housing; Weaver’s Way Co-op about its desire for more urban farmland. Similarly adamant testimonials were heard from the Association of Real Estate Developers and the Small Business Association.
But many of the advocates fear that the law that was eventually passed may be too compromised to achieve the desired effect. The reigning political norm dictates that any sale of city land must be introduced by the councilperson of the district in question, and then approved by the whole council. This effectively gives veto power to district council members, who could choose to not introduce the resolution for sale for a good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. (This norm is called “councilmanic prerogative.”)
City Council President Clarke’s requirement that the Vacant Property Review Committee approve sales will enhance his power to hinder the easy transference of city-owned land from behind the scenes with little political consequence.
Some advocates fear that, under these circumstances, the land bank would knock tax-delinquent slumlords off their perch only to install city councilmembers in their stead.
“I understand that people say perfection is the enemy, but this unwritten rule of councilmanic prerogative has stalled progress for years,” said Ellen Kaplan, vice president of Committee of Seventy, a local government reform group. “It’s the opposite of what a land bank bill is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be efficient and clear, but if they have the ability to say, ‘I’m not going to introduce this resolution,’ then I’m really worried.”
There may well be reason for Kaplan to be apprehensive. The St. Louis land bank was undercut by a similar system where an alderperson basically had veto power over land deals involving publicly held parcels in their district. The Show Me Institute, a conservative Missouri think tank, found that the city’s land bank rejected 43 percent of the offers it received between 2003 and 2010 (often because it hoped to hold out for more substantial development). And in 33 percent of cases, the city countered with an ask for more money. While some of these objections may have been valid, the impression communicated by the Institute is one of land hoarding.
Nevertheless, advocates believe the land bank holds great promise, despite the potential pitfalls. It still needs to be staffed and to have a strategic plan, clear regulations, and a dedicated funding stream. Activists will have to remain on their toes and put up a fight for all these things: Victory cannot be declared simply because the bill is now law.
Quiñones-Sánchez is particularly excited about a provision of the bill that would allow for long-term strategic neighborhood planning. She says she hopes to see more mixed-use development and affordable housing in her district, and to use the land bank as a means to make it easy for both nonprofits and for-profits to obtain the parcels they need to establish such visions.
“Given [Philadelphia’s] limited resources for housing, how do we plan out what the city can do and how do we engage the private market where they may be able to do a better job?” Quiñones-Sánchez asked in an interview with YES!
“If this gets implemented," she continued, "we foresee the ability over the next couple years to really plan out what different neighborhoods are able to have. We incentivize the private market to go into those areas because we are providing a more predictable development process in terms of zoning and what we want in there.”
A lot of people at the October hearing already had plans for the vacant lots and blighted buildings in their neighborhoods: urban farms, affordable housing, community gardens, and more traditional forms of development (bougie cocktail bars, condos, and the like).
The witnesses at the hearing saw the land bank as the answer to trash-strewn parcels that mar their blocks, and a way for developers, nonprofits, and community groups to purchase the lots they desire quickly and for a reasonable price.
Here’s hoping it works out that way.
• Jake Blumgart wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization fusing powerful ideas and practical actions. Jake is a freelance reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
• Click here to find the original version of this article on YES! Magazine's website.
In the ever-evolving landscape of global business, it is not uncommon to conflate traditional business with social business – particularly when it comes to health.
How does, say, a pharmaceutical company that makes billions in profit by selling health products differ from a small enterprise that improves the health of a surrounding community and manages to stay financially solvent?
“Social businesses are driven by a social cause, but motivated to make money so they can continue to deliver on their social mission,” she said. “Traditional businesses, however, are driven solely by the profit motive.”
That is not to say elements of traditional business are not at play in social businesses.
“It is important to remember that a business is a business, whether it’s socially or financially motivated,” she said. “They all must operate the same in order to be successful, and thus sustainable.”
Mangal speaks from experience. Built on the vision of providing high-quality ambulance services to India’s poor, Ziqitza has soared to surprising levels for a social business. Beginning with just 10 ambulances in 2005, it now operates more than 800 in 17 states across India.
During this period of growth, Ziqitza has served more than 2.5 million people – many of whom live below the poverty line – including more than a half-million pregnant women. At present, Ziqitza’s market share is approximately 25 percent, with annual revenue of roughly $20 million, according to the company.
Ziqitza’s large-scale growth and financial success is a result of its innovative business model. The company has established a range of revenue streams that enables it to not only remain socially inclusive and financially sustainable, but also to operate at scale – and always with its social mission driving its growth.
(This social mission – to provide emergency medical services to India’s poor – is particularly important given the country’s vulnerability to large-scale disasters: More than half of its land is prone to earthquakes, roughly 30 million people annually are affected by floods and the traffic accident rate in India is 21 times higher than the world average.)
Ziqitza is built on two models for emergency transportation: Dial 1298, a fully private service, and Dial 108, a public service supported by state governments. For its 1298 model, Ziqitza operates a private ambulance service in Mumbai, Kerala, Bihar, and Punjab that charges wealthier patients more to be transported to private hospitals, using that revenue to “cross subsidize” its discounted or free service to lower-income patients.
Of course, the luxury of operating in markets that can support a cross subsidy is due in large part to India’s diverse economic stratification, but it is also a tenant of social business compared to traditional business: Rather than maximizing profits by just serving the rich, Ziqitza has found a creative way to reach poorer and more vulnerable populations by repurposing some of its profit.
One of the ways Ziqitza was able to expand so quickly was its success in securing government tenders for emergency transportation through the Dial 108 service. Ziqitza currently has tenders in three states, for which patients – most of whom live in rural communities that are often far removed from the health system – can dial 108 to get free emergency transportation to a nearby public hospital.
Government can be an important customer for both traditional and social businesses, but for Ziqitza, it is a natural means through which the company can serve more patients in greatest need of their service.
Due to Ziqitza’s wide reach across India, it has found another creative source of revenue: corporate advertisers. Corporations like Tata AIG, ICICI Lombard, and others have sponsored Ziqitza’s 1298 ambulances with their logos, keeping the company from having to sacrifice its inclusive approach to remain afloat.
To the corporate sponsors, Ziqitza’s social mission is actually a value added compared to traditional businesses, enabling the sponsors to align themselves with the social responsibility inherent in the 1298 brand.
Another way Ziqitza earns revenue is by allowing private hospitals to brand its ambulances. While the vehicles are still operated by Ziqitza and its trained medical staff, hospitals are able to promote their brand in an increasingly competitive health marketplace, yielding benefits for all parties. Consistent with its mission, Ziqitza is more concerned about serving patients in need of emergency care than compromising its brand recognition.
Through these four approaches, Ziqitza is leading the way in the budding field of social business. But it’s not done yet. As Mangal explained, “We have been fortunate to find success in certain pockets of India, but we would like to see if our model can work elsewhere – both within and outside of India.”
The company hopes to secure additional government tenders in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh next year, which would put it well on its way to its goal of operating 3,000 ambulances in the next three years. It also hopes to test out its model in other developing countries.
When Muhammad Yunus first described “social business,” referring to it as a “new kind of capitalism that serves humanity’s most pressing needs,” he may not have had Ziqitza in mind. He may never have even heard of the company.
But since this concept has taken root in thousands of markets across the developing world, there have been few greater exemplars of Yunus’ vision for socially motivated companies than Ziqitza, which has also solidified – at least for me – the inherent distinction between social business and traditional business.
• Adam Lewis is an associate at Rabin Martin, a global health strategy firm in New York.
• NextBillion.net is a blog and web resource bringing together the community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, policymakers, and academics to explore the connection between development and enterprise.
In a wintertime take on food pantries, some northern New England communities are helping needy families stock their woodstoves instead of their shelves.
Just 2 percent of homes nationwide are heated with wood, but that percentage is four times higher in New Hampshire, more than six times higher in Maine, and nearly nine times higher in Vermont, according to 2012 census estimates.
While benefits obtained through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program can be used to purchase wood, community wood banks run by church groups, social service agencies, and towns help those who don't qualify or find themselves in a midwinter emergency and don't have time for the application process.
"It's wonderful that we have the fuel assistance program, but that's a service you need to apply for ahead of time, and oftentimes, there are situations out of a person's control," says Kristen Vance, executive director of Grapevine Family and Community Resource Center in Antrim, N.H.
Ms. Vance and her husband started the center's Community Wood Bank 10 years ago after a local church that had been running a small wood bank was about to shut it down. Last year, it served three-dozen individuals and families. One recent recipient was a man who had rented out his home while he visited out-of-state relatives and returned to find his house had been vandalized and the heating system damaged.
"His house was about the same temperature it was outside, and he didn't have any fuel, so he came over and got some wood," Vance says.
Some of the firewood banks make home deliveries, while others are self-serve operations. All rely on the generosity of volunteers to cut, split, and pile up wood.
In New Hampton, N.H., Tom O'Shea started picking up dead trees on the side of the road eight years ago and storing them at his home. Soon, half-a-dozen fellow members of the New Hampton Community Church were doing the same, and they eventually approached their pastor about setting up a system to distribute the wood.
Today, the group arranges deliveries in the late fall to six or eight homes and keeps a stockpile for later in the winter if folks run out. Instead of clearing deadwood from roadsides and other lots, the group now buys log-length wood and chops it up into stove-size pieces, providing about 10 cords of free firewood per winter.
"There's no greater gift than being able to bring wood to somebody — most are women with kids, and they're frozen. It does my heart good to be able to walk in there with a third or half a cord of wood and give it to them," O'Shea said.
In Maine, the Cumberland Wood Bank delivered 35 cords of wood to people in need last year and raised almost $9,000 to pay for propane and oil to help residents stay warm, says Susan Novak, business manager at the Cumberland Congregational Church. A few years ago, the church started getting phone calls from people who didn't have enough wood to burn throughout the winter. Meanwhile, community members clearing their land didn't know what to do with their extra wood, and the idea was born, Ms. Novak says.
In Vermont, the state donates wood to several volunteer groups that work with the United Way of Lamoille County. Unlike other less formal arrangements, those seeking the wood have to apply in August or September, and the United Way determines income eligibility and handles other logistics.
State officials also were involved in giving an unexpected boost to a nonprofit program in Bennington, Vt., called Wood Warms that serves people who don't qualify for federal fuel assistance but are still struggling.
In the fall, U. Forest Service law enforcement officials seized more than 20 cords of firewood that was stolen from the Green Mountain National Forest and donated it to the program. Individuals on probation and parole, as well as high school students from the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center, helped cut and split it.
Mary Congoran and her husband started Wood for Warmth in Hopkinton, N.H., in 2008. Since then, town officials have embraced the idea, allowing the wood bank to set up at the town transfer station.
The wood is donated from several timber-related businesses, and the program includes a "volunteer day" each fall to split and stack it. Ms. Congoran scouts around in October for families who might need help, and residents apply for vouchers from the town's human services department that can be redeemed at the wood bank.
"One of the difficulties is, this is New Hampshire, and a lot of people just won't ask for help. They say, 'There's gotta be someone else who needs it more than I do,' " she says.
While her program is more formal, Congoran says helping others doesn't have to be complicated.
"Just have a wood pile, and it can grow from there," she says.
Whatever the archetypal image of a humanitarian worker is, it almost certainly won’t look like Maureen Forrest. The petite Irishwoman is a study in glamour in a smartly tailored suit and sharply styled hair, complete with electric pink highlights.
But no amount of styling can disguise the quiet determination that shines through her restless eyes. It’s the kind of determination that always knows how to gently turn a “no” into a “yes,” and is responsible for the enormous success of The Hope Foundation, the organization founded by Maureen to support the street children of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India.
The Hope Foundation will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year, and in that short space of time has grown from little more than a dream and a fax machine to a network that sustains more than 60 projects touching the lives of 25,000 children who were born with few choices and very little hope.
That growth can be attributed to the dynamism, charisma, and charm of Ms. Forrest, who has reached the age when many enter retirement, but who has absolutely no intention of slowing down or taking it easy. While others are puttering in their gardens, Forrest can be found talking to battered wives in Kolkata’s slums, negotiating with donors in Dublin, or sitting with teenagers in a drug rehabilitation center.
“It really would be much easier to go off and play golf!” she says with a laugh.
Kolkata is a thriving and highly cultural city, chaotic and sordid yet proud of its rich literary history and making the most of the colonial heritage bestowed on it by the British. But before visitors reach the modern highways, luxury hotels, trendy nightclubs, and busy art galleries, they are faced with a grim, incontrovertible fact: Thousands and thousands of people live on the streets there, in dire conditions. Many of them are children.
Maureen first went to Kolkata in 1993 as a volunteer for the Irish humanitarian aid organization GOAL. This was not her first time in the field. She had worked for GOAL on one of the toughest assignments imaginable – in Somalia during its war and consequent famine of the early 1990s. Yet what she saw in Kolkata turned her world upside down.
“Somalia opened my eyes to a world that I hadn’t imagined," she says. “The hardest thing was having healthy babies die in your arms because there wasn’t enough food. Their mothers were dying, and they were dying. And when you looked at it, there was no good reason at all.”
This was utterly unacceptable to Forrest, who had dealt with the personal tragedy of losing her first child.
That refusal to accept the unacceptable is part of what underpinned the drive to create The Hope Foundation.
“When she came here, she was different from other people,” says Geeta Venkadakrishnan, the director of the Hope Kolkata Foundation, which was founded and is funded by the Ireland-based Hope Foundation. “She wanted to know why the people were on the streets, why the government wasn’t helping them.
"These were God’s gifted children, and for her this was so strong. So many who come here, come and take photographs and ask questions and leave. But this was not enough for her.”
Forrest went back to Ireland a burning desire to help, and with it she lit up Hope, starting with a shelter for 26 endangered young girls. Today Hope funds and works with 60 separate projects run by other nongovernmental organizations in health, education, savings and micro-finance, and training in life and vocational skills. The programs are intended mainly for Kolkata’s street children, but they also assist vulnerable women and the underprivileged poor.
Hope also directly runs five shelters, has built and operates a hospital, and continues to run its vital Childwatch service, which rescues high-risk children from the streets.
The money for this comes from Forrest’s relentless fundraising and a novel approach that engages students in Ireland to help their peers from another continent.
“She’s an amazing lady,” says Ms. Venkadakrishnan, who has worked for Hope since it was founded. “She’s so positive and is the backbone of the organization. At every turn, whenever we are dealing with a child who is in real need, she has said ‘Yes, help them.’ Then we have to find the money. It has helped us to see things through her eyes.”
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘no’ in my vocabulary,” Forrest says with a smile. “At least, I’ve always looked at it as the opening of negotiations.” She smiles sweetly, giving a glimpse of the charm that has helped her to raise almost €20 million ($27 million) so far.
Most of the fundraising activities are focused on Ireland, a small country where everyone still knows someone who knows you. However, Hope has also always been adaptable, embracing new technology and new approaches.
“You have to change your thinking and your focus, to look for other ways of fundraising," Forrest says. "The traditional ways don’t always work anymore, and you also can’t keep asking the same people. And at times of crisis, people also tend to focus on the home charities, so we’ve had to be inventive.”
One of the strategies she has employed has been to encourage high school students to raise funds for projects, with a prize for those who raise the most. That prize is a trip to India to visit the projects that the students have helped.
In this way, the teenagers become more than fundraisers. They also become emissaries for the organization and help to raise awareness of the issues confronted by the projects in Kolkata. The situation sounds different when it’s described by your friends, not coming from some voice on the television.
Recently a group of students from one of Ireland’s best boys’ schools was touring the projects that they had helped by packing shopping bags, baking biscuits, holding concerts, and harassing their friends’ parents. In the almost unbearable heat, the boys sang their hearts out with the Kolkata children, ran around playgrounds with them, and read to them. More importantly, they were becoming witnesses for them. They were understanding the children, and understanding that something could be done to help them.
Last year, 264 16- and 17-year-old students visited projects in Kolkata.
“For a young child to go into a slum and actually see the conditions, it makes a huge difference to them," Forrest says. "They become as immersed in the work as they can for one week and get to understand the program. When they go home, they become true ambassadors for the youth here.”
The Hope Foundation has also reached out to students in India, where rigid social structures still entrench economic and social divisions between castes. Hope has set up a program to bring students from well-to-do schools into the city to visit the shelters and help the the children with their reading and homework.
“It’s an eye-opening experience for them,” Forrest says. “Their parents often wouldn’t like them to have anything to do with children from a lower caste, and they’re very shielded from this world, often driven everywhere behind dark glass. They don’t have to see how other people live, but these are all India’s children.”
The project has been a big success, and more students are signing up to take part as they learn more from their peers.
Of course, many challenges remain. As many organizations have found, while the global recession creates greater need, it also restricts the supply of available support. But Forrest remains undaunted.
“I just focus on where I’m at now, and on what needs to be done now. But I’m a positive person, and I can always see the possibilities, and the good in things. That’s the way I do it."
“I wish we had thousands and millions more Maureens,” Venkadakrishnan says. “But we only have one, so we have to make do.”
Joyce and Ted Kruse are wealthy beyond measure. Both in their 60s and retired, this husband and wife team of 23 years travels internationally, they operate their own charitable organization, are active members in the church community, and serve as an inspiration to many.
Co-founders of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Neighbors Near & Far, the Kruses' operation is set up in the basement of their Baltimore, MD row house. Together they offer all of their support to the local community food bank Assistance Center of Towson Churches (the "Near"), and to the Christian Concern for Haiti and its two orphanages, Kay Papa Nou and Unity House (the "Far").
According to friend and fellow traveler Wayne Fritze, “[Joyce and Ted] are tireless in their support of the children in Haiti. Joyce has visited 14 times in four years, often sleeping on the floor of the orphanage so she can better understand how the girls live. She does not want to be thought of as a privileged ‘Blanc,’ as white Americans are generally thought of in Haiti.”
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Prior to their marriage, both Ted and Joyce lived in Saudi Arabia. Joyce spent much of her childhood there while Ted worked in Riyadh in the 1980s.
Later, Joyce was a packaging engineer with Unilever and Ted a college librarian. In fact, it was Ted’s contacts with magazines and newspapers that became their primary source of charitable funding.
According to Ted, “Most of our support comes from the sale of donated books. Magazine and newspapers regularly receive free books from publishers in the hope of a book review or other mention. Some publications receive more than 300 books per month and are very willing to donate these books to a worthy cause that will remove the books from their offices.”
To bring this full circle, when I say that Joyce and Ted are “wealthy,” I’m not referring to the size of their bank account (of which I have no knowledge); I’m speaking in the more humanistic and spiritual sense of the word.
The Kruses are wealthy because they have dedicated their second act to making the world a better place. Their time, money, talent, networks, resources, all of it is spent in the service of others.
Clearly their lives are richer for what they’re doing, as are the communities and the people they touch. Thank you Kruses for your generosity in answering these questions.
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
The purpose of life is to serve others, especially the poor.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the work in Haiti has renewed our belief that there is much good in the world. People unknown to us have supported Neighbors Near & Far financially. In Haiti, people who have very few material possessions are often willing to share with others.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
Neighbors Near & Far is very small, but we will make a big difference in the lives of the 30+ children in Haiti. Just because we cannot solve all the problems of poverty in Haiti does not mean there is nothing we can do.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
We are fortunate to have a living hero, Dr. Cecil De Sweemer, who we communicate with regularly. Dr. De Sweemer is a medical missionary in rural Democratic Republic of the Congo. She is 74 years old and has Parkinson’s but still regularly sees patients and administers the project Butoke. All her pension and Social Security income is used to run Butoke. She is a model of sacrificial living.
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
Haiti and our orphanages have a host of needs. Because of the lack of infrastructure, the only ways to transport goods to Haiti is by airline luggage or large overseas shipping containers. These transport restrictions mean we must turn down most material donations. Financial support is the best way for donors to support Neighbors Near & Far.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE INSPIRATIONAL SAYING?
“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
"The Second Half is the Best " would be the book title. We hope our work in retirement with Neighbors Near & Far will be the most productive part of our lives.
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TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC.
We are both rather private persons so sharing personal thoughts with others is difficult. So, what we rarely share would be a long list.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS?
Many people are purpose-driven philanthropists but fail to do the basic setup for a sustainable organization. At the very minimum, get a bank account in the organization’s name to separate personal and charitable funds. Incorporate to further support the separation and to get certain legal protections. Get 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service to insure donations are tax deductible.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
QUESTION: Why do you want to be on this blog? ANSWER: We were reluctant to submit to Talking GOOD because we believe the focus should not be on us (Matthew 6:1-4). Our hope is that readers of this blog will be inspired to start their own projects. It really is possible to run a charity that makes a difference out of a basement of a Baltimore row house. Our belief is retired people have a lifetime of experience and many contacts [and] will be even more successful than younger purpose-given philanthropists.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dotted around the storm-wrecked city of Tacloban in the central Philippines are notices thanking not the government, the United Nations, or the Roman Catholic Church. They give gratitude to the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist charity that made its presence felt in the weeks after a devastating November typhoon.
"Maraming Salamat Po [thank you very much] Tzu Chi Foundation," reads one such cloth banner draped over a ruined shopfront on Tacloban's smashed-up waterfront, a half mile or so from the town's main Catholic church, Santo Niño.
The Philippines' 82 million Catholics comprise the third-biggest such population, behind Brazil and Mexico. It is a country known for public displays of devotion, taking in such elemental pageantry as annual voluntary and nonlethal crucifixions in memory of the death of Jesus.
Christmas, marking the birth of Jesus, is a much more joyous celebration. But in this central Philippines town of 220,000, though churches were full and battered villages festooned with impromptu Christmas trees fashioned out of storm debris, Christmas in Tacloban was overshadowed by death and destruction.
Despite the overt Christianity that the Philippines is known for, a foreign Buddhist charity is winning most of the local plaudits after paying 500 pesos ($11) a day to cashless and sometimes jobless people whose homes or businesses were wrecked or put out of action by the storm.
Joey Ricote lives across the road from Tacloban's Buddhist temple, which faces the same water which rose so destructively on the morning of Nov. 8, 2013 – a storm surge whipped up by 200 m.p.h. winds in one of the strongest storms on record.
Mr. Ricote has already rebuilt his shack using bits of wood, plastic, and metal he says he took from the street – bits of shoreline houses that did not survive the storm.
He was one of those who took up Tzu Chi on its 500 pesos a day rate for cleaning up the city, and also received a 12,000 peso ($269) cash donation to rebuild his house.
"Yeah, I'm happy to have heard from Tzu Chi," he says.
Monica Sy, the Tzu Chi Foundation representative in Tacloban, says that the 19-day-long cash-for-work program included 280,000 paid working days, while 38,000 families benefited from the rebuilding donations.
"The assistance was not just financial," she says. "People were in shock, depressed. We wanted to inspire them to clean up and to get back to work," she says.
The lavish outlay seems to have come no-strings-attached, and local clergymen have welcomed the Buddhist group's generosity. Monsignor Alex Opiniano, a priest at Santo Niño church, said that Tzu Chi based itself on church grounds when it first arrived in Tacloban after the storm.
"The Tzu Chi style of extending assistance has been very direct, giving cash aid to the people," he says, adding that "it was motivated by love, a desire to help others."
Charlie Labarda, a Tacloban council member of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, part of the 10 percent of Filipinos listed as non-Catholic Christians, says that Tzu Chi Foundation's assistance was timely.
Speaking in the upstairs of a half-ruined church building, Dr. Labarda explains that "they were the ones who planted themselves in the public imagination as they came in at a critical time when people didn't have anything."
Labarda's churchin Tacloban, a congregation of around 350 people, has been working since the storm with American and South Korean church groups to carry out shelter and classroom repair, as well as support foreign medical missions.
Discussing the Tzu Chi Foundation's assistance, he says "even the elderly could participate, as it wasn't heavy work, cleaning up the streets, and the town benefited from the clean-up. The city needed this kind of intervention."
Standing under a downtown Tacloban sign reading "Tzu Chi Foundation!! Thank you very much for your generosity!" Roquena Lerios says that her family did not have access to the cash for work program.
Living along the storm-battered coast 19 miles outside Tacloban, beyond the reach of the Tzu Chi Foundation's operations, Ms. Lerios says "I hope they will give to another town," referring to the assistance.
But some Tacloban business people took issue with the Tzu Chi Foundation's daily payment, which at 500 pesos paid twice as much as the government's own cash-for-work program and around the same as what a schoolteacher gets, according to Julita Cordero, a teacher at the ruined Panaloran School in Tacloban.
One of those angry about the distortions the payments brought to the local economy is Joseph Bonavitacola, an Italian-American restaurateur and businessman based in Tacloban, where he founded Guiseppe's, a well-known Italian eatery, in 1992.
Guiseppe's was badly damaged by the storm, but re-opened in time for Christmas.
"We've had a hard time," he says, discussing the losses not only to the restaurant but to plantations where he grew basil and other Italian food staples.
The losses have not been just material, but human, to Mr. Bonavitacola, who has had to make to do with new staff since some of the previous, more experienced employees took up the 500 pesos a day offer from the Tzu Chi Foundation.
"I will not accept people who did not come back to work" after the storm, Bonavitacola says, asked if former staff who want to return once the Tzu Chi Foundation payouts have stopped will find their old jobs waiting for them.
Ms. Sy, the Tzu Chi Foundation representative, says she is aware of concerns among local business owners that the cash-for-work program offered rates that employers could not compete with. However she feels that overall, the program benefited Tacloban's shattered economy after the storm.
"We injected money into the local economy, which we hope helped demand, and in turn helped businesses get going again," she says.
Merrill Lynch and US Trust reached out to some high-powered clients this quarter to invest in a social-impact bond whose proceeds finance a program to lower recidivism rates among ex-convicts in New York.
The project raised $13.5 million over 60 days from clients of the Bank of America Corp-owned brokerage and wealth management firms. Investors included former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Sommers, Utah philanthropist James Sorenson, hedge fund founder Bill Ackman's Pershing Square Foundation, and the Laura and John Arnold foundation.
"They are looking for new and creative ways ... to have a more direct connection between the dollars they are investing and the impact it is having on a social problem that they care about," Andy Sieg, head of global wealth and retirement solutions at Merrill Lynch, said during a telephone news conference on Dec. 30.
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Investors can realize annual returns of up to 12.5 percent over five-and-a-half years, although the probable return is in the high single digits, he said. Actual returns depend on the success of job-training programs for 2,000 newly released prisoners administered by the Center for Employment Opportunities. Success rates will be determined by Chesapeake Research Associates.
The social impact bond is the first pay-for-success instrument in which Bank of America participated, and the first in which a state, New York, is participating. Reducing recidivism will help control prison costs, the fastest-growing budget item in New York in 2012 after Medicaid, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a news release.
About 20 pay-for-success bonds have been issued in programs worldwide, but more than 10 US states are considering the programs, said Tracy Palandjian, chief executive of Social Finance Inc., a nonprofit that structures such investments.
The new issue attracted an average order of $350,000 from 40 high-net-worth individuals and from family and other foundations. Capital from investors will come in two stages, this June and again in early 2016.
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The funds raised are minuscule compared with the about $12 trillion in US individual investor assets under management and the billions raised weekly in capital markets, Palandjian and Sieg said.
But the Merrill executive said he is confident more transactions will follow at Bank of America and other institutions because of "strong interest by clients in impact investing."
The Rockefeller Foundation provided a $1.32 million guaranty that covers 10 percent of investors' principal should it fail to repay 100 percent of their investment. The Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit with strong support from Wall Street and private equity, invested $300,000 in the project.
(Reporting by Jed Horowitz. Editing by Andre Grenon)
Adapted from Next Billion Financial Inclusion:
M-Pesa is one of the biggest success stories in the history of serving customers at the economic bottom of the pyramid – the world's poorest. Launched in 2007 by Safaricom, it quickly dominated the cash-transfer market, and grew at an astounding rate, capturing more than two-thirds of Kenya's adult population as customers.
Users who subscribe to the service can send and store money on their mobile phones and convert that money to cash through a nationwide network of agents. It now stands as the most developed mobile payment system in the world, and it is expanding to other countries in Africa and beyond – and branching out into other forms of financial services.
The editors of Global Envision and Next Billion Financial Inclusion interviewed Sitoyo Lopokoiyit, head of Strategy for Financial Services at Safaricom, as part of "Mobile Money: Technology to Transform Transactions," a conference hosted by the University of California's Center for Effective Global Action.
Global Envision: Financial inclusion is an issue you work with every day. What does that buzzword mean to you?
Sitoyo Lopokoiyit: Just to give you an example, financial inclusion is reported to be at 80 percent in Kenya. When you remove mobile money, it drops to 23 percent. So you can see what mobile money does for financial inclusion in Kenya.
For me, financial inclusion allows the "unbanked" to access basic financial services – not necessarily a formal bank account, but to be able to receive money or make payments via the mobile phone. That makes a fundamental difference in the lives of the unbanked population.
GE: How many people have bank accounts in Kenya?
SL: About 40 percent of the country has a bank account. That means there are about 8-10 million unique bank accounts in the country. Yet we've got about 20-21 million mobile phone users, of which 18 million are now on the M-Pesa system.
If you look at how M-Pesa has evolved in terms of growing financial inclusion, 43 percent of the GDP is flowing through M-PESA. So you can see how a mobile money platform can drive financial inclusion.
GE: How do you learn about the needs of base of the pyramid consumers, like rural farmers or women in small villages? How do you learn what their daily financial lives are like to inform the products your team creates?
SL: There's formal research, informal research, and lots of feedback from staff, communities, and the government. But it's what you do with that information that's important. How do you collate it, and how do you develop a product to suit different needs from different parts of the country?
GE: How do you do that? Do you have an example of using that information and turning it into a product as a direct response?
SL: A good example is M-Shwari, which is a partnership with the Commercial Bank of Africa. It's the first truly virtual bank account. You opt in via your mobile phone. You get a formal bank account and can save and borrow from it.
The Central Bank actually shared this statistic: There are over 200 billion Kenyan shillings (about $2.3 billion) out there in informal savings, like under the mattress. Those are unsafe places. For example, when a slum burns in Kenya, people run inside to save the property but also the money they have hidden. M-Shwari moves the money into a formal system, in which you can earn interest. It's in a safe place. And additionally you can borrow when the need arises.
GE: How do you market products like that? M-Pesa is known around the world and known very well in Kenya, of course. When you launched M-Shwari, how did you teach customers about this new product offering?
SL: This is the first time we're really marketing a banking product. For us, it was a learning process. It was learning how to train people on how to use a new product. But it was also training on how to use a new menu, educate on the importance of savings and credit, how to get credit, how to improve your credit score, what's the interest you can earn, the most and least you can borrow. There's a lot of information for a very simple product.
We've been trying for about nine months and have about 4 million customers. But we're still investing heavily on customer education because it's not a simple product to educate on.
GE: How do you do that customer education? Is it largely through agents?
SL: No, we use a lot of different methods. We go "above the line marketing" like TV and radio.
We also go "below the line marketing" through targeted groups, education on market days, and through informal women's groups. We work with about 30,000 women groups across the country. We educate them on the product, and they educate others in their community.
It's a one-on-one engagement. It's very personal about your credit and your savings and what your goals are. It's more involved than how we marketed or educated about M-Pesa.
What we realized was that in Kenya the woman is the heart of the household. She controls the house. If we're able to get to the women's groups, and if they can understand it better, they will educate others on it.
When M-Pesa started, 27 percent who opted in were women. Today they make up 51 percent.
GE: M-Pesa is sometimes put on a pedestal. It works really well in Kenya, but there are reasons it doesn't replicate to neighboring countries. Are there any facets you think would replicate well, or reasons it doesn't replicate easily in other markets?
SL: I think each market is unique. You can't take M-Pesa the way it is and put it in Afghanistan or Tanzania directly. Every market is very unique, and the circumstances are very unique.
Kenya had a huge rural to urban migration, so there was always a need to send money back home. That need was already there.
The other thing is the regulator. The regulator allowed M-Pesa to start operating before the regulation was there. But they gave oversight over the service. We had a very progressive regulator who allowed mobile money, the innovation, to precede regulation.
Secondly, there was the management commitment. There was a lot of investment to get this right. Mobile money isn't like any other product where you try it for six months and leave it. M-Pesa first started making money after three years. The first three years are just investment, investment, investment. There's no quick win to make it a success. It takes a lot of effort and determination.
• Watch the interview on YouTube.
Most of Kenya’s educational institutions depend on firewood as their main source of energy for cooking, contributing to deforestation and placing a financial burden on schools and universities due to rising prices for their fuel.
In response, the Kenya Forest Service and the African Development Bank (AfDB) have initiated a project dubbed “Green Zone Development,” in which biogas technology is being introduced as an alternative energy source to learning facilities in the Rift Valley.
“Boarding schools and day schools use a lot of firewood for cooking, [so] this project will reduce the dependence on the forest, and hence ease pressure on the ecosystem,” said Solomon Mibei, head of conservation for the Kenya Forest Service in the North Rift Valley area.
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St. Agatha Mokwo Girls’ Secondary School in Kaptarakwa, Elgeiyo Marakwet County, is among the schools that have benefited from the initiative.
“The projects have worked very well in our school – in fact, we are now used as a demonstration center, and we have received several visitors from different places,” smiled Margaret Chebaskwony, the school’s principal.
“Apart from acquiring the gas for cooking, we also use the bio-effluent as fertilizer, since it is safe for production of crops, and hence boosts food security,” Chebaskwony said.
The school’s small-scale biogas plant consists of a large digester, in which bacteria convert animal dung into methane gas through the process of anaerobic digestion. The biogas is used for cooking and lighting.
Thanks to its efforts to protect the environment, the school was awarded a Prestigious Green Award (PGA), the first for a biogas project in Kenya.
The award was created in 1999 by the National Environment Trust Fund (NETFUND), a nongovernmental organization, to recognize innovation, groundbreaking research, ideas, and extraordinary grass-roots initiatives in Kenya. It aims to promote sustainable use and management of natural resources by rewarding the best examples.
St. Agatha Mokwo is also used by athletes during school holidays as a training center. Both the bakery and fish pond, built with support from the Kenya Forest Service, have been a major attraction for athletes who want to improve their home science skills.
So far eight schools have installed biogas plants under the project, and more are at different stages of deploying the technology across the 17 counties where Green Zone Development operates.
Introducing biogas technology in schools does appear to improve environmental protection in the local area.
David Kipyego, chairman of the Eldoret Educational Resource Center, a school in Eldoret town, said that since the biogas project began there, use of fuelwood has been cut by half.
“We have reduced the use of firewood for cooking from 24 tons to 12 tons per term [of three months], which is an added advantage for the conservation of the environment, as well as being economical for the school,” Kipyego said.
Apart from the biogas, the organic waste material used to produce the gas can serve as manure, which is more beneficial to the environment than chemical fertilizers, Kipyego said.
David Chemweno, executive director of Save Kenya Water Towers, an organization set up in 2010 to rehabilitate degraded water-catchment areas, said each of 20 schools visited by his staff consumed an average of 20 tons (20,000 kg) of firewood per term.
Schools are licensed to harvest dead wood but end up cutting down trees in order to get the amount they need for cooking, he added.
His organization has also spearheaded a separate program called the “Green Ribbon Initiative,” which involves bringing biogas to schools located near indigenous forests.
“We are targeting more than 20 schools … with subsidized biogas, where the schools will contribute 60 percent of the project while we contribute 40 percent to cover the cost of the technical knowhow,” Chemweno said, adding that Save Kenya Water Towers will also donate cows to assist in biogas production.
Minimizing the use of firewood by schools will also contribute to climate change mitigation, experts say.
“Harmful greenhouses gas emissions can be reduced, and the forest can now act better as a carbon sink,” said Mibei of the Kenya Forest Service. The local climate had changed due to massive deforestation in the area, with rainfall becoming less frequent, he noted.
The school biogas project is inspiring communities living nearby, and a number of them have adopted the same technology at household level.
“Most of our neighbors living around the schools have embraced the technology – some other educational institutions have also visited with a view to copying this worthy initiative,” Chebaskwony said, adding that some have come from as far afield as other parts of East Africa.
Local leaders are also backing the project, urging people to embrace the technology in order to protect the environment.
“This is the way to go – as leaders we totally support the project, we are going to rally behind it so that every household living next to the forest can hold to the idea,” said Thomas Kigen, a member of the county assembly for Kaptarakwa ward in Elgeiyo Marakwet County.
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Recently, the county’s governor, Alex Tolgos, called for an end to cutting down trees. “The harvesting of the forest must stop immediately to give room for the forest to grow. Let’s support biogas technology,” he said.
“We are in the process of recovering the degraded forest by planting more trees – as many as we can to reclaim the vanished forest,” Mibei said. The forest service has planted 10 million trees in the Rift Valley alone, he added.
Kipyego, chairman of the Eldoret school, said people should take care of natural resources for their own benefit. “A well-conserved, kept, and maintained environment equals good health, long life, economic growth, and reduction of crime,” he argued.
• Caleb Kemboi is an environmental and climate change reporter based in Eldoret, in Kenya’s Rift Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
It’s hard to believe, but out of 30,000 edible known plant species, just 30 – corn, rice, and wheat among them – make up 95 percent of all the food humans eat. In addition, the remaining 5 percent is made up of fewer species every year.
Ironically, while the world produces more food than ever before, the food system offers less and less diversity.
But diversity is important – for personal health and the health of the planet. In 2014, farmers, eaters, and the funding and donor communities need to resolve to invest in a more diverse food system.
Lack of diversity in agriculture comes at a high price. More than 2 billion people, particularly in the developing world, suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. According to AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center, lack of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables can lead to malnutrition, stunting, and even death.
The lack of focus on more nutritious crop varieties is also, ironically, a principle factor in the overweight and obesity epidemic which now afflicts more than 1.4 billion in rich and poor countries alike.
That's why crops like enset (pronounced EHN-SET) are so important. Enset is a multipurpose plant known as the "false banana" that grows primarily in Ethiopia. As a source of nutrition, fermented enset is consumed to help combat iron deficiencies and reduce anemia, helping pregnant women to avoid premature delivery and low birth weight. And it can also be a farmer's best friend, decreasing soil erosion, providing a natural source of fertilizer, and helping keep water in soils.
Organizations such as The Christensen Fund and farmers' groups are targeting enset as a resource in need of protection. Because the crop is not only used for food, but medicine, shelter, environmental sustainability, and income, the fund believes it is important for the livelihoods of at least 15 million people in Ethiopia.
And enset isn't the only crop creating multiple benefits.
In Kenya, the organization Urban Harvest is working with farmers in Kibera, which is believed to the world’s largest slum with roughly 1 million people. The farmers — most of whom are women — are not only growing food to consume and sell to their neighbors, they have also developed a seed-multiplication project. They grow seeds of amaranth and other indigenous vegetables and then sell those seeds to rural farmers.
Small-holder farmers in Eastern Africa often have a difficult time finding good-quality, affordable vegetable seeds, giving the Kibera farmers an opportunity to dispel the myth that urban agriculture only feeds the poor and hungry in cities. It can also be an important source of nutrients for rural areas.
In the United States, the Kansas-based organization The Land Institute is highlighting how perennial crops — crops that live more than two years — have enormous potential to improve food security, prevent soil erosion, and negate the need for costly inputs. Perennial crops tend to establish deep root systems, keeping soil in place and helping conserve water. The Land Institute is working to develop perennial grain varieties (corn, soy, wheat, and rice are annual crops, and planted from year to year).
By developing perennial cultivars for wheat and other staple crops — including Kernza, a wheat variety higher in, betaine, calcium, fiber, folate, and vitamin B-6, and lower gluten than annual wheat varieties —The Land Institute is hoping to create a more resilient food system. A system that not only produces high yields, but builds soil nutrients and reduces costs for farmers from Kansas to Nepal.
It’s clear that relying on just 30 or so crop varieties for most of the world’s food supply isn’t working — and that we need a revolution in agriculture, but not one that relies on artificial fertilizers and costly pesticides and herbicides, like the Green Revolution of years past.
Instead, the world needs to resolve in 2014 to invest in crops that nourish both people and the planet — crops that are economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.
• Danielle Nierenberg is the co-founder and president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (www.foodtank.org).