Turning Seattle’s hodgepodge of do-gooders into a community

Seattle has become a hub, or more accurately a hodgepodge, of international do-gooders.

To begin with, there’s that internationally oriented foundation based in Seattle run by a couple of mega-billionaires.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, has made the Emerald City (do we still call it that?) an epicenter for matters of global health, poverty reduction and such.

But there’s much more going on here than the Gates Foundation. And, well, nobody seems to really have a handle on everything going on. It’s a hodgepodge.

That’s where another internationally oriented foundation in Seattle comes in. Appropriately enough, it’s called the Seattle International Foundation.

“We live in this amazing community where so many people are trying to make a difference,” said Maurico Vivero, executive director at the Seattle International Foundation (aka SIF).

But most of these people, and their organizations, Vivero says, have tended to work in relative isolation on their causes. The goal of SIF, he says, is to encourage collaboration among the literally hundreds of local organizations working globally to fight poverty and improve the welfare of the world’s poorest.

“It’s that sum-is-greater-than-the-parts idea,” Vivero said. And it’s much more even than that, he added, having to do with increasing accountability and improving effectiveness by building community — but more on these other goals later.

A good example of SIF’s push for collaboration is a project going on today (until midnight Thursday) done in partnership with a relatively new do-gooder start-up called Jolkona aimed at raising money for another bunch of do-gooders, iLeap, working on women’s empowerment – all using the online “deal of the day” website Groupon.

Yeah, lotta moving parts here. Stay with me. Collaboration isn’t always easy.

Let’s start with iLeap and Betty Kagoro of Uganda.

“We’re all about building relationships and connections, bringing established but emerging grassroots social leaders here from all over the global south to empower their work,” said Britt Yamamoto, director of iLeap.

Betty Kagoro in Uganda

Kagoro, for example, has long worked on a variety of health issues, children’s rights, women’s health and inter-faith issues on HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

After spending three months with iLeap in Seattle (which includes job shadowing, interviewing local experts in areas of interest), Yamamoto said Kagoro eventually concluded that she would have the most impact — on many of these same issues — by focusing on informing and supporting teenage girls and boys.

Upon returning to Uganda, she formed a new organization called Teen Empowerment Uganda. While there are many programs focused on specific issues relevant to teens such as HIV prevention, family planning and so on, Kagoro recognized that there was little being done to address the teen’s needs as a whole — as a person.

“I think Betty really found her calling after coming here,” said Yamamoto.

The goal of today’s Groupon fund-raising challenge administered by Jolkona, with matching funds from SIF — phew! — is to help iLeap help many more women like Kagoro advance their work in social change.

So what is Jolkona and why are they raising money for some other group?

I’ve written about Jolkona before, as an example of what I think is a fascinating phenomenon — philanthropic or humanitarian endeavors launched by young people, aka the Millennials.

Jolkona means drop of water in Bengali and the idea for this organization, founded by Millennials Nadia and Adnan Mahmud, started with some good-hearted laziness. Adnan, after a visit to relatives in Bangladesh, wanted to donate money to help those helping the poor there. He did so, which prompted his friends and colleagues at Mircosoft to ask him for guidance on donoting themselves.

Adnan didn’t want to manage these requests directly, so he set up a website for his friends which, to make a long story short, Nadia saw as having potential to address a much bigger need — helping individuals find good causes and helping small organizations engaged in good causes get found, and funding. Thus, Jolkona.

“This is the first time we’ve tried to do it using Groupon,” said Laura Kimball, head of communications for Jolkona. So far, Kimball said, they are more than halfway to raising $5,000 (to be matched by $5,000 from SIF) to fund another iLeap fellowship for someone like Kagoro.

Groupon, which gets mixed reviews as a business venture (and which, according to Wikipedia, has some fairly weird prohibitions as to what type of business it will not allow to advertise), is trying to expand its efforts in “social enterprise” and has created the G-Team option — which this week features the Jolkona-SIF-iLeap campaign.

If this project succeeds, Kimball said, Jolkana plans to try it again and raise money (presumably $40,000) for an additional four iLeap fellowships aimed at bringing women working on social change in poor countries here.

“This is a great example of what it is we’re trying to do here,” Vivero said. Supporting women leaders working on issues of poverty and social empowerment is proven to be one of the most effective means for affecting change in poor, or any, communities, he said.

But supporting collaboration and partnerships is only part of SIF’s mission, Vivero said. The philanthropy, established with a $30 million endowment from long-time local philanthropists Bill and Paula Clapp, also funds other organizations. Here’s a list of recent grant-winners, which included Jolkona.

One of SIF’s other goals is to help answer the question: How do people know which organizations are having the most impact and which are most deserving of support?

A chronic problem with many do-gooder organizations is that they sometimes have more heart than head. And, yeah, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“Most people either don’t have the time or don’t really know how to evaluate these organizations,” Vivero said. So the SIF also vets members of the Seattle do-gooder community. They look at the financials, the leadership structure, criteria for and evidence of impact and sustainability.

Vivero also frequently takes trips to go check up on projects run by Seattle organizations.

SIF's Mauricio Vivero in Guatemala, checking on a Seattle-funded microfinance project

“We’ve reviewed more than 100 local groups that ask for funding,” Vivero said. He wouldn’t name those rejected for endorsement and funding, noting that the idea is to encourage those who haven’t quite gotten their act together to seek to improve — not get slapped around.

Some of the more common problems they have encountered with local do-gooders, he said, is a lack of a clearly defined and sustainable impact on poor people.

“For example, we’ve been asked to fund a number of projects aimed at shipping goods to poor people overseas where the cost of shipping exceeded the cost of the goods,” Vivero said. “Or we have proposals to send volunteers out to build a medical clinic or something and then leave. That’s not going to be sustainable.”

Vivero knows what poverty and hardship is like. He and his family fled Cuba in 1970 and moved to Michigan under the auspices of Lutheran relief program. He believes they were, at the time, the only Cubans in Lansing. His family did eventually flourish in the U.S. and Vivero, an attorney, before coming to SIF worked for charities in Washington, D.C.

Vivero thinks something very special is happening in Seattle. There’s a unique mixture here — a global view on things, a strong humanitarian bent and a creative mindset. And a good deal of money that wants to be directed at making the world a better place.

But it’s all still kind of disorganized, he said, a hodgepodge.

“We want to help bring all these people, and their causes, together and see what happens,” Vivero says.

 

 

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.