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A short note to the new philanthropist looking to support education and technology initiatives in the developing world

Michael Trucano's picture
I have some important decisions in front of me
I have some important decisions
in front of me

I get contacted from time to time by 'new' philanthropists looking to do something positive and productive with their wealth. Usually this is someone who has made a lot of money in the technology industry and who is now starting her or his own family foundation.

Chronologically speaking, many of these people are closer to what one would consider the age at which someone starts a career than the age at which one 'retires'. In other words: They are often rather young.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experience, many of these sorts of folks are often firm believers in the value of education (even if they themselves dropped out of formal schooling early to focus on writing code), in the transformative potential of technology (something which has profoundly and positively impacted their lives personally, offering them opportunities and riches they could never have dreamed of) and in the desire to do something globally (the person may be an immigrant her/himself, be married to an immigrant, have worked with lots of people from different countries or cultures, and/or just have done a lot of international travel).

Last year, for example, I was contacted by someone (writing on behalf of someone else) who wished to (I am slightly paraphrasing here) "explore innovative ways that technology can be harnessed to help overcome longstanding challenges in education around the world". (As for how such folks find me, they usually say: I stumbled across the EduTech blog.)

Given that I have been approached a number of times in a similar sort of way quite recently, and that I serve on a number of externally advisory boards where this sort of thing is discussed, I thought I'd share this scenario here, as well as little bit about some of the things I sometimes say in response, in case it might be of interest to anyone else:

Let's say I had the equivalent of a few million U.S. dollars
available to do something innovative at the intersection of
education and technology somewhere in the 'developing world'.

If it works out, a lot more money could potentially be used
to support activities further, and more systematically,
over a longer period of time.

If it doesn't work out -- well, that would not be great, of course,
but I am willing to take some risks.

 I want to be innovative,
and would really like to do something
that no one else is doing.

What should my new foundation do, and how should we do it?


I must confess that, whenever I am asked these sorts of questions, I find it to be a rather exciting, and perhaps even a little terrifying, scenario. (Often times such adjectives are not mutually exclusive!) When presented with a blank canvas of this sort, where and how does one start to paint?

Before jumping right into specifics (or, more often, during occasional lulls in conversations that typically drill down quickly into quite technical discussions of specific examples, educational challenges and technologies which are discussed regularly on the EduTech blog), I often try to offer a few general observations. These may or may not always be relevant to the new philanthropist, but I figure, why not use the opportunity to fling a number of things at the wall and see what sticks? For what it's worth, here are a few of them:

  
1. It's useful to know the 'established players' -- but one of your strengths is that you are not 'established'
At a place like the World Bank (and other UN agencies and international development institutions), we can do certain things in certain ways -- but there are certain things we are decidedly not well suited to do (even if, it must be said, at times we do actually try to do them). Alleviating and eventually ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity are the twin goals of the World Bank, and we largely pursue them through traditional, established means, working with national governments around the world, and increasingly with many other partners from civil society and (often via the IFC) with the corporate sector as well.

Knowing about how institutions such as mine work (and don't work) can be useful, as we might eventually be part of the means by which whatever you support can be replicated and 'scaled' beyond what your philanthropic monies, as substantial as they may be, can fund. We could also, potentially, be a strategic partner in whatever it is you are seeking to do. We have a lot of deep technical expertise and experience within our institution that you might be able to tap into as you go about doing whatever you eventually plan to do. We might be able to help connect you to people, to organizations, to places, and to challenges that you may not already know.

Even where we don't have concrete answers about how to pursue a specific objective, we can probably share with you lots of hard won lessons about approaches that have been tried in the past and have failed -- sometimes miserably, and expensively. (It might also be worth looking at some of the things we do, and how we do them, if you think we ourselves are part of the problem!)

 
2. Do something different, something that no one else is doing. Be different.
In starting your new foundation or NGO, you are unconstrained by institutional legacies, bureaucratic processes and mindsets and political constraints. Many 'traditional' institutions are inhibited by inertial forces of various kinds. Your power and ability to do something isn't only a function of how much money you have, but also (potentially) to the freedom you have to disrupt the status quo -- hopefully, in ways that are useful and beneficial ('disruption' in and of itself is not a virtue).

 
3. If you are really willing to 'be innovative' and treat some of your funds as 'risk capital', make sure you put into place processes that allow you to take on risk.
It is great that you are willing to take some risks. If you have a board, make sure you build it with people who are also interested in taking some risks. Be prepared to 'fail' -- and to learn from this failure. It is important to take some time to try to learn from the failures of others as well. Of course, just because something was tried before and didn't work doesn't mean it isn't worth trying again. Maybe the time wasn't right, or the approach was wrong, or the implementation was poor. That said, it is also possible that things failed for very simple and understandable reasons, and that, no matter how talented or brilliant you think you are or how much money you have, if you try to do something similar you'll fail as well. Whatever the case, it may be worth considering some of Neal Stephenson's thoughts on 'Innovation Starvation':

"Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems -- climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance -- will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done."

 
4. There is no substitute for seeing for yourself.
If you live in wealthy locales like Hunt's Point (Atherton or Knightsbridge, Rosedale or Gangnam) and have worked most of your professional life in technology or financial centers like Mountain View (Redmond or Waterloo, The City or Seoul), you might want to spend some time meeting some of the people in 'developing countries' you intend to 'help' and in  learning about the environments in which they live. Even if you believe in an increasingly hyper-connected world where technology is meant to make geography 'obsolete', there is still no substitute for hands-on experience and talking with people face-to-face.

(If, after traveling to 'foreign places' around the world you decide to support causes and efforts closer to home, that's great too. That said, I recognize that, like a good portion of people in places like Silicon Valley, you may have originally grown up somewhere else.)

You may wish to make some small initial grants to worthy organizations active in areas and places that you think may be worth supporting as a way to learn about specific circumstances and challenges. Consider this as a way to educate yourself, and to meet people and organizations you can trust, before you make some substantial commitments. Before you start doing something radically unconventional, you may wish to do a few conventional things as a way to 'get your feet wet'.
 

5. If it turns out in the end that you aren't looking to do something totally different, there are plenty of places and ways to channel your money to worthy ends.
There are lots of interesting, passionate people doing useful things with new technologies in education in poor communities around the world -- including people who come from and live in such places themselves. It may be more impactful (and cheaper) just to identify and support such people directly than to set up your own organization to try to replicate what such folks are already doing. (This is perhaps easier said than done, of course, but who said this stuff would be easy?) 
 

6. Do you really have a blank canvas on which to paint? I suspect there are already a number of light tracings that might be worth using as rough guides.
You say you are willing to consider 'anything'. Is this really true? Do you have a belief in public education and traditional education institutions, or do you reflexively mistrust them and want to bypass them entirely? Do you have specific geographic interests? ('India', for example, is good ... but it is after all a rather big place.) Do you have particular interests in helping children or students or teachers or mothers or girls, or is it in promoting certain concepts, ideas or philosophies (literacy, openness and/or transparency, creativity and 'making', entrepreneurship, etc.)? Belief and commitment will be as important to your philanthropic endeavors as your money if you truly want to make a positive impact with whatever it is you end up doing.
 
 
7. If you try to do something that is linked in some way to how you made your money or to your current business interests, your intentions (no matter how noble) may be considered suspect
Just because you want to help other people and give away some of your wealth, not everyone will immediately welcome all of your actions. In fact, some people may be immediately and instinctively suspicious, for a variety of reasons. You may not agree with such people, but you should be aware that perceptions can be as important as reality, and can have very real consequences for the initiatives and causes you support. (Of course, if you are seeking to further your business interests through your philanthropic efforts, that is your right -- but don't expect everyone to line up to congratulate you on your 'charitable' efforts!)
 

8. Please keep in touch and let me know how you're doing, and what you're learning along the way.
I'd be happy to share some of what you learn with others. Good luck!

 

In sharing these perspectives here, I don't pretend that I have many singular insights or much novel advice. I'd be most happy to hear how others might respond to this sort of challenge -- and/or where I might be getting things wrong – so that I can offer better advice when I get inquiries of this sort.  For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere: Enjoy the rest of your summer!

 
Note: The image at the top of the page of Croesus, the wealthy King of ancient Lydia (“I have some important decisions in front of me”) comes from a painting by the French Baroque artist Claude Vignon via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

Comments

Submitted by Scott Kipp on

When the Dorr Foundation started advocating for white lines to be added to the sides of roadways in the US to save lives, others suggested there were ways to reduce high levels of auto fatalities with better headlight technology. In the end, both things happened - road shoulders are nearly ubiquitous and headlights are fairly complex in comparison to what they were. Tech interventions sometimes seem to hit a similar stumbling block - are they attempting to change what is being done in education or add a parallel but incremental improvement to it (or both)?

There are it seems a few things that always feel assumed in educational technology: it does good, and it's best when delivered for students. So I might add to this list: 1) do no harm; and 2) take a wider look. "Harm" could be clear when you're putting very expensive devices into contexts where they're likely to be stolen and their carrier attacked, but also tricky in some cases, where 'harm' might equate to opportunity cost (the children learned how to use a new gadget really well and the software on it, but stopped reading, practicing maths).

Delivering tech to students seems to have been the de facto approach for most who are looking for shock, awe, innovation & disruption. But it might often be the case for many places that there are higher priorities elsewhere - maybe in technology for the whole school or classroom, or in the wider community or home. Changes in environments (homes, schools, communities, education systems) will likely take longer to affect and will make for challenging photo opportunities, but the same was said for the little white lines on the sides of our roads.

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