A rusting Japanese fishing trawler floated empty off the shores of British Columbia this week, lost at sea a year ago after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan. Indeed, Canadian authorities have set up a “tsunami debris coordinating committee” to work with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to track the floating detritus that officials believe will reach North America this year and next, ghostly reminders that even a highly-developed industrial society endures at the mercy of unforeseen events.
Sometimes the effects of a disaster unfold more slowly than the headlines, riding along the currents and tides. For social ventures like GlobalGiving, whose co-founder and president Mari Kuraishi is in Japan this week to check in on partners a year after the tsunami, that realization spurs strategic thinking about the long-term, and challenges long-held ideas about both scale and sustainability.
Kuraishi, a Japanese native who founded GlobalGiving with her husband Dennis Whittle (they were both World Bank executives) more than a decade ago, understands the long journey better than most. GlobalGiving, created as a kind of “eBay of philanthropy” in an era that predated the rise of online social networks, has evolved since its start in 2002. The structure changed over time, and operations are now entirely part of the nonprofit GlobalGiving Foundation. GlobalGiving honed its well-respected process for choosing – and vetting – the nonprofit partners it helps to raise support for. It took on new partners. And gradually, the model for its own growth and sustainability took root.
Now, as Kuraishi returns to her homeland to check on progress there and investigate new partners, GlobalGiving has reached a major milestone for a social venture; for the first time, it was able to pay for its operations on the basis of earned income over the last year. Shorter story: the model now pays for itself. “We are financially sustainable,” says Kuraishi.
That this didn’t happen overnight – and that GlobalGiving needed the funding of forward-looking philanthropic partners like the foundations that helped keep it running – provides a central lesson for social entrepreneurs who look to for-profit business success stories as pure models that can be transferred to the world causes and development. The path is slower, the route can be even more crooked, and even the goals can shift. In GlobalGiving’s case, key partnerships included corporations, civil sector organizations, and foundations including HP, U.S. AID, the Skoll Foundation, Omidyar Network, Sall Family Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation. And they’ve worked with Ashoka, IDEX, the United Nations Development Programme, and the World Bank Development Marketplace on identifying and approving some of the projects they help to fund.
If true love travels on a gravel road (in the words of the old Frazier-Owens Elvis Presley tune) then social enterprises move along a long and bumpy path. In this, GlobalGiving isn’t alone. In fact, Global Giving comes from a class of wired social ventures that includes Kiva, DonorsChoose, Change.org, DoSomething and Razoo – all of whom took years to mature and overcame challenges and change along the path. This is especially true when the bottom line isn’t about profit. In truth, while Kuraishi and the GlobalGiving team are justly proud of reaching the goal of sustainability, and the perseverance it took to get there, they’re still after something else.
“This is not just about the model itself, not about proving that it works,” said Kuraishi. “We care much more about impact.”
And that impact can be measured on both sides of the philanthropic equation, I believe. Consider the donors. Because it curates philanthropic projects around the world rather than providing a pass-through for any registered NGO, GlobalGiving has spent a decade building a network of supporters who believe in its work. (Disclosure: I’m one of them). When something bad happens – a tsunami in Japan, an earthquake in Haiti – the urge to help coincides with a fairly deep well of trust and experience. I know the extra mile GlobalGiving travels to both vet and follow-up with its nonprofit partners – largely because GlobalGiving stays in touch through email, video, social media to let me know how things are going. And while the large-scale relief efforts certainly deserve support in times of crisis, my dollars instinctively follow the path of smaller scale enterprises and organizations where I know Kuraishi and her team build real relationships, study the data, and invest philanthropic resources where they’re needed. This is social capital hard at work.
Take Japan. Response in the philanthropic community to last year’s disaster was somewhat muted. Japan is a wealthy, developed countries with the resources to pay for emergency assistance and rebuilding. But GlobalGiving was already looking deeper. It had relationships with several successful programs in Japan, and was quickly able to construct philanthropic opportunities to assist orphans and the elderly, rebuild communities, fund social entrepreneurs over the longer term, and even help to jump-start a fish-farming industry, as this video shows:
GlobalGiving raised and distributed more than $8 million in the Tohoku region, and more importantly, is playing a role in strengthening the social structures, post-tsumani.
“The civil sector is far less than it could be for a country of Japan’s affluence and sophistication,” says Kuraishi.
Given the magnitude of the disaster, the money itself is a small amount. But it links donors – in this case, 48,000 of them – with real projects on the ground, and provides those organizations who receive aid with a partnership that can add tremendous value.
“It’s not picking winners and losers,” says Kuraishi, “but about creating an environment where winners can thrive.”
Of course, GlobalGiving doesn’t just respond to disasters. Visit the org’s website and you’ll find opportunities to support a huge range of projects, from arts training for orphans in Sierra Leone to a program to provide bicycles so that girls in India can get to work. And over the last decade, GlobalGiving has “intermediated” more than $62 million to projects like these. In the past several years, growth and participation have accelerated: in 2007, a total of 6,000 donors supported 362 projects. In 2011, those numbers jumped to 102,000 donors to 1,718 projects. All told, GlobalGiving has helped to fund 2,600 projects in 135 countries.
“Work with any organizations that meet our standard,” says Kuraishi. “We provide the tools, the framework, and the reach – and the incentive to prove that they can deliver results.”
And those results power more involvement, even if the total GlobalGiving dollars are really a drop in the bucket in terms of the global development budget. That framework of partnership and connection is what matters. Says Kuraishi: “we’re creating a building block for impact.”