Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"What are your real motives, Ted?"

About a year ago, I met with a man who is very active in the area nonprofit realm; he has founded a number of very successful nonprofits; his wife has run just one, a really, really important one, for 18 years now. These are people I admire deeply.

There was only one problem: as has sometimes happened to me since our move to Naples, he didn't know what to make of me. I get this question quite a bit: "What's in it for you?" Well, this man didn't ask me, but today I learned what I had long suspected, that he thought it. I learned that from a talk with his wife. She was kind enough to ask me outright, "Ted, what do you get out of your nonprofit work?"

I have to say, that's a really sad question to have to ask. I thought the point of charity was to benefit others, not yourself. She told me that's rare. So I wrote her an email, which you can read below.

GNL refers to Greater Naples Leadership, a group that her husband presided over and (I believe) helped found that trains affluent older folks to be active on social-sector boards. As you can read, it's a Who's Who of the nonprofit community here in Naples.

It occurred to me that perhaps I don't explain myself enough - despite my business background, I still may not toot my own horn sufficiently, so that people have no idea how I put food on the table. Oh, well. I'm a work in progress.

Dear _______,

Bob Juster's partner is Walt Burdick, also a GNL-er. We were featured in the same issue of Naples Illustrated Magazine (January); Bob's write-up said that their company in Immokalee, TMI, is a "for-benefit corporation," so I called Bob up to find out what that is. If you look at my think tank's web site (www.institutenaples.org) you'll see where we've come up with something we called a "for-profit charity." We're going to change the term to "for-benefit corporation," because it turns out that is a phrase being used on the forefront of the social sector now.

Ilene Leff, who I think you know from GNL, introduced me to a remarkable international organization she works with, www.ashoka.org out of DC. They help social entrepreneurs create organizations that are hybrid for-profit/non-profit. I didn't realize it until I studied up on Ashoka, but I guess I'm a social entrepreneur, too.

I understand your and your husband's skepticism of my motives. I'm a bleeding-heart capitalist, that's all. I think a lot of people who are good at making money find that rewarding in and of itself. They are often also motivated by the fear of not having enough. Not I. I see money as a means to two ends: financial security for my family, which doesn't require all that much cash, and charity. I'm sure I'd be Port-Royal rich by now if I cared about it more. But we're only a short walk to the beach, so we have nothing to complain about.

You folks are bleeding heart capitalists, too. Maybe you should give others more credit for being inspired as you are.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A concern: will giving laptops for free = no value for the children?

The following is my reply to some concerns about Laptop South Florida raised by NI co-Founder Jim Fisher's agent, which Jim shared with me. You can pick up his points in the context of my reply.


I agree with every word your agent says.

Another legitimate social justice advocate, the executive director of the Immokalee Foundation, had the exact same suggestion when it came to earning the computers. My partner in crime on this project, John Lawson, and I agreed immediately, and now service-for-computers is part of our strategy going forward. One project we are going to engage the children in is packaging dried meals for the hungry in Collier County and poor countries like Haiti, Nicaragua, and others. These kids will be the beneficiaries of charity, which has got to be disspiriting; but because they are going to help out others who are even less fortunate, they will feel better about themselves. This type of model is already at work with this and that program in Immokalee, and it has done wonders - I've spoken with a number of these children.

I agree with your thoughts on the lack of gumption of American kids. I was one, remember, so I know first-hand: I felt entitled. Our affluence has spoiled us, and our parents have been on a child-spoiling, character-undermining kick for two generations now. I can't imagine why it's happening, but we as a society need to start tilting the balance the other way. This same kind of thing is plaguing Japan and more recently Korea, and their kids are showing the same malaise as ours. I don't think there's an easy way around this when a society is experiencing unabated plenty. It's one reason I enjoy immigrants so much: they're the go-getters that many of us natives no longer are.

As for people making money off of charities... That sickens me. There are roughly 500 nonprofits in the Greater Naples area (too many, but at least it shows that people care). Through Naples Social Action (NSA - http://www.naplessocialaction.org/), which exists to support them all, I've met all manner of people in the charity realm. There are some groups composed of all volunteers, with literally no overhead, such as NSA and First Book. There are many thatunder-payy their skeleton-crew of a staff, supplement the staff with hardy volunteerism, and are very efficient at serving their clients, such as the Cancer Alliance of Naples and the Immokalee Foundation. There are others, many of them governmental agencies and others branches of large national or international nonprofits, where the workers seem to think, "Well, if we don't save people today, we can get to it next Monday. What's the rush?" Then there are others, such as what one person has dubbed "The Predatory Foundation," that seem to be in business to fleece well-meaning donors of their dollars without particularly serving any constituents at all. Fortunately, these are the rarest, but they're there.

When we started NSA, we decided right away that we would never charge a nonprofit for our services, because we want the money these groups raise to go to helping needy people, not us.

After operating for a year completely out of pocket, we've decided that a budget, a staff, a marketing plan, etc., could be beneficial in our efforts to help those 500 nonprofits. We have made a couple of thousand dollars so far from corporate advertising on our website. Now, we are going to throw some energy behind that, and actually raise funds that way. We are also going to break NSA off from the Coine Foundation and turn it into its own "for-benefit corporation." A for-benefit is a for-profit business that directs its profits to charity, along the lines of Newman's Own. An associate of The Naples Institute, Ilene Leff, turned me on to the idea through an international nonprofit she advises based out of DC called Ashoka (http://www.ashoka.org/). This hybrid idea will help me marry my business acumen with my urge to serve others. I'm very excited by the prospect.

Bottom line? I think that helping the poor, as with parenting or any other endeavor, requires relentless diligence. The urge will always be there for people to stray, to get comfortable; to give up hope of ever making fundamental change. When nonprofit leaders lose their idealism and hope, that is when they need to retire. Please watch me carefully, and warn me if I ever start to look complacent.

Friday, March 21, 2008

OLPC - will it work?

The following is from an e-conversation between me and another Founder of The Naples Institute (www.institutenaples.org). The colleague in question does not think my passion for the $200 laptop (the XO www.laptop.org) for the children of Immokalee is a good use of my efforts. I disagree. Below is my reply to his concerns.

Background: I hope this changes, but at present the makers of the XO, OLPC, will only allow one group to buy XOs for the children of America. The lucky nonprofit is the Waveplace Foundation (www.waveplace.org). I agreed to join the board of Waveplace only if we could bring XOs to the children of Immokalee.

Dear Founder,

Another Founder of The Napples Institute is dead-set against the XO as well (especially for the Third World). His pet cause is to bring basics such as wells and can openers to the poor of Nicaragua, for instance, so that they don't have to disfigure themselves using axes to open cans donated by Dole. He says the truly poor need food, clean water, inoculation, and protection from mosquitoes, not comparatively prohibitively expensive computers.

This is my take: I want him to keep on with his can openers and wells, because he's right, those folks need that. That is giving them a fish, and they're starving today, so they need a fish right away. But they also need to be taught how to fish. That's where the laptops come in.

One day every poor child in the world will have some version of the laptop that we're bringing to Immokalee - be it the "XO" made by One Laptop Per Child (www.laptop.org, an offshoot of the MIT Media Lab), or something made by a competitor. That's over 2 billion kids, so yes, it will take quite some doing. But it is happening already. It's only a matter of time, because the will is there in spades. There are currently a few hundred thousand XOs out there, almost all in the Third World. The problem is of manufacturing output, not funding, at least at this point: there is a months-long wait list. So this is going to happen whether we like it or not.

I'm focused on Immokalee in particular, and South Florida in general, because someone has to be and no one else was before I started it. We can't have kids that poor right in our midst like that - we simply cannot tolerate it, not if we want to call ourselves civilized.

I'll let someone else argue for the poor in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Our pilots in St. John and Haiti are going well, but let me focus on Immokalee. You bring up an outstanding point: the kids we're trying to help out there are a world away from my daughters here "West of (Route) 41." Our girls, like the affluent kids your wife works with, are growing up in an environment where learning, reading, challenging discussion, and - most importantly by far - expectations all lead them to a life of intellectual pursuit and achievement. Jane and I joke that if our two budding geniuses don't grow up to be professors at MIT (ironically), it's all our fault - they're headed there now, and only very bad parenting can budge them off that course.

The vast majority of kids in Immokalee have no such benefits of environment. Their parents are likely illegal immigrants, and worse, they are likely either illiterate in their first language or under-educated - I know this because we have been teaching just this type of person English and literacy for years at Coine Language School. In many cases, they don't value education; they may not even have a single book or even magazine in their home. At present, half of the kids in that town drop out of high school before they graduate; the other half don't exactly "make it," either. The expectation for any of the kids out there is so low that adults think it's praiseworthy if they merely stay out of a gang, don't get pregnant, and go into a trade - any trade, including landscaping.

These computers, coupled with the courseware and teacher-training that we will provide along with them, will work to nullify all of that negative influence in this one generation. That is what is so exciting to me. For one thing, the lessons are interactive and thrilling. Have you ever seen a 4th grader, even a nice middle-class one, sit still for 90 minutes? I've been a teacher for a dozen years now, and two weeks ago was my first time. I saw 25 migrant children sit still for that long while the Waveplace founder, Tim Falconer, led them through a fun - very fun - lesson where they learned artistic design on the computer, basic code-writing, and high school geometry. This is not exaggeration. I was right there.

You know me a bit by now: I wouldn't bother with this project were it not going to absolutely, fundamentally disrupt the status quo - in this case my favorite ax to grind, education. It is. We are destroying and rebuilding simultaneously. I thought this would happen when I first learned about the XO 4 years ago; in the past few months, with our pilots in the Islands, I heard about its actually coming to pass; in the past two weeks, I have seen it in action.

Within a very short time, beginning June first, there will be no reason left for the poorest children in America to be less well-educated than the wealthiest. Of course there will be problems and disappointments - maybe even scandal; no, certainly even scandal. But we'll trudge on regardless.

110 years ago, in 1898, children were working in mines for pennies a day. 60 years ago, in 1948, black children in one third of our nation were not allowed to use the same restrooms and water fountains or go to the same schools as whites. Today, in 2008, there are poor children across our country who have no reasonable hope of attending college if they so choose.

What will we say in 2048? In 2098? I'm incredibly optimistic.

Friday, March 7, 2008

One Laptop Per Child on 60 Minutes

This week, my friend Tim Falconer, Founder and President of the Waveplace Foundation(http://www.waveplace.org/), joined us in Naples, Bonita, and Immokalee to help me get the ball rolling on Waveplace South Florida.

Before you continue, I suggest you watch this segment from "60 Minutes" featuring the laptops that we're bringing to our part of the state: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/05/20/60minutes/main2830058.shtml?source=search_story

Now, some more details:

  • I'm on the board of the Waveplace Foundation. Its founder, Tim, is owner of a software design firm in Pennsylvania. I'm the only board member in Florida.

  • Waveplace has created curriculum and software to go with the XO laptops they feature on "60 Minutes." We provide teachers with that software and curriculum for their students, and we train teachers in how to use that software and curriculum.

  • We have a 10-week pilot almost wrapped-up in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Another has been underway for two weeks in Haiti. #3 will be in St. Vincent, U.S. Virgin Islands. The fourth and final pilot class will be in Immokalee, from June 1st through August 10th.

  • Waveplace's area of focus is the Caribbean. Tim explains the whys of that very well on the Waveplace site. When he asked me to join the board, I said, "Well, I really appreciate what you're doing, but I want to brings those computers to the kids of South Florida, particularly Immokalee, and I can't afford to be distracted from that goal. If Waveplace could include our region in its scope of endeavor, then sure, I'm in!" I made my pitch - that our economy is blighted by tourism just as are Jamaica, St. John, etc., and that Immokalee is a land-locked island. I'll share more on that at a later time.

  • In any event, Tim agreed, and his visit here this week confirmed his decision. We are talking about making Southwest Florida the "Caribbean" base of operations for the Waveplace Foundation. A number of factors make that attractive.

  • John Lawson of the One-by-One Leadership Foundation (http://www.leadershipfoundations.org/Display.asp?Page=SWFLA) has been instrumental in connecting us to the right people to discuss funding and implementation locally. He is an integral part of our leadership here in South Florida.

  • John is a good friend and a very good guy. (I don't share his religious agenda, however.) We featured him as a Neapolitan of Note in an early issue of our e-newsletter for Naples Social Action. You can read that issue here: http://naplessocialaction.org/Newsletters/Archive.html

  • We're days away from officially establishing Waveplace South Florida (which we'll tie in some way to The Naples Institute) - an independent group closely-affiliated with Tim's Waveplace Foundation. We're going to hold our first organizational meeting next week. If you're interested in participating, please contact me: ted@naplessocialaction.org.