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 -, 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 ( 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.