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Last month, I gave an interview where I discussed how I came to start Jolkona Foundation. This interview was distributed internally within Microsoft. It is my pleasure to share the article, in its entirety, with our readers.

Once again, I would like to thank my employer – Microsoft Corporation – for being so supportive of Jolkona Foundation’s work.

Trip to Cemetery Creates Life-Changing Moment

Jake Siegel
December 9, 2009 

A stranger in Bangladesh helped Adnan Mahmud realize he could help make the world a better place without much money. He did it by creating Jolkona Foundation, a nonprofit that channels small donations to specific people and causes across the world.

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“I truly believe that in 100 years, our generation won’t be known for the technological advances that we’ve made. Rather, we’ll be known for how those technological advances were used to tackle humanity’s biggest challenges,” said Adnan Mahmud, Microsoft Research program manager.

 

Adnan Mahmud’s quest to change philanthropy started in a cemetery.

It was 2006. The Microsoft Research program manager was visiting his parents in Bangladesh, where he grew up. During the trip, Mahmud went to pay his respects at his grandfather’s grave. As he left the cemetery, he passed a man carrying his dead son. The man clearly couldn’t afford a proper funeral or the traditional Muslim burial cloth; the dead child wore shorts and an unbuttoned shirt.

Mahmud figured the man had spent all his money securing a grave for his son. Just outside the cemetery, vendors were selling burial cloth for 50 cents. “I could have helped him out with a dollar, but when I realized that, I was already home having lunch,” he said.

The recognition that even a small amount of money could make a big impact on someone’s life was a revelation, Mahmud said. He always knew that someday he would dedicate himself to giving back, but that would come after his career. That stranger in Bangladesh made him realize he could help now, even without the checkbook of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. 

Thinking that many other young professionals must feel the same way, he set out to build a Web site where people could get excited about philanthropy without having a lot of money. In 2007, Mahmud and his wife, Nadia, created Jolkona Foundation. The nonprofit organization lets people channel small donations to specific people and causes while letting them monitor the impact of their gift.

By focusing on small-scale gifts that show a direct impact, the foundation allows donors to have direct control over where and how their donations are spent, Mahmud said. The goal is to galvanize a young generation that wants to do good with its limited resources.  

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The foundation’s Web site lets donors see the Jolkona community’s impact around the world. Click image to enlarge.

 

Jolkona means “drop of water” in Bengali. “The idea is that every donation is a drop of water,” Mahmud said. “With a lot of them, we can have a ripple effect and change the world.”

The Jolkona Foundation site went live in June, and since then more than $15,000 has been raised for projects around the world. At the site, would-be donors can pinpoint projects in countries where they want to contribute and choose from five categories: cultural identity, education, empowerment, environment, and public health. Projects can be filtered by the amount of money needed, starting at as little as $5; and by the duration, from less than a month to six years. They can range from $5 to plant a tree in Brazil to $500 for sending a nomadic Kenyan boy or girl to high school for a year.
As far as Mahmud knows, Jolkona Foundation created the first Web site that provides donation-level feedback. Everyone who makes a donation through the site gets a report card on how that money is being spent. If a donor provides money for, say, buying books in Rwanda, he or she will get a list of the purchased titles.

Mahmud realized the power of that feedback as he started searching for ways to contribute after his trip to Bangladesh. He had always been put off by large nonprofits because it was difficult to choose specific programs or know exactly how his contributions were used. When he found an organization in Bangladesh that provides artificial limbs for $200, he asked them how he would know that he was doing the right thing with his money. They told him, “What if we send you a before and after photo of the person who received the prosthetic limb?”

He loved the idea of seeing the impact of his donation. Many of his friends were also excited when he reached out to see whether others wanted to help. “They said, ‘Normally we don’t know where our money goes, and we don’t have a lot of money to give. If this organization tells me that my $200 will buy someone a limb, and then shows me a picture of the person it helped, then yes, I’ll give them my money.'”

 

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Because of the generosity of a Microsoft employee, this person in Bangladesh received prosthetic limbs. The donor received these photos as the proof of impact.

 

Being a self-described technology guy, Mahmud thought about putting together a Web site to track his friends’ donations. It wasn’t just a problem with one organization, though. “I realized that what people in my generation were seeking was donation-level feedback that was traditionally reserved for the big donors,” he said.

Jolkona Foundation was the result. Half a year after the site went live, Mahmud said he’s proud of the response so far. He hopes to continue to add more partners and projects and to spread the word about the site. He encourages all Microsoft employees to try the site out and make a gift this holiday season.

 
Silverlight and Bing Maps help power the site, Mahmud said, adding that technology lies at the heart of what Jolkona Foundation is trying to accomplish.

“I’ve always loved technology. I truly believe that in 100 years, our generation won’t be known for the technological advances that we’ve made. Rather, we’ll be known for how those technological advances were used to tackle humanity’s biggest challenges.”

Visit Jolkona Foundation. 

 

Spontaneity is not how I roll…except for today. My thoughts sort of randomly flooded my brain in the midst of packing, so I’m taking a break.

First of all, packing for any international trip is a wild roller coaster! I fatigue just at the thought of everything I need to accomplish between now and my flight….despite this, I’m still blogging.

Two nights ago I gave my Nanu (maternal Grandmother) a call. It was meant to be a quick exchange of words- a simple “assalam alaikum” and “walaikum assalam” (Islamic greetings), a check on her health, a few stories about school, asking for her du’a (blessings), and then relaying the phone to my mom. It’s the same every week or so, a quick verbal acknowledgement as nanu and nathni (grandmother and granddaughter). It’s not that we don’t care for or think of one another whenever we can, it’s just difficult to find a context of communication over the phone (our primary means of communicating when I’m in the U.S.).

This may be very difficult to conceptualize for those who leave near or frequently see their grandparents. But this is also reality for many second generation men and women born in the U.S. Just think about it-first, in terms of our lifestyles. That morning, I ate cereal for breakfast, I caught the bus to campus, picked up a camera, updated my ipod with new songs/photos, grabbed coffee with my girlfriends, came home, watched a little Bangla TV/CNN with my parents….etc. My nanu most probably awoke with a cup of cha (milk tea) and a freshly prepared Bangladeshi breakfast, read a bit of Prothom Alo (Bangladeshi newspaper), asked the driver to bring in a casket of fresh mangoes, prepared some achar (pickle) for her grandchildren, watched a little Zeetv (Indian channel), chatted with my nana (maternal grandfather), etc.

Very different, yeah? Not only is there a generation gap, but we exist in very different cultures with very different expectations. Despite this evidence, my Nanu and I conversed for an hour that night.

Topics ranged from Barack Obama’s autobiographies, to personal habits, to managing stress, to Michael Jackson’s sudden death, etc. It was sweet to say to least- to finally feel like were bridging that gap. But now that I reflect back, I begin to question whether there really was a gap. There’s an implicit connection between me and my Nanu-one beyond the fact we share my mother as a common relative…or have identical mitochondrial DNA. Furthermore, I think there is an implicit connection between any individual, regardless of age, gender, nationality. It’s part of the human condition.

As I think about the trip to come, and the poeple I’ll sit next to, walk by, run into, and meet throughout the journey, I have to to think about the connections we all implicitly share. In order to communicate, there needs to be a mutual welcoming of that connection within. I’m eager to apply this perspective as I meet new people in a land my family calls home. I hope you’ll enjoy their stories.

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