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Everyone’s lifelong philanthropy journey is different, but most start off with small steps: making a single donation, volunteering your time. Some lead to starting your own nonprofit — which, in turn, guides other donors and volunteers on their philanthropy journeys.

In yesterday’s blog post, we noted that the founders of two Jolkona partner organizations coincidentally served together as Peace Corps volunteers in Benin six years ago. This life-changing experience inspired Steve Schwartz and Sebastian Seromik to create their own nonprofit organizations — Upaya Social Ventures and Dagbé — and empowered them with the tools they needed to make these organizations successful in fighting poverty at the grassroots level in South Asia and West Africa.

Starting Small, Scaling Up

Many Peace Corps volunteers begin their service after university, but Upaya’s Steve Schwartz joined after several years of working in international communications, including some projects for Lawyers Without Borders. From there, his two-year Peace Corps commitment in Benin, developing cooperative enterprise models with village craftsmen and tradesmen, taught him how a whole region’s economy could benefit from creating small grassroots partnerships, then scaling up. In his own words:

These guilds were set up — you can think of a horizontal line. All of the welders in town are going to join the welding guild. But really, they have the same resources, the same training and in a lot of cases, set up shop next to each other – so you have a welding district or the carpenter’s district or an electrician district within the town.

And they serve the same sort of function that any sort of trade association would, in representing the interests of the welders to a government body or to other institutions. But what they’re not really good at, helping the members to crosscut the different skills and the different sectors that they are in, along business lines. For example, you would have six truck welders and the association they’re in, and six truck electricians, and six truck painters, and six truck mechanics all in four different associations. But there was no way for one truck welder, one truck electrician, one truck mechanic and one truck painter to come together and form a single company to do truck restoration…

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Steve and Sebastian presenting a meal in Azove during training

That was really what I spent a lot of my time doing. How do you create the kind of collaborative environment where you’re building a company with partners, versus thinking of yourself as a single tradesman. Some of that went well, and some of it didn’t.

That continues to be really important in transitioning developing economies in general, but in particular with what we saw in a lot of West Africa where everything is so driven by the individual being a sole proprietor entrepreneur. A lot of that thinking definitely influenced when it came around to Upaya, which is really there to build business which can be employers for large numbers of people.

Founded in 2011, Upaya has collaborated with five entrepreneurial partners to create jobs for more than 1,000 of India’s poorest workers, focusing on regions with the highest rates of child malnutrition and other markers of extreme poverty. It’s the natural progression of what Steve learned in Benin: that a collaborative approach to building enterprises not only encourages the growth of developing economies, but is also an effective strategy to lifting people out of extreme poverty.

Through Jolkona, you can support Upaya’s project to create jobs for silk weavers in Bihar, India.

Check back tomorrow for Sebastian Seromik’s story about how his Peace Corps stint inspired him to create Dagbé.

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Everyone likes a superhero origin story. How about a philanthropist origin story? At Jolkona, our superheroes are the donors and volunteers who save lives by fighting poverty, especially far from home.

In this effort, we are privileged to partner with Upaya Social Ventures and Dagbé, two nonprofit organizations founded by volunteers who served together in the Peace Corps six years ago, in the West African nation of Benin. In a recent conversation, Upaya’s Steve Schwartz and Dagbé’s Sebastian Seromik discussed how this shared experience inspired and empowered them to create their respective organizations.

According to Sebastian, who primarily worked with social workers during his service, it’s crucial for volunteers in developing countries to find the balance between idealism and realism, and establish personal connections. In his words:

We leave the U.S. with some idea, grandiose or not, of the kind of impact that we are going to make. And when we get there, we realize that we can’t make the change and impact that we had in mind. Because we didn’t know the culture, we didn’t know the people, we didn’t know the communities we’d be serving, we didn’t know the challenges we would be facing, we didn’t know the personal stuff that we would be dealing with…

At a certain point, you feel useless as a volunteer. Especially in the first few months, when you’re getting up to speed. Maybe you had a couple projects that have failed, and you’re not quite sure what’s going on. I got to this point… And I realized, you know, I’m not here to move needles. I’m not here to make the poverty rate drop by a certain amount in Benin. If I think of it that way, then I’m never going to have an impact. If I look it as ‘I’m here to serve the person, the human person, that’s in front of me at this very moment,’ then I can have an impact.

If you think about it, that’s often the way we go about our daily lives. Whether at home with our families, or with our coworkers, oftentime it’s responding to the needs of the people we know. It’s often these personal relationships that we have a familiarity with, and that’s why we can be effective.

But when you go thousands of miles away and think that you’re going to be effective without knowing anybody, then it’s really hard to do that. I realized that you need to take advantage of relationships. Once you get to know people, and really determine their needs, then you can really start having an impact.

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Villagers in Tchaourou, Benin

Check back over the next few days to read more about how Sebastian and Steve used their Peace Corps experiences to start their own nonprofits, fighting poverty in Benin and India.

If, like Steve and Sebastian, you’re looking to make a major commitment of your time and skills, the Peace Corps is an excellent opportunity. In Seattle’s nonprofit and global development sectors, from Jolkona’s grassroots partners to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Peace Corps alumni seem to be everywhere. And we keep exporting volunteers, too: last year, our state’s University of Washington, Western Washington University, and Gonzaga University led their respective categories for most Peace Corps participants.

If you aren’t ready or able to take a step as big as a two-year commitment, however, you can still get a taste for this kind of work by visiting our partners in developing countries through a Jolkona Expedition. (We still have some spots available for the next one: March 16-30, in Kenya and Tanzania.) And of course, you can always make a high-impact contribution by supporting organizations like Dagbé and Upaya through Jolkona’s donation programs.

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Crowdfunding, the process of raising money from a collective group of people, has become an exciting source of capital for artists, game developers, entrepreneurs, and others. Among nonprofits, Jolkona has used crowdfunding for the past five years to engage new donors and revitalize the way we think about giving through the ongoing development of innovative programs such as our monthly Give Together community.

This model was the subject of a recent installment of Movie Mondays for Fundraising Professionals, featuring Jolkona CEO Nadia Mahmud, along with our officemates Brad Fenstermacher of LiveStories, and Steve Schwartz of Upaya Social Ventures.

Watch Nadia, Brad, and Steve talk about crowdfunding here.

To hear more about crowdfunding for nonprofits from Jolkona, LiveStories, and Upaya, check out our joint panel discussion at the 2014 NDOA Winter Conference later this month.

Some of the key points the panel will cover:

  • Inspiration: Crafting a compelling story will help create an experience that ensures donors continue thinking about you long after they’ve left your website.
  • Cultivation: Gaining traction requires creativity, focus, and a willingness to go to your audiences, rather than waiting for them to come to you.
  • Retention: Create a loop that keeps donors coming back for more info, more inspiration, more experiences, more opportunities.

The NDOA conference is a great opportunity to learn about fundraising through workshops and panels from a range of experts. The conference is Jan. 28 at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, WA. If you register before Friday, admission is $150 for NDOA members, $195 for non-members. Hope to see you there!

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Note from the Editor: This is a guest post written by Steve Schwartz, Director of Strategy & Operations for one of Jolkona’s newest partners, Upaya Social Ventures.

A few weeks back, we introduced Upaya Social Ventures’s work building businesses with the ability to create jobs and improve the quality of life for families living on less than $1.25 a day. Today, we want to take a look at Samridhi, a business that is building community dairies to create jobs and stabilize income for families in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India

The majority of Uttar Pradesh’s ultra poor are dependent on subsistence farming as their main occupation, and individual dairy farmers are reliant on exploitative middlemen who routinely underpay for perishable milk. Where Samridhi can create real change is by connecting poor milk producers directly to the emerging formal dairy supply chain. Every one of Samridhi’s dairy operations creates 93 jobs, each providing an extremely poor woman with a guaranteed paycheck. Employees also receive training in all stages of the production process, including milk collection, quality testing, cooling and distribution. Based on current projections, Samridhi will be able to self-fund its expansion to five dairy units in the next three years, creating nearly 500 jobs from Upaya’s one-time investment of seed capital.

However, although we’ve created these jobs, we can’t just assume that households will see dramatic improvements in their quality of life. So that’s why Upaya works closely with the Samridhi team to benchmark and track the progress of women working throughout the organization. Each household is continuously evaluated across a series of indicators (sample table below), and the business are able to adjust operations or add services to ensure that these families are making progress out of poverty.

Samridhi is the first partner to join Upaya’s Life-changing Interventions for the Ultra Poor (LiftUP) Project, a 24–36 month business accelerator program for start-up social enterprises focused on the ultra poor. The total cost for getting Samridhi off the ground is $100,000, which initially breaks down to $500 per job. However, profits from the initial dairy operation will be used to build the second, third and fourth — each creating nearly 100 jobs for ultra poor households and dramatically multiplying the impact of donors’ contributions.

Upaya first began raising funds to work with Samridhi in early August, and has already raised $66,000 for the project — over half of what is needed to fully launch the dairy initiative. Donors who contribute through the Jolkona platform are given the opportunity to track the progress of Samridhi employees across specific social metrics, and see their contribution making real change in the lives of Samridhi employees. Be a champion of change; give here.
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About the author: Steve is the Director of Strategy & Operations for Upaya Social Ventures, and is one of the organization’s co-founders.  In a career that has run from Wall St. to the footpaths of smuggling routes in West Africa, Steve has long held the belief that all people deserve the opportunity to live their lives with dignity and means.

 

Note from the Editor: This is a guest post written by Steve Schwartz, Director of Strategy & Operations for one of Jolkona’s newest partners, Upaya Social Ventures.

Meet Upaya Social Ventures from Steve Schwartz on Vimeo.

From the U.S., it is easy to see images of households in far away countries living in a way that looks different than our own and to assume that the differences — a tin roof, a barefoot schoolboy, a pot cooking over an open fire — fit neatly within a universal definition of “poverty.” But scratch the surface and you’ll find some families never worrying about where their next meal will come from, while 100 yards away others search endlessly to find enough work to eat again tomorrow. Not all poverty is created equal, and that relative difference is what Upaya Social Ventures was founded this year to address. An estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide are classified as “ultra poor,” living on less than $1.25 a day and struggling to find work that will pay them enough to afford stable shelter, clean water and three meals a day. The ultra poor often speak of feeling trapped in miserable conditions, with such meager earnings that any progress they make satisfying one need comes at the expense of meeting another. At the very heart of the problem are informal livelihoods — a cluster of irregular activities like shoe-shining, begging, day labor, hawking of second-hand items and trash picking that generate highly unpredictable incomes for those working in them.

Day laborers breaking rocks in a dry riverbed for an average ~$.50 per day

Day laborers breaking rocks in a dry riverbed for an average ~$.50 per day

The Upaya Approach

That’s where Upaya comes in. Taking its name from the Sanskrit word that means “skilled means” and connotes a creative solution to a challenging problem, Upaya is working with local social entrepreneurs to build businesses that will create jobs and improve the quality of life for the ultra poor. It’s a deceptively simple solution — increase a family’s earning potential through steady employment, and pair those jobs with access to affordable healthcare, education, housing and financial services so that the family makes sustained progress out of poverty.

But it is not always that simple, as the ultra poor are marginalized even within their own communities and skeptical of outsiders with “too good to be true” opportunities. For the entrepreneurs, too, there is a struggle to balance social responsibility with running a profitable business, and to attract funding to test their ideas.

Mothers reliant on begging to provide for their families

Mothers reliant on begging to provide for their families

This is why Upaya has created the Life-changing Interventions for the Ultra Poor (LiftUP) Project, a 24–36 month social business accelerator program that provides management support and financial resources to entrepreneurs who create jobs or improve access to basic services for the ultra poor. As a nonprofit organization, Upaya is able to make modest, longer-term equity investments — between $25,000 and $75,000 — in local entrepreneurs with early-stage ideas (any financial returns generated by investments are re-invested in future LiftUP Project partners). In addition to providing business development support, we also help these entrepreneurs create a “social accounting” system for tracking and analyzing the impact their activities are having on the lives of their employees or customers.

An Ideal Partner

And that is what brought Upaya to Jolkona. As Upaya works with businesses to monitor their social impact, we also have a unique opportunity to give donors a forum to track the progress of the causes and businesses they support. Through the Jolkona platform, donors will be able to see quarterly updates on employees’ quality of housing, improvements in the number and nutritional value of meals, status of children’s education and access to affordable healthcare. Upaya is taking a comprehensive approach to tackling the problems of extreme poverty, and Jolkona allows supporters to be active participants in that process.

www.upayasv.com

In part two of this series, we will profile Samridhi, a community dairy initiative in one of the poorest states in India that is creating jobs and providing regular salaries to women in households without any other form of steady income. Upaya has already raised $45,000 for Samridhi since the beginning of August and is looking to double that amount by the end of September.

About the author: Steve is the Director of Strategy & Operations for Upaya Social Ventures, and is one of the organization’s co-founders.  In a career that has run from Wall St. to the footpaths of smuggling routes in West Africa, Steve has long held the belief that all people deserve the opportunity to live their lives with dignity and means.

 

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