Mari Kuraishi, Co-founder and CEO of GlobalGiving Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Mari Kuraishi, Co-founder and CEO of GlobalGiving, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.

Mari Kuraishi

Mari Kuraishi © GlobalGiving.org

Denver: Crowdfunding is a fairly recent phenomenon, with sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo changing the way money is raised to support and finance many a project. But did you know that there was a fundraising venture to fund nonprofits and good causes all the way back in 2002…before Facebook, before Twitter, before social media as we know it today? Well, there was, and with us now is its co-founder. She is Mari Kuraishi, the President and CEO of GlobalGiving. Good evening, Mari, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Mari: Thank you, Denver! I’m pleased to be here.

Crowdfunding is a way for anybody really to ask other people to fund them… this is an amazing thing to use the web to get people to come together for a common cause.

Denver: Before we get into the work of your organization, for those listeners who may only be casually acquainted with crowdfunding, tell us what it is and how it works.

Mari: Crowdfunding is a way for anybody really to ask other people to fund them. So you can go to a site like Kickstarter, someone’s got this great idea for how to build a new and better cooler, and he shows people the prototypes, photographs and how he’s going to attach a boombox to the cooler.  And the cooler is going to have these wheels, and it’s going to do all these awesome things, and he says, “I can build this if I get $100,000 from you all.” People can give as little as $10 for these things.  And Lo and Behold!  People look at the cooler and think, Oh, this is going to be so awesome for my barbecue in the summer; I’m going to go and take it to the beach…I’m going to give this guy $80 and get the first one that comes off the production line. So that’s one form of crowdfunding.

You can crowdfund for a documentary, which you might get a DVD… but it’s not as tangible as a cooler. You can crowdfund for somebody who’s fallen on hard times. So someone’s daughter gets sick with cancer; their medical insurance can’t cover all the cost. They put up that cause on a crowdfunding site, and they can get people to donate. It’s not all tax-deductible. I use the word “donate” sort of in a conceptual form, but this is an amazing thing to use the web to get people to come together for a common cause.

Denver: Good explanation. Well, you can also finance for a good cause. So tell us about GlobalGiving and the mission and goals of your organization.

Mari: So we founded GlobalGiving to make it possible for anyone in the world to give to a grassroots project, again, from anywhere in the world. I worked for a long time at the World Bank, and I traveled the world, and I would see people in the hardest places to work, where electricity wasn’t reliable; transport wasn’t reliable. The hurricanes would come through, but they were doing amazing things. They were helping girls get an education. They were providing water for a community that didn’t have access to clean water unless they walked 10 miles to the next village. They were everyday heroes, and yet they’re unknown to most of us here. So could I take their work? Could I show everybody what was going on in these remote communities and make it possible for people to contribute to those things?

We’ve been able to send over $260 million from over half a million donors to 17,000 or so projects in 166 countries. We’ve also worked with almost 200 countries along the way.

Denver:  And as I said in the opening, this was founded in 2002. What have you been able to accomplish over the course of the last 15 years in terms of the projects, and the countries, and the amount of money, and things of that nature?

Mari: We’ve been able to send over $260 million from over half a million donors to 17,000 or so projects in 166 countries. We’ve also worked with almost 200 companies along the way.

Denver: That’s very impressive. Well, you mentioned a second ago you were at the World Bank, and that’s a very well-respected organization.  But they deal at the very highest levels – the minister of finance – and they address problems with a lot of money often, and it’s kind of a top-down. So GlobalGiving, as you described it, is really just the opposite of that. It is on the ground, bottom-up, in communities with those problem solvers. Tell us what instigated this dramatic change of approach with you.

Mari: When I worked at the World Bank, I had access to some of the smartest people in the world who knew everything about…you name it – mines, electricity, clean water, roads, macro-economics, and access to a lot of funding. Obviously, we were working with people who were very much in charge – the ministry of finance, the central bank chairman and so forth. They would put together these grand schemes to do the right thing for the country. The last operation I worked on in Russia was $1.2 billion—a number we have yet to reach—for structural adjustment.

Now, I love Russia. I have loved working with the Russian officials. I can’t tell you exactly where that money went. So that’s when I thought if I had taken that $1.2 billion and found tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of communities in Russia that could make good use of the moneyyou know, some of the money, it would end up being like, well, so, good idea, not the greatest execution or maybe it was a wrong idea, but I would have some sense that probably it amounted to something. And if nothing else, the people who made the mistakes would be held accountable by the community they were serving because they would be right there. And they’d say, “Well, you know, he had good intentions but he didn’t come through, so next time, we’ll be a little wiser.” And that process of learning and being held accountable was much more likely to happen if it was bottom-up than if it was top-down.

Denver: I think sometimes people get worried about not all this money being used correctly, but they really have to take a portfolio approach. Some of it isn’t going to be used right, but so much of it will impact– the great preponderance– that you just aren’t going to hit 100% really in anything you do.

Mari: Right! And it’s the same with your own investments, right? Some mutual funds do well, some mutual funds don’t. The portfolio approach allows you to diversify your risks, but it also allows you to reach far more communities than if you just said, “Yeah, I’m going to put my bet on the Ministry of Roads, knowing what they’re doing.”

Denver: Absolutely. Well, you get a multiplier effect, there’s no doubt about it.

So for nonprofit organizations… or the equivalent across the world– who are seeking to do good and help address these problems in their local community, what steps do they have to follow to be listed on the GlobalGiving website?

Mari: We hold what are called Accelerators. In fact, one is going on right now. And as an organization, you apply online on our website, and we do a quick check on who you are and what you’re doing. And if that quick check comes through, we ask you a little bit more information about who’s on your board, who your staff are, and whether you’re registered, whether you have an institutional bank account and so forth. All of this is going on while at the same time, you’re putting up the work you’re doing on the ground. And that shows up as a project on GlobalGiving.

Then you are given 30 days to fundraise, to get $5,000 from 40 different individuals. If you complete the Accelerator and reach that goal of $5,000 from 40 different individuals, then we will do an additional check that allows us to be able to give you that $5,000 or more if you raise more than that. The reason we do this in what we call an Accelerator is that we give you support every day of those 30 days and tell you: This is how you fundraise, this is how you craft an email, this is how you put it out on social media, and we give you little bonuses if you reach a certain amount by a certain date. It’s a friendly competition, and it sort of gives everyone a reason to mobilize and get out there, get the word out to their supporters.

Denver: Can an organization be too big or too well-known to be listed on your website?

Mari: No.

Denver: I would imagine that your services of GlobalGiving are never more in demand than at a time of a major disaster because people are usually looking for local organizations already on the ground, who can make an immediate impact and have a very quick learning curve… not a lot to learn. Do you see a spike during times of disaster?

Mari: Absolutely! The American public is very generous, and I think disasters are sort of the biggest motivator for people to certainly say: There but for the grace of God, go I ! People hear about an earthquake in Nepal, a tsunami in Japan, a hurricane in Bangladesh, and they are moved to give immediately.

We work with organizations on the ground who’ve been working in Nepal or Bangladesh or Japan all the time who suddenly switch over to making sure people have clean water, have access to shelter, have access to fuel if it’s in the middle of the winter, and we can ensure that those organizations will not only serve the survivors of the disaster but will be there in the long run to help rebuild that community.

Denver: For these organizations that survive that vetting process and get listed, you have a suite of tools and resources that help these participating organizations get better and more effective…sort of a learning library, if you will. Tell us what’s in it.

Mari: In the learning library are a whole bunch of tools. They are sourced from different parts of the nonprofit sector that specialize in organizational capacity building. They can be as simple as a survey tool that allows you to survey your constituents and figure out if they’re happy with the service or the product that you’re giving them. We can also give you a tool that helps you figure out: What is it that I’m really trying to do? People often start out by saying, “Well, these kids are running around in the streets… the street children. I’ve got to corral them back into a home and give them some activities.” So that’s one thing.  But really, what are you trying to do? Well, you’re trying to make sure that the kids have productive lives and become educated and become responsible citizens. Sometimes it’s not always easy to move from “Got to get the kids off the street”  to: What do you want to accomplish…

Denver: Yes, what does success look like.

Mari: And so we have a suite of tools that helps you sort that out. We put these tools out there so that people can get better at what they do on the ground. Simultaneously, we try to make it so that if you spend time figuring out what you’re doing on the ground, we’ll reward you with access to more donors. So the more you use our tools, the more points you get.

The points are not visible to you as a donor. They’re visible to the nonprofit. If you earn a lot of points, you become a superstar. Once you’re a superstar, you show up higher in the search or browse rankings. So that if someone goes on our site and clicks India, there’s like 10 pages of projects in India. The topmost projects in the India category are the organizations that have engaged in the most learning. So, we make sure that you as a donor, if you just sort of randomly click on India, you’re getting the organizations that we know are the most dedicated to doing better.

Starting with the Accelerator, but continuing beyond that, these organizations are put together with a group of other organizations… They’re all organizations that are trying to do the best for their community. And to be linked together with those organizations and to know that you’re not in this fight alone is a huge lift.

Denver: That’s great! You give them greater visibility. So many organizations have to decide: should I focus on performance or should I focus on fundraising? And you’ve joined them together by: you can focus on both at the same time.

Boy, I bet there are a lot of intangible psychological benefits that come to these organizations. Aside from the funding and resources, it probably is the first time that many of them have ever had a wind at their back. Tell us what it means to an organization to be listed and to get this kind of support… just to their psyche.

Mari: Starting with the Accelerator, but continuing beyond that, these organizations are put together with a group of other organizations that – they could be neighbors, but they could be thousands of miles away, but are dedicated towards helping kids or providing shelter to sex workers. They’re all organizations that are trying to do the best for their community.  And to be linked together with those organizations and to know that you’re not in this fight alone is a huge lift.

It’s also an amazing thing for an organization, say in Malawi, to suddenly get a donation from someone in Ford Motor Company who saw their employee giving website and said, “Oh, I just think you’re doing such great work!” Well, this is someone you don’t know, will never meet– thousands of miles away– and who believes enough in what you’re doing to give you money! I mean, this is just an amazing thing.

Mari Kuraishi and Denver Frederick

Denver: Puts a bounce in my step! Well, talking about amazing things, I can only imagine you have run into some amazing people and have been inspired by their conviction and their compassion and their persistence, and who, in large part, have been funded by GlobalGiving. Can you give us a story of one?

Mari: Sure. Back in 2005, we held one of these Accelerators, except it happened to be not all virtual; we actually met the organizations that were competing to get on GlobalGiving. One of the organizations we came across was the Afghan Institute of Learning. It was being run by this woman called Sakena Yacoobi. She’d been working on girls education in Afghanistan forever, long before the war, during the Soviet era.  She had just been doing this for her life’s work, and she was incredibly humble… just this lovely, warm woman. Someone you would think of as your aunt or grandmother.

We were able to fund her. We thought she was doing amazing work, and then she went on to become a school social entrepreneur. She went on to win all these awards, which she richly deserved, and she’s still on our website. We still support her work. It’s been such a joy to see her flower and succeed.

That’s really the dream that I have, that in supporting these thousands of organizations around the world, over time we will support more and more Sakena Yacoobis, be able to launch those people who are as yet not well-known, but who one day will become rock stars of the social entrepreneurship world. That’s what we would like to be.

Denver: Seed funding. Let me ask you a question about somebody who may be listening and wants to make a donation, let’s say, to one of these charities in Afghanistan or India, would their contribution be tax-deductible?

Mari: Absolutely. We are a public charity, and so when you’re giving your money through us, even if the organization is registered in Haiti, you would be giving to us, a US tax-exempt organization, so your donation would be tax-exempt.

Denver: That’s good to know! You became a self-sustaining enterprise several years ago.  And for someone who went with no salary for two years and then had to worry about making payrolls for a few years after that, that must’ve been one glorious moment. Tell us, Mari, about your business model and how you finance the organization?

Mari: So, for every donation that is made on the website, we take a fee, as we consider it a transaction fee. We also will work with companies to take advisory services fees for helping them design a corporate philanthropy program or a workplace giving program.  Sometimes we do some technical integration with their websites, et cetera. So all of those add up to different fees. You’ll also notice on the website that we will ask you to make a voluntary donation to GlobalGiving when you’re just about to check out. All of that combined pay keeps the lights on, pays rent, and lets us hire people.

Denver: Absolutely! Speaking about companies, who are some of your corporate partners?

Mari: We work with companies like Ford, TripAdvisor, Discovery, Lilly, Microsoft. I think we’ve worked with almost 200 companies at this point.

Denver: That’s pretty impressive. And speaking of transactions, you now take Apple Pay, right?

Mari: We do! Yes.

Denver: That’s pretty cool. You’re one of the first!

Mari: I know! I was able to get online on my iPhone, and there was the Apple Pay icon. I pressed it and put my thumb on it, and it worked!

Denver: It worked! There you go.

The more philanthropy, the better. I think philanthropy has, as you say, intangible benefits to the soul…it’s not just your tax deduction that you get. The act of giving is something that everyone should engage in, and you should encourage young kids to start as soon as you can explain the concept to them.

Denver: Let’s talk about a couple of other issues in philanthropy. You obviously believe very strongly in philanthropy, that it should be democratic, and it should be open. But as you know, there’s been a lot of concern lately in terms of the fact that some of these mega donors coming in from Silicon Valley and Wall Street… who are putting huge sums of money in a particular field.  Many feel they have undue influence and clout as they promote their theory of change. What’s your take on all that?

Mari: The more philanthropy, the better. I think philanthropy has, as you say, intangible benefits to the soul…it’s not just your tax deduction that you get. The act of giving is something that everyone should engage in, and you should encourage young kids to start as soon as you can  explain the concept to them. The fact that mega-philanthropists might make large bets on whether it’s vaccines or Vision Zero, no traffic accident,  I think it’s less a problem of philanthropy than an issue of income and equality, which I think is something to be addressed in a completely different realm than philanthropy. Philanthropy, per se, the more, the better.

…if we want more public goods and a different mix of public goods, we may have to get better at voluntarily coming together and deciding, “Well, this group is going to foot the bill because we think it’s worth it.”

Denver: There you go! You know, I know another area that you’re particularly interested in is private provision for public goods.  There is a pretty big historical track record on that. Explain how it works in some areas today where you think it could be utilized.

Mari: When a philanthropist, whether it’s a $10 donor or a multi-million donor, engages in something that doesn’t benefit him or herself, it’s a public good frequently. Now, if you get technical, public goods are things that are non-excludable, et cetera. The classic public good is the military or clean air, but a public good is also a road.

Now, back in the earliest stages of the American republic, in fact even before the revolution, private individuals would get together to build roads. They would put together a company – it wasn’t a charity at the time – and build a road. Now, some of them would try to charge tolls, but toll roads…you have to actually watch to see who’s taking the road, charge them.  In effect, they were providing public infrastructure, and they were putting their own money into it.

And so there is this tradition of people recognizing that there are some things they need to come together to provide. Even when a group of parents comes together and provides a babysitting collective, but then after a while they say, “Even if you’re not a member, we’ve got someone taking care of the kids, no worries. Just drop off the kids and go to work.” This tradition of coming together voluntarily to do things together that might serve the public is actually a rich tradition here in the United States.

So, as it becomes harder for us to politically mediate what we think is the right level or the right mix of public goods—you see this in the US; you even see this in Britain. Obviously, Brexit is about an argument as to whether we should look at public goods on the island of the United Kingdom, or you should look at it within the common market of Europe. So obviously, there’s lots of division around this. I think it’s a function of us as societies becoming more diverse. There is documented evidence that more diverse societies have a harder time agreeing on public goods. That’s just sort of human nature.

Denver: Makes sense.

Mari: And so even though we know we all need these things, we can’t agree. So we don’t agree, and that means that none of us gets these public goods unless you get into the private provision of public goods.  And you can get groupings of people who say, “Well, I want preschool education for my kids, so we’re going to finance this.” In a funny way, you can see this happening as the US prepares to exit out of the Paris Agreement on climate. Different states have said, “Okay. Forget what the US said – I’m in!”

Denver: Yes. California is leading the way!

Mari: Hawaii is in. California is in. And that’s because California can come to an agreement on this whereas the whole of the United States can’t. We owe $15 million for the Paris Agreement; Mike Bloomberg said, “I’ll write the check.” That is a private provision of a public good.

And so can we create a society where people can voluntarily do this? Because the problem with public sector provision—it’s not a problem, but to get public sector provision, you have to agree, and then you pay taxes and it’s compulsory. You don’t get to opt out. And maybe if we want more public goods and a different mix of public goods, we may have to get better at voluntarily coming together and deciding, “Well, this group is going to foot the bill because we think it’s worth it.”

Denver: It’s almost like a rebirth of philanthropy in the earliest years or something like that, but it’s: stop complaining about it, and step up and do something about it. We’re seeing more and more—

Mari: Yes. Don’t just stand there, do something!

Denver: Let’s get back to your organization. GlobalGiving has an exceptional, if not a little bit unusual, corporate culture, which I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand. It’s unusual in that you don’t have a lot of rules, and you don’t have a lot of formal policies. Rather the culture is built around four values that guide and inform behavior. Tell us about those four values.

Mari: So those values – there are four of them – and we think they encapsulate our theory of change. So it starts out with “always open,” and what that says is that: anyone can have a great idea… anywhere, any place.

Denver:  You don’t know where it’s coming from.

Mari: Don’t know where it’s coming from. So when you pick up the phone on customer service, you answer that because you don’t know if it’s the next Sakena Yacoobi. You don’t know if it’s the next Michael Bloomberg who is only making a $10 donation right now.

Denver: Which he started with Hopkins, I think, with $10.

Mari: But one day, he will be an incredible philanthropist. So that means that we are open to anyone, and we are always courteous to them because we don’t know who will turn out to be the incredible social entrepreneur.  

The next one is “listen, act, learn, repeat.” This says that we listen to what’s going on, we act—now, someone always says, “Wait, why don’t you learn first?” — we act because we believe that when you act, that’s when you learn best.

Denver: Experiential learning.

Mari: Experiential learning. Then you learn, and then you figure out if you did something wrong, you’d do it differently, and that’s the repeat part of it. So it’s a bias towards action; it’s a bias towards learning. You’ve always got to learn– good or bad– so “listen, act, learn, repeat.”

The next one is “committed to Wow,” which is that we believe everyone deserves to be wowed by their interaction with us, and that applies to the project leader in Haiti as well as to the person who’s having a problem getting their transaction approved on the website and can’t make it happen. So for every interaction, we want them to walk away and think Wow! That was an amazing organization!

Denver: That was special.

Mari: And I feel very strongly about delivering the best service to these social entrepreneurs who might frequently get treated like, “Why are you bugging me again?” but they’re doing amazing work and they deserve the best.

And the final one is “never settle.” That applies really to anything we think we’re doing okay, maybe even think we’re doing well at, we should always be prepared to rethink and say, “Wait. Can we do it even better?  Or is there a different thing we could be doing that could be delivering even more value?” So never think that we are “home,” got it figured out. We’re always on the warpath.

Denver: And because even when you do figure it out, those things are going to change. So they’ll never be stagnant. Everything is always moving.

Mari: Exactly!

Denver: Those are four great values, and they’re very unusual. Most organizations have a much more standard set. I really like those.

One of my favorite guests on the show has been Charles Best. He’s actually been on twice, and one of the things that he said was that one of the ways that he keeps his organization nimble and agile and always learning is that he hops on the phone with you and Kiva.  We had Scott Harrison from charity: water on the show last month, and you guys get together and exchange ideas, which I think is a great idea. Tell us how these conversations got started.  And what do you guys talk about?

Mari: Well, it really started with Charles and me—and I love Charles. Charles and I were one of the first grantees of Pierre Omidyar. He funded a bunch of marketplaces, of which Kiva is one; so Premal and Matt were part of this cabal. We started getting together at these meetings– the Omidyar Network would call. And one day, we suddenly said, “You know, we’ve got these a/b tests going,” and Charles was like, “Oh, we’ve got some a/b tests going, too.” These are tests that you run on the website where one set of donors sees one thing and another set of donors sees another, and we can see the difference. And if one performs better, we switch.

So we realize we were all running a/b tests and said, “Well, hey, how about we get on the phone and tell each other which a/b test we’re running because we know that a thing tested on DonorsChoose is probably going to work on GlobalGiving and vice versa, so there’s no need for us to run the same tests. So let’s make sure we pool our resources and are testing a wide variety of hypotheses.” So that was great. And then we were like, “Wait. So let’s not just share the results. Let’s actually plan out what things we’re going to test on which platforms because that essentially triples our R&D budget.” And of course, when charity: water joined, that quadrupled the R&D budget, and it’s been an amazing collaboration.

…to free people up to accomplish their potential and to bring them all together in this organization, and increasingly, to push that out into the world to work with thousands of organizations around the world, it feels like I found my tribe. And it’s not just the tribe of GlobalGiving, it’s a tribe that includes DonorsChoose and Kiva and charity: water and the whole world of people who believe that people on the ground can do the right thing, whether it’s donors or social entrepreneurs, and we can come together to do it. So that feels amazing.

Denver: Well, let me close with this, Mari. Stories of founders and co-founders of organizations that they’ve created are some of the most interesting. And in your case, you really didn’t just start an organization, you really birthed the movement as far as crowdfunding is concerned. Tell us the impact that GlobalGiving has had on you, your life, and how you view the world.

Mari: I grew up all over the world, and when I joined the World Bank, I thought—because it’s an international organization, right? It’s like the UN. There’s people of all different nationalities—and I was like Oh. This feels like home. And it was in a sense that there were lots of different people, different nationalities, and that felt good. They were all dedicated towards international development, but they didn’t always have a bias towards action. They didn’t always think that the bottom-up development was possible.

So when I left the World Bank to start GlobalGiving, one, I was able to organize the way we worked with, as you pointed out, as few rules as possible. The World Bank had many rules just for the record. We could organize around leveraging people’s passion and energy and trusting them to do the right thing, and maybe providing some guidelines about what the right thing was, but say, “Here’s the right thing. You figure out how.” And to be able to bring together an organization where people were delivering 100% to 110%…When I was at the World Bank, people were delivering 40% of what was possible, not because they weren’t working hard – they were all working hard. But bogged down by the bureaucracy and different requirements, they were spending a good part of their energy just getting around the rules.

So to free people up to accomplish their potential and to bring them all together in this organization, and increasingly, to push that out into the world to work with thousands of organizations around the world, it feels like I found my tribe. And it’s not just the tribe of GlobalGiving, it’s a tribe that includes DonorsChoose and Kiva and charity: water and the whole world of people who believe that people on the ground can do the right thing, whether it’s donors or social entrepreneurs, and we can come together to do it. So that feels amazing.

Denver: It really does, and it’s built on trust. You trust the people on the ground and you trust the people who work in your organization. Well, Mari Kuraishi, the Co-founder and President of GlobalGiving, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening and for a very enlightening conversation. For people interested in checking out your website, maybe supporting one of these carefully-vetted organizations that are listed there, tell us what that website is and what other information they might find there.

Mari: The website is globalgiving.org. You will see thousands of organizations, but you can also sort and search. You can go and say, “I want to see projects that deal with kids and that work in India,” and are close to their funding goal.  And then you can filter those searches, find one that you love, click on it, make the donation.

You might be also interested in making it a donation in honor of somebody.  So it’s your mom’s birthday, make it in her honor; she’ll get a nice card, a physical card or an email card, whichever one you like. And then along the way, you might say, “Oh, my niece has a birthday coming up, but I don’t know what she’s interested in.” Then you can click and buy her a gift card; we’ll send her a nice little biodegradable gift card that says, “You can choose whatever project you want, and we will turn around and send you updates on what’s going on.”

Denver: Very sweet. Well, thanks, Mari! It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Mari: Thank you!

Mari Kuraishi and Denver Frederick

Mari Kuraishi and Denver Frederick


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving

 

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