Dennis Whittle, Executive Director of Feedback Labs, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Dennis Whittle, Executive Director of Feedback Labs, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.



Dennis Whittle

Denver: My next guest is a most interesting fellow– through his own life experience, and as a result of some of the institutions where he has worked. He has been able to re-imagine the world upside down, not in the top-down way that most of us are accustomed to, but rather bottom-up.  And he has thought about how to go about it and the implications it would have for the global society. He is Dennis Whittle, the Founder and Executive Director of Feedback Labs. Good evening, Dennis, and welcome to The Business of Giving. 


Dennis: Nice to be here, Denver. 

Denver: Tell us about Feedback Labs and what your organization does.

Dennis: Feedback Labs is a network of 200 organizations working in aid and philanthropy, who are dedicated to hearing what the people themselves want to make their lives better, and whether we’re helping them get it.  And if not, what should we do differently? 

Denver: Well, before we get into that work more deeply, I want to frame it if I can, Dennis, in a somewhat larger context. And I know you maintain an innovation– and I mean real transformative innovation that leads to disruption– occurs in waves.  And you see that occurring now in the philanthropic sector due to three things, three waves; two of which you’ve had a very prominent hand in.  So let’s briefly discuss each. The first is donor-advised funds.

Dennis: Donor-advised funds were pioneered in the late 80s and 90s,  and they are a way of making it possible for ordinary people to have foundations. You and I, Denver, can with a few thousand dollars create our own foundation. It can be the Denver Frederick Foundation and the Dennis Whittle Foundation. It’s enabled us to be ordinary Oprahs, as someone said; we can be Bill Gates. Donor-advised funds are a way that we can get professionalized services around our own giving. It’s a really pretty dramatic revolution in giving. 

Denver: The second wave of innovation is crowdfunding, of which you are a pioneer, perhaps the pioneer. Tell us about crowdfunding. 

Dennis: In the 80s and 90s when I worked at the World Bank, I noticed that if you were an expert, you could have your ideas heard and funded. If you were not part of the World Bank/ USAID foundation aristocracy, it was not possible to have your voice heard or your money used. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Mari Kuraishi and I left the World Bank to create GlobalGiving which was the first ever global crowdfunding website. Allowed anybody in the world with a good idea to pitch their idea and anybody in the world to fund it. That was five years before the word “crowdfunding” ever appeared on Google. 

Denver: That’s right! The final wave is feedback… which we just briefly discussed in the opening. So, Dennis, I want you to take these three waves of innovation together… What do you see as the changes that are going to occur as a result of the way that philanthropy is done around the world?


Margaret Laws, President and CEO of HopeLab, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Margaret Laws, President and CEO of HopeLab, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.


Margaret Laws

Denver: We frequently discuss on the show how transformative change rarely occurs in any one field of endeavor, but rather at the intersection of where different fields meet. And at one of those crossroads where health, technology, neuroscience, and philanthropy come together, you’ll find a nonprofit organization by the name of HopeLab. And it is indeed a pleasure to have with us this evening their President and CEO, Margaret Laws. Good evening, Margaret, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Margaret: Good evening and thanks for having me!

HopeLab was formed actually to create the game that would help kids take their cancer meds at the frequency they were supposed to take them and ideally have optimal outcomes through their cancer treatment… Now, our expanded mission is to combine science, design, and technology to improve the health and well-being of kids and young adults.

Denver: Tell us the founding story of HopeLab, Margaret, and the mission and goals of the organization. 

Margaret: It’s actually a terrific founding story. So Pam Omidyar, wife of eBay founder, Pierre Omidyar, was working in a lab. She was working on some research and some challenges faced by kids with cancer. And what she was seeing and what they were seeing in the lab was that these kids with cancer… who were supposed to take chemotherapy for two years… were not taking all their meds. They weren’t taking all of their chemo meds, and they weren’t taking all their antibiotics, and they weren’t having the outcomes that we would hope they would have.

She was into video games – she was a gamer – and she thought maybe video games could play a role in helping get these kids to take their drugs, to take their full course of chemo. So she had this crazy idea, which is:  “Could a video game cure cancer?” And HopeLab was formed actually to create “the game” that would help kids take their cancer meds at the frequency they were supposed to take them… and ideally have optimal outcomes through their cancer treatment. 

Denver: And now your  expanded mission would be?

Margaret: Now, our expanded mission is to combine science, design, and technology to improve the health and well-being of kids and young adults. 

Denver: Fantastic! Now, before we get into more details and some of your specific programs and projects, why don’t you give us an overview of the state of health and wellness of young people in our country today. I think most people know it isn’t probably what it should be, but may not know much more than that. Tell us what it looks like. 

Margaret: It doesn’t look great. We’ve got significant problems with childhood obesity… with type 2 diabetes…at epidemic proportions.  And one of the things that we’re really focused on now that’s been a real challenge is mental and emotional health and wellness of kids. We’re really seeing challenges in the teen years, but all the way down into childhood. So there are a lot of things that are creating adversity for kids in our environment, and a lot of opportunities to engage kids and young people in helping to create better pathways for health and well-being.

So, we thought a lot about health and well-being of kids and young adults… what contributes to it, what’s detracting from it.  And our unique contribution is really to engage those young people in helping to create the solutions. 

Denver: Why don’t you walk us through the original game that Pam Omidyar helped create. It was called Re-Mission. How do you play that game?


Lee-Sean Huang, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Foossa, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Lee-Sean Huang, Co-founder and Creative Director of Foossa, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. 


…our point of view is that the people who are stakeholders who are using the services and products that surround us should have some say in the way that they’re designed, because they’re often experts of their own context, experts of their own communities. And these services can be more robust and work better for people if they have a say in designing them.

Denver: I was over at the Measured Summit recently, where they were addressing the impact of human-centered design on healthcare, and I connected with Lee-Sean Huang, who is the Co-founder and Creative Director of a company called Foossa. And he has been good enough to join us on the phone this evening for a few minutes. Lee-Sean, tell us about Foossa and what you do.

Lee-Sean: Hi, Denver! Thanks for having me. So Foossa is a community-centered design and strategy practice. We are based here in New York City, and we work with diverse communities to work together and to design the future. We primarily work in a field called service design. So if you think about how our world today is not just based on physical products, it’s based on services that deliver value. Just like a DVD or Blu-ray might be a product, but your Netflix or your Hulu is a service that still delivers you your content. We’re looking at the services that surround us in the world. These days primarily, we’re working on public services although we also work with startups and with corporate clients as well.

But our point of view is that the people who are stakeholders who are using the services and products that surround us should have some say in the way that they’re designed, because they’re often experts of their own context, experts of their own communities. And these services can be more robust and work better for people if they have a say in designing them.


Lee-Sean Huang

Denver: Exactly. Well, one of the things you do is you use design to build community-based participation that will ultimately become movements or networks for good. Tell us about how you go about that, Lee-Sean, and give us an example of one, if you would.

Lee-Sean: Sure! So, I have a hybrid background in both design and activism. Prior to starting Foossa, I was part of a design practice at a consultancy called Purpose, which was also working to build social movements. It was a creative agency that was started by social activists, and then I also worked as an in-house designer in several nonprofits before that.

So part of what we do through design to build participation is one thing we call “the ladder of participation,” so thinking about how somebody goes and becomes a more robust member in something. So if you think about an online community, the first thing might be looking at a piece of content on social media like a tweet, a Facebook post. The next level of commitment or of engagement could be liking that thing, could be commenting on that thing or even following you. And then from there, you could think about things that are higher barrier to do like joining your e-mail list, maybe even making that transition from online engagement to something offline like going to an event. So we use this as a planning tool, this ladder of engagement, to figure out ways that people kind of grow in a community through a sequence of calls to action.

Another design technique we do is designing things that are not so perfect, that are unfinished. I mention design and people often think about design or designer to mean something that has a lot of artifice, that has a lot of polish to it. [It becomes] designer jeans or designer-interior design. But a lot of what we do, even though we work in the tech space, starts out very low-fi. It just involves doing paper sketches with people in a workshop so that people who don’t have a design background, who don’t have a tech background can participate in the design of what an app might look like, what one site might look like. And so that designing for imperfection is a way of inviting people in to participate in the process. And so that requires designers to be more like hosts and facilitators rather than these distant experts with our hipster glasses.

Denver: Exactly! Interesting. Well, give us an example of one that you’ve done for social good.

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Lee-Sean: One of our recent projects is called Design for Financial Empowerment, and it’s in collaboration with the Parsons School of Design and the New York City government and various nonprofit partners and funders. We are working on a city project where New York City actually offers free financial counseling for anybody who lives and works in the city. You call 311 and you book an appointment. You meet in person with a financial counselor and you can discuss anything from how to open up a bank account if you’re a new immigrant to things like “I’m an entrepreneur and I’m trying to pay down my debt and get out of debt.” So it’s a variety of different people. And they have found in the data prior to us working on this project that there’s a direct correlation between retention and outcomes. So the more sessions you go to your counselor, the more you work with your counselor, the more likely you are to meet your own financial goal, whether it’s getting that mortgage or paying down your debt or whatever that is.

But in a lot of cases, people who are in financial trouble also have other things in life. They may have families, kids, other commitments and so they don’t always come back to their appointments. So we had been working with the clients and the counselors as well as administrators in the city to co-design ways to increase retention. And that’s basically around this idea of how do you create a community and also how do you provide wayfinding. So what the community did, even though financial topics are often very personal, how do we create this feeling that people aren’t alone. It’s not just this one-on-one relationship between a client and a counselor, but that they’re part of this larger community of people who are trying to work on their financial situation, their financial empowerment.

And then on the other hand, we’ve also been working on wayfinding across different media, too. We’ve designed a couple of different interventions that have now been prototyped and are being tested around the city. Some of them are fairly low-fi but necessary. Like we design what we call a journey map, and it’s essentially a little fold-out card like you get or a subway card that helps show the journey towards financial empowerment. And it sets an expectation like having at least three appointments to begin with, to see how many appointments you might need and helps explain this process a little bit more. And we both have been experimenting with more high-tech interventions as well, like interactive videos that could be sent to clients before their first appointment, and a video, sort of mini-documentaries of other clients and their counselors, to give just sort of some emotional baseline to what it’s like to work on this financial counseling and to be inspired by other people’s stories as well.

Denver: Great. Finally, let me ask you about the Awesome Foundation where you are a founding trustee. What is their mission and how do they operate?

Lee-Sean: Well, the Awesome Foundation was started by some friends of mine, and they invited me to start the New York chapter with them. And basically what we do is we forward the cause of Awesome in the universe, or at least in the New York chapter in the New York tri-state area. And so we give out $1,000 micro-grant every month, no strings attached, to Awesome projects. And so it’s everything from–our very first grant was a guy who runs a nonprofit called BioBus and he was building this laser beam microscope thing and he was taking it around to schools around the city to show kids microorganisms, and you could shoot these lasers at the microorganisms. It wouldn’t hurt them, but it would hold them in place.

There’s another grant we gave to a guy who started a new ritual called “Nametag Day.” And the idea is that one weekend in the summer, they pass out nametags on the streets in New York and also now in San Francisco and a couple of other cities around the world, and it just encourages people to talk to strangers and introduce themselves. So it changes the social dynamics of things. 

So a lot of these projects are kind of fun or kind of community-oriented, and it’s all our own money, actually. So we each contribute $100 per trustee every month. And then we have a database where we collect these applications. And then we just decide through voting and consensus building who we give the money to and then we send them a check. So anybody can apply at

Denver: That’s right. And all these projects are awesome! Well, thanks for being with us, Lee-Sean. If people want to learn more about Foossa and the work you do, your website is?

Lee-Sean: It’s Thank you so much for having me, Denver!

Denver: Great! Well, it was my pleasure.

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

Earl Lewis, President and CEO of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Earl Lewis, President and CEO of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Denver Frederick, Host of the Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Earl Lewis

Denver: As the arts, humanities and liberal arts have fallen out of favor in recent decades, they have known no better friend, no more loyal friend than the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. And it’s a great pleasure to have with us this evening their President and CEO, Earl Lewis. Good evening, Earl, and welcome to the Business of Giving!

Earl: Thank you! My pleasure.

Denver: Tell us about Andrew Mellon, the person, and the foundation that bears his name.

Earl: Andrew Mellon had his origins in Pittsburgh. His family of Irish immigrants had moved to the Pittsburgh area. By the late 19th century, they had tried a number of things, and they moved into banking.  So it was the father and two sons. Andrew was one of the two sons. And if you think of the late 19th century, if you think of Pittsburgh– in particular the rise of the industrial era, and people like Carnegie and others who were in their midst– they actually went into a “new world” – what we think of today as venture capital. They actually would make loans to enterprises through their banks and then recoup the dividends on the backside as those enterprises developed. Think of Gulf Oil. They were early investors in Gulf Oil among other kinds of enterprises.

And if you read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers,  there is a chart where Malcolm attempts to identify the wealthiest human beings of all time. And you realize that there’s a name: Andrew Mellon.  They are among the top 10 or 11 individuals, well above Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, and not too far from some of the others that you think of as among the wealthiest. Andrew Mellon would then go on to become the Treasury secretary in the 1920s. He would go on to create the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. He would die in the 1930s. And then his children, Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce had two separate foundations as they inherited wealth from their father’s estate: the Avalon Foundation and Old Dominion Foundation. And in 1969, while the kids didn’t always agree on everything, they agreed to merge their two foundations and rename it for their father. Hence, it was born in 1969, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Denver: And when you arrived there about four years ago, I don’t know if any foundation could have had a much lower profile than the Mellon Foundation did. It had a very static website; you had no communication staff whatsoever, and really not much of a public face at all.  But you’ve changed all that. What have you done?  And why do you think it was important to do it?

Earl: At the foundation, we had come to realize that in the 21st century, one needed to have a slightly larger footprint in the digital world. Several of our grantees will come and say to us later, “Look, we value the support you grant us through your dollars, but we need you in another way. We need you to be more visible, and in some cases, to actually step into the limelight or the spotlight to ensure that the work we do is actually considered important.”

We heard them. As a result, the decision was made that certainly we needed to do something with our website. It was as much a spider web as anything because things had been stuck there for a long, long, long, long time. And we realized with that portal, we could begin to communicate not only something about our mission and our values, but also more about our grantees. And I think of all the things I did like in pointing out, when people turn to the website, at the bottom of the homepage is now a listing of every grant that we’ve made since the inception of the foundation in 1969– mapped not only by the amounts and the topics, but also geographically.  And you get some sense of flavor of who we are and what we’re about.

…there’s a way in which art… dramatized on stage… can tell us about our past, and provide the insights into the present in ways that even the most beautifully written book, or the most well-executed speech, never can.

Denver: That’s great. Well, you have to have a voice in today’s world; you can’t just be writing checks. Well, the foundation fervently believes that arts and humanities play such a vital role in democracy and help promote understanding of different peoples and cultures. Tell us about some of your work here and some of the projects that you have funded.


Lisa Brown Alexander, President and CEO of Nonprofit HR, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Lisa Brown Alexander, President and CEO of Nonprofit HR, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Lisa Brown Alexander

Denver: The nonprofit sector more than just about any other industry depends upon people. For many nonprofit, there’s no product; just the human capital provided by staff and employees. So the importance of creating cultures where people can thrive and do their best work, not to mention building organizations that will attract the very best talent – well, that cannot be overstated. And that is where the firm Nonprofit HR steps in. And it’s a great pleasure to have with us this evening their President and CEO, Lisa Brown Alexander. Good evening, Lisa, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Lisa: Thank you so much! Glad to be here.

Denver: Tell us about Nonprofit HR and the work that you do.

Lisa: Well, Nonprofit HR is a full-service talent management firm that works exclusively with the nonprofit sector. So, essentially, our job is to help mission-driven organizations attract, develop, and retain the very best talent that money can buy.

…the most progressive organizations are intentional about how they bring talent into their organizations; they’re purposeful about making sure those people are engaged and connected to their work; and they also are mindful in allocating resources to make sure that those people can develop.

Denver: And what are some of the things that those most forward-thinking nonprofits are doing to attract and keep that talent, and create exceptional work cultures?

Lisa: Well, honestly, being mindful of the importance of talent. It sounds so simple and talent represents such a large part of most organizations’ budgets, yet so many organizations pay very little attention to the people who do the work. And so, honestly, the most progressive organizations are intentional about how they bring talent into their organizations; they’re purposeful about making sure those people are engaged and connected to their work; and they also are mindful in allocating resources to make sure that those people can develop. Doesn’t mean they’ll get promoted from assistant to manager to VP in three years or less, but it does mean that while those folks are there, their experiences will be enriching and meaningful and purpose driven.

Denver: That’s a great point you make. I think so many nonprofits are so focused on the mission and the program that they forget about the people, and I think those others who are probably so close to the bone and are trying to keep their doors open, they don’t understand that if you don’t develop these people…well, actually there’s options now. You can go to these social good companies that have purpose, so we don’t have quite the exclusivity on doing good anymore that we did perhaps a decade or two ago.

Lisa: Absolutely! And you raised a really good point, because the nonprofit sector is facing competition and they’re facing competition from entities that are well funded, that are startups that have excitement and energy around them. And that makes for a tough sell sometimes. If you’re that nonprofit working on the bone, writing on both sides of the paper, it can be really hard to position your organization against that social good organization that’s funded by a corporation.

Denver: You’re absolutely right. Well, your work touches so many different areas, Lisa – diversity and inclusion, performance reviews, the millennial workforce and others. Is there anyone or two things that are on your radar these days?

Lisa: I think the thing that’s most on my radar is the importance and the intersection between talent, culture and mission and sustainability. Those four points are really, really critical. I can’t say enough about what I think is the importance of paying attention to talent, making sure that you have a healthy mission in order to achieve the very thing that you said you want to do in the community.

So if you’re a social service agency and you’ve got 40% turnover and folks are constantly revolving in and out of the organization, it’s pretty likely that there’s some impact on mission and service delivery to that clients and the communities that you are intending to serve. There’s a correlation between all of those points. And really that’s the thing that’s burning in my soul lately, which is one of the reasons why we’ve created the Nonprofit Talent & Culture Summit. So, we’re excited about that convening happening in April, and it’s really to help organizations think through their people strategies and to leverage their culture in a way that it advances their mission.

Denver: Tell us a little bit more about the summit. When it is going to be and who are some of the people who are going to be participating?

Lisa: Well, the summit is taking place in Washington DC, April 5-7. And we’ve got over 30 workshops and seminars, all focused on talent and culture issues through the lens of a nonprofit. And so we’ve got a number of keynote speakers including one of my favorite CEOs–I’ve been stalking him for years–Billy Shore, who’s the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Share Our Strength…

Denver: You can’t do any better than that! That’s a great get, congratulations!

Lisa: Oh, yes! He’s fabulous and excellent speaker, and really a dynamic leader. And he’s going to be talking about the importance of leadership to the talent value proposition in nonprofits. We’ve also got Lori Malcolm, who’s the Chief Culture Officer of the United Way Worldwide. And then we decided to take a slightly different turn by inviting a rabbi by the name of Rabbi Goldberg. He runs an organization called Kids Kicking Cancer and he’s going to wrap up the conference with an inspirational, motivational piece around the connection between people and the communities that are served, and the young people in his organization that are trying to beat cancer. An amazing mission.

Denver: Fantastic! Well, this is your second conference, and it really serves a tremendous purpose for the nonprofit sector and that we’re all so glad that you’re doing this. Well, Lisa Brown Alexander, I want to thank you for taking the time to be with us this evening. For people who want to learn more about Nonprofit HR and its upcoming summit you just spoke about, what is your website?

Lisa: Our website is For information about the summit, it’s We’re also on the web, on social, on Twitter @nonprofit_hr and of course on Linkedin.

Denver: Great! Well thanks so much for appearing on the program, Lisa. It was nice to have you on the show.

Lisa: My pleasure. Thank you!

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 and at of giving.

Raj Kumar, Founder and Editor of Devex, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Raj Kumar, Founder and Editor of Devex, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Denver: We frequently talk to practitioners from the international development community on The Business of Giving about their work around an issue or in a particular country. But it is useful to take a step back now and again to look at this $200 billion industry from a broader perspective so we can put this work into a larger context. And there is no one better suited to do that for us than my next guest. He is Raj Kumar, the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Devex. Good evening, Raj, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Raj: Well, thank you for having me, Denver!

Denver: Tell us about Devex, and the purpose and goals of your organization.


Raj Kumar

Raj: So since we’re here in New York, I think everybody knows Bloomberg. We’re a lot like the Bloomberg of the global development field… meaning we’re this media platform; we’ve got all different ways that journalists and analysts around the world could get information about what’s going on in global development to the people who are actually doing that work. So our audience are people who work at the World Bank or the Gates Foundation or the UN System or lots of NGOs, charities– small and big– all over the world.

Denver: Fantastic! Well, give us a sense of how this international system works and how the different pieces connect. We have the Peace and Security Architecture that is having an incredibly difficult time at the moment. You have a humanitarian system, which is certainly being overwhelmed with 125 million displaced people, and of course, the international development community. How does this system work? And how do these parts relate to one another?

Raj: I look at it as kind of a big bowl of spaghetti. It’s not a simple, clear map that you can draw and say, “There’s this group over here doing this work, and this group over there doing that work.” The lines are fuzzy. They’re blurry and they connect in complex ways.

So, you said in the beginning, it’s a $200 billion industry. And I think the easiest way to think about it is to think of it as an industry. Not that we’re not out there to do good in the world. These are charities and mission-driven organizations, but it is, in a sense, a business. It’s, in a sense, an industry. And so, if you think about it at that really high level, you’ve got official money– which means basically taxpayer money going through agencies like US governments, USAID, or through UN agencies like UNICEF. Then you’ve got private organizations. Some of them are funded by average people giving donations to church. Some are funded by wealthy billionaires like the Gates family.  And you’ve got lots of nonprofit organizations of all stripes around the world.

You put all that together, it’s this complex spaghetti bowl that all somehow works. It’s kind of magic, at the end, if this works. Sometimes it doesn’t as well as it should. But I think that’s sort of the way to look at it. And yes, you’ve got some divisions. You’ve got this idea that there’s a humanitarian sector, which is different from development. Although, increasingly, those two things are kind of pushed together.

The idea of humanitarian is: there’s an emergency. There’s a crisis. There’s suddenly an earthquake, a flood, a political crisis, and you need to get in there and help people. Give them the medicine, the food they need right away – that kind of emergency work. There’s still absolutely a different kind of work-around, a different kind of practice and discipline. The people who do that are different from the folks who do long-term economic development. But your average person who’s a refugee today has been a refugee for 17 years. So, sometimes these crises aren’t really what we think of as a short-term emergency. It’s not something that just came up like: your house got flooded. These are longer-term issues. So the line between what is humanitarian and what is development has sort of blurred and gone away to a degree.

So, lots and lots more people realize there’s this idea of global development, this idea that much of the world is still living in poverty while much of the world is doing well and pretty wealthy, and we need to find a way to lift people up and change that trajectory.

Denver: Like every other part of our society, everything is beginning to blur. We had Ken Roth of the Human Rights Watch on the show recently, and he traced a remarkable growth in the human rights field over the past couple of decades. And it has been no less remarkable in the field of international development, which as you said and I said, a $200 billion industry. Tell us how this has evolved from when you started, Raj, back in 2000.


Grant Oliphant, President of Heinz Endowments, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Grant Oliphant, President of Heinz Endowments, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Grant Oliphant

Grant Oliphant

Denver: My next guest is one of the more thoughtful voices in the philanthropic sector, speaking out on issues of public importance and concern where so many others have failed to do so. And he puts those words into practice in his laboratory… which just so happens to be the Greater Pittsburgh community. He is Grant Oliphant, the President of the Heinz Endowments. Good evening, Grant, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Grant: Denver, thank you so much for having me.

Denver: The Heinz Endowments, as the name suggests, is more than just one. Tell us about that and your current mission and focus.

Grant: It’s actually one foundation today, but it started out as two, started by separate members of the Heinz family. The money, as the name suggests, came from the ketchup fortune. That empire began in Pittsburgh a hundred years ago and produced $1.5 billion today in philanthropic resources that the family has put to use primarily for the benefit of Pittsburgh. It’s a global family though, so they really would like it to be used in a way that benefits people in other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

Denver: And speaking of that family, there’s now a new generation of leadership.

Grant: We are navigating a generational transition. Many family foundations struggle with that; ours has been, I think, pleasantly exemplary. This is a family that has had a consistent set of values down through the generations. Henry J. Heinz who founded the company was one of the people who fought for the Pure Food Act and wanted to do the right thing by employees, and wanted to do the right thing by consumers.

Denver: Ahead of his time.

Grant: Way ahead of his time. Actually, it’s becoming timely again because of what we’re facing now. But the family has carried those values down through the generations, so it’s remarkably smooth.

When we look at the future of economic growth, what we’re seeing is that actually many of the opportunities for future economic activity lie in the environmental realm.

Denver: Well, when you assumed the helm at Heinz a few years ago, you refocused your efforts around social justice – and by that, I mean embracing fairness and equity. And you do this through three different portals: sustainability, creativity, and learning. So let’s look at each of those, starting with sustainability, Grant.  And that’s more than just the environment, correct?


Matt Forti, Co-Founder and Managing Director of the One Acre Fund, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Matt Forti, Co-founder and Managing Director of the One Acre Fund, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Matt Forti

Denver: For those who follow nonprofits and social enterprises closely, there are a number of organizations that carry with them a stellar reputation and embody what the future of this sector should and hopefully will look like. Yet, they remain largely unknown to the general public, especially here in America. One such organization is the One Acre Fund. And here to tell us about it this evening is their Co-founder and Managing Director, Matt Forti. Good evening, Matt, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Matt: Thanks so much, Denver! It’s great to be here.

Denver: Tell us: who is the One Acre Fund?  And how did you get started on this journey?

Matt: One Acre Fund is a nonprofit social enterprise, and our client is a poor farmer that farms roughly an acre of land in a remote area of Africa. We got started about 10 years ago because when we visited Africa, you go into the rural areas; the whole landscape is dotted with farmers. Their profession is to grow food, and yet, they can’t grow enough to feed their families all-year round. Agriculture has become so much more productive everywhere else in the world over the past few decades. We said, “Why not Africa? What’s driving this? Can we do something about it?” And we pulled together a pilot and a model, and the rest is history.

In the areas where we work, 1 in 10 children will die before the age of 5. Hunger is the primary underlying reason for those deaths. And then, even if you’re lucky enough to survive, you’re going to have a 1 in 3 chance of being physically and mentally stunted.

Denver: Before we get into your actual work, what is the impact, the human toll on a child growing up in extreme poverty and extreme hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Matt: Hunger has just absolutely devastating consequences. In the areas where we work, 1 in 10 children will die before the age of 5. Hunger is the primary underlying reason for those deaths. And then, even if you’re lucky enough to survive, you’re going to have a 1 in 3 chance of being physically and mentally stunted. I mean, literally, your brain doesn’t develop to its full capacity. And so what you have is children that don’t go to school ready to learn, and their full potential is never going to be reached.

Denver: Well, global poverty, as tragic as it is, is really just an inevitable part of the human condition. It will always be with us, and I think that’s a conventional wisdom shared by so, so many people. But that would not include you or One Acre Fund. You believe it is solvable and can be done within your lifetime. What do you base that on?

Matt: Absolutely! One of the most daunting, but exciting facts about poverty is it is primarily a rural phenomenon, and 70% of the world’s poor are farmers. So, this single profession has more poor people combined than every other profession out there. And so, if we can make this single profession more productive, we have a huge lever to try to get the next generation of families out of poverty. And so, One Acre Fund believes that essentially, if you can pull together the right mix of things that makes agriculture more productive, families will be able to invest and get themselves out over a period of time.

Denver: Well, let’s walk through that if we could. You have a very clean and clear business model. It has four pieces to it. Why don’t we begin with Farm Inputs. What are they?

Matt: Farm Inputs are things that you put into the ground to make your crops more productive. So, first, we start with seeds. Hybrid seeds are naturally cross-pollinated. They’re much more effective than saving your seed from the last harvest. Also plant nutrients,–things like compost and animal manure, as well as small amounts of fertilizer– can have a dramatic difference on the growth of your plants. So these are the technologies that have been used in the U.S., for instance, since the ‘30s or ‘40s; they just haven’t been distributed effectively in Africa. And that’s where the model starts.

Denver: The second part of the model is Finance. Now, how do you go about finance with people who are living in extreme poverty?

Matt: Finance is absolutely critical. There are no credit scores in the rural parts of Africa for us to use. But what we find is that if you can finance a productive asset loan…so, instead of giving cash, you actually give the inputs. That’s the loan. And you know that the inputs are going to be used productively.  That’s going to give you a high confidence that those inputs are going to turn into cash that can be repaid down the road. So, that’s exactly what we do.

Denver: And the third piece is the Education part. What kind of training do you provide these farmers?

Matt: The training is critical. It’s really basic techniques. There are really five or six techniques that drive 80% of the productivity of agriculture. It’s really proper spacing of seeds. It’s planting in rows instead of scatter shot. It’s micro-dosing tiny amounts of fertilizer, and a few other things. Basically, what we find is that if farmers can do these six basic things well, then the input loan that they’ve received is going to be productive.

Denver: And the final piece of it…not to be overlooked, is Distribution.

Matt: Yes. Absolutely. A big part of the problem is that the closest place to access seeds for instance might be 30 kilometers away—you may as well be on the moon if you’re in rural Africa, if you think of all the hills and such. So we distribute all of this within walking distance of every farm family we serve.  And the training is provided in the farmer’s field. It’s actually provided by farmers themselves that are in our program that we’ll hire and train up. And when you put it all together, you have a very impactful model.

Denver: Yes. You’re the Amazon of rural farmers, arguably.

Matt: Yes! We do like to say that.

Denver: And you don’t overlook the distribution to the extent that you actually give something called the “D-Prize.”

Matt: Yes! One of the side projects of our founder… which really came out of the recognition that with One Acre Fund, again, the technologies to improve have existed for generations. It’s really about: How do we get these proven models into the hands of the people that need them?  Agriculture is one thing. But in clean energy, for instance, solar lights can be very impactful for a family from a health and education standpoint, and also from avoided kerosene expenditures and batteries and candles. This is something that pays back for a farm family within 8 to 12 months. Bed nets that prevent malaria…So, across all of the different aspects of what it takes to be successful in rural Africa and elsewhere, we know what it is.  And now it’s just about getting it into the hands of the people that need it.

Denver:  Absolutely! Well, although One Acre Fund is a nonprofit organization, and you’re committed to improving lives, Matt, you operate very much like a regular business.  And that stems from your belief in market-based solutions to poverty. Explain what those are, and why you think that is a correct approach to addressing extreme poverty.

Matt: Yes. That’s absolutely right. I think the recognition that we had very early on is: if we treat our farmers not as beneficiaries, but as clients – as paying customers – that all of a sudden, everyone’s incentives are going to be aligned.

One Acre Fund knows that if we don’t deliver high-quality services, farmers aren’t going to repay. And if farmers don’t repay, we’re not going to be able to operate in the next season. And so, what you see all the time in our areas of work is, for instance: repayment– which happens during the course of the farming season week by week, bit by bit– if our repayment is suffering in an area, that’s probably because we’re not delivering the trainings effectively.  Or we didn’t provide the seeds on time. And so we can immediately focus attention on that area.

It basically just makes sure that farmers have a voice in the services that they’re receiving. It also, of course, means we’re much more scalable. We’re not dependent 100% on donations. About half of our revenue this year will be from the very clients we’re trying to benefit, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why we’ve been able to grow from 40 to 450,000 families in just 10 years.

we’re trying to alleviate hunger, but the long-term goal is intergenerationally. We’re trying to get families to be able to educate their children, and those children to be able to pull the whole family out of poverty.

Denver: That’s quite impressive! Let’s talk about your clients for a minute. Who are they? What are their lives like? Share with us a story of one of them, if you would.

Matt: I’d be happy to. A typical One Acre Fund farmer is a woman. She toils in her fields for probably about six to eight hours a day. She’s also probably responsible for child care… for her children. And she and her family suffer what’s known as the “hunger season.” It’s basically a period of time after the main harvest has run out where the family is skipping meals, regularly substituting high-quality meals with low-quality ones. And this is what creates the cycle we talked about earlier. Well, farmers have this amazing asset. They typically do have enough land to basically grow enough food all-year round.

One of the stories I’d like to share is of a farmer named Teresa Wanyama. She is a widow. She has eight children that she supports. She actually was one of the first 38 farmers in our program in 2006. When we celebrated our 10th anniversary last year, we went back to that first village, and we tried to document: what was the path that Teresa took in our program over that 10 year period of time?  And what we found was three things.

First, it was alleviating the hunger, and that meant the main crop she was growing – maize – needed to be much more productive. She went from growing two bags of maize– which is about enough food for maybe four months of the year– to growing 15 bags of maize.  So, significant improvement. The second thing was nutrition, so really helping to introduce diverse crops like collard greens that provide additional vitamins for her children to keep them healthy.

And then the third thing– and this is very common in our program– is to provide more expensive assets. One of those is trees. Trees are an amazing product. They’re great for the soils. They don’t take up a lot of land. They grow vertically. And if you can keep trees in the ground and harvest them five, six years after you plant them, you could make $5, $10 for something that may have cost just a few pennies to put in the ground.

What we found is that Theresa had last year harvested about 40 of her original trees. She sold them for about $600. That’s a huge windfall in rural Kenya. And with that, she was sending her eight kids to school. Four of them are in secondary school; another four are already in university. And again, that’s unheard of. So when you talk about: we’re trying to alleviate hunger, but the long-term goal is intergenerationally. We’re trying to get families to be able to educate their children, and those children to be able to pull the whole family out of poverty.

Denver: That’s a great story, and it’s hard to believe you have 450,000 of those. What countries do they encompass?

Matt: We work in six countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. Kenya and Rwanda were our first two countries; about 80% of our farmers are there. We work also in Burundi, which is the hungriest country in the world, Tanzania, and then Uganda and Malawi. We launched those countries last year.

We don’t want to do this work to just reach a lot of people. We want to have a very deep quality and measurable amount of impact.

…nothing is sacred at One Acre Fund. If it’s not working, we’ll go back in and figure out how to improve it.  And that’s the central part of what makes us successful, I think.

Denver: You have emphasized measurement and evaluation on everything you do, right from the very get-go. And that as much as anything, I think, defines the culture of the One Acre Fund. Tell us how you’ve gone about doing this, and how it has helped shape the culture of the organization.

Matt: I think the most important thing is, as we’ve said from day one, we don’t want to do this work to just reach a lot of people. We want to have a very deep quality and measurable amount of impact. Secondly, that we don’t just want to measure to provide data to donors and outside parties. We really want to do it, first and foremost, to make sure what we’re doing is working and figure out how to improve our program.

And as a result, every year, every crop, every country, we are going out there and physically weighing the yields of One Acre Fund families, as well as neighboring families that aren’t in the program but possess similar characteristics and similar propensities for farming. And so we know exactly how much extra yield is coming out of the ground because of the One Acre Fund program, and we know where it’s working and where it’s not. We’ve had many examples of failures, particularly in the early years – crops that weren’t growing to the extent that they should have. And nothing is sacred at One Acre Fund. If it’s not working, we’ll go back in and figure out how to improve it.  And that’s the central part of what makes us successful, I think.

Denver: And you also believe that organizations should have the internal capacity to do their own evaluation and testing, and not just rely on outside vendors.  Correct?

Matt: That’s exactly right! I think you can fall into the trap of thinking: “Measurement is so sophisticated. It can only be done by a PhD,” and that’s not the case. Most measurement really is about the weekly process indicators – Did the farmer come to training that week? Is the farmer spacing their seeds properly? – and really being able to use that data immediately to change course, improve what you’re doing. And that kind of measurement can be done absolutely internally.

Denver: Yes.  And in fact, I think this data is really being collected by your front line workers, and they’re going to be the ones who are going to use it.  So, it’s more meaningful when they’ve actually collected it.

Matt: Absolutely! You go to Africa, one of the things I love doing is visiting meetings of our field officers– these front line staff– every week. And there’s a big chalkboard with tons of rows and columns and the words “KPI” at the top – “key performance indicator.”  So you’re talking about people with a primary school education who are tracking these indicators, comparing between different districts.  And that’s exciting. It’s people using business principles to try to make a difference in their communities.

Denver: And I’ve been impressed on how thoughtful you’ve been in going about this. For instance, as you scaled up the organization and entered new countries in Africa, your impact per client– for every dollar that has been spent– has actually fallen in some cases, while the amount of social good you have done has increased. Explain that to us.

Matt: It’s interesting. The main way that we measure impact is thinking about how much extra yield and profit One Acre Fund is generating. Well, one of the exciting things for an overall social good– but less good for the impact that we’re measuring– is the fact that One Acre Fund’s trainings are now spilling over into the communities where we work. Even if you’re not enrolled in One Acre Fund, you’re seeing that your neighbor’s yields are going up; you’re asking them, “How did you do that?” They’re actually teaching these techniques to their neighbors. And so what’s great, what we’re seeing is the entire community is being lifted up. Our impact looks a little bit less, but the total impact we’re generating in the community has gone up.

Denver: You know, Matt, every book on social entrepreneurship or social enterprise talks about the need to scale an organization to have great impact. But One Acre Fund has actually done that, and at breathtaking pace over the past 10 years. Tell us about your growth as an organization and some of the lessons from it that you can share with us.

Matt: We have grown really, really dramatically as I mentioned– 40 to 450,000 families in 10 years. I’d say three things. One is: it starts with: What is the size of the problem you’re trying to address? There are 50 million smallholder farm families in Africa. Ninety-three percent of them fit the characteristics of who we like to serve – two acres roughly, or less, of land, staple crops predominantly. Most other organizations focus on that tiny sliver– 7%– that might be already well-organized into some kind of a value chain. So, it’s going after where the biggest problem is.

I would say secondly, is the visibility of our impact. So we talked about this before. But crops are growing to twice to the height they normally do in our program.  So the neighbors are asking how that happened. Our growth is very organic. We have a group that experiences the program together– of about 7 to 12 farmers. Those groups will then split up, and each of those farmers in the next year will register their own new group. So it’s a very organic way to grow. You put down in an area, and then it grows like a spoke.

I would say the third thing is to—as we talked about earlier—really to treat the farmers as clients and not as beneficiaries. I mean, that’s just really critical. With paying customers, we’re able to spend less per donor dollar than most other organizations to deliver our services. That’s allowed us to grow new countries much more quickly, for instance.

Denver: Yes, and you give them the dignity.

Matt: Absolutely!

Denver: Well, as you look to your future growth, you’re looking to expand by diversifying some of your programs in interesting ways. What are some of those plans, Matt?

Matt: Absolutely! I think one of the common struggles that nonprofits have is, on the one hand: if you focus on one thing, you can get really good at it, but you might not be addressing all of the needs of the people you’re trying to benefit. On the other hand, if you try to go in on day one and do everything well, you probably won’t do anything particularly well. So I think we’ve taken this nice middle ground. We’ve really focused on agriculture in these early years, but it’s opened up the ability now. We have the trust of the clients we work with. We have this very unique distribution channel that doesn’t exist into these very remote villages. We’re looking to do new things.

A big one a few years ago, as I mentioned earlier, solar energy. Solar lights are very powerful, quick product payback. So that’s one thing that we’re doing. We talked a little bit about nutrition. This year, we’re doing our first-ever trial of providing services to pregnant mothers, really providing them training on things like exclusive breastfeeding, nutritional supplements that children need to grow healthy. So that’s a new area for us. But we’re open to lots of different things so long as it can be trained by the same people; it can go through our distribution channel, and be financed.

Denver: Crop insurance is one of those things, right?

Matt: Yes. Unfortunately, this past year, there was a terrible drought in much of Eastern and Southern Africa. Crop insurance historically has been for rich people, but if you think about it, rich people are  not the kind of people that need insurance. They can cover their risks. It’s the poor people that need it. We’re now East Africa’s largest insurer of crops, and we want to keep improving that product so that farmers are covered for their harvest.

Denver: I want to speak to you a little bit more, Matt, about your corporate culture, and especially the investment that you have made in developing and training your people. Tell us about it.

Matt: I think some people equate nonprofits with just good hearted people out there delivering services. But we really want to borrow from the best of the business world, which is really about good professional development and training. No matter what level you’re at at One Acre Fund, you’re probably going to be spending at our organization 30% of your time in some kind of a formal training program. It’s a leadership accelerant program.

We have examples of front line staff who, as I’ve said, have a primary education. In year one, they might be working with 200 farmers. By year three or four, they might be in charge of a whole district of a few thousand farmers. And they’re getting technical management leadership skills from us. We’re trying to make up for the lack of education that happens in rural Africa. And that’s really critical because it’s much harder to attract… with the salaries we pay… very well-educated African national staff who may be recruited by the large multi-national companies. We’re taking this abundant labor force, kind of making up for the lack of education.  And then all of a sudden, these are the leaders of Africa’s next generation.

Denver: And as the managing director of One Acre Fund, you’re based here in the United States.  But really, the preponderance of your staff is in Africa, close to your clients. Would that be correct?

Matt: Absolutely. I’m an anomaly. We have only 40 staff in the U.S. Ninety-eight percent of our staff are not only in Africa, but in rural Africa. Our headquarters are in these rural communities. And that’s really important, being close to the client. The people who are making decisions about our programs are living a few hundred meters away from the clients that we serve.

Denver:  People often speak of Africa as if it were a country, as opposed to a continent made up of 54 countries. But with that said, tell us what you see as the promise, as well as the perils, for Africa over the next 10 years or so.

Matt: Africa is at an incredibly exciting juncture. It’s the one continent in the world where GDP growth is regularly in the higher single digits than most countries. You generally lack the terrorism problems that exist in other parts of the world. You have a human capital gap that can really be filled.

The challenges are predominantly political. Unfortunately, it’s pretty regular to not see peaceful transfers of power. And then climate!  Climate is going to disproportionately affect, particularly farmers, but many industries in Africa. And that’s one thing. When you invest in farming, you’re not only improving the productivity of existing land, you’re also introducing the incentive to clear cut the remaining savannah.  Africa has got about 70% of the remaining forest and natural land that exist in the world. And so those are the two twin problems we’re trying to address… and I think Africa needs to focus on.

We have pushed ourselves to make our model literally as scalable as humanly possible. I think setting that bold vision, organizing everyone around that vision, and making sure that everyone is putting the farmer first, that’s really, at the end of the day, what’s gotten us there.

Denver: Well, the One Acre Fund is a great success story. I know you have a lot left to do, and it’s a story still being told. But if you have to put your finger on the one thing that would be the most important reason for your success, what would that be? And what would be the one thing that causes you the greatest level of concern right now?

Matt: Really setting a bold vision, I think, at the end of the day, really organizing an entire group of people around the vision of putting the farmer first, and really saying that if you’re working on a problem that’s 50 million in scale, it’s just not acceptable enough to reach a few thousand, a few even tens of thousands. We have pushed ourselves to make our model literally as scalable as humanly possible. And I think setting that bold vision, organizing everyone around that vision, and making sure that everyone is putting the farmer first, that’s really, at the end of the day, what’s gotten us there.

Denver: Yes. You got 450,000. I know you have a goal of a million by 2020, correct?

Matt: Yes. I think the biggest fear we have is:  How are people going to perceive global aid, foreign aid, over the next few years, and not just the U.S. but also in countries in Europe? It’s very common for individuals– citizens of the U.S., for instance– to believe that we divert 10% of our budget to foreign aid. We’re spending less than 0.1% of our budget on foreign aid. And there are programs that are out there working, and it’s not just One Acre Fund. And I want to make sure that people know that investments that are being made on behalf of all of us here– of taxpayers– are really making a big difference in the world.

Denver: Well, I want to thank you, Matt Forti, the Managing Director of One Acre Fund for covering so much ground in a relatively short period of time. For those interested in learning more about One Acre Fund, or who may want to help support your work, your website is?

Matt: Please go there; visit us. Also talent is the number one resource that we’re always looking to grow.  So if you’re interested in volunteering or working at One Acre Fund, you’ll also find a lot of information on our website about that.

Denver: Great! Well, it was a real pleasure, Matt, to have you on the program.

Matt: Thank you, Denver!

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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 and at of giving.


Tara Russell, Founder and CEO of Fathom Travel, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Tara Russell, Founder and CEO of Fathom Travel, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Tara Russell


Denver: There has been a growing interest in “voluntourism” in recent years, whereby vacationers seek to have a social impact when they travel.  And perhaps no one has done this any better than Fathom Travel, which is part of Carnival Corp. And here with us now to explain how it works and what the impact has been is their Founder and CEO, Tara Russell. Good evening, Tara, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Tara: Hi there, Denver! It’s good to be with you. Thanks so much for having me!


We’re a different kind of a travel company. We believe that travel is something that uniquely connects, unites, and inspires people already, and so we’ve essentially built robust programming and robust experiences that really heighten that and allow people to unleash their greatest potential.

Denver: Tell us a little bit about Fathom Travel and exactly what you do.

Tara: So Fathom Travel really got started on this journey with the idea of “How do we take people who love the idea of travel, but want to go a little bit deeper, want to potentially grow themselves, connect to a bigger story, and really make a meaningful difference in the world?” So, we’re a different kind of a travel company. We believe that travel is something that uniquely connects, unites, and inspires people already, and so we’ve essentially built robust programming and robust experiences that really heighten that and allow people to unleash their greatest potential.

And yet what travel does for any of us is: travel reminds us that as human beings, we essentially have this shared “ubuntu,” as Desmond Tutu would call it.  But we have this humanity that’s intertwined with the lives of others.

Denver: Oh, that sounds wonderful. Well, I’m going to have you walk us through one of these experiences. And I know that you go to both the Dominican Republic and to Cuba, and you’re going to some other places. But let’s talk a little bit about this voyage. It’s about a week long, and it takes two days of travel each way to the Dominican Republic. What goes on during the time passengers are taking the trip down to the Dominican Republic?

Tara: So our Fathom Dominican Republic sailings are seven days in length. They spend about a day and a half between Miami and the Dominican Republic at sea, and then we have part of four days on the ground in the Dominican Republic, before sailing back another day and a half to return to Miami. So, the Fathom experience is built holistically. Our onboard experience is quite different than what people might imagine in a traditional cruise. Our onboard experience includes workshops like Ashoka’s “Unleashing the Changemaker Within You.” It includes things like Stanford’s “Storytelling Workshop.” It includes things like “Design Your Life” and Curiosity Atlas workshops. We have “Superpower Parties” and help people unleash their own personal gifts, passions, talents, abilities in fun and creative ways.

We have really impactful content and experiences that are really fun, but quite different than what someone might imagine. We don’t have a casino on our ships. We don’t have some of what traditional cruisers might be used to, but we do have a lot of the other benefits.  You get to have this unique neighborhood within this village-feel on this small ship. We have a very small ship that we’ve repurposed. However, part of building this experience was essentially building “software experiences,” so to speak, that we could really take anywhere in the world.

So when you get to the Dominican Republic on that sailing, you can do anything you want. You can adventure and explore at a 27 Waterfall Adventure.  Or you can go and learn more about making organic chocolate and come alongside a group of Dominican women in a cooperative that we’ve partnered with, and you can assist and support their chocolate cooperative. You can also learn to make recycled paper and how the Dominicans are repurposing waste and the ways that we’re serving and supporting that social enterprise. You can come alongside some of the environmental efforts and be part of the reforestation and planting efforts that we take part in. You can learn to make clay water filters and bring access to clean water to Dominican families, as there are about two million people on the island of only about 10 million to 11 million people total that still don’t have access to clean water.

So everything about the Fathom experience is what we call a “participatory experience.” We essentially invite our travelers to not just to be a spectator, but to get in the game. And so we believe there is this emerging trend and hunger for more than just seeing what’s happening in a place. Our travelers want a role on the team, and so we have made that really easy and convenient and safe and fun. A big part of it is education and  exposure to different ways of thinking, different ways of living, and really to new friends and new partners all over the world.

So I think we’re living in a time, Denver, where the world seems to be quite heavily divided, even in our own country. And yet what travel does for any of us is: travel reminds us that as human beings, we essentially have this shared “ubuntu,” as Desmond Tutu would call it.  But we have this humanity that’s intertwined with the lives of others. And I think what’s powerful about the Fathom experience is that people have a very visceral reaction, and that feeling is very, very strong when they have the Fathom experiences because we help really weave the stories of the lives of our travelers to… whether we’re in the Dominican Republic… we weave them to a Dominican. If we’re in Cuba, it’s weaving those traveler stories to the stories of the Cuban people.

Denver: And you eliminate so many obstacles for people. Because I know so many people who want to help, who want to have a volunteer experience overseas, but it is so hard to get started. They don’t know where to begin, and you pretty much just clear those things out of the way and allow people in a very hands-on and meaningful way to get involved in this fashion.


Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Kenneth RothDenver: Most every citizen around the world is concerned about human rights and shudders at the thought of another person’s rights being violated. And that is why we should all be grateful that there is an organization solely dedicated to this – always vigilant, 24/7, 365 days a year, all around the world– exposing human rights abuses like torture, violence against women, and child exploitation. It is Human Rights Watch, and it is a great pleasure to have with us this evening their Executive Director, Kenneth Roth. Good evening, Ken, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Kenneth: Thanks for having me! My pleasure to be here.

Denver: Before we get into the work of the organization, tell our listeners specifically what are human rights? Their genesis?  And source documents upon which they are based?

Kenneth: That’s a good question. In fact, they’re quite familiar to many Americans in that many of the rights are things you find in the Constitution. The right to free expression and free association; the right not to be mistreated or tortured; the right to a fair trial; the right not to be discriminated against – those are all in the Constitution. But also, human rights include other things that are not in the US Constitution like: the right to access to healthcare, the right to education, the right to employment. All of these are contained in a series of international treaties. The first founding document was something known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is actually not a treaty. It was a declaration.

Denver: Of 1948, right?

Kenneth: Precisely. But that gave rise in 1966 to the two founding treaties. One is called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the other: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  And thereafter, there were other specialized treaties on women’s rights and children’s rights and the like. But these treaties are widely ratified, often by a hundred plus governments around the world.  The US is a party to some of them, but not all of them.

Denver: Give us a bit more about the evolution of the modern day human rights movement. And I know you’re exactly the guy to ask because when you were at Yale Law School– late ‘70s to around 1980– they offered only one human rights course, and you dutifully signed up for it every semester… only to see it canceled because of a lack of interest.  And there were certainly no jobs in the field when you got out. So, tell us how this field has evolved and grown over the past 35 years or so.

Kenneth: You’re right. It didn’t start off very auspiciously for me. But it began really with Amnesty International in terms of the big international organizations in 1961. But even Amnesty was pretty tiny by the time I graduated from law school. And Human Rights Watch at that stage, in 1980, had two employees. It had started just a couple of years before. But what we’ve seen is Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both have grown incredibly over the years and have been joined by many smaller groups around the world. And so, if you’d go to almost any country today, there is a local human rights organization or more that are our close partners in monitoring and defending human rights practice.

…we put public pressure on governments. And foremost, we shame governments, because in today’s world, most governments find it shameful to violate human rights. Almost everybody pretends that they respect human rights; they then fall short. And if we can highlight that discrepancy between pretense and practice, that embarrassing gap forces the government over time to change.

Denver: Well, your organization has an exemplary reputation for being “factually accurate.” In fact, some people might say you’re a little obsessive about all that. So with that said, Ken, how do you go about your work? How do you decide what countries to go into? How do you gather your information? And then, how do you make a determination whether something is a human rights violation or not?

Kenneth: We are meticulous with the fact finding, and we have to be because it’s the key to our credibility. But Human Rights Watch works today in about 90 countries around the world, basically every place where there are serious human rights violations. And in each place, we begin by conducting a very detailed investigation on the ground. We have what we call “researchers” who could be lawyers; they could be journalists; they could be academics, and many, many different nationalities. We have 77 nationalities on staff. They often live in the country, or if that’s not possible, they live nearby.

And their job is to go and talk to the victims of human rights abuse, talk to the eyewitnesses, talk to the government.  So they get all sides and put together as complete and accurate a picture as they can of what actually happened. We will then analyze that fact situation under international human rights law to see “Were human rights violated or not?” If they were, we publish our findings. And that publication becomes the source of an effort to pressure governments to change.

Human Rights Watch doesn’t go to court. We operate in many countries where, frankly, the court systems are broken. They don’t restrain governments. So instead, we put public pressure on governments. And foremost, we shame governments, because in today’s world, most governments find it shameful to violate human rights. Almost everybody pretends that they respect human rights; they then fall short. And if we can highlight that discrepancy between pretense and practice, that embarrassing gap forces the government over time to change.

We also work with various powerful governments who care about human rights. And so, we will go to the U.S. government or the European Union or various governments around the world and say, “Would you help us put pressure on government “so and so” until they change their human rights practices?” “Would you condition your military aid until they stop executing people?”  “Would you make sure that they don’t get the next state visit until they release their political prisoners?” You figure out: What does the target government want, and you try to pressure them until they change.

Denver: Looking at both sides of this now– both gathering the information and then trying to pressure the governments at the other end of it– how has technology or social media changed the nature of how you go about that work?

Kenneth: In the old days, you would hear about a problem in a distant country, and you might start off by writing a letter – remember those things? – and put them in the post.  And two months later, you might get a response. Perhaps you could afford an international phone call, but they were outrageously expensive, so you didn’t do that very often. (more…)