Denver Frederick

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…)

Dean Karlan, Innovations for Poverty Action and Impact Matters

The following is a conversation between Dean Karlan, Professor of Economics at Yale University, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

dean-karlanDenver: In the world of philanthropy, people are constantly debating which social innovations work and which ones don’t based on theories of change and stories and other such things. These conversations can go on and on and on, sometimes endlessly. But one person who quietly excused himself from that conversation, and instead went out into the field to test different approaches– to actually find out what worked and what didn’t– is Dean Karlan, a Professor of Economics at Yale University.  He is the founder of not one, but two organizations: Innovations for Poverty Action, and more recently: Impact Matters. Good evening, Dean, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Dean: Hi! It’s good to be here.

Denver: There are 2.7 billion people in the world who live on $2 a day or less.  Getting them the right programs with the greatest impact is at the heart of Innovations for Poverty Action, or IPA. Tell us about IPA and exactly how you go about doing this work.

Dean: Sure. Let me tell you two things.  You opened up with a perfect explanation of how we got to be doing what we’re doing– just long debates that are very far from the field…distant from people… about “Does aid work?” Those debates were very frustrating to listen to and also were very void of the hard data from just good, clean, simple tests on the ground to find out: “Does this particular policy in this country work?”

So what we did is, starting about 15 years ago, started going into the field and setting up randomized trials to just test very specific programs.  That gets you very good answers, very clean answers, to very specific programs. And then when you see a collection of evidence from lots of places, then you can start making some grander statements about policy. But at no point are we ever going to get to an answer to the question: “Does aid work?” because the answer is really very simple.  Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. So the challenge is not answering that question, but just rather figuring out what are good policies to do.

I started Innovations for Poverty Action in 2002, and the basic goal of IPA was twofold. One was to help create those projects…to make those projects happen, and make them happen well. So we were the in-between – between:  organizations that wanted to find out whether what they were doing was working; researchers who wanted to help answer that question; and donors who wanted to be able to fund the projects and find out whether they’re working. And so we were the organization that was on the ground helping make that collaboration take place.

The second part of what we do is communicate those results to the outside world.  So the lessons aren’t just useful for the organization that’s doing the project, but actually helpful for other people elsewhere to learn from these ideas, and find out for themselves what might or might not be good ideas for them to try as well.

Denver: Yeah, if you don’t get this research into the hands of the policy makers who actually can act upon it, it really doesn’t do a heck of a lot of good.

Dean: Absolutely not.

Denver: So let’s talk about a few of the things that you’ve researched, and I’ll give you three or four examples, and let’s see how it goes. Suppose I am very passionate about education in Kenya, and I want children to spend more time in school.  What’s going to be most effective?  Build a new school?  Offer scholarships?  Buy school uniforms? Or perhaps purchase new textbooks? Which one works best?

Dean: This is a perfect example of why we set up these kinds of tests, because these all sound like good ideas to me. They all have some plausible, theoretical underpinning to it as to why that might unleash an obstacle that was preventing people from sending their kids to school. But how do we know which one is really actually the best one or not? We can go to the ground and set up some tests and find out.

Some of those exact studies you just named were started by Michael Kramer. He did this actually when I was in graduate school. He was really the pioneer that started taking these tests to very specific questions like this. What he found in that exact context was that a lot of children were not attending school because they were sick.  And they were sick because of intestinal worms. So, a very simple pill for $0.50 which clears the child of intestinal worms was a very cost-effective approach for getting the child to go to school. Because once healthy, they then attended school.

So this program now is in some sense a great example of the process of doing a careful test– finding out that something works, and something is cost-effective, too. And not just that the benefits are there, but that they’re actually… for a dollar spent…creating more benefits than other alternatives. And then, we took that idea and ran with it to donors and governments to help show them:  If this is a problem in your country–intestinal worms and low school attendance– then here is an approach to try to deal with that. And we’ve now seen over 100 million children dewormed through programs that we’ve coordinated. We’re very excited at the impact that this particular research has had on policy, and that our efforts in advocacy have had to help that bring that lesson to India and Kenya and other countries.

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Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save The Children, Meets Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Carolyn Miles, the President and CEO of Save The Children, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

CAROLYN-MILES-BIO-IMAGE-2011-SMALL2.JPGDenver: The work of international aid organizations has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, as we’ve reported here on The Business of Giving. There is greater concern about how the money is being spent, and whether we’re getting adequate returns for the size of the investments being made. But one organization that is universally acknowledged by both experts and the public as being among the very, very best at this kind of work is Save The Children. And it’s a great pleasure for me to welcome to The Business of Giving their President and CEO, Carolyn Miles. Good evening, Carolyn, and thanks for being here this evening.

Carolyn: Good evening, and thanks for having me.

Denver: My goodness, Save The Children is fast approaching its 100th anniversary, your centennial!  Tell us a little bit about the history of the organization and the current work in which you’re engaged.

Carolyn: Sure. Really interesting history. The organization, as you said, is almost 100 years old, 1919. So really came about after World War I and was started by a woman– her name was Eglantyne Jebb. She did not have the right to vote.  She did not have the right to own a bank account, but she had this idea that children actually had rights. And that is the foundation of the organization, and it’s very basic:  the right to survive, to have health, the right for an education, and the right to be protected from harm. And today, those are still the foundation bedrocks of the organization.

Denver: Well today, one of the greatest problems we have is the refugee crisis.  Often when you’re trying to bring greater attention to an issue… or to maybe get some new insights around it, it’s useful to reframe it and look at it through a new lens.   Save The Children has done exactly that by looking at all the refugees as if they were a single nation. What does that country look like, Carolyn?

Carolyn: We really did want to reframe this issue because Save The Children has been working on the refugee crisis and refugee crises around the world, by the way, for decades, and this particular one around Syria for five years, going on six. So, when we looked at this mythical country, we said: “What does it look like, particularly for children?” A couple of interesting things came out.  One is:  if we had all refugees, there are 65.3 million refugees and displaced people.

If they all lived in one place, we’d be the 21st largest country in the world. The really shocking thing when we look at this–to me–was that it is the fastest growing country in the world. So, every day– 34,000 people become displaced or become a refugee. If that growth continued, by 2030, this would be the 5th largest country in the world. That underlines this urgency that we have got to solve this issue for people– not only in the Middle East, not only from Syria, but from North Africa, from Afghanistan, from other places around the world where people are fleeing every single day.  And half of them are children.

Denver: So, and one of the youngest nations in the world as well.

Carolyn: It is one of the youngest nations in the world.  We also dug in, and we looked a little bit at some statistics around education. Sadly, it would be the 4th worst country in the world for primary education…so kids getting enrolled in primary school, elementary school. It would be very high on the scale in terms of child marriage.  That’s something that’s happening– a big issue for Save The Children–marrying girls off at age 14, 15.  And families are making that decision because they think it’s actually the best thing for their girls–to protect them from sexual violence, to give them some economic future.  This is not true; we know that girls that get married at 14 or 15 have much tougher lives going ahead.

Denver: What would the economy of that country look like?

Carolyn: So the economy… I always like to end on this note.  Here is the hopeful piece– that these refugees and displaced people have tremendous opportunities, and they are assets. And if we put them all together, they would actually make up the 54th largest country by GDP. This is the good story… and the story that we like to tell about refugees and displaced people.  They have tremendous skills, and Syria is a primary example–very skilled people who are fleeing Syria.

Denver: Well, at the end of this report which is entitled “Forced to Flee: Inside the 21st Largest Country,” you put forth an action plan which you called the “New Deal.”  You’re asking world leaders to embrace it. What is included in that New Deal?

Carolyn: We’re spending lots of time on pushing world leaders on this New Deal. Couple of things; one, it really focuses on education, and we believe that this is absolutely the future.  Half of the refugee children in the world– which is about 30 million– do not go to school at all. So, 50%, that’s 15 million children.

We can’t go forward with that. Our call is that every child should be in school within 30 days of being displaced. Now, this is hugely ambitious; it’s hugely difficult. We’re getting push-back all over the place.

But it does make people think differently about: if I was gonna do this, what would it take to actually do this? So we’re sticking to our guns.  It calls for more financing for education in emergency situations. About 1% of financing in emergencies goes to education. It’s considered a “luxury.”  We really are pushing on that. We’re obviously trying to change mindsets around refugees. Part of this New Deal is really attacking this issue of : “Refugees are dangerous; refugees are worthless; refugees and displaced people are just trying to get services, and they have nothing to give back!”… trying to really change that attitude. That’s part of the New Deal..

She said their life was just horrible!  Every day there were bombings. All they knew was terror; they cried all the time. They weren’t allowed to go out and play; they couldn’t go to school.  The 5-year-old never got a chance to go to preschool. And the mother said: “We just had to leave. We couldn’t sit there and watch the future for our children just slip away.”

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Henry DeSio, the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Henry DeSio, the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


henry-de-sio

Denver: The presidential campaign trail–no matter what side of the aisle you may be on– can be a microcosm of changes that will eventually take hold in the broader society. For instance: rapid response to events–never letting a news cycle pass without responding to a charge– started with political campaigns, and is now embedded in the DNA of most every corporation and organization. My next guest served as the Chief Operating Officer of Obama for America in 2008, did a stint in the White House as Deputy Assistant to the President, and is now helping young people navigate the new strategic landscape driven by rapid change. He is Henry DeSio, the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka. Good evening, Henry, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Henry: Thank you, Denver. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

I see social entrepreneurs as everyday citizens who are essentially society’s corrective force. They’re the people who see the gaps in our communities and work to position their leadership, bring their talents, and bring others around those problems… or potential opportunities that can have such a great impact in the world. They are everyday citizens who apply their leadership and their talent to make the world a better place.

Denver: One of my very first interviews on The Business of Giving was with Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka. He is, to many, the father of social entrepreneurship. So, let’s start by having you tell our listeners about Ashoka and its work.

Henry: Ashoka is best known for defining and building the field of social entrepreneurship over the last 40 years. Some people don’t know what a social entrepreneur is, so I’ll just very quickly explain. I see social entrepreneurs as everyday citizens who are essentially society’s corrective force. They’re the people who see the gaps in our communities and work to position their leadership, bring their talents, and bring others around those problems… or potential opportunities that can have such a great impact in the world. They are everyday citizens who apply their leadership and their talent to make the world a better place.

Denver: Before we get to your current work at Ashoka, let’s start with your career in politics. You got the bug, Henry, for politics by watching the Watergate hearings. So tell us how you went from watching Sam Ervin and Howard Baker to becoming the Chief Operating Officer of the Obama for America presidential campaign.

Henry: Well, I grew up in a very rural part of California in the foothills of Sequoia National Park, so you had everything available to you – tennis, baseball, hiking, all kinds of different activities. But in the middle of the day—this is, I guess, 1974—I remember coming in from the hot sun to watch my first reality TV show, and it was the Watergate hearings. And in those days, and particularly where I lived, you had a small black-and-white TV, and the White House just seemed so far away.

And in that moment, I saw  a government and a leadership fail in action, but I also saw a good result for the country. We worked through this; we got through this challenge. But it was in that moment, two of my passions came together. One was leadership, which my dad I think drilled into me, and the other was politics– and later, the political campaign.

I think those two passions seemed to stay with me throughout my life. I was always interested in citizen candidates. I wanted to see everyday citizens break into politics, so I started working on helping everyday people get the skills to build that startup organization that could lead to real change… and could actually unseat the other person. Eventually, that flowed into politics on a national scale… and eventually to joining the Obama campaign

Self-definition: giving yourself permission to solve problems; pursue opportunities; go after the things you’re passionate about; and then delivering on those things — those are all things that are at work in our daily lives.

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Jim Fruchterman, Founder and CEO of Benetech, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Jim Fruchterman, the CEO of Benetech and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

jim_fruchterman_portraitDenver: In the late 1990s, I remember quite vividly speaking to my colleagues in the nonprofit sector about the philanthropic potential out in Silicon Valley– from those making billions of dollars in what we now know as the internet bubble. And the response was pretty universal. “Everybody out there is so busy making money that no one is thinking about social good or giving any of it away.”  But that “everybody” did not include my next guest who was there, and was always thinking about how technology could be used to best serve humanity… long before it became fashionable or was considered the right thing to do. He is Jim Fruchterman; the founder and CEO of Benetech. Good evening, Jim, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Jim: Delighted to be here, Denver.

Denver: So many great enterprises start with the flash of insight. Yours occurred in the 1970s when you were a junior at Caltech, doing quite well in the coursework, but a little frustrated that you weren’t coming up with any original ideas. But then one day, in Modern Optics class, a light bulb went on. What was the idea that you came up with, Jim?

Jim: So, we were learning about optical pattern recognition– the idea of having a machine actually recognize something in the real world. And since it was the 1970s, and all the jobs were in the defense establishment, the example the professor used was “How to make a smart missile.” It would have a camera in the nose, and it would have in its memory a representation of a tank. The idea was: if you fired this missile, it would look around with its camera until it spotted a tank, zoom in, and blow it up–Boom! And I thought: “Gee, what if there’s a more socially beneficial application of this technology?” And then I had my one good idea  in college, which was: “Hey, instead of recognizing tanks in the battlefield, what if you could recognize letters and words, and read to blind people!”

Denver: Oh, wow!

Jim: So I kind of figured it out;  I  sketched out a design.  I ran to my professor next day. He said: “Well, Jim, it has been invented, and the National Security Agency uses it to process Soviet faxes… recognizes that, routes it to a human to read.” And I thought: “Wow, okay! So it costs millions of dollars each…not very practical.”. But it was that one idea that I kept with me as I continued with my career.

Denver: How did you pursue it?

Jim: Well, pretty much, my professor told me it wasn’t going to happen. And so I went on, went to Stanford, started a PhD program, started an entrepreneurship talk series.  The second speaker was the President of a private rocket company, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Denver: And you actually had the right answer to who his favorite science fiction writer was, right?

Jim: Yeah! And I didn’t even know that was the interview question.  But he’d come and given a talk; we had him over to a cafeteria and fed him a sumptuous dinner, and he asked: “Who was my favorite science author?”  And I said: “Paul Anderson.”  Bingo! I was hired. And so, anyway, I took a leave from the PhD program and joined one of the first private rocket companies.

Denver: And the rocket blew up, and you moved on.  You met a guy from HP who basically was able to take this idea pattern recognition and reading for the blind,  and Lo and Behold!  You started or became involved in a company that was going to build readable machines.

Jim: That’s right. His idea was to make a chip that could read anything, and I went: “Hey, that’s my one good idea from college!  You can help blind people with that!” Now, we didn’t sell it to the venture capitalist though based on the blindness application. We sold it on routing the mail and scanning in forms for insurance companies. But that idea of helping blind people was still in the back of my mind throughout years of getting this company off the ground.

Denver: And you got your venture capital, about $25 million worth, if I recall. But this idea didn’t really have much of a market potential for your investors. So what you did, if I understand correctly, is you spun it off into your own nonprofit organization?

Jim: That’s right. We actually pitched it to our board to actually be a product for our company–a new product. And when they heard it was a $1 million/year marketplace, they vetoed it on the spot. And so when I said: “Well, what if I start a side nonprofit and not distract the team?” They said that was no problem. So we actually started… the joke was a deliberately nonprofit Silicon Valley company because, of course, we all had been working for  accidentally nonprofit high tech companies.

The goal of Benetech is to develop tech solutions for communities in need…the kind of people that Silicon Valley would say: “We can’t make enough money off of human rights activists or disabled kids.

Denver: And so tell me how that company worked, what you did, and what you were able to do for people who were blind.

Jim: We went out there with the idea of making a reading machine for the blind.  We thought we’d have volunteer engineers in every city helping people get it. Turned out, we talked to blind people who said: “No, we can’t get jobs.” So we ended up making blind people our dealers and so they sold the reading machines, and they made a living.  We made enough to keep ourselves going. And it turned out that it was the only high tech company I have ever been associated with that exceeded its business plan. It was $5 million a year and slightly profitable within three years. But just a tiny bit of profit… because we weren’t in the business to make the money; we were in the business to keep it going.

Denver: And the price of the machine kept going down, but then the number of people who bought it kept going up… and you did this for about 10 years. And after about 10 years, you were a little tired of doing it, and wanted to broaden out some .  So, is it right that you actually sold your nonprofit company?

Jim: That’s right. Some guy came and said: “I want to buy your reading machine for the blind business, and I told him to go away… I was running a nonprofit. He came back three months later and said: “Jim, tell me your aspirations.”  I said “Oh!”  I’m a nerd… I didn’t recognize that that was a negotiating ploy. So I told him! I said: “I’ve got this idea for helping human rights groups, and I want to have other things for people with disabilities…” And so he said: “How about I pay you $5 million…” Not me personally, my nonprofit. …”and you and the engineers can stay in the nonprofit… and you can go off and basically do anything!” And so we did that. It was about this same time, the dot-com bubble popped. So, right as the bubble popped, we had $5 million…not for me personally… but it was a budget to do new things.  And that was a blast!

Denver: I bet it was. And this new nonprofit you started is Benetech.

Jim: That’s right. The nonprofit I run today.

Denver:  Tell me exactly what the mission and goals of Benetech are.

Jim: The goal of Benetech is to  develop tech solutions for communities in need…the kind of people that Silicon Valley would say: “We can’t make enough money off of human rights activists or disabled kids.” And so we build products, and our goal is that they be sustainable.  But again, we’re a charity; we’re not trying to make money; we’re just trying to break even. We keep spinning up new tech projects. When we started Benetech, we probably looked at… I’d say, 50 ideas, invested in 15 different ideas, and then 4 turned into world-changing social enterprises.  That’s our goal– to keep doing that. Be a factory for new tech applications that helps society, helps the other 95%.

It’s all about using information to advance the cause of human rights.

Denver: Well, let’s talk about one or two of those. One of them is around human rights, and it was inspired by something that came out about El Salvador in the 1990s… about an occurrence that took place in the 1980s. Tell us what that was, and how it informed you to begin to pursue human rights.

Jim: So,  there was a New Yorker article about the El Mozote massacre. It turned out that this massacre happened in the early 80s, hit the front page of the New York Times.  The US government, the Salvadoran government said it didn’t happen. The reporter was fired.  Then 10 years later, a forensics team– after the civil war was settled– went, excavated, and found more than 500 bodies in this location.

I went brainstorming with one of my long-term buddies, saying, “How can we defend peasants from being murdered en masse?” And we’re nerds; we said: “Gee, defensive force fields, if we could invent them. Oh, nuclear power plant per village, not very practical.” So we came away from that with the idea that information is the only asset that human rights groups have beyond their activists, right? How could we make sure that they wouldn’t lose the information, and they’d used it for advocacy.  And when we have a lot of stories, that’s data!  We can actually make a case for patterns; we can help convict former dictators. It’s all about using information to advance the cause of human rights.

Denver: So, essentially what you did is…  you built some software.  What’s it called, “Martus?”

Jim: Yeah. The magic technology is cryptography, right?  To scramble it so that repressive governments can’t read who’s testifying against a corrupt colonel… or whatever it might be. So the idea was encrypt it, scramble it,  so it can’t be read, back it up in the cloud (as it’s now called) so it doesn’t get lost, and then use it for current advocacy.

“Let me tell you a story… about someone…”  and more powerful data analysis. “Here’s one person’s story, but we have 10,000 women just like Maria.”  So you can’t attack Maria as being not representative of this pervasive problem of gender-based violence, or whatever it might be.

Denver: So, if information and truth are the only weapons that these populations have… until you came along, most of this information was really being lost. People would come; you’d write it down; you stick it into the computer.  But probably a number of years later, it was all… someplace… but not in front of you.

Jim: And we did market research, right? We actually figured out what they needed.  Yeah, we found out that… our estimate was 95% of the stories that went into a human rights group weren’t there five years later. And they never got used for advocacy, for justice.  Sometimes it was because the government shut them down; sometimes it’s because their office is burned; their computers got stolen. But a lot of times, they ran out of money. There was one group in Sri Lanka where five years of files were eaten by termites, and that just annoyed me. I know about scanning documents!  We could do something about that! So,let’s make sure it’s not lost, and every story should be a tool for advocacy, for justice.

“The idea is that we’re making David more powerful in his battle… or her battle, with Goliath.”

Denver: One of the places you’ve done an awful lot of work over the past decade or so has been Burma. Tell us what you’ve done there.

Jim: A dozen Burmese groups got together about 10 years ago and said: “We all represent different segments of the Burmese community: women’s groups, different minority groups, different political groups.  But they all agreed that the military government in Burma was committing human rights violations. So, over a lengthy period of time, these group members collected more than 30,000 stories.

After a while, they trusted us more.  We found an analyst and said: “What are the most common human rights abuses going on in Burma?” Out of these 30,000 stories, the most common ones were torture, land confiscation and forced labor. And so now, there’s a new government in Burma; the human rights movement now has the stories in the last 10 years; they’ve got the patterns of abuses and now they could be advocating: How do we reform the police forces so that they don’t abuse ethnic minorities? A problem in Burma, and maybe a few other countries…

Denver: Another place you’ve done an awful lot of work in human rights has been in Africa, particularly in the LGBT community. Tell us what you’ve been doing in Uganda.

Jim: So we actually are helping the LGBT movement in Africa, Uganda being one of the countries. Document that human rights abuses are going on. So they’re now starting to issue national reports of how police forces beat up lesbian and gay people. And now they’re actually using that to advocate for change. Sometimes they make change in their own country; sometimes they have to go through a UN process. But the idea is that we’re making David more powerful in his battle… or her battle, with Goliath.

Denver: Yeah. And in relation to these stories, in this particular case, you’re also keeping offsite membership lists, correct?

Jim: We didn’t expect that.  We went there to do human rights documentation, but then we heard from people that they were actually backing up their membership lists. As a matter of fact, we had a phone call last year…we’re checking in with one of our groups… and they said: “Oh, we’re in the backyard!”

   “What are you doing?”

“We’re burning all of our documents!”

  “What?!”

They had actually scanned and backed up all their documents into our secure cloud, and  they were burning them because they were expecting a police raid. They didn’t want to have any records on hand in case the police found them.

Denver: Very smart. Are there any places in the world where your software– which is open source, and is free– is being used in human rights abuse cases, and is not really getting the kind of coverage or attention that it really warrants?  Instances where it is under the radar right now?

Jim: We are hearing about a lot of human rights abuses against people with disabilities. Sexual violence against women with disabilities, people in prison without any chance of getting out…

Denver: This across the world or in any particular places?

Jim: We think it’s across the world, but we’re talking to groups in Latin America, Asia, Africa. I mean, there are people in Africa where you’re chained to a log for a year, right? And that’s not very human rights respecting!

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Dr. Larry Brilliant Discusses His Latest Book, Sometimes Brilliant

Larry Brilliant has had a career that lives up to his name. In the 1970s, he played a key role in work in Bangladesh and India to eradicate smallpox, personally witnessing the end of “an unbroken chain of transmission that went back to Pharaoh Ramses.” He then co-founded the Seva Foundation, which helps prevent and treat blindness in the developing world. He was the first director of tech philanthropy Google.org, and today he chairs the Skoll Global Threats Fund, tackling issues such as climate change and water security that, like smallpox before them, pose an existential danger to enormous swaths of humanity.

In his new memoir, Sometimes Brilliant, the physician and philanthropist details that remarkable journey, from his youth in Detroit and early medical career, through immersion in the ‘60s counterculture and Eastern philosophy, to his work today with tech moguls like eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll to achieve social change on a truly massive scale. In this edition of the Business of Giving, Dr. Brilliant walks us through some of his adventures as a civil-rights marcher, radical hippie doctor, meditating mystic, and groundbreaker in global health and Silicon Valley giving.

The following is a conversation between Dr. Larry Brilliant, author  of Sometimes Brilliant, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Denver: Back in July, Dr. Larry Brilliant joined us to discuss the launch of an HBO movie he had produced called Open Your Eyes, a compelling story of a husband and wife in Nepal whose sight is restored as result of the work of the Seva  Foundation founded by Dr. Brilliant and his wife. Well, he’s been good enough to come back and join us again… this time to discuss his memoir that will be released on Tuesday and aptly entitled Sometimes Brilliant. Good evening, Larry, and welcome back to The Business of Giving.

Larry: Nice to see you again, Denver. Thank you.

Denver: You have had a most remarkable life, so much so, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I think I’ll start with you sitting in Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan campus on November 5, 1962… listening to a speech. Tell us about that day and the impact that it had on you.

Larry: I think everybody who’s gone to college remembers the sophomore year. It’s a tough year, anyway. And for me, it was tougher because my dad was dying of cancer.  As it would turn out, my dad and my grandfather both died inside of five days.

So, it was a tough time, and I had no inner resources to deal with that. I sort of locked myself up in my room in South Quad in Ann Arbor, and I think I was gobbling down burnt peanuts and reading Superman. That was my high and exalted way of dealing with depression. And I saw a little note in the college newspaper “The Michigan Daily” that said  Martin Luther King was going to be on campus. Nobody really knew who Martin Luther King was. He hadn’t yet given his speech “I Have a Dream.” He didn’t yet have his Nobel Prize. The world outside was filled with the Cuban missile standoff. Bob Dylan was singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

It was a pretty complicated moment. It was raining and miserable weather, but somehow I took my sophomore ass out of the dorm and wandered into the auditorium.  And hardly anybody came. This huge auditorium that holds 3,000 people, it was hardly half-filled, or even less. The President was embarrassed, introduced Martin Luther King, and he looked out.  Instead of feeling bad, he laughed. He just laughed. And he said, “You all come on up here and sit on the stage; there will be more of me to go around.” And not everybody went up on stage…it kind of crowded the stage, and we all listened to him. And it was not like anything I had ever heard before. I had never heard someone talk about brotherhood. I had never heard anyone say, “We are all God’s children. We’re all in it together.” I had never heard anybody say that there’s a great movement for justice. I had never heard anyone say that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but you and I have got to jump up and help bend it.” I had never heard anybody say, “Join me, and make the world a better place.” He said things that opened up a space for me — a depressed, wonky, kind of pimple-faced kid — something I could do. I could kind of crawl out of my depression, and it wouldn’t all just be about me and the pain that I felt. And, of course, everybody that was on stage with him that day… that was in the auditorium, just began to march. Most went down that summer to Mississippi. Many had encounters that would change their lives. I stayed home with my dad because he was sick, but shortly afterwards I was marching in Chicago.

Denver: Got arrested, right?

Larry: Well, when I went to medical school and had a white coat on, the Medical Committee for Human Rights said, “Come on down to Chicago. Martin Luther King is going to make his march to the city. We want people wearing white coats with their stethoscopes dangling ostentatiously to form a cordon to protect him.”  I marched with Martin Luther King. We were all arrested together. And here’s a little secret: If you are ever going to be arrested — I tell my children — for a good cause, and there are some good causes, get arrested with 200, 300, 400, 500 of your best friends because then they put you in “pretend jail.” And you’re “pretend arrested.” And you can bring a guitar.

Denver: That’s great advice.

Larry: The cops were wonderful. This was not the kind of scene you think of when being arrested. They had to arrest us because we were blocking traffic. We had to go into Grant Park. They had to build a pretend jail, and Martin Luther King was there, and he just kept talking to us. I can’t remember the number of times I marched with him, but it certainly became the organizing principle of my life — the Civil Rights Movement, the movement against the war in Vietnam, and the movement itself. Because as it led into the ‘60s and the ‘70s, my generation, we thought we sensed that right around the corner was a better world… a world that had room for all of us, a room where black or white or male or female or tall or short or old or young… that we were all allowed into this great dream called America. And that was the magic that led to Haight Ashbury and the counterculture… and all rest of it.

Denver: And all the rest of it. Well, that day did have a profound influence on your life. As you noted, you became a doctor, I think, in part  because your father had cancer.  I know you had your own bout with it as well. So I’m going to move to the part of the book which really reads like fiction– not great fiction… because it’s almost too preposterous!  We’re going to start in 1969 at the infamous Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay, and it’s going to end in Bhola Island in Bangladesh in 1977. Take us on that extraordinary journey.

Larry: I was in pretend jail in Chicago. It was a real jail in Alcatraz, but I wasn’t a prisoner. I was finishing up my internship at what was then called Presbyterian Hospital; now, it’s called Pacific Medical Center.The treaties that the Indians had with United States of America were breached more often than they were upheld. But there was one treaty called the Laramie Treaty that said that if any land– having been taken from Indians, any federal land having been taken from Indians– is declared surplus, it must first be returned or offered to be returned to the Indians from whom it was taken. It seemed like a fair deal.

Alcatraz was Indian land, and it was seized and turned into a prison, and then the prison was closed in the early ‘60’s. And when the prison was closed, a number of Indians invoked the Laramie Treaty and said, “Give it back!” And the government didn’t want to do that. So, one night, undercover, several dozen young Indians from many different tribes — the Mohawk Indian Richard Oakes was leading, and a Lakota Sioux Indian named John Trudell was later one of the leaders — they occupied Alcatraz before the name “occupy” had much meaning. And they took over, and they would stay on the island for 18 months.  That became a big social drama. Every day in the newspapers and on TV shows in San Francisco, there would be interviews with the Coast Guard, who were ordered to put a ring around it and embargo and quarantine the island.  And somehow there’d be an interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie, who would fly out there, or Joan Baez who would go out there; The Grateful Dead would do a concert on Alcatraz. And they did a scorecard, and they asked people in San Francisco Bay, “Who do you want to vote for?” They loved the Coast Guard… I mean, we do love the Coast Guard of San Francisco. But it was 90/10 for Indians over the Coast Guard.

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Brad Smith, President and CEO of Foundation Center, Joins Denver Frederick

In this interview, Brad Smith, the President and CEO of Foundation Center, describes the next frontier of philanthropy: managing information, and producing and sharing knowledge.  The Foundation Center is a global data platform for philanthropy, equipping donors with the knowledge they need to be strategic in their giving & providing transparency to the philanthropic sector.

The following is a conversation between Bradford K. Smith, President and CEO of Foundation Center, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

bradford-k-smith_personfullDenver: The rate of change is increasing in every field of endeavor, including philanthropy. And in order to be a true leader in the field, a person can’t be 100% consumed with just the well-being and state of their own organization; one also must leave some space and time to contemplate what all these changes mean for the entire sector. One individual that fits that description perfectly is my next guest… He is Bradford K. Smith, the President and CEO of the Foundation Center. Good evening, Brad, and welcome back to The Business of Giving.

Brad: It’s great to be back here.

Denver: For those listeners that are not familiar with the Foundation Center, tell us about the work that you do.

Brad: Great. I think the easiest way to understand us is:  what Bloomberg does for the financial markets, we do for philanthropy!  Basically, we publish data and information about the transaction of philanthropy. In other words, these endowed foundations that make grants to support organizations in the social sector to make the world a better place…We track all that information. We put it out there in an unbiased way so that you can search it; you can find it; you can understand who’s funding your cause, who’s not funding your cause, what foundations are doing, and what they’re not doing.

Denver: Let’s talk about foundations for a moment. When we look at philanthropy in the US, last year about $375 Billion was made in contributions. What percentage of that comes from foundations?

Brad: It’s roughly 16 – 17%,  and this is a common misunderstanding. A lot of people look at nonprofits in America, and they assume that their larger supporters are wealthy foundations and maybe individuals, but the largest source of income for American nonprofits in the aggregate is actually government. Foundation money is very important because it’s one of the few sources of income that nonprofits have that usually is not earmarked; it’s very flexible.

Denver: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about that. I think foundations are pretty abstract to most people. It’s kind of a big idea out there, and I think you have a wonderful way of explaining it by talking about the sources of influence that they hold.  There are three of them,  and let’s pick up on each.   I’m going to start with the one you just mentioned. The one that is obvious to everybody: money, but as you say it’s a very special kind of money, right?

Brad: Correct! Foundations have a really important role in American history and American society. Basically, our government has created a kind of social pact in which wealthy individuals are given a tax incentive for creating a charitable foundation. They make a donation of a portion of their assets to the foundation. They no longer control those assets. They can’t take them back for personal use. They get a tax exemption in exchange for creating a stream of charitable giving in the future. Now, there are a lot of ways to look at the size of the philanthropic sector in the US. There are a lot of foundations. I  know when the Foundation Center was created in 1956, there weren’t near as many. In fact, when the Foundation Center published the first print directory of American foundations, there were about 4,000 foundations. Today there are well over 80,000 foundations…about 87,000 to 88,000. And the assets they manage–their investments–surpassed $800 Billion. And it’s the earnings on those investments which are tax-free, that are used to actually fund grants and fulfill their charitable purpose.

Denver: Right. The second source of influence that foundations have is “convening power.”

Brad: Well, there are not a whole lot of people in this world whose job is to give away money. And people always were sort of perplexed about that. They said: “Gosh, how do you find the organizations to be worthy of getting the support of the foundation?” And I used to tell them: “Look, when you are in the business of giving away money, you don’t have to go looking for people; they find you.” So, one of the things that gives a foundation virtually a seat at any table is the fact that they’re giving away money.

And the other thing is, they’re giving away money which, unlike congressional money or city money, isn’t earmarked by elected officials for their pet causes. It’s very flexible, long-term, risk-taking money.  But this also gives them the ability to “convene.”  And we find that the foundations that are having the greatest impact on the issues that are working– whether it be criminal justice, or climate change, or job creation–are not just giving away grants in a retail kind of way. They’re actually creating tables to which policy makers, academics, activists, and others can come, and really think about what the long-term solutions are to these serious problems that our society and world face.

I think the next frontier for philanthropy is going to be managing information, and producing and sharing knowledge.

 

Denver: And it would seem in an era of collaboration, they do have that special role to be able to do that. They don’t have a dog in the fight; they’re neutral…

Brad: Correct.

Denver: They give money away, and they have an incredible ability to get everybody to come when they call a meeting.

Brad: Yeah. When I worked with the Ford Foundation, the two jokes they always tell you when you start to work there is that all your phone calls get returned. And immediately, it seems like all of your ideas are brilliant.

Denver: That’s right, and you also become a little funnier and better looking too.

Brad: That’s right, yes, of course. Two of the perks.

Denver: And finally, and this is so important:  the accumulated knowledge that foundations hold.  Speak to that.

Brad: I think this is really the frontier for foundations. Roughly, I think we can say that… and I know you’ve had a lot of speakers come on this program… foundations have moved from the notion of just giving away money… a charity approach… to what a lot people call social investment. The idea that even though you’re making a grant, you’re investing in a solution, and you’re expecting return in the form of impact.

But another way to look at foundations is–I gave a presentation on this recently–and I said: “When it comes to knowledge and information, foundations are like black holes, and they need to become supernovas.”

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Caryl Stern of Unicef Joins Denver Frederick

Caryl Stern says that when she became CEO of the U.S. Fund for Unicef, she replaced its hierarchical “pyramid” leadership structure with “a series of circles” built on teamwork and feedback.  She also details the charity’s wearable-tech venture, Unicef Kid Power, and some of the special relationships it has forged in the business world, and talks about combating donors’ “disaster fatigue.”

The following is a conversation between Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

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Ms. Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF

Denver: There are leaders of major international aid organizations that possess all the skills and talents and managerial capabilities to successfully lead their organization in its life changing work. But there are only a few who not only possess those traits but just  strike you as having been born for the job. Caryl Stern, the President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF happens to be one those people, and she’s with us now. Good evening, Caryl, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Caryl: Thanks! Nice to be here.

Denver: Let’s begin by having you tell us the mission and goals of the US Fund for UNICEF.  And what exactly is the nature of the relationship between the US Fund and  UNICEF?

Caryl: Sure! Well, UNICEF International is the organization that does really whatever it takes to save a child anywhere in the world. Working in 190 countries, 12,000 boots on the ground, under the phenomenal leadership of the Executive Director, Tony Lake. Underneath that, independent of it, there are 34 organizations around the world that enable that work.  I have the privilege to run the US arm of that– the US Fund for UNICEF. We are a 501(c)(3) located in New York City, and we have a tripartite mission. First and foremost, we raise money; it is our job to raise the dollars to help to make UNICEF’s work possible. Secondly, we are the voice of children from around the globe here in the US.  So, a part of my job is to go and bear witness to what’s going on around the globe and come back and talk about it. And then the third part, hopefully, is to raise a generation here in the United States that will do a better job than we have done thus far of saving, protecting and insuring that the the world’s children thrive.

Denver: That’s a great mission. Let’s talk about the current state of the world for a moment.  Perhaps you could do that through the lens of the three emergency levels that the UN uses to classify a crisis. What is the look these days?

Caryl: The UN does classify emergencies.  Obviously, not every emergency rises to the same necessity of response.  So, there’s a level 1, a level 2, and level 3 is the highest level of emergency. And up until about a year and a half ago, on occasion, you’d have one or two level 3s at the same time.  Currently there are five and unfortunately for those who respond… and not just UNICEF…all of the UN agencies that respond, the other NGOs..these are not either/ors.  You can’t say: “Okay, we’ll fund what’s happening in Syria right now instead of funding the response to Ebola, or the response currently to Zika.” They have to be “ands”; you’ve got to figure out how you are going respond to this, and this, and this, and this and this. Its an “and,” and an “and,” and an “and,” right now.

Denver: One of those level 3s is the refugee crisis.  Matthew Bishop of The Economist was on the show earlier this year, and we were talking about Davos.  He said it was the Number 1  topic of conversation there. And I said: “Well, is anybody talking about a potential solution?” He said: “No.”  You have been the leading voice and a strong advocate for the children caught in the middle of this unprecedented crisis. Is the world getting any closer to figuring out how we can handle this?

Caryl: I don’t think so. I think we are responding better, not solving better. Unfortunately, there are more children on the move right now, unaccompanied and accompanied, but more children on the move right now than in any period since World War II.

Denver: That’s remarkable!

Caryl: Really, it is remarkable. And we don’t get to pick where we’re born,  and surely wouldn’t pick poverty or a conflict zone if we had a choice. And the children on the move are really victims of the politics of adults.  These are not the choices they’re making that are forcing them to leave the home they’re familiar with, the community they’re familiar with, the practices and rites and rituals they’re familiar with.  To usually walk, not drive, great lengths for many days in the hopes of finding better space. And we are definitely not equipped around the world to treat the children as children when they arrive on those shores.

Denver: I bet. There have been a lot of recent stories, Caryl, around disaster aid.  Some of them haven’t  been been all that good. Supplies not getting through… and millions and millions of dollars being spent, and not much to show for it. But UNICEF operations are quite distinct from many of the others. Tell us how you’re unique in this regard.

Caryl: UNICEF International is responsible for the supply chain.  Frankly, there’s a huge warehouse. The primary warehouse is located in Copenhagen, and it was a gift of the government there to give us the space,  and it operates there. But there are also a series of pre-positioned supplies and warehouses around the world.  The reason that’s really critical is — you take what happened in Myanmar in Burma. While the world waited to see if planes were going to be allowed to land there when the crisis hit, we had a warehouse there; we had supplies there, and people went right to work.

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Jacob Harold, President and CEO of GuideStar, Joins Denver Frederick

GuideStar is the largest platform of information about data for nonprofits.  In this segment, Jacob Harold, President and CEO of GuideStar, talks about how both individual donors and nonprofit executives leverage the data that GuideStar curates.  He also discusses the danger of “short-termism”– of thinking everything happens on a quarterly basis. He explains that if you’re trying to build a great company, it takes years or decades… and the same is true for social change.

The following is conversation between Jacob Harold, President and CEO of GuideStar, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving, on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


135d0bbDenver: It is a bit ironic that at a time when we have more information and data than at any other time in human history, our ability to predict the future and to make sound decisions has never been less. And one reason for that may be because not enough people are thinking about how to make this data accessible, meaningful, and truly useful. That is why the nonprofit sector is so fortunate to have someone like Jacob Harold, the President and CEO of GuideStar…who just happens to be with us now. Good evening, Jacob, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Jacob: I’m thrilled to be here, Denver.

Denver: Some listeners may never have heard of GuideStar. For those who have, they may be thinking: “Oh, Yeah, Yeah. The 990 tax form people.” So, let’s start by having you tell us what GuideStar is, and what you do.

Jacob: You bet!  GuideStar is the largest platform of information about data for nonprofits. And let’s just start by saying:  Why do we even care about having data about nonprofits?  And for me, it’s to address what I call “the elephant in the philanthropic room,” which is simply that some nonprofits are better than others.  Some are able to squeeze more good out of the dollars that they spend. It’s not necessarily that those that are not as effective are bad people, but they haven’t figured out the most effective way to do good in the world.

So the challenge that donors face and that nonprofit executives face…and researchers and government officials… is trying to find excellence in the field, to learn from it… to make sure it gets the resources it needs. And so GuideStar’s mission is to help in that process: to provide the kind of information so that the “stakeholders of social change”–the people who have a stake in the work of the nonprofit sector–are able to make good decisions with their time, and with their money,  and with their attention, with their passion. So, we provide data. And historically that’s mostly been, as you said, from the IRS Form 990, the tax form that most nonprofits are required to file. But we realize that that’s a very powerful foundation of data, but none of us would tell our own story through our 1040. And  we need to supplement that with other kinds of information to tell a richer story about nonprofits. And so that’s what we’re really trying to do at GuideStar right now.  And we’re having some success; we have about 7 million people each year who use GuideStar.


I had a chance to work for a whole set of different environmental organizations: Green Corps, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network. And I got to know dozens of others. And it became very clear to me in my early 20s that some of these organizations were simply far more effective. And it led me to a question: ‘Well, okay, how are we going to tackle a great challenge like climate change if we’re not sending money to where it can be most effective?’


 

Denver: That’s right. And you really get into the inner workings of all this data and how the whole philanthropic system works. Where did that come from? What kind of background did you have that instilled this into your DNA?

Jacob: In some ways, it came from the dining room table at the house I grew up in. Both of my parents worked for small community-based nonprofits. My mom worked at an AIDS hospice. My dad worked for Catholic Social Services, providing services to the poorest of the poor in our community. And so over the dining room table, I would hear about the struggles faced by those people who are devoting their lives to try and make the world better.  And these were my parents!

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Robert Egger, Founder of LA Kitchen, Joins Denver Frederick

The founder of LA Kitchen and the DC Central Kitchen, Robert Egger, discusses his initial idea to teach homeless men and women basic cooking skills, and how that idea has blossomed into a program with huge impact— from training unemployed adults for culinary careers, to reclaiming healthy, local food that would otherwise be discarded.


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The following is conversation between Robert Egger, Founder and President of LA Kitchen, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving, on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

Denver: There are not many founders who would build a world class social enterprise, then one day leave it all behind, move 3,000 miles across the country, and start up another one. But my next guest is not your typical founder; he is Robert Egger, the Founder of the DC Central Kitchen, and now the President and CEO of LA Kitchen. Good evening, Robert, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Robert: Thanks. It’s a real pleasure to be on.

Denver: Well, from the time you were a kid, you wanted to be Rick in Casablanca, the character played by Humphrey Bogart, open a night club, and change the world through music. But instead, you started the DC Central Kitchen in Washington. So you pivoted, Robert–long before anybody ever heard that word…outside of a few basketball coaches. Tell us how this came to pass.

Robert: Well, I was, as you suggested, a night club guy. I really dreamed–since I was very young– and wanted to be part of the social movements that I grew up watching in the 1960s. I wanted to be part of something, to contribute. As you suggested, man, I thought music was the vehicle, and I still believe it has power.  But I just ended up like a lot of people in the late 1980s.  The issue of homelessness became so “in-your-face” in DC,  but also in every city. I thought  I had to go out and do something. So one night I went out innocently  to serve people on the streets of Washington and encountered the kind of charity model–which is sadly and often times wrapped up in a kind of redemption for the giver, versus the liberation of the receiver. In short, I was serving food that was purchased at the grocery store to people who were standing outside in the rain.

And so I innocently proposed an idea that eventually became the DC Central Kitchen, mainly because all the groups I went to– to try and give it to them– liked everything the way it was. That’s been a benchmark of my career. It’s that sense of: “what we’re doing is great, but it could be better! Let’s always be open to trying something new.”


I also proposed the cooking program, that in effect said: Let’s teach homeless men and women basic cooking skills… and I don’t mean people right off the street. But, let’s try and be part of a system that would start to create an exit door. And restaurants could donate food. Then they could also help teach, and would have access to entry-level people who could help them make money! Everybody would win something!  That was where it started– this idea of quid pro quo.


Denver: Well, tell us a little bit about the DC Central Kitchen: what your business model was there; where you sourced your food; who you hired;  and what you were able to achieve.

Robert: OK. The first time I went out, I purchased food from a grocery store, served the people outside in the rain. So I said: “Hey, look: restaurants, hotels, hospitals, universities throw away a ton of food every night.” And they hate throwing away food; they just don’t want to be sued. So, if you could find a safe, healthy way to get that food…boy, you could serve more people…better food, for less money.

Denver: Yes.

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