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Microsoft veterans aim to make philanthropy more personal

Resource type: News

The Seattle Times |

By Kristi Heim, Seattle Times business reporter

Microsoft veterans are launching two Seattle nonprofits aimed at encouraging a new generation of philanthropists by using mobile phones, social networking and online connections between donors and people in need.

Each started by asking the same question: How could they involve more people, particularly the younger and less affluent, in philanthropy?

They eventually came to the same conclusion: More people would donate if they saw the difference even a small amount of money could make in another person’s life.

“If they can actually see the impact of a $17 gift on a human life somewhere around the world, I believe that will open up the floodgates of hundreds of millions of micro-donors impacting the hundreds of millions of needy people around the world,” said Scott Oki, a retired Microsoft executive and philanthropist for nearly two decades.

Oki and software entrepreneur Digvijay Chauhan started SeeYourImpact, a micro-charity portal that connects donors to causes and uses mobile phones to capture photos and videos from the field, showing how the donation is working.

Adnan Mahmud, a program manager at Microsoft Research, started the Jolkona Foundation with his wife, Nadia Khawaja, a University of Washington graduate student.

In the Bengali language, Jolkona means a drop of water. The site offers ways to invest in projects around the world, share with friends and see “proof of their impact.”

Both SeeYourImpact and Jolkona are tapping into a generation that demands more control of their philanthropy. A generation accustomed to connecting around the world through Facebook now wants a face and a direct connection to someone they’re helping.

Technology is “democratizing” philanthropy by giving people quick access to information about the issues and tools to take action, said Trevor Neilson, president of the Seattle advisory firm Global Philanthropy Group.

Everyone can do it

“Just a few years ago philanthropy was really seen as something that rich people do for poor people,” he said. “The trend we’re seeing now is that everyone can be philanthropic, and can organize themselves around issues they care about.”

Oki has founded 16 nonprofits and served on about 100 boards in two decades. Yet, even with charities he knows well, something was missing. “How often have we seen our dollars at work impacting a human life?” he asked. “The answer is not very often.”

Oki and his wife, Laurie, are longtime supporters of Seattle Children’s hospital.

“Every time we had the occasion to visit the IC unit at a hospital to see the work these doctors are doing saving lives,” Oki said, “it hits you at an emotional level to see the impact.”

SeeYourImpact plans to work with nongovernmental organizations around the world, where workers using cellphones can take a picture from the field and upload it to the Web site. They can show the delivery of a $10 mosquito net, for example, or a person who is unable to walk getting around on a hand-powered tricycle.

The site is launching in India in October. Oki said Microsoft is helping him develop the technology platform.

Chauhan and Oki first met when Oki invested in Chauhan’s startup,, a person-to-person Q&A site. Chauhan said Oki has been an inspirational figure for him since then.

“Just like any other immigrant from the developing world, I have been blessed to experience umpteen inspirational human stories of the impact of a helping hand in the life of courageous people fighting extreme odds,” said Chauhan, a native of India.

The two men believe providing ground-level evidence of positive change will encourage many more people to get involved.

“There aren’t as many people who can write seven-digit checks,” Oki said. “Many more can write two-digit checks.”

Mahmud’s inspiration came after a trip to Bangladesh, where he witnessed a man burying his 7-year-old son. Traditions call for wrapping the body in clean, white linen, but the man clearly didn’t have money for that.

“There were vendors selling cloth for 50 cents or a dollar,” Mahmud said. “I could have helped him, but by the time I came to the realization I was already back home.”

Jolkona launched its Web site this month. Similar to Kiva and Global Giving, sites that allow people to give small targeted donations or loans, Jolkona lets people channel funds to specific individuals and causes. The nonprofit also gives them new tools for monitoring their impact.

Mahmud said he was put off by large conventional charities because it was hard to choose specific programs or know exactly how contributions were used.

“Black hole”

“It goes into this black hole,” he said. “I don’t know what happens to it.”

Donors can pinpoint countries where they want to contribute and choose from five categories: cultural identity, education, empowerment, environment and public health. Projects can be filtered by the amount of dollars needed, going down to as little as $5, and the duration, from less than a month to six years.

The site also offers what it calls “tangible proofs for every gift.”

“If you give $50 to buy library books,” Mahmud said, “you’ll actually know what books they bought with your donation.”

A person’s donations are broken into charts and graphs that look as detailed as a 401(k) portfolio. Mahmud calls it “a résumé of good.”

He opens up his account and sees an update on a project he’s been supporting in India, helping a pregnant woman in a Calcutta slum.

“Look, on the 20th she had her baby,” he said. “Adopting” a mother and her baby costs $235, and donors can follow their progress for 3-½ years.

Mahmud and his wife have funded the nonprofit themselves, with help from volunteers and one paid software developer. They have found 19 partners and 39 projects.

Since all donations go to the charities, they created a separate button for donations to offset operating costs.

Connections important

These new efforts share similarities to long-standing child sponsorships from organizations such as Save the Children or Federal Way-based World Vision that let donors get photos and even correspond directly with the child they support.

But Jolkona and SeeYourImpact offer a wider range of projects and online tools to keep track of their donation.

Matthew Nelson, assistant vice president at the Council on Foundations, says the philanthropy world in general is embracing new Web tools and different models to engage younger donors.

The economic downturn creates pressure to innovate, and technologies are becoming easier to use and more affordable.

“Visually it’s a powerful marketing message and a great way to make a connection between donor and recipient,” he said.

But he said he’s cautious about the ability of these sites to measure impact.

“Impact has a much deeper meaning, and that is something traditional philanthropy has continued to home in on, measuring in a more holistic sense. Did the bicycle get ridden? Did the well provide water a year later? Did you actually change their lives?” he said.

“One is not good without the other.”

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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