A Fresh Take on Philanthropy and Aid

July 11th, 20094:58 pm @

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A Fresh Take on Philanthropy and Aid

“Julius Okutu Astiva runs a adult education center in Vihiga, Kenya. He teaches people who haven’t been afforded the opportunities of education growing up, often due to financial constraints. He teaches a large group of young and older women practical skills such as sewing and farming, as well as the formal essentials such as reading. He runs a small garden that he uses hone new techniques in agriculture then spreads the information throughout the community of farmers. He also has plans to expand into carpentry to attract more young males; men won’t learn sewing. His resources are incredibly limited. But the work he does is vital to his community,” explained Jason Higbee, founder and executive director of Covalent Global Capital.

Covalent is a start-up social venture that serves a number of purposes. It’s a center for American donors to learn about philanthropy, aid, and Africa. It’s a place for grantmaking to African-run charities. It’s an information resource for charities in Africa. It brings organizations like Julius Okutu Astiva’s adult education center tools and funding that help them serve their community, and shares information with American donors that makes their grantmaking more effective. Covalent holds a pretty unique position in the world of philanthropy and aid; rather than deciding who gets funding and who doesn’t, they see their role as an intermediary. They collect information and share it with potential donors, and enable donors to make informed decisions.

“The important part is to just do it”

Jason started Covalent after traveling to Kenya, where he witnessed post-election violence and its effects on society. He saw thousands of Kenyans displaced from their homes by violence. He witnessed a man being beaten over a debt of about 30 dollars. Jason met with community organizers and charities – over 350 of them – while he was in Kenya. Kenyan community organizations were providing the support that no one else was, at a time when it was most needed. They were educating people, organizing them, encouraging them to be entrepreneurs and community leaders. But many of them had little to no support. Jason had been preparing to go to business school at the time, and as he explains “what I found was that the people I admired most were those that took the biggest risks and often didn’t follow the traditional route to business school. On whole it seemed they were more successful and accomplished, irrespective of whether their big risk paid off, compared to their counterparts. This showed me that the important part is to just do it.” So he just did it. He started working to figure out how to help these organizations share information, get information, and gain access to funds from American donors. And started looking for people to help him do it.

Jason brought Greg Snyders and Paul Allen into the project early on. The three have worked as a team to develop a network of community organizations in Africa, meet with philanthropy and aid experts in America, expand Covalent’s web presence, and design and build new technologies. Their next year will be focused on fundraising, expanding their governing board, and building the technologies and systems they will use to share information and facilitate grantmaking as the organization grows.

One of Covalent’s new technologies, called PamojaConnect allows people in Africa to connect online and reach social networks, including Twitter, from their mobile phone via text messages. Using this system, charity groups across rural villages, urban slums and remote areas without internet connections can can communicate, share information, and seek information from other users. Covalent plans to continue expanding PamojaConnect, creating a better user experience and adding new functionality like voice messages.

Changing giving

As I’ve learned more about Covalent, one thing that has become apparent is that the organization doesn’t assume to have all the answers. Instead they act as facilitators, as resources for their networks of American donors and Kenyan charities.

They don’t tell donors who to fund. Instead, they see the donors they work with as a university class, composed of many independent decision-makers. They explain that “diverse opinions and critical perspectives are not washed away through aggregation or organizational group think. Rather, Covalent Global and its donor-base are dynamic, renewing itself every spring and fall with each new class.” Covalent seeks to build and maintain a network of alumni who can share experiences with new donors. In a way, Covalent aims to create a community of American donors who collaborate, share information, and carry on a much-needed conversation on what kind of aid and philanthropy is actually effective – essentially changing the way American donors approach international giving.

Covalent does not tell community organizations in Africa how to run either. As Jason puts it, “I will not tell them what they have done wrong. I will not tell them what they need to do. I don’t have the solution to improve their lives, their communities, their country. They do. I am here to see that they have the opportunity to improve society from within, with their own solutions.” In a philanthropy and aid industry dominated by developed-world organizations that dictate how developing-world organizations and institutions should look, this is a refreshing point of view. It respects the ability of community organizations to create the solutions that work, and sends a clear signal to American donors to do the same.

This openness, this trust that Julius Okutu Astiva has a good sense of what his community needs, and how to create it, lies at the heart of Covalent’s mission. Given the right tools and resources, community organizations like his may have a chance to create real change.

To learn more about Covalent Global Capital, please check out their website.
(Photo of Julius Okutu Astiva provided by Jason Higbee)