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Stanford Grads Lead Building of Hospital in India

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(Excerpt from Giving Back)

Stanford Grads Lead Building of Hospital in India

Five twenty-something Stanford alumni, united by their student volunteering experience in India over the course of a decade, hatched a plan to help meet one of the key needs for the Indian state of Jharkhand: local medical care. Nearly one hundred thousand villagers have to travel three hours or more to get to the hospital at the state capital. Building a local health center would provide timely care that could save lives and double as a community center for health-education programs. Despite their busy professional lives and living spread out across the United States, the cofounders of Hospital for Hope  kept at their dream. They started off by raising more than $100,000 for the construction costs through their online efforts, happy hours, and gala events, learning to partner with other nonprofits to pull together the large events. They worked with One World Children’s Fund (their fiscal agent), Construction for Change (to do the building), and Jagriti Vihara (JV), the local nongovernmental organization that will work with other community partners to run the hospital.

With the initial money raised and construction underway, the Hospital for Hope team has entered a new phase, planning for the staffing, operations, and ensuring the sustainability of the hospital. Now taking the role of consultants to JV, they’ve researched the best models for hospitals in developing areas, along with pitfalls to avoid. The project has provided valuable real-world experience in all the skills required to carry out a complex project: visioning and planning, implementation, partnering, and management. These skills have transferred to their day jobs, but the most valuable part of their volunteer experience was the inspiration of working with people so committed to helping others. As cofounder Golda Philip says,

We were searching for what we wanted to do, a sense of purpose and vocation. JV gave us a model. . . . It provided inspiration for all of us at an early, critical stage of development as professionals and global citizens responsible to the people around us.

Busy day: finalizing text, domain and first event!

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Finalizing the Text

 

Due to some tight deadlines, in order to have copies for the event tonight, I had to approve the printing “sight unseen” (well, I’d reviewed many drafts and the “digital proof” that CreateSpace provides).  When the copies arrived Wednesday, I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, and found a few niggling changes that I wanted to make before I called the first edition “done”.  So, combining a late night Wednesday night, with timely help from Thess on layout and Nancy on editing, and the final text is now awaiting approval from CreateSpace.  It should be ready by Saturday afternoon.  In the meantime, you won’t be able to order the old version, so there are at most 30 “upside-down airplane” copies out there that will be exceedingly valuable some day…  :)   (The changes are quite minor, really.)

 

Progress on the Domain Hosting

 

This was an unbelievably large headache.  I was trying to transfer the domain from the company where I registered it to the company that I wanted to have host it.  What they advertise as an “up to 5 day” process took me 35.  I gather both companies made some mistakes along the way, but one crazy story was that since I had registered the domain for 10 years, and a transfer included a one year extension in registration, and no domain can be registered for more than 10 years, I had to wait a year before I could transfer it.  Anyway, it’s now in the hands of the right company, and I’ll be able to at least put the rudimentary stuff that I promised in the book up on the site between now and the weekend, with upgrades coming after that.

 

Hospital for Hope Fund Raiser

A group of Stanford students has done some serious fund raising to build a hospital in rural India.  The NGO that is their operational partner there, Jagriti Vihara, was founded by Shri Upadhyay (“Daduji”) in 1975.  I had been introduced to Hospital for Hope through One World Children’s Fund, and included their story in Giving Back (I’ll include the excerpt as a separate blog post).  The awesome cover photo was taken by Jason Koenig of jkoephoto.com during his trip to the Hospital for Hope site.  So, there were a couple of good ties that resulted in my opportunity to have the books available at the event.

Amit Garg helped get things set up, distributing copies of the book and marketing postcard around the room.  They had a nice spread of food (though I think the caterers were caught off guard with the large percentage of vegetarians in the audience), a performance by an a capella group, a short video, and then speeches by Daduji and Amit.  I”d offered to donate proceeds of book sales for the evening to Hospital for Hope, so they elected to charge a slight premium and request $20 donations for the books.  Of course, a couple of memorable “First’s”:  First Sale, First Multi-copy purchase (5!), First Signed Copies.   

The picture is of me and Daduji.  I really enjoyed the chance to meet him and learn a bit more about his project and life.

Thank you, Hospital for Hope team, for hosting me tonight, and for all that you do to bring greater health to the world.

 

Books on their way!

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In spite of my concerns about submission guidelines, CreateSpace approved the printing of Giving Back, and the first copies are now on their way to me in the mail, and should be here in time for the Hospital for Hope fund raiser!

It’ll be a few days before the purchase link is available on Amazon, but if you are interested in buying a copy, I’d encourage you to wait until August 30th at noon (PST).  I’ll try to organize a sales blitz then, with the hope that I’ll make it into the “best seller” for my category during that hour.

Book pending approval for printing!

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Cover of "Giving Back"

Woo-hoo!  After some last minute fiddling with my ISBN, I submitted Giving Back to CreateSpace  this afternoon.  CreateSpace is Amazon’s subsidiary for self-published, print-on-demand works.  Over the next 48 hours, they will review it, and almost certainly, reject it.  I submitted the files knowing that I violated their submission requirements.  Certain elements of the design of the book intentionally stray into the margins, but are still within the print area of the page.  It’s called (as I learned from the designer) “hanging punctuation” and, unfortunately, it’s not supported by CreateSpace’s automated review process.  So I expect to get a rejection, which I will appeal, and the people should nod in sagacity, approving the elegance of Dave’s design.

Unfortunately, we’re cutting the time very tight, and it probably means that I won’t have books for the Hospital for Hope fundraiser at Stanford on 8/16.

Still, this is a great milestone to celebrate, and I especially want to thank my fabulous editor Nancy Carleton, my layout person extraordinaire Thess Bautista, and  design consultant Dave Blake with his artistry and encyclopedic knowledge of fonts.

As you can see from the picture, I went with the blue.  The votes were very evenly divided, but with the designer, editor, and photographer all favoring blue, they carried extra weight.  I over-ruled the popular vote and went with the longer sub-title primarily to have keywords “volunteering” and “donating” in the title for people that might be searching on those terms.

 

Struggle for Control of Grameen Bank

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Bottom Line:  The Grameen Bank, one of the landmark institutions for assisting the poor of Bangladesh, and receiving a Nobel for its role in establishing microcredit, has become a political football.  The Bangladeshi government is making moves to oust its current leadership and install government-controlled leaders.  At the very least, this is intended to cause a black eye for Grameen founder Dr. Muhammad Yunus.  But I fear the damage to the women who are the current owners and borrowers of the bank will be far worse.  International pressure may cause the Bangladeshi government to back off, so please consider adding your name to a petition to protect the bank.


For those of you who weren’t followers of my old blog (from the Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship), the Grameen organization with its flagship Grameen Bank, isn’t just the Nobel-winning creator of the microfinance movement.  It’s also a group of people that I admire, some of whom I got to know personally and collaborate with on the Mifos Project.  That includes a couple of meetings with Grameen Bank creator and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.

The Grameen Story

As an economics professor making a visit to a village in his homeland of Bangladesh in 1974, Dr. Yunus saw villagers suffering from obscenely high interest rates for loans for their necessary raw materials.   By making a “micro-loan” (a number of loans totaling $27), he was able to start them on a path to creating a livelihood that provided better food, housing, health, and education for their children.  In 1983, the Grameen Bank was founded to provide microloans to more people.  Repayment rates were very high (97%+) aided by the fact that loans were extended  to groups of 5 women who were effectively co-signing  for each other’s loans.  The effectiveness of microcredit was widely praised and duplicated, and today the Grameen Bank has nearly 9 million members (97% women), 20,000 staff members, and a weekly turn-over of $1.5M.  A host of other businesses were started under the Grameen umbrella, and Alex Counts, who, as a Fullbright Scholar, was a protege of Yunus, started the Grameen Foundation USA.  In 2006, Yunus and the Grameen Bank shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the impact of microcredit in alleviating poverty.  The Grameen Bank is structured as a cooperative, with the borrowers being the shareholders, owning 97% of the bank, and the government owning the remaining 3%.  The shareholders elect the directors, and for many years, Dr. Yunus served as the Managing Director of the bank.

Trouble Brewing

In early 2007, Yunus briefly entered the political fray in Bangladesh, creating a political party that he shut down a few months later.  Still, that was enough to rattle political opponents, and he was the target of a slander suit, a smear campaign based upon a discredited story of misuse of Norwegian aid funds, and finally a retraction of the exemption that he had been granted of the retirement age of 60.  (Dr. Yunus is now 72.)  Although he has tried to make plans for an orderly succession, the government is making a power grab and wants to appoint its own people to run the bank.  Jealousy over Yunus’ Nobel has been cited as another contributing factor.

Response

All 17 women Senators of the US Senate signed a letter requesting that the other directors of the bank board be permitted to choose the next Managing Director.

A YouTube video features some borrowers telling their stories, followed by the directors make the case themselves.  (The subtitles don’t translate the amounts.  85,000 taka is about $1,000 and 1.5 million taka is about $18,000.  The amount that the women couldn’t borrow was 2,000 taka = $25.)   The video was eye-opening for me in another way.  I saw the title “Voices of the Grameen Bank Board Members” and I realized at the end of the video I was confused….  Where were the men in suits?  Yep, I was done in by my US prejudices.  The women in saris *are* the directors.  (See the full board listed on their site.)

The Grameen Foundation has also put out a call to action, a blog post from their communications director provides more context and there’s a Fact Sheet as well.

How you can help

Consider signing the two petitions at:

The Grameen Foundation, to be sent to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton , and

Change.org (created by the Microcredit Summit), to be sent to Bangladeshi Prime Minister H.E. Sheikh Hasina

Thank you.

3 Ways to Think About Legacy Giving

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Bottom Line:  If you have kids under age 18, and you don’t have a will which establishes your chosen guardian for them, you should fix that right away.  Beyond that, your bequests say a lot about your values.  I found it liberating to think about the good that organizations could do with my assets when I no longer needed them.


I met a friend for lunch today….

and one of the topics that came up was estate planning.  I went through the process myself a year or so ago, and have been helping out my parents with theirs.  My lunch guest has two young children, so there’s an extra importance that she and her husband take the time to think about it and specify guardians for their kids.

I also recommended the book by Liza Hanks:  A Mom’s Guide to Wills and Estate Planning, published by Nolo Press.  Liza did my estate plan, and I thought she was fabulous:  knowledgeable, friendly, competent.  She helped guide me through the process of thinking about how I wanted to divide my estate and establishing the legal documents and entities to make it happen.   She writes the Estate Planning Blog at Nolo.com.

In addition to the legal aspects of it, there’s the consideration of how such bequests are a part of your giving plan, the way you financially support organizations and causes you care about.  In fact, I’ve included a section about that in my upcoming book, Giving Back.

Excerpt from Giving Back

Estate planning, legacy giving, or planned gifts are all more pleasant-sounding ways to talk about a topic that makes people uncomfortable: death, and what happens to your money after you die. Avoiding the topic doesn’t make it go away. If you don’t get around to putting your affairs in order in time, it makes the probate process more confusing and expensive for everyone (else) involved. Your first concern is establishing a guardian for your minor children, if needed. Drafting a will (and keeping it up-to-date) will ensure that, in the event of your death, the people you choose will have the legal authority to care for your minor children. Your will also determines how your assets are distributed after your death. Many people choose to devote some of their estate to the charitable causes they supported during their lifetimes.

The very word legacy calls to mind long-term, almost larger-than-life expectations. What’s your legacy? What enduring mark did you leave during your life on this planet? How will future generations remember you and your actions? Clearly, your descendants are the living part of your legacy. Their very existence is determined by the path you took through your life. Your professional achievements may be memorialized, especially creative endeavors such as a musical recording, a patent, a book, or a collection of photos. Perhaps you made a physical mark on your environment by constructing a new home or planting a garden or grove of trees. Another part of your legacy is the way you treated other people, their recollections of your relationship, and the efforts you made to improve their lives. That is, giving back can be an important part of your legacy.

Your will represents your final opportunity to influence the world. Rather than let the state decide what you would have wanted (if you die without a will), take the time to consider the legacy you’d like to leave, and work with a lawyer (if needed) to write it into a precise, legally binding document, a plan for the future beyond your lifetime. Providing for your family is probably the foremost consideration on your mind, and appropriately so. However, creating the full vision of your legacy may mean incorporating others, such as those organizations you feel are transforming the world into the fuller expression of what you envision for it. During your lifetime, you supported those organizations with your volunteer time and donations. After death, you can still provide financial support from a portion of the assets you accumulated over a lifetime.

There are three different approaches to thinking about a legacy gift.

  1. As a memorial gift
  2. As income replacement
  3. As a bold, strategic gift

The first approach, memorial giving, is simply to include the organization in your will. A token amount shows the organization was an important part in your life, an association you want to acknowledge even on the solemn occasion of your death. Perhaps you include favored organizations as a suggested recipient of memorial gifts.

A second approach to legacy giving is to think about income replacement for the organization. If you’ve been a significant donor over a period of years, will the absence of your gift cause them hardship? If you fear the answer might be yes, and you have the means to do so, you can establish an endowment-style gift that generates enough income on an annual basis to match what you gave each year during your life. The typical endowment payout policy is about 5 percent of its value (which assumes investment returns are slightly above that, to maintain the real, inflation-adjusted value of the principal). So you’d need to start with an amount that is twenty times what you’d like to give on an annual basis. For example, if you make a $1,000 gift each year to a local organization that teaches urban gardening, and wanted to sustain that gift “in perpetuity” after your death, making a $20,000 bequest would likely enable them to draw $1,000 worth of interest each year without running out of money. Of course, not every organization has the structure in place or the discipline to maintain that type of long-range planning. If you’re worried your wishes for an endowment-style gift will be beyond their capabilities, you may be able to find a community foundation that has more of the financial experience and structure in place to administer the gift over the long term. Donor-advised funds may also provide the service, though that may require a $100,000 or larger initial grant.

The third approach to legacy giving is to consider a bold, strategic gift. At the time the organization receives your bequest, you won’t need the money anymore. So, free from personal attachment, what would a larger gift enable the organization to do? Hire more staff? Start a new program? Remodel their facility to make it more suitable for the people they’re helping? Of course, it’s hard to project today what the organization’s priorities will be years from now when they receive the gift, but it’s still a useful thought exercise to consider the potential impact of different gifts. Don’t limit yourself to a single organization, but think about which one(s) would make the best use of your gift, or be most transformed by it.

As a final thought experiment, ask yourself the question “Why wait?” Being able to see your gift make a significant difference to a favorite organization is a powerful validation of your success. There are certainly reasons to save the assets you need for your family’s long-term well-being, but if there’s an opportunity that captures your imagination, think about whether it would be feasible to do both. Discuss it with your family to see if they share your enthusiasm. Sometimes a bold vision will radically change your priorities, as it did for the Salwen family, who tell their story of downsizing and giving half the proceeds of their house sale to the Hunger Project in The Power of Half (Salwen & Salwen, 2010).

 

 

Climate Change and Big Carbon

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Bottom Line:  Climate change signs are coming through stronger now than ever before, and faster than scientists anticipated.  The droughts in India and the US bode ill for food prices later this year, early next.  The suffering in poorer countries may cause additional deaths, social upheaval.  The economic interests of Big Carbon are working against our need to change.


Hot Enough for You?

Anecdotally, it’s been a hot summer.  My parents in Connecticut have talked about the 5 heat waves (3+ days of 90 degree+ weather) before August.  Anudip Foundation talked about “faculty that braved 45 degree Celsius (113F)  temperatures in stifling humidity [in India] to conduct their classes in remote places. Several suffered heat strokes in the process.”  Bill McKibben, in his Rolling Stone article marvels at Saudis’ report of “rain in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.”  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The rest of the iceberg (Petermann Glacier) broke off from Greenland, a mass of ice twice the size of Manhattan.  But maybe it’s OK, because one bigger than that broke off two years ago…  If you want something that’s unprecedented in 150 years, you can turn to this month’s ice melt of of the Greenland ice sheet, which overshot it’s “typical” level of 55% melting to go from 40% to 97% in 4 days.   Heat records have been broken left and right in the US, and the heat and drought has caused serious crop failure in key farming regions in the US 

“Some stuff technically is not going to be worth the combine bill to harvest it,” he said. “This is my 49th crop, and I have never had a year like this.”

In India, the story is similar:

“The situation is quite bad, exceptionally bad, and very serious for farmers,”  said scientist Kirpal Singh Aulakh, former head of Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana.

The Geo-Political Landscape for Change

(What follows is a summary of Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article.)

The weak consensus of the Rio+20 Global Summit was to maintain a temperature increase of 2 degrees (Celsius) or less.  Scientists believe this increase will cause a host of problems, but not be an existential threat to humanity and our way of life.  We have already seen a 0.8 degree increase, with associated problems (ice melt, droughts, oceans 30% more acidic). So some question whether even 2 degrees is permissible.  But no binding actions were taken to commit the largest emitters (China just surpassed the US) to any definite course of reduction.

Scientists have further estimated the amount of CO2 that could be released while still remaining within the 2 degree limit:  565 Gigatons by 2050.  According to the research cited in the article, on our current path, that level will be reached in about 16 years (adding 32 Gigatons per year, growing 3%).

Big Carbon (Big Energy)

The greatest source of the CO2 emissions is the burning of fossil fuels for energy (coal, oil, and natural gas).  The biggest energy companies (and, in countries where the state controls petroleum reserves, the states themselves) are sitting on known reserves that will exceed the 565 Gigaton limit 5 times over.  Yet in their quest for more energy (and to increase the $1 Trillion in profits captured since 2000), exploration for new deposits of carbon-based fuel continues unabated.  Indeed, with the easiest “finds” already exploited, the new sources (like tar sands or shale) require much more energy to extract, thereby increasing the effective emissions (and cost) of the “useful” energy.

So, while humanity ponders our existence, (or gets distracted by the latest celebrity gossip), the oil companies will also be pondering their existence, recognizing that if we (as a human race) were to enforce the 565 Gigaton limit, nearly 80% of the existing known reserves, plus whatever additional finds are made, could not be burned, rendering it essentially worthless.  Since the companies’ market value is derived from these assets and future earnings stream, any such limit would savage the value of the industry, possibly driving some of them out of existence.

If it’s a race to see who can organize faster to protect their interests to avoid being driven out of existence, all the signs so far point to the oil companies winning.

Postscript:  The Silver Lining?

A friend shared Matthew Ridley’s The Rational Optimist a couple years ago–the central thesis is that our inventive capability is providing for huge gains, and things that look grim today will be solved by technology or discoveries in the future.  Linear extrapolation misses the “disruptive game-changers.”  He argues that given a choice between a dollar of mitigation effort today and one (inflation adjusted) a hundred years from now, we should delay, and pay later, because our wealth and standard of living will have increased so much from discoveries between now and then.

I found his argument partially persuasive, but am still troubled:

  1. These environmental changes are happening faster than forecasted, and the effects seem to be more extreme than forecasted.
  2. Inventions not only impact our ability to make a positive difference; they also increase our capability to make a negative difference.  We’re more capable of making large-scale changes to our environment.  Yes, that may bail us out, but we also may miss a fatal flaw in our plan.
  3. The Big Carbon companies seem to be sticking their heads in the (oil) sands.  McKibben cites the lack of investment, even the shuttering of the alternative energy projects undertaken by the reigning corporate leaders.

So, yes, let’s be looking at inventions that might enable us to capture and sequester carbon.  Let’s look at alternative energies.  But let’s agree that our course of charging ahead, ignoring the warning signs and continuing “business as usual” is a foolhardy recipe for disaster.

Seven Tips for Organizing a Fulfilling Volunteer Experience

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Bottom Line:  Volunteer projects over the last two days were a study in contrasts.  One very mental, one more physical.  Both fulfilling.  Seven things that they both got right to make it a good experience for me, the volunteer.

Ecumenical Hunger Program

Yesterday, I stopped by Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto to ask about potential volunteer opportunities for groups.  They had an information sheet detailing different options, but they also needed help right now.  They were preparing for their monthly food distribution, and needed help splitting the pallets of groceries into boxes for the 80-100 families that would be showing up in a little bit more than an hour.  I offered to stick around, and was soon at work packing boxes:  2 large cans of pear halves, 3 smaller ones of peaches, 2 packs of tortillas, 4 smaller cans of apple sauce, 2 pound bags each of rice and pinto beans, a 64-oz bottle of spiced cranberry juice,  a half-gallon of milk, a 2 pound bag of pre-washed salad, a watermelon and a cantaloupe.   Other groups were packing meats (not sure of all that went into it, but looked to be a dozen eggs, a one-pound pack of hot dogs, a one-pound tube of ground sausage, and 2 1-pound packs of cold cuts (baloney or ham).  A third group was packing fruits and vegetables.  This being summer in California, there was a nice selection of nectarines, oranges, broccoli, corn, onions and probably more that I didn’t see.

At 5 PM, not only was the distribution done, but the area had been restored to its prior, clean state.  Empty boxes were gone.  The leftovers were in the food pantry.  The tables were taken down and stored, and the parking lot had been swept.  It was a remarkable display of efficiency, taking the volunteer efforts of probably a dozen people, some of us first-timers, and getting a large task done in a short time.  Staff members Suliana and Jackie deserve credit for getting us all together to get everything done.

 Helping with a Grant Application

Monday afternoon, I spent about 2 hours helping out with the final submission of a grant application to the USAID.  The Principal Investigators for the submission had put together a nice response to a Request for Proposals, one that could have real impact for students and others in Africa.  They needed a fresh set of eyes to help them simplify the writing for people who weren’t already familiar with what they’re proposing.  So I helped cut some of the excess verbiage and clarify things a bit.  We used Google Docs, with two or three of us editing the same document at the same time, with the shared goal of clarifying it and squeezing the word count down to fit in the allotted number of pages for the proposal.   We were all at our own desks, miles apart, just communicating through the edits we were making to the document and the chat window alongside.  Yet here again, the process converged and we finished expediently, and had a chance to chat a bit before going our separate ways.

Commonalities

On the face of it, the two experiences were very different:  one very physical, the other totally mental; one where I was in the same place with the other volunteers, and even got to help the beneficiaries directly (e.g., loading a car) whereas in the other I interacted only through typing; in one case, just about anyone could have done what I was doing, in the other, it required a high skill level of writing, background knowledge, and a understanding of an “academic setting.”  But at the end of the day, each of the experiences was very satisfying.  I attribute that to:

  1. There was a clear objective.
  2. We managed to finish what we set out to accomplish.  (It was a manageable amount of work.)
  3. The project leaders were “in it together” with us, helping out in a visible way.
  4. The project leaders were appreciative.  Very much so.
  5. There was a sense of teamwork: we could see what other people were doing, how we were all contributing toward the goal.
  6. We had the tools we needed for the job:  we were able to use our time effectively, and weren’t forced to wait around much.
  7. There was space for a little off-task fun.  Kidding around a bit, cracking jokes in the chat window, taking a group break to re-hydrate.  We were definitely driven to finish things quickly, but it wasn’t “all work, all the time”.

Ultimately, I found the grant writing more fulfilling–the ability to use my skills in a way that not many others could do, plus the chance that it would have a very large impact (helping to win a grant that I thought will make a positive change, in a more enduring way).  But I was happy with my EHP experience, too.  By following the seven tips above, each project made me feel like a valuable and valued volunteer.

Cover letters that prove you’re not a flake

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Yesterday, a friend asked for feedback on a cover letter she was preparing.  She’s a recent grad from Stanford, with an incredible passion for eliminating homelessness, and a track record of achieving impossible things.

That got me thinking about cover letters in general.

I’ve heard from several volunteers that they’ve offered their services to an organization they wanted to help, and then never heard back.  You’d think that should never happen, given the clear needs of nonprofits and the fact that people are offering something for free, but it can and does, most commonly because:

  • The offer went to the wrong person in the organization
  • The organization is not well set up to handle volunteers
  • The person you sent it to is too busy
  • Too many volunteers have been “flakes” and you’re lumped in with them

What goes into a good cover letter

A cover letter offering to volunteer isn’t that different from a cover letter applying for a job.  You need to:

  1. Convey your competence
  2. Convey your passion
  3. Outline the terms of the proposed engagement
  4. Give them a way to follow up

Busy, Busy!

Nonprofit people are, like the rest of us, busy people.  (Read “The ‘Busy’ Trap” Tim Kreider’s NY Times opinion piece if you haven’t…) So, help them out by:

  • Keeping the letter short, with everything they need in it (OK to attach a resume, but the letter should make your case on a stand-alone basis)
  • Proving you’re not a flake by showing you’ve done your homework on them

Excerpt from Giving Back on Approach Letters

Approaching the Organization as a Volunteer

Nonprofit staff members are busy people, and they may see your offer to help as more of a burden than blessing. Many cold calls that organizations receive result in their having to spend more time to assess, train, and coordinate the prospective volunteers than those volunteers give back before losing interest. You can help demonstrate you’re serious about your intended commitment by doing your homework first, and sending a well-written approach letter answering their key questions. If you can be introduced by someone who is already a friend to the organization, that’s even better. An impressive introductory letter will answer:

  • Why did you choose this cause and this organization?
  • What impressed you most about the organization?
  • What interactions have you had with the group so far?
  • How much time do you have? When?
  • What unique skills do you have?
  • What would you most like to do to help? Are there specific people or projects that sound most intriguing? (You may not get your first choice, or be able to work directly with the person whose biography you saw on the website, but these expressions of interest will help them match you up.)
  • Who does the organization know who knows you?
  • What’s the best way to reach you?
  • Do you intend to involve children in your volunteering? What are their ages?

Including a donation check along with your inquiry about volunteering is a sure way to be taken seriously.

A Sample Approach Letter

As if opening a time capsule, I was able to find an approach letter I wrote in 2004 to James Dailey, then the project manager for the Grameen Foundation’s project developing open-source software for microfinance. Although the URL to my background and interest is no longer active, the letter itself is a good example of an approach leading to a fruitful collaboration. I volunteered hundreds of hours that year for Grameen, using my technology background to help them write requirements documents and conduct an evaluation of software development firms.

From: Steve Ketchpel  
Sent: Friday, October 08, 2004 3:56 PM
To: James Dailey
Subject: MFI open-source software
 
Hello James,
 
 You’ve been recommended to me by a couple of different
 people: Peter Bladin and Robert Sassor. I’m starting a yearlong
 project at Stanford, and am interested in helping MFIs to scale through
 technology. From my research so far, it seems that back-office
 portfolio management software is a key step to increasing the capacity
 and attracting new capital (through securitization).
 
 I’ve seen the moap project (though haven’t had a lot of time to
 dive into all the details), and it looks like it hasn’t really attracted
 the critical mass of developers needed to make progress. I’d like to
 speak with you to see what your plans are relative to efforts in this
 space.
 
 Peter mentioned that you were going to be in Uganda for a couple
 weeks, so perhaps we can schedule some time when you return?
 
 A brief background on the project & on me can be found at
 http://www.rdvp.org/index.php?p=project_detail&id=46
 
 If you have recommendations on people to speak with or resources
 that I should review in the meantime, I’d welcome the pointers.
 
Steven Ketchpel, Ph.D.
Reuters Digital Vision Fellow
Stanford University

Approach-Letter Exercise

Take the elements on the list preceding the sample letter, and craft an approach letter to your proposed organization. See if you can find the email address or direct phone number of the volunteer coordinator or executive director of the organization. If you’re ready, send your message and set events in motion for a fruitful giving-back partnership.

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