Sam Vaghar started Millennium Campus Network (MCN) in 2007 when he was a student at Brandeis University. He had read Jeffrey Sachs' book The End of Poverty and knew he wanted to do something to help address the UN Millennium Development Goals and tackle global poverty. So Sam convened students from around the country at a series of annual conferences to inspire, engage, and call young people to action and built a collaborative network of campus groups. Working closely with leaders like Jeffrey Sachs and Partners in Health Founder Paul Farmer, as well as celebrities like John Legend, all of whom serve as advisers to MCN, Sam is giving his generation the tools and asking them to stand up and be active citizens. Sam, now 24, talked to us about how to affect change and the urgent need to tackle global poverty.
What's your big idea?
At the Millennium Campus Network (MCN), we are connecting and supporting university student organizations across the United States in their efforts to reduce extreme global poverty and achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). With 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day, our generation has a huge responsibility and opportunity to impact this crisis. On a grassroots level we provide opportunities for networking, skill-building workshops, and grants, all aimed at ensuring that campus organizations have the fundamentals in place. From creating a mission statement and a strategic plan, to planning for leadership succession and following metrics to measure impact, we want campus organizations to perform at their best. Across the sector, it means making it as easy as possible for organizations to share best practices and learn from each other, online and offline.
If campus organizations are effective, sustainable, and communicating with each other, we have a much better chance of creating a thriving community and national movement that will partner with the world's poorest communities. That's the big idea: effective, high-impact student organizing. Our team here at the MCN works with member organizations on campuses across the nation to make it a reality.
What was the inspiration for Millennium Campus Network?
I read The End of Poverty by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs and learned about the incredible challenges pinned on one-sixth of humanity. For example, I didn't know much about malaria, and I was shocked to learn than over one million people, mostly children, die from this treatable, preventable disease. But Dr. Sachs also shows us what is possible if citizens and governments commit fully to pledges that have already been made. A $10 bed net can protect a family as they sleep from contracting malaria. Furthermore, if people and governments invest in education, health care, agriculture, and business, families and communities can lift themselves out of poverty. I began fundraising on campus at Brandeis University with MCN Co-founder Seth Werfel and other students and we raised over $5,000 for Dr. Sachs' non-profit, Millennium Promise. But we wanted to do more. We realized that other students shared our passion on campuses across Boston. We thought about the endless possibilities that could emerge from collaboration between multiple campus organizations.
What problem did Millennium Campus Network first try to address?
The big issue for us was trying to determine what student organizations could accomplish together. You'll notice on a campus or in the outside world that there are a lot of egos. As a result, the market is inefficient and potential is wasted. I conducted an informal survey in 2008 and found that 88% of 250 campus organizers said they lacked adequate membership or attendance at events, and 93% lacked adequate funding. But when I asked organization leaders how many communicated or collaborated with each other, only 12% said they did. That shocked me. Essentially, that means that if a campus organization succeeds on a project, few others can learn from that experience. On any given campus, if there are five globally-focused campus organizations with similar missions, they will each try to succeed with limited members and inadequate funds instead of teaming up to do something more effective together. We wanted to cut down on the inefficiencies and create a collective movement. On the advocacy front, I always envisioned one massive student movement pressuring politicians to increase accountable foreign aid, change US trade policy, and ensure we fulfilled our commitments to the UN MDGs.
How did you know it was working?
In April 2008 we teamed up with our MIT member organization Global Poverty Initiative to co-host our inaugural Millennium Campus Conference. 1,000 students, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Farmer, John Legend, Ira Magaziner, Augustine Mahiga, and dozens of other leading entrepreneurs and advocates showed up to affirm the network and movement we were building. The event would never have been possible working alone. This was the first time that I saw the power of a network.
As soon as the event was done, I knew we got one big thing right: when we started the MCN, we chose not to create campus chapters. By working with existing campus organizations and helping them succeed in their individual and collective efforts rather than competing, we had set ourselves apart and gained students' trust and investment in the network we could build together.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
It's hard to remember! When we started, we wanted to do it all. I remember in 2008, we promised to offer grants, internship opportunities, networking opportunities, workshops, an interactive website, and so much more. Essentially, we wanted to be a one-stop shop and solve all the problems student organizers brought up (and even some they didn't bring up!). We were very successful in working together on that first conference in 2008, but the glitz and glamor of such a big event masked some of the inadequacies of the organization that we knew existed. In many ways, the problem was that we needed metrics in place to measure our impact and ensure we were really helping student leaders.
Broadly speaking, our goal is to empower college activists in the fight against extreme global poverty and related crises. More specifically, our goal is to ensure our member organizations are having positive impact and are learning from each other. We've got some big ideas and ways to measure impact, including an online network, an online contest to identify case studies for campus organizing, leadership institutes, and much more. Student leaders will see some of these in action next fall. That said, we are undergoing an extensive review process with an updated strategic plan and set of objectives to be shared this September at Millennium Campus Conference 2011. Stay tuned!
Where did you grow up?
Newton, Massachusetts. That said, I was born in Birmingham, England. Sadly, I don't have the British accent!
What do your parents do?
My dad was a civil engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers. My mom is a realtor at Hammond Residential. I'm proud to say that I moved back home after college to start this organization. They welcomed me and have supported my dream since the beginning. And they make great dinner!
What college did you go to? What was your major?
I attended Brandeis University and majored in International & Global Studies.
What was memorable about your time at Brandeis?
I had dozens of teachers and classes that profoundly shaped who I am, but to be honest, it was my time outside the classroom on campus that taught me even more. I was the Student Representative to the Brandeis University Board of Trustees, and I spent Board meetings learning from the leadership styles of philanthropists Steve Kay, Steve Reiner, Mal Sherman, Jon Davis, Rena Olshansky, Myra Kraft, Ken Kaiserman, David Squire, and so many others! This opportunity showed me that there are many leaders who are deeply invested in students' success. It also showed me that even the most influential people are willing to listen and help, as many have supported me in my work to date.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow? Whom do you seek out for advice?
I admire our organization's Advisors, including Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, Dr. Paul Farmer, Dr. John McArthur, John Legend, Anita Sharma, and Bobby Bailey, among several others. Each of these leaders has devoted serious time, energy, and resources to the movement to end extreme global poverty and related injustices.
While I don't follow any specific leadership model, I spend considerable time learning from other organizations. I'm often on Facebook and Twitter following outstanding organizations like Pencils of Promise, Partners in Health, ONE, charity: water, UNICEF, the Global Poverty Project, Artists for Peace and Justice, Invisible Children, Millennium Promise, and so many others. Right now I am reading Nancy Lublin's Zilch to see how other organizations have succeeded.
I seek out advice from people I know genuinely believe in the power of student leaders and what we are doing. People like Bill Rigler at Millennium Promise, Fabian Pfortmuller at Sandbox, PR expert Doris Yaffe, and our Board members Will Herberich and Alex Alvanos come to mind among so many others. And most importantly, I listen to our staff and members, who are all students with an accurate feel for the pulse on campuses today.
How is your life different now than it was before you started this project?
I now know that anything is possible if I'm willing to put myself out there. I've learned that when I can overcome fear, the road is wide open. Last December, I had the courage to cold call the Jenzabar Foundation in Boston. I initially asked for $20,000 from Bob Maginn and John Beahm at Jenzabar. Thanks to their generosity, I ended up with a lot more funding than I asked for and donated office space on the twenty-second floor in Boston's Prudential Center. When you have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, people will respond in extraordinary ways!
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
There are nights where I am up well past 3am, thinking about the future. I'm never concerned about the capacity of this generation to create profound change. We created Facebook. We helped elect a President. I'm concerned about whether all of us as citizen activists can team up to do something even bigger! Can activists worldwide team up and end extreme global poverty? Can we create sweeping education reform in the United States? Can we stop genocide? Can we make going green completely mainstream? Yes we can, but I'm concerned that some people in our generation place so much responsibility on President Obama, Congress, or high-profile CEOs and philanthropists to get the job done. When we step up and learn to value each other's activism we'll get so much closer to reaching the big end goals we all desire.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
By 2020, you will see a better connected, more efficient network of campus organizations who have had unprecedented impact on the ground overseas, in shaping U.S. development policy, and most importantly, in listening to and understanding the very real, diverse needs, passions, and ambitions of people living in extreme poverty.
If you weren't doing this, you'd be…
Initially I was going to say being a publicist in L.A., as they have incredible ability to connect some of the world's leading figures with the causes that need their activism. That would be an intense and potentially very fulfilling experience! That said, I can't really imagine doing anything else but this right now. It's become so much of who I am and how I live.
Anything else we should know…
I work with an extraordinary staff that rarely gets recognized: Nicole Santomauro, Steve Fox, Lindsey Purington, Nicole Theobald, Jacob Geller, Ariel Oshinsky, Anya Thomas, along with all of our district staff in Boston, Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. Without them, this organization wouldn't exist. The impact we have here at the MCN is due to all of them. If you are passionate about the role college students can play in having global impact, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org and my number is 617- 794-4373, please get in touch.
Follow Millennium Campus Network and their work on twitter @MCNpartners.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin's DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We'll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We'll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.