Fast Foundation

Zoë Baird and her colleagues at the Markle Foundation have embraced a daring approach to the risk-averse world of philanthropy. The results have been remarkable -- and controversial.

The outside walls of their Pristina headquarters were pocked with artillery-shell craters. Inside the building, Paul Meyer and his two young colleagues listened to the sputters of a cheap diesel generator. They knew that those sounds held the key to whether the Internet could return to Kosovo. Power surges had fried their last satellite transmitter, and this Turkish-made generator was the last best hope on that long day back in September 1999. Morale had already been low. Meyer, 30, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, and his two beleaguered partners, Akan Ismaili and Teresa Crawford, had been working nonstop in terrible conditions. "We had announced that we were going to do this system," says Meyer. "It almost got to the point where we didn't want to show our faces." Out of frustration, Ismaili, a native Kosovar and the technical brains behind the project, defiantly typed in "www.yahoo.com" into his computer. Then he gasped. The page appeared on his screen. The Internet Projekti Kosova (IPKO) was up and running.

"All of us were screaming and dancing around the room," says Crawford, 25, the technical and advocacy director for the Advocacy Project, an organization that uses technology to foster grassroots, civil-society initiatives. The troika had achieved something that no international-relief agency, no high-tech software company, no bent-for-leather military group had accomplished. With a little money and a lot of grit, they had found a way for the war-weary people of Kosovo to reconnect with one another as well as with the world.

Ordinarily, recent graduates of Yale Law School spend more time tinkering with contracts in corporate boardrooms than messing with faulty diesel generators in one of the world's most dangerous places. But Meyer is nothing if not unusual. He has spent the past two years using digital technology to bring together people in desperate straits, getting things done while others were pontificating. Yet Meyer would be the first to admit that his technical creativity would have been impossible without financial support from the suites of New York -- namely, from the Markle Foundation. "Markle funded me when I had crazy ideas," says Meyer. "Without that support, I wouldn't have been able to do any of this stuff."

Look closely at the most exciting efforts to link digital technology, public policy, and vexing social problems, and you'll likely see the fingerprints of the Markle Foundation and its president, Zoë Baird. Baird, 48, is the former AETNA senior VP and general counsel who got her first 15 minutes of fame when she was nominated for U.S. attorney general and then unnominated when she disclosed that she hadn't paid taxes on the salaries of her child's nannies. Markle, a medium-sized foundation (it was established in 1927 and has an endowment of about $200 million), has long been interested in communications. But Baird, who came on board in 1998, has led a decisive shift to the Internet and its implications.

Markle has defined four main areas of need: interactive media for children; technologies for better health; policies for a networked society; and public engagements through interactive technologies. Current Markle projects include a grant to the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to improve the accountability of its October Elections and a partnership with IBM and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), among others, to help developing countries participate in the information economy. But how Markle works is as interesting as the work that it funds. Baird spends serious money fast. She plans to hand out $100 million over the next two to four years -- far more than is typical for a foundation of Markle's size. "This is a critical time," says Baird. "If we don't build a public voice into technology now, attending to human needs will be much, much harder later. It's the right moment."

"Zoë is as tough as tacks," says Jerry Berman, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Center for Democracy and Technology, which has worked with Markle. "She is looking at the hard issues at a time when a lot of foundations are doing the squishy stuff."

Indeed, Baird and her colleagues think more like venture capitalists than like traditional foundation executives. Invest just the right amount of money, with just the right people, and big things can happen. "I look at Markle as a place that has intellectual capital and financial capital," says Baird. "We can use money strategically. But don't come to us if you just want money. We're an active partner."

Database of Despair

Paul Meyer is just the sort of partner that the Markle Foundation is eager to fund. "He is an innovator, the kind of person to help fill our pool of intellectual capital," says Baird. "He sees ways that technology can help with intractable problems. We need to make bets on people like Paul."

Even before he was uplinking satellites in Kosovo, Meyer was a resourceful guy. Right out of college, he became an advance man for Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. He says that job helped him learn "how to mobilize people, how to convince people to do new things, how to talk people into doing things that are against their better judgment, and how to not take no for an answer." After Clinton won, the scramble for jobs began. Meyer delivered some papers from Little Rock to Washington. After dropping them off, he realized that he had made it inside the White House. Now he had to find a reason to stay. "I just didn't leave," he says, only a little sheepishly. "I just sort of sat down at a desk and claimed it." Meyer eventually became a speechwriter, spending two-and-a-half years at the White House. He quit in 1995 to attend Yale Law School.

While Meyer liked the law, he changed his mind about joining a big-name firm when he read an article describing the technological needs of African refugee camps. So in February 1999, he secured his first grant from Markle and hopped a plane for Guinea, where there were nearly 1 million refugees from the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Working with the International Rescue Committee, Meyer implemented a system called "Child Connect." It used a Lotus Notes database that organizations could search to help families locate missing children. Desperately short on computers, Meyer went to IBM for help. The company said that it would donate equipment, but that it preferred to work on the emergency in Kosovo, where massive civil displacement and U.S. bombing were underway. So he said yes to Kosovo -- but sent half the equipment to Guinea anyway.

Many organizations and companies, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to Microsoft, were already trying to create an online database for refugees in the Balkans. But most refugees had no way to get online, and they moved so often that information on their whereabouts quickly became dated and worthless. Meyer decided that making data available immediately was critical. So with money from Markle, he hired Albanian techies to pull together a monster database of refugees' names by assembling the lists compiled by such groups as Catholic Relief Services and the International Red Cross. Besides creating an online list, called the Kosovar Family Finder, that could be accessible to refugees in foreign countries, Meyer went low-tech, printing a Kosovar Family Finder phone book, complete with yellow pages. Both the online and print directories listed almost 20,000 heads of family, each of whom was missing family members, from 23 countries. Meyer stuck stacks of the books on all of the food trucks being sent across Albania and then helped hand them out at different camps.

Having helped more people in six months than most do in a lifetime, Meyer went to Macedonia and tried to figure out why it had been so hard to implement his database idea in the first place: "I realized that technology can play a vital role in helping humanitarian workers share information and coordinate. But without an infrastructure, it was worthless." In Kosovo, the small bit of technology infrastructure that had existed had been largely destroyed. So why not create a new one -- an Internet-service provider for the local and the humanitarian communities? "Looking back, it's embarrassing how naïve I was," Meyer says with a laugh.

The first order of business was finding wireless access to the Net. After all, the war had destroyed Kosovo's telephone lines. Meyer tracked down a satellite dish in a Macedonian refugee camp that had been donated by the founder of InterPacket Networks Inc. But the dish was already being used by the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). Meyer asked the USIA for some bandwidth access, but the agency said no. Undeterred, he cold-called InterPacket and convinced them that he could use the dish more effectively. Meyer also secured a $175,000 loan from the International Rescue Committee and hired another company to move the dish to Pristina. The economic model was as follows: Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and big relief agencies would pay a fee for access, which would subsidize the local university, the press, and other Kosovars who needed a communications system but who had no money to pay for one.

Once that happened, says Meyer, "There was an overwhelming sense of dread. Now we really have to do this." Then came the exhausting nights at Kosovo's Boro and Ramizi Sports and Cultural Center trying to make the connections work. Even after the service began functioning, Meyer stuck around, living in miserable conditions, to help keep the site going. The low point, he says, came on Christmas night, 1999, when a diesel shortage forced Meyer to borrow some fuel from a nearby hotel. Dragging the can back, he slipped on some ice and ended up covered in diesel fuel.

The saga ends with good news: Today, IPKO has repaid all of its loans and is a self-sufficient nonprofit. It supplies Internet access to 20 cafés and to 140 institutions, which pay between $800 and $4,000 per month for service. There are close to 30 employees, and the company launched dial-up service last August. "I never dreamed they would become a paying customer," says Mike Labriola, 42, InterPacket's head of business development for Eastern Europe. "IPKO really is the one bright spot in Kosovo." Although Meyer left Kosovo last April to do a fellowship at Markle, he's hardly finished with the project. Now launching is the IPKO Institute, which (with support from Cisco Systems) will train Kosovars in such technical skills as Web development and network administration.

Although IPKO was originally launched as a nonprofit, Meyer's next project will move him closer to the private sector. "I think there's a much more sustainable engine if people have a true profit motive," he says. "It was only a year ago that we had that first conversation about IPKO. And now it's like we've given birth to something. It's grown far beyond what we'd hoped or imagined. It was so satisfying -- and a lot more fun than checking over corporate contracts."

Technology for the (Really) Mass Market

To understand the mind of Allen Hammond, you have to imagine a world in which Coca-Cola uses its global reach to distribute ... condoms. Not that Hammond believes that the maker of brown fizzy beverages would actually broaden its product line in that way. But what if it did? "Our condom-availability problem would just disappear," he declares. "I don't know of any developing-country government that can deliver services in a million places at once every day. Coke does that. If we want to solve some of these social problems, one of the best ways we could do it is to hire the right global companies."

Hammond, 57, senior scientist and chief information officer at the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think tank based in Washington, DC, doesn't really expect to merge safe sex and soda pop. As a scientist and an environmentalist, he's most passionate about using advances in digital technology to address pressing issues in the poorest countries. Unlike most policy wonks, however, he thinks that the private sector is best-equipped to address those issues -- and can do so to its own advantage. Hence the Coke analogy -- and why he spent 18 months putting together a conference called "Creating Digital Dividends," which took place in Seattle last October.

The conference, which was sponsored in part by the Markle Foundation -- along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others -- brought together big-time technology executives such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard (via videotape), and Bill Gates; strategy gurus such as the University of Michigan's C.K. Prahalad; and entrepreneurs with technology-based solutions to development problems. But the event was not your normal parade of egos and platitudes. Hammond's goal was to convince high-tech companies that it is in their interest to treat the digital divide as a business opportunity, rather than merely as a social problem; hence the name of the conference. Hammond wants to prove that the developing world, contrary to popular opinion, is an enormously underserved market for technology. "If you took the average business executive and said, 'Poor people are an important market for you,' he wouldn't believe it, " says Hammond. "Executives have to be shown that these are big markets -- that they get to improve their company's bottom line and be a hero at the same time."

Hammond, a Harvard PhD in applied mathematics who grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, founded the award-winning magazine Science 80. After that magazine closed, Hammond worked as a publishing consultant, then came to the WRI. Although Hammond appears unassuming in person, his agenda is far-reaching. "He is a quiet man with a big vision and, more importantly, he makes things happen in a big way -- not through fanfare but through perseverance, persistence, and obvious passion," says Jonathan Campaigne, 57, chairman and founder of Pride Africa, a regional microfinance institution that presented at the conference.

Just listen to Hammond wax rhapsodic on the potential of the MP3 player as a force for social change: "This basically was invented for a market of rich teenagers to download music and walk around with it," he says, digging unsuccessfully through a sheaf of papers for his own device. "The current model costs $150 and carries an hour's worth of music. So let's envision a world just a year away where we're going to have $50 devices that can store eight hours' worth of speech. Well, poor villages can afford $50. So suppose a village bought one of these things and then went to their local NGO to download compressed speech files that provide AIDS information, agricultural information, and so on. Listeners share the player with their neighbors, and then six months later, the village takes it back and downloads a whole new set of files. You would have an affordable information-transmission system that is under the control of the users."

Hammond has scoured the world looking for on-the-ground examples of his businesslike approach to social change. One is TARAhaat.com, an Internet startup in India that uses the Web to help create rural marketplaces. TARAhaat is a colorful, animated portal (a "haat" is a village market) that can connect villagers to nearly everything that they may need to develop a market or to communicate with the rest of the world. Set up in kiosks to be administered by franchisees, the site enables a sugar-cane farmer to find information about commodity prices, to link directly to large agricultural cooperatives, or to find a place to buy equipment. Spoken information accompanies pictures for users who can't read. The company's profits will come from franchise fees, product sales, and corporate alliances, says founder Ashok Khosla, 60, who points out that rural India is a market of 750 million people, most of whom have a very high savings rate -- some as much as 25% of the family income.

Not every initiative that attracts Hammond's attention comes from the private sector. Another group represented at the conference was Global Forest Watch (GFW), an outgrowth of the WRI that uses digital technology to track the degradation of old-growth forests. GFW is a network of on-site forest-protection groups that are linked to a real-time Web site. Each group receives a digitized satellite map of the forest near them, along with digital-mapping tools. Group members then go to the forest, track how much cutting is being done compared with what each forest's lease allows, and post the results on the Web -- where everyone can see them. For the first time, companies and governments that are cheating can be stopped before the forests are cut down. Already, GFW is operating in more than five countries, including Cameroon, where the group discovered that 90% of a protected forest had secretly been leased to be cut -- shocking news to the UN and to donor countries that had been paying to protect the forest. That's just the beginning, says Hammond. "It's going to be CNN everywhere, all the time. When I really want to scare a company, I say, 'Imagine a world in which there are two or three hundred NGOs focusing on your industry.' Think of this as a digital, environmental version of Human Rights Watch."

With the conference over, Hammond is jubilant. "I'm exhausted but delirious," he says. "This helped to get the industry's attention, and we've started a process." Besides working on a follow-up event, Hammond now wants to start an incubator, and he thinks that the WRI has an advantage over traditional VCs in this area because it can translate a nonprofit idea into a business. And look for more partnerships from a man who, like other innovators that Markle has funded, cares more about getting things done than abiding by the old rules. "We're not your grandfather's NGO if we're starting an incubator, operating a global-monitoring network, and helping the leaders of the free market commit themselves to social change."

New Media Is Child's Play

The Markle Foundation's New York headquarters is austere and minimalist, full of modern doors with no handles and neat offices with sleek furniture. Well, except for where Alice Cahn works. Walk into her office, and, if you're younger than 12, you'll think you've died and gone to heaven. Perched precariously on the window seat is a heap of fuzzy creatures with googly eyes, including Tickle Me Elmo, Cookie Monster, and a couple of Teletubbies. While most foundation bigwigs adorn their offices with framed pictures of themselves hobnobbing with CEOs and cabinet secretaries, Cahn gets fired up by gazing at a glossy of Big Bird.

It's clear that Cahn likes kids. Sometimes she even acts like one, all gangly arms and legs and staccato bursts of laughter, though she's actually 46 years old. Yet when it comes to the business of children and new media, Cahn is as hard-core as they come. "This is a woman who enjoys what she does, who will speak her mind, who knows the seriousness of what the impact of her decisions will be, and who doesn't go through the day with a long face," says Michael Cohen, managing director of Applied Research & Consulting, a market-research and public-policy firm that has worked with Cahn in the past.

Now Cahn has come to the Markle Foundation to head its new Interactive Media for Children program area. Markle has been involved with kids since the late 1960s and was an early funder of Sesame Street. As the digital world goes mainstream, Markle wants to play just as pivotal a role in the future. "Our obligation to children requires us to inspire a vision for national media," says Zoë Baird. "There is a whole new opportunity to create interactive content in a way that producers can use it. Alice has an ability to pick winners and an ability to understand how kids might respond."

Cahn hasn't been at Markle for very long (she started last May), but already she's making her presence felt. "For the first time in my career, I'm able to give people money instead of asking for money," she says. "And I'm recognizing that we need to be thinking as an industry in an entirely new way. This is an opportunity to avoid repeating the mistakes that we made with children's television."

It sounds a bit strange to hear Cahn talk about the foibles of children's television, since she's been one of its most prominent players. A Long Island native, Cahn was teaching seventh and eighth grade in the late 1970s when she first realized the power of media to teach. So she went back to school for a master's degree in educational technology. She worked in industrial training before moving to public television, where she became director of children's programming at the Public Broadcasting Service and helped put such hits as Arthur, Teletubbies, Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego, and Wishbone on the air. Just before coming to Markle, she spent two years as president of the film, television, and video division of the Children's Television Workshop, home of Sesame Street. She has two children: one is 21; the other is 2.

While Cahn thinks that the right kinds of television shows can help children learn, she also believes that TV, as a mass medium, has limitations. "We burdened television with so many agendas that it never really caught on as the educational tool that it has the opportunity to be," she says. "New media has an opportunity to do something that television never quite accomplished: Offer a seamless blending of education and entertainment." And that's why Cahn has come to Markle. She wants to help the foundation lead the way in figuring out what new media actually does for children. Then she wants to use the foundation's capital as seed funding for products that have the most promise.

For all of the interactive CD-ROMs and Web sites out there, there is little conclusive research on what impact media has on children. That lack of information presents both a problem and an opportunity for Markle, which wants to help create a national research agenda on that topic. Says Cahn: "I don't think that we've scratched the surface as to how helpful technology can be." So she is creating a Web site that will consolidate existing research in a way that enables groups to communicate with one another. The foundation also hosted a conference last October, called "Kids' TV Goes Digital," to bring together people in the online and television businesses to talk about digital media. Markle is also trying to involve parents by getting them to think more about the types of interactive experiences their kids are having. "Parents get a lot of information about what not to let their kids do," Cahn says. "We want to give parents tools to make decisions, rather than to narrow their options."

At the same time, Cahn is getting ready to award grants for new interactive toys and programs that she feels are going to help kids have fun learning. What's most critical, she says, is that the ability of digital technology to personalize a child's experience be handled in the right way. Although a host of products claim to create a custom experience for users, Cahn doesn't think that anyone has unlocked the secret. "That's what changes the creative process," she says, banging the table for emphasis. "Let's say you're a writer of children's material. If you're crafting a narrative, and you're building characters, and you have a message and a story that you want to tell, what does it do to your development process if you know that 7-year-olds have the opportunity to change that story, maybe based on their own inquiry and their own interests and their own needs?"

Whatever Cahn does decide to fund, don't expect her to write a check and go away. "We're annoyingly involved in our people's projects," Cahn says. Annoying for some, perhaps -- but lots of fun for a woman to whom work is really play -- and for a foundation whose work is to make a difference fast.

Jennifer Reingold (jreingold@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in New York. Contact Alice Cahn (acahn@markle.org), Allen Hammond (allen@wri.org), Paul Meyer (paul@ipko.org), or Julia Moffett (jmoffett@markle.org) by email. Learn more about the Markle Foundation on the Web (www.markle.org).

Sidebar: Foundation For Change

Zoë Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, has stitched together a Web of thinkers and innovators who are wrestling with some of the most vexing problems of the digital economy. Under Baird's leadership, Markle is giving away half of its endowment over the next few years. It also is crossing some once-sacred lines in the foundation world: for example, steering resources to for-profit companies if those companies' products fit Markle's objectives. "Our goal is to pursue the potential of interactive media to improve people's lives," Baird says. "We can use money to be a catalyst."

That's the story of Paul Meyer's Child Connect project to reunite missing children in West African refugee camps with their families. Markle gave Meyer $50,000 at the beginning and added more when the effort began to morph into projects in Kosovo. "Everything Paul has done fits perfectly with the Markle approach to projects as the paradigm changes," says Julia Moffett, 32, the foundation's chief strategic officer and a managing director. Although Markle was Meyer's original funder, it wasn't the only one -- and that's the way that Markle likes it, says Moffett. "Do we feel proprietary about Paul? No way. We feel like an incubator."

Unlike many foundations, Markle prefers to be part of a team. The power of ideas, Baird and her colleagues believe, is a function of how many people with different approaches you can bring together. "It's a really interesting foundation," says Allen Hammond, chief information officer at the World Resources Institute. "At the core of its coalitions are people who care about making things happen."

Certainly, Baird's strategy is a risky -- and controversial -- one. Not only is she spending more of the foundation's money than ever, but she's taking chances early, with the full knowledge that some of those projects will fail. Some of Markle's investments, such as $3.5 million in a partnership with Oxygen Media to create a polling organization on issues of interest to women, could be affected by the dramatic downturn in the financial markets. "Market volatility is part of what we anticipate," says Baird. "Whether we're doing something with a nonprofit or a for-profit, we're in uncharted territory."

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