“Listen to the customer,” Philip Berber told me in a private interview. That was the key business principle he used in building CyBerCorp, which he sold for $488 million in 2000. Berber and his wife Donna used that very same principle when they established the Glimmer of Hope Foundation in the same year to help the people of Ethiopia; they went directly “to the customers” to find out what they needed, and the best way to provide it.
“What do you need?” the Berbers asked people in communities in Ethiopia, starting in Dembi Dollo. The answers, in order: water, education, and healthcare. So far, according to Barron’s, Glimmer has “financed 3,600 water wells, 400 schools and 6,500 microloans, reaching an estimated two million Ethiopians.” So Barron’s ranked the Berbers #6 among the world’s 25 Best Givers, based on effectiveness.
“Cut out the middleman,” says Berber, citing another key business principle. Berber explains that CyBerCorp connected people to the stock exchange by cutting out the stockbroker. Similarly, he says, Glimmer gives money directly to the community, with no middlemen. He contrasts the Foundation’s approach to traditional international aid that has “multiple middlemen siphoning off at least half of the dollars that governments allocate for recipients in developing countries.”
To implement their projects, the Berbers partnered with Ethiopian development associations and self-help groups. “They have the ability, skills, know-how, and will to help themselves,” explains Berber. “They simply needed capital and support.” The Berbers met with and listened to local, indigenous self-help groups to decide which ones to invest in. The groups that achieve results efficiently and effectively get continued funding from the Berbers; the underperformers don’t.
As Ambassador Tibor Nagy explained to me, “The Berbers were different than anyone else I had met in my eight postings and twenty years of service in Africa. For the first time, they were applying entrepreneurial approaches to development and involving the beneficiaries in the planning.”
It’s refreshing to hear a funder recognize and partner with the grassroots efforts on the ground. That where the expertise lies–in the community. And that’s where the long-term investment is–in the community.
The Berbers and Glimmer were recognized by President Bill Clinton at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative. Glimmer tracks, measures, and reports its outcomes on their website. And, because of the Berbers’ endowment and funding, 100% of donor support to Glimmer goes directly to recipients.