Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I took some time yesterday to catch up on Google Reader, and, apparently, while I was in LA, a new web celebrity emerged. Stacey Monk, founder of Epic Change.

People continue to whisper the story down the lane a little bit, so the legend hasn't solidified, but, from what I gather, it goes a little something like this:

Stacey spent some time last year in Tanzania working with Mama Lucy Kamptoni at a school called Shepherds Junior. Last July, developers bought the land Mama Lucy was renting and started planning for the hotel they'll be building sometime in 2008. Mama Lucy called Stacey. They strategized. And Stacey quit her job to start building Epic Change, a nonprofit that provides loans to schools or other community organizations and works with the organizations to turn their stories into revenue streams to pay back the loans.

In addition to being a social entrepreneur, Stacey's also a bit of a social media junkie, and, one night, as she sifted through Tweet Scan, she found a post from blogger Sam Lawrence about the fact that he wanted to take the night off. She didn't know Sam at the time, but she was feeling outgoing, so she asked him if she could write his post for him. Joking, he told her to go for it. Stacey figured yes meant yes, wrote an article about Epic Change and how it connects to Sam's go big always thesis, and sent it to him. Surprised, he polled the Twitterverse, asking whether or not he should post it. He got a positive response, so he threw it up on the blog. People read it. People liked it. People wrote about it. And now we know Stacey.

While the story of Stacey's past few days is exciting and relevant and worth remembering as the first chapter of a future case study in social media marketing, even more exciting, in my opinion, is Epic Change and the philanthropic family to which it belongs.

Epic Change is part of the next generation of the Ndugu Model.

If anyone has ever seen About Schmidt, you'll remember Ndugu. In the movie, Warren Schmidt, a newly retired midwestern widower played by Jack Nicholson, is up late one night watching TV, when he sees an ad for a sponsor a child type charity. Searching for purpose in his post-career, post-marraige life, he makes an impulse donation and, days later, gets a thick envelope in the mail telling him that he has adopted Ndugu, a Tanzanian first grader. The package encourages him to contact Ndugu directly and leads him to write a stream of hysterically and touchingly long letters about the trials, tribulations, life, and legacy of Warren Schmidt.

So. The Ndugu Model: direct support to individuals, philanthropy brought to life by human contact and return interaction. This being the '90s, instead of letters, checks, print photographs, and drawings in the mail, we have video streaming and blogs and mobile devices beaming OMG LOLs across continents.

And, either way, whether in its old sponsor a child form or in its more scalable online instantiations, the model's good. It pulls small donors deep into causes. It educates. It inspires. It engages. It reminds everyone that we can all contribute; we can all make meaningful change.

And that, I think, is big. There's a lot of resignation out there. A lot of good people feeling helpless. A lot of people with forgotten agency. Ndugu acts as a reminder. Agency remembered breeds optimism. Optimism stirs creativity and cooks up big vision. And big vision recruits the will and resources necessary to organize and execute the projects that make the change.

So, point is, I think Epic Change is smart to focus on storytelling, smart to create person to person contact. It will not only help their organization grow and make a greater contribution, but it will also empower everyone involved to do more good.

I'd like to note here that I think Kiva deserves a lot of credit for putting the online Ndugu Model on the map.

I'd also like to note that I think Wokai is evolving Kiva's ideas in the right direction. Wokai is a retail fundraising and information exchange site for China microfinance founded by some friends of mine. Keep your eyes out for a late summer launch. They are all about storytelling and donor-microentrepreneur interaction.

Finally, I'd like to bug some other friends, the founders of Power Up Gambia and the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, about taking the plunge into individual storytelling and online community exchange. Power Up Gambia is providing renewable electricity to off-grid hospitals. Starfish is working with AIDS orphans. The stories are there. The stories are what has made it possible for the organizations to do the work they've already done. But there's much more to be told. A much wider audience would both love to listen and benefit from doing so. Go big.


Stacey said...

Thanks so much for sharing our efforts! To read the words "web celebrity" in the vicinity of my name and, more importantly, near the words Epic Change is utterly overwhelming. I hope other nonprofits recognize the utility of the social web and take notice of its incredible power for good. It's my sincere hope that we can build upon this blog momentum and word of tweet to encourage giving, participation and meaningful engagement in the stories of some incredible children in Tanzania.

For all the reasons you highlight related to storytelling & personal connection, I welcome the comparison to the Ndugu model. That said, we differ from the traditional "sponsor a child" model in important ways. Most significantly, like Kiva, we don't set up relationships of ongoing dependency on charitable aid. Instead, we provide loans to local social benefit organizations, like Mama Lucy's, and seek to help her build sustainable sources of income to support her efforts for the long-term. We're hoping that by supporting organizations like hers, we're empowering local leadership & respecting self-determination. Additionally, we seek to share authentic stories that raise awareness about the incredible hope & potential that exists within these children. Too often, traditional media and, sometimes, "sponsor a child" nonprofits themselves, focus primarily on stereotypical stories of helplessness and hopelessness that, while perhaps true in part, don't nearly paint the entire picture.

Of course, Epic Change is a new experiment in social innovation. While we've had remarkable success so far, the next 3-4 years will truly show the potential of our unique approach.

I hope you'll stay tuned to see how this plays out. Thanks again for passing on the word!

Jeane Goforth said...

I am a huge fan of Stacey's. She has inspired me with her efforts at Epic Change and personally by email and Twitter.
My son said yesterday that it sounds like we're creating a revolution. I think so. Person-to-person is the only way to go.

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Stacey.

Yeah. Web celebrity. I thought you might like that. If you're not there yet, you're on your way for sure.

And I'm sorry if I drew the comparison too close to the "sponsor a child" model. I realize that you guys are way more sustainable and positive and innovative than that. I just wanted to highlight the fact that you provide that exchange element. You introduce us to Glory and Gideon and Gideon's dad. You introduce us to Mama Lucy. You introduce yourself. You provide stories with real live characters, and that, in my opinion, is what made Warren Schmidt start sponsoring Ndugu and what gave him so much meaning in that relationship.

And the fact that you open up and talk about the experimental nature of the project is important. I think the honesty and openness with which you're approaching this is going to carry the project a long way.

I'll definitely stay tuned.

Good luck.


Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Jeane.

If it's not a revolution, it's one of those shock moments that brings on some seriously accelerated evolution. The weird unpredictable kind that brought things like pelicans and hippos into being (I actually have absolutely no idea what kinds of shocks do what to the speed of evolution; I just think pelicans and hippos are cool).

Thanks for the comment.


Erick B said...

I was searching around for bloggers who've recently mentioned Kiva and I stumbled across your site. Love the Ndugu reference and just posted a little something about it on b4bcommunity.org, the blog for the new kivaB4B project we just launched with Kiva in April. Check it out if you have a chance.

Take care

Erick B

Jake de Grazia said...

Hey Erick.

I read your post, looked through a bunch of the other blog posts on B4B Blog, and watched the video on the Kiva B4B site. Good stuff. Thanks for making me a part of it.

When I first saw your comment, I thought for a second you had written B4BB, something we used at PlaNet Finance China as our acronym for Broadband for Barefoot Bankers.

We did a project with the European Commission, Microsoft, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, and a German IT firm called Fraunhofer FIT the goal of which was to bring basic information technology training to microentrepreneurs and microfinance professionals.

PF China sent me out to coal mining country to do some interviews for our final report, and this is what we made (that's part 1; here's part 2). Not Hollywood grade material by any stretch, but we squeezed this out of a tiny budget, so we were pretty happy with the result.

Just thought of the B4BB connection and figured you might want to see.

Again, thanks for mentioning the blog.

Good luck with B4B.