One Way to Alleviate Global Poverty? Fund the World’s Social Entrepreneurs

Project Redwood, launched at a Stanford GSB class reunion, gives early-stage grants to innovative social impact companies.

November 15, 2019

| by Beth Jensen

This family received flooring from EarthEnable, which was funded by Project Redwood.| Jacques Nkinzingabo

They stepped out of the classroom nearly 40 years ago, but members of Stanford GSB Class of 1980 are still working together to leverage their skills, experience, and resources to help the world’s most impoverished people.

Now they’re reaching out to all Stanford GSB alumni to keep that work going.

Their organization — Project Redwood — was born at the 25th class reunion, during a panel discussion on giving back to the community.

“One of our alumni, Carol Head, looked around and said, ‘With all the resources we have here, we should be able to do something collectively,’ ” recalls Project Redwood charter member and former cochair Donna Allen. “So we started talking about ideas.”

Today, Project Redwood provides funding, expertise, and networking to social entrepreneurs working to alleviate global poverty. To date, the organization has invested over $2.3 million around the world, completed 102 projects, and improved the lives of over 373,000 people. With those numbers growing each year, the group is now in a full-out push to expand its membership well beyond the original 300 members of the Class of 1980.

“We realized, first, that we aren’t going to live forever,” jokes Amy Minella, who, along with Rick Agresta, cochairs Project Redwood’s board of directors. “But secondly, we love working with each other, doing really good things, and having an impact on the world. But we could have a bigger impact. Our strategy is to expand, to reach out to other classes. There are thousands of alumni, and we need to make them aware that we’re here and to get them engaged.”

Slow Beginnings

The organization has had its growing pains. Contacting the 300 members of the Class of 1980 took much longer than anyone expected (approximately half of the members have participated in Project Redwood). There was debate as to whether the group would support programs solely in the U.S. or internationally. The criteria for selecting projects had to be refined. The group needed philanthropic administrative assistance (today it receives that support from the Tides Foundation). And then there was the mission itself.

“Initially, we came up with the idea of addressing global poverty, but that was a very wide umbrella,” Allen recalls. “We re-evaluated the fact that we were all business school graduates and decided we wanted to focus on improving the status of people living in poverty through education, training, and job creation.”

Project Redwood participants are either “partners” (donating $2,000 to $25,000 annually) or “members” (donating over $250 annually). Both groups are responsible for nominating projects for consideration, with each nominee undergoing careful research and vetting before being put to a membership vote. The group sponsors eight to 11 projects yearly; grants can be repeated, but organizations must reapply yearly. Awards average $25,000 each and are designed to provide the “catalytic capital” needed by organizations in early-stage development.

Project Redwood was one of our very early funders and having that kind of catalytic funding was critical in our early stages.
Gayatri Datar

“We’re looking for organizations that have made it through the initial period, where they’ve gotten friends and family to give and are starting to get a business plan and business model together,” says Minella. “They want to do more, but they need money and they need to test their model. What we like are the ones where they’re at the beginning of a project they think will be big — a game changer. Our grants of $25,000 go a long way overseas.”

Making a Difference

Based in Rwanda, grantee EarthEnable received a total of $75,000 in Project Redwood funding (2014–17). EarthEnable battles malnutrition, infections, and the spread of vector-borne diseases by helping families replace dirt floors with inexpensive and cleanable hard flooring. The program has replaced floors in over 4,000 homes in 300 villages, expanded into Uganda, and today employs 500 people.

Project Redwood Grantees

A small sample of the numerous organizations that Project Redwood has funded:

  • Aid for Africa (Africa): Support for a range of organizations helping youth
  • BUILD (U.S.): Education via entrepreneurship coursework in poor U.S. communities
  • Care to Help (Vietnam): Provide schools for poor minority mountain communities
  • Child Aid (Guatemala): Train teachers to improve education for indigenous populations
  • Compatible Technology International (Nicaragua): Install water purification systems and train local water committee members
  • Embrace (India, other locations): Create and implement use of warmers for underweight infants
  • Farming Hope (U.S.): Teach homeless to grow, cook and serve food to qualify for jobs in food service
  • Mercado Global (Guatemala): Train indigenous women in weaving, provide U.S. market for products
  • Miracle Feet (Various): Train on use of brace to correct clubfoot in developing countries
  • Rural Agency for Development (Kenya): Award loans to rural poor to start businesses

“Project Redwood was one of our very early funders and having that kind of catalytic funding was critical in our early stages,” said Stanford alum Gayatri Datar, MBA ’14, cofounder and CEO of EarthEnable. “It’s a fantastic organization for early-stage organizations to access grant capital.”

Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability International works in Central America to provide clean drinking water systems and fuel-efficient ovens to the region’s poorest residents. The ovens were originally designed to give families a safer and more fuel-efficient cooking method but are now being used by many women to establish micro-bakeries that employ local residents. Project Redwood grants in 2017 and 2018 totaling $45,000 were used to help fund an entrepreneurship program for those women.

“We provide rigorous training to our clients on the operation of the oven, the use of different grains in baking, and bakery commercialization — how you track cost, set prices, and market to customers. All of this increases the women’s success rate,” says EOS International cofounder and CEO Wes Meier. “Project Redwood’s diligent review process has challenged us to analyze our programs, which has resulted in improved reporting and better outcomes. The multi-year funding was critical; it’s hard to plan sustainable development when you only have funding for a year.”

In Kenya, Uganda, and Senegal, the organization Development in Gardening has been funded eight times by Project Redwood. The organization works to improve the nutrition, quality of life, and livelihoods of some of the world’s most vulnerable people by teaching them to plant restorative gardens that promote health, wealth, and a deeper sense of community belonging. DIG partners with local clinics and community organizations to create demonstration gardens and teaches growing techniques, the importance of nutritional diversity, and marketing strategy to farmers and other participants, who take those lessons home to their communities.

The skills, knowledge, and networking capability of Project Redwood partners have been as important to DIG’s success as the grants received, says the group’s cofounder and executive director Sarah Koch.

“Project Redwood partners want to maximize their network and their intellectual knowledge to fill in the gaps we have,” says Koch. “Some years we haven’t gotten funding, but Project Redwood has supported us all along our trajectory as a committed partner that won’t just give funding and walk away and leave you in the lurch. The partners are interested in long-term, sustainable impact and will work with you to achieve that.”

Daraja Academy in Kenya, a high school for high-potential girls who would not otherwise receive a secondary education, has received four grants from Project Redwood totaling $100,000. The grants fund a transition program following graduation, since students in the region commonly face an extended lag time before beginning college.

“The girls are really at risk during this time — there’s a higher risk of pregnancy and marriage and there’s a lot of peer pressure. We want to fill this gap,” says academy cofounder Jenni Doherty. “During this time they learn life skills such as how to open a bank account, how to get an ID card, and how to do personal finances. They then do a two-month internship with partners we know, so we can keep track of them. The end result is that they’re miles ahead of their peers in terms of confidence.”

Leveraging Expertise

While monetary support is critical, the expertise of Project Redwood’s volunteer community of Stanford GSB alumni is also invaluable, says Doherty. Partners share their knowledge and experience with grantees at mid-term reporting meetings, as well as during periodic videoconferences with groups of grantees.

“Partners get involved with the projects and that’s my favorite part; they sit down with you and ask ‘How is it going? How can we help?’ ” Doherty says. “They’re taking information from a Stanford MBA perspective, along with their own life experience, and combining those to provide a level of expertise that’s incredibly helpful. There’s a sense that it’s very formal and process-oriented, but also very approachable and friendly; they’re not just grantors. I feel like at any point I could call any member of the grant committee for support.”

That support provides the vital credibility a young organization needs to scale, Doherty adds.

“There’s a time in an organization when you really need someone to believe in you; when you have just enough of a track record to prove you can do it, but you may not be a candidate for grant funding from a larger organization,” she says. “Project Redwood, in its entrepreneurial spirit, is willing to take a risk on you and, with that, you feel like you can achieve it.”

“The credibility that comes with Project Redwood attached to your name is a big deal,” Doherty says. “Once you explain that it’s a group from Stanford Graduate School of Business, they all nod their head.”

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