Are we as impactful as we think?
I think the startup world can sometimes have an inflated sense of impact. Don't get me wrong, all technology has an impact on the way we live - but let's not fool ourselves: the majority of us aren’t building products that will tackle our most pressing global challenges.
So in this sense, I do agree with the widely touted notion that Silicon Valley is a a bubble, but not because of inflated conpany valuations or cultural stereotypes. Rather, because we can get so absorbed with the next funding round or the latest investment trend that we lose sight of the bigger picture.
The turning point
I discovered Founders Pledge at just the right time. I’d lived in Silicon Valley for many years, and it felt to me like the culture was changing. Despite a carefully maintained image - that of the quintessentially mission-driven and ‘alternative’ startup lifestyle - I saw attention increasingly reserved for the financial bottom line.
Founders Pledge seemed like an antidote to this shift. My pledge also afforded me a way to engage with social topics and challenges; challenges that exist outside of the virtual space my daily work revolves around, but that I found interesting and engaing when I finally took the time out for them.
With FP's assistance, I donated a portion of my proceeds from the Sunrise acquisition to some of the most evidence-backed and transparent charities in the world.
I decided early on to focus on climate change, which has been a concern of mine since the moment I realised how interlinked it is with all other causes out there. It’s not just the domain of polar bears and exotic birds. It's in the realm of human rights, political conflict, poverty, natural disasters, and global health. To put it in perspective: The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030, 250,000 additional people will die each year due to the effects of climate change.
It always seemed like an impossibly big problem to have any effect on, but I figured FP could help change that.
I also decided to look at a few different routes to impact. Founders Pledge made me realise that donating isn’t that different from investment (except you’re optimising for social impact), so it just made good sense to me to ‘diversify my portfolio', so to speak.
A systemic approach
One of the significant problems that underpin climate change is our broken food system. Factory farms accounts for 99% of US animal produce. Not only are their conditions ethically abhorrent in terms of animal rights and human health; animal farming is also the third largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change.
But for habits to change at scale, alternative choices will have to become more accessible, desirable, and affordable.
The Good Food institute (GFI) works on the supply side of the food system challenge. They promote the development of commercial alternatives to animal based foods, by supporting food-tech researchers and startups. They also engage in policy work around food systems.
GFI have since their inception been exceptionally committed to effective and efficient operations, much like a great tech startup would. So far, they’ve seen some great successes: they’ve launched and supported plant based and clean meat (meat grown from cells outside an animal) companies from early- to late-stage, partnered with food scientists to support innovation, and worked with regulators at FDA and USDA to secure a competitive marketplace for meat substitutes. In other words, they were someone I felt very confident would use a donation productively and wisely.
A mitigation approach
Innovation in sustainable technology will be crucial to fighting climate change, but it’s difficult to predict what will work. So I also wanted to invest in a tried and tested intervention that I could know for sure would have an effect. Research has found that preserving our natural carbon sinks is one of the most cost-effective strategies in this category.
Rainforest conservation has been around for 60 years, yet half of the forest has disappeared since then. It’s clearly a sector that needs some shaking up.
Cool Earth works on underlying problems rather than symptoms. Instead of buying land to preserve it, they work with indigenous communities in the forest, providing them with financial stability and incentives to reject loggers attempting to destroy the forest.
The idea in itself is brilliant - you economically empower local communities, incubate long-term, climate friendly businesses, and protect the forest - all at the same time. But more importantly: it has been estimated as an outstandingly cost-effective project for off-setting carbon emissions.
They're diligent in measuring outcomes, and transparent about their results: both failures and successes. In other words, they're willing to learn from their mistakes - a quality that isn't always easy to come by in the charity sector. You can see their director explaining their disruptive approach in this video by FP.
So far, they’ve saved 900,000 acres of forest, empowered 118 villages, and locked in 234,436,540 tonnes of Co2. They estimate a further 5,000,000 acres are indirectly shielded because of the strategic positioning of protected areas.
A revolutionary approach
I’d never felt especially drawn to the huge multi-national aid organisations we hear about most often, and could never put my finger on exactly why. That is, until I learned about GiveDirectly, and something clicked.
GiveDirectly is based on two simple but game-changing principles:
1. People themselves know best what they need.
When we think about charity, we tend to think of in-kind gifts: shipments of clean water, bags of rice, textbooks, goats. But why not empower people to make the choicest that are best for their unique situation? (After all, if every family in your community gets a goat, you’re not gonna have much luck selling milk to garner some savings).
GiveDirectly transfer cash payments directly to recipients in extreme poverty in East Africa.
2. Operational effectiveness.
By giving directly to recipients through mobile payment, GiveDirectly reduce risks of corruption and fraud, slash operational costs, and avoid a very real dilemma most aid still faces: giving people things that aren’t actually the most useful to them. Cash transfers are also some of the most well-researched programs in the international development space, and these studies show that recipients overwhelmingly spend the funds in productive ways, leading to long-term benefits.
GiveDirectly constantly improve their services by collecting customer feedback from all their recipients (rather than just their donors!) They even make all their key performance metrics available to the public in real time on their website. They’ve had external impact assessments done on their programs and been 100% open about the results. That's real transparency for you.
The most important lesson I’ve learnt from this process isn't actually to do with any one cause area; it's that social impact is a lot more complex than it seems from the outside. Which is why I decided to write about my donation: if we can get a open discussion going about the social impact of the tech sector, we can all start to apply ourselves more actively to social challenges - whether through philanthropy or business practices (hopefully, both!) and make it the norm to concern ourselves with the problems that matter most.
Originally published on 5 January 2018