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A conversation with Mari Kuraishi, President, Jessie Ball duPont Fund

October 07, 2020 1:53 PM | Philanthropy Delaware (Administrator)

(October 06 2020, by Kyoko Uchida, PND Blog) - Jesse Ball du Pont Fund is a Philanthropy Delaware Member Mari Kuraishi came to prominence as president of GlobalGiving, which she co-founded with her husband, Dennis Whittle, in 2002. During her time there, the crowdfunding platform facilitated over $514 million in giving by more than a million donors to twenty-seven thousand projects around the world. In 2011, Kuraishi, who previously had worked at the World Bank, where she spearheaded the launch of the Development Marketplace, was named one of Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers for "crowdsourcing worldsaving." Since January 2019, she has served as president of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in Jacksonville, Florida.

PND recently spoke with Kuraishi — who chaired the board of GuideStar before it combined with Foundation Center in 2019 to form Candid and then served as co-chair of the Candid board during its first year — about the impact of crowdfunding on the global development landscape, her work at the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, and what she has learned about the social sector's response to urgent problems.

Philanthropy News Digest: After seeing firsthand through your work at the World Bank the difficulty local officials and social entrepreneurs often had in securing funding for their development projects, you and your husband co-founded the world's first crowdfunding platform. Back then, what made you think individuals in developed countries would be willing to participate directly in the funding of such projects?

Mari Kuraishi: That is a very good question, because back in 2000 when we left the World Bank there actually was very little evidence that people were ready to give online, let alone to projects based thousands of miles away. To be sure, many generous donors existed, giving to brand-name NGOs like CAREOxfam, or the International Red Cross, but even those organizations were not yet online. Still, we were convinced that individual donors would give if they had a platform through which to do it. We were also sure that changes in technology would transform people's sense of proximity, and we knew that proximity was a key driver of generosity. What we weren't so sure about was how quickly it would happen.

PND: How has the popularity of crowdfunding and crowdfunding sites changed the international development landscape in the last dozen years or so?

MK: That's a little harder to calculate. Crowdfunding has definitely transformed giving in the U.S. since we founded GlobalGiving; online giving now represents almost a tenth of giving overall, starting from almost zero in 2000. That means more than $4 billion flowed through online giving platforms in 2019. What part of that $4 billion goes to international development projects, I can't tell you. But I do know this: in 2002, when we put up the first version of our website, we processed $25,000 in donations. This year it looks like GlobalGiving will process close to $100 million in donations to thousands of project leaders all over the world.

PND: While you were at GlobalGiving, the organization developed a framework of core values that included things like "always open" and "listen, act, learn, repeat." The emphasis on listening, on solutions developed by those on the front lines, and on continuous improvement through evidence-based learning has been adopted by many other nonprofits and foundations in recent years. Do you think what appears to be a gradual shift away from top-down funding models to more bottom-up crowdsourced models is here to stay?

MK: You're speaking right to my confirmation bias. I'm the woman who thought online giving was around the corner at the end of the year 2000. Yes, I think respecting the problem-solving capacities of communities and local leaders is here to stay. Not only are we seeing hashtags like #shiftthepower, we're seeing movements like Black Lives Matter and the Women's March come to the fore, so I cannot help but think that citizen leadership is on the rise. And perhaps I'm splitting hairs here, but it's not necessarily a shift away from top-down to bottom-up, so much as there is a scope for both types of leadership and action — just in different contexts.

PND: You are a firm believer in using data to grow and strengthen trust between funders and nonprofits. Is the sector making progress in that area, and what are some of the challenges that may be slowing that progress?

MK: Yes, I think we are making progress in the use of data to grow and strengthen trust between funders and nonprofits. First, data is easier and cheaper to collect and analyze; we have technology to thank for that. Second, we have emerging standards for what data matters — ranging from the philosophical, conceptual, and qualitative frameworks provided by movements like Leap Ambassadors, centered around the Leap of Reason initiative launched by Mario Morino, to the specific and granular, like the GuideStar/Candid Exchange profile. All of this creates a way for organizations to benchmark their own status and progress. I see three challenges in this regard: first, data scientists are still scarce and expensive in the social sector; second, not as many funders understand how to interpret the data, which means that sometimes we don't make the jump into trust-based philanthropy as readily as we might; and, finally, not everyone agrees that the corollary to greater transparency from nonprofits is more unrestricted funding.

PND: What is your take on how COVID-19 is impacting charitable giving in general and crowdfunding for development projects in particular?

MK: You should probably ask Alix Guerrier, my successor, as he's the man at the helm of crowdfunding in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. I can tell you, though, that what I've heard from grantees at the Jessie Ball duPont Fund — who do not engage in international development — is that their traditional models of fundraising, which rely in great part on in-person events, have taken a hit, and that has spurred them to think a lot more about the potential for crowdfunding to fill the gaps.

PND: The Jessie Ball duPont Fund's grantmaking activities are guided by two strategic themes: equity and placemaking. What are the foundation's top priorities at the moment? And have the COVID-19 crisis and this summer's protests against systemic racism changed how you approach those priorities?

MK: Our priorities are in striking the right balance between seeking specific opportunities for change while also meeting the needs of our grantees and enhancing their resilience and effectiveness. To that end, we've built out an ambitious technical assistance program for grantees focused on fundraising, listening to constituent feedback, building capacity around data and equity, and achieving organizational transparency. The COVID-19 crisis really pushed us to undertake this as a hedge against the speed and magnitude of change that the crisis wrought. The protests against systemic racism redoubled our commitment to equity, which we had identified as a core direction through a strategy review we conducted last year. It has also increased the urgency I personally feel around making sure that we are not perpetuating systemic injustices through the patterns and processes of our grantmaking.

PND: As of the beginning of the year, about a third of the fund's endowment was invested in a socially responsible manner or to achieve a positive social or environmental impact. Can you tell us about the kinds of impact investments the fund is looking to make?

MK: The majority of our socially responsible investments, roughly $108 million, are in portfolios of companies that have been screened for best business practices, such as anti-discrimination, gender and racial equity, workforce development, wealth creation, and anti-pollution, among others.

About 6 percent, $18 million, is invested in high-impact funds and companies focused on affordable housing, support for small businesses, medical/social service tech, and clean energy. Illumen Capital, for instance, has a double bottom line of anticipated market-rate return and social impact. By directing capital to women- and people of color-owned businesses, Illumen finds traditionally overlooked value and doubles down by also working with financial managers to reduce their implicit biases in investing.

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund is largely place-based and about $12 million of our high-impact investments are in the communities Mrs. duPont cared about. These investments have mostly been in community development financial institutions (CDFIs) that provide access to affordable capital to developers, as well as individuals who might not qualify for traditional commercial bank loans but need money for a car, mortgage, or to capitalize a small business.

PND: Asian Americans have not always been front and center in movements for racial and social justice. Why is that, and do you think it is changing?

MK: Yes, you're right that Asian Americans are underrepresented in movements for racial and social justice. But we did have people like Fred Korematsu, who explicitly challenged the internment order for Japanese Americans all the way up to the Supreme Court — and lost — and Yuri Kochiyama, who was at Malcolm X's side when he was assassinated. Both were radicalized by their experience of internment, and perhaps that points to an answer to your question about Asian Americans and racial or social justice. Perhaps, as a community, we have tended to not tell those stories of injustice — except for extremely visible and acute events like the internment — and thereby have not mobilized our own communities. I do think that Asian-American Gen Z-ers and millennials seem to be as fired up as their peers — my personal favorite is K-pop fans mobilizing for Black Lives Matter — but I'll admit my conclusion is based entirely on an anecdote here.

PND: Your professional career has included stints at a huge, well-resourced multilateral organization, at a social enterprise startup, and now at an established private foundation. What have those experiences taught you about the ways in which the social sector responds to urgent problems and about what it might do differently to create more impact and really move the needle on those problems? Are you hopeful it will be able to do so?

MK: That's difficult to distill into a short answer, but here's a take. Large, well-resourced multilateral organizations organize their inputs and subject their business processes to scrutiny, much like large, for-profit multilateral institutions do, with one exception: their results aren't subject to competition. Social enterprise startups usually have to compete to get attention and capital to survive, but many don't have the resources to invest in other resources, such as human capital. The foundation world isn't really impacted by competition, either. I'd say that I was forced into greater accountability and transparency and soul-searching at the startup than at either of the two other places. So, the one thing I might say is that competition, channeled well, matters.

It would be good, I think, for us in the foundation and multilateral-aid worlds, to hold ourselves accountable to a greater degree of transparency, such as benchmarking ourselves to common standards. Of course, I can foresee the potential for dispute around those standards, so perhaps we just start with greater transparency and see where it leads us. But the urgency of the need to become more effective than we are today, I think, is undeniable. It's the only feasible response to what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls the "Full Catastrophe," because in the short run at least, we can't magically come up with more resources to dedicate to the growing list of challenges we face.

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