We hear it all the time: Investors invest in people, not products or ideas. Marty Zwilling, a veteran start-up mentor, describes people as the great competitive advantage. I wonder what the non-profit world might learn from people like him?

The vast majority, if not all, non-profit foundations and donors are project-focused. In contrast to many angel and traditional investors, they’re primarily interested in the products and ideas. It doesn’t matter too much who has them, as the hundreds of online development competitions and challenges testify. These investments in products and ideas, however helpful and generous they may be, almost always miss one key thing—investment in the person.

We hear it all the time: Investors invest in people, not products or ideas. Tweet This Quote

I’ve long been an admirer of the MacArthur Foundation. They were first out of the traps when FrontlineSMS began to get serious traction in 2007, and became its first donor later that summer. And yes, they invested in the product. For others not so lucky to get funding from them, MacArthur is better known for their Fellows Program, or “MacArthur Genius grants”.

Each year, the Foundation names around twenty-five Fellows who receive a no-strings-attached gift of $625,000 paid over five years. Crucially, the Fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and future potential. What it does, in many cases, is free up the individual financially—pays off a mortgage, covers school fees, living expenses and so on—giving the Fellow total freedom to take risks, be bold, and to pursue their dreams and future work without limitation.

In short, the purpose of the MacArthur program is to “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

Imagine being able to free up some of the greatest minds—conventional and unconventional—to imagine and deliver their own vision of development into the future? Tweet This Quote

MacArthur Fellows are a broad-based bunch. In 2014 they added a physicist, a cartoonist and graphic memoirist, a lawyer, a composer, an engineer, a saxophonist and a poet among others to their cohort. It’s the breadth of the award, the many different disciplines it touches, which makes the program so inspiring and effective. The only restriction is that all fellows need to be residents or citizens of the United States.

Isn’t benefiting human society, in essence, what the non-profit world is all about? Tweet This Quote

I can’t help but wonder what the non-profit sector might achieve with a similar approach. Imagine if a large, private Foundation picked half-a-dozen people working in global development—people with a track record of vision, thought-leadership and execution working and living anywhere in the world—and supported them in a similar way? Imagine being able to free up some of the greatest minds—conventional and unconventional—to imagine and deliver their own vision of development into the future?

Freeing them up financially would, in the same way as the MacArthur Fellowship, allow them to be bold and brave with their ideas, and in the same way “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.” Isn’t benefiting human society, in essence, what the non-profit world is all about?

Give a clear signal that people matter, and acknowledge that people drive change, not ideas. Tweet This Quote

A program like this could have significant impact, and the costs would be minimal in the grand scheme of things. It could unleash projects, products and ideas—which might not have materialized otherwise—from people who have already shown they can deliver. And it would give a clear signal that people matter, and acknowledge that people drive change, not ideas.

In a blog post from 2009, I talk about the need to inspire and support the very best in our field. We’ll only tackle some of the bigger problems facing us if we do:

In the mobile world we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the “mobile for development” field, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there.

A private foundation, or group of foundations, should find it easy enough to pool a few million dollars each year to develop a “Global Development Fellows Program” to support a dozen or so of the best leaders and thinkers in the field. I know from my own experience, as I transition from a relatively ‘free’ period in my professional life to one where my priorities now lie much closer to home, how much a program like this would positively impact my ability to continue to push the boundaries in my own work.

Recognizing the need to do a little more “investing in people”—and then doing it—would be the best signal yet Tweet This Quote

Things may be a little too late for me, assuming I was ever considered worthy enough for such an award, but it would be my hope that it won’t be too late for others. I already see many talented people ‘selling out’, moving into the corporate world or finding a changing ‘work/life’ balance a challenge.

Global development can’t afford to keep losing people like this. If it really does want to be seen to be innovative, and really is serious about tackling some of the biggest problems facing the planet today, recognizing the need to do a little more “investing in people”—and then doing it—would be the best signal yet.

About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.