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.

  • kiwanja

    I hope you enjoyed the post! I’m curious what people think about the approach, and whether funders could have more impact by investing more in people than projects. For most it would mean quite a change of approach, and perhaps a controversial one at that.

    Worth a try?

  • Erin Todd

    I agree. This is a cool concept and approach to fueling innovation. The hard thing is many people lack faith in humanity. How does an idea like this create a safe comfort so to speak that the money these people receive is not going to be used foolishly? I am curious to what the criteria is for choosing these winners..

  • kiwanja

    I think with MacArthur, Erin, there is no guarantee that prize money will not be used foolishly. But the character of the winners would dictate otherwise. When you think about the amount of official development funding that gets lost/misallocated/misused I think anything is worth a go.

  • conner_faulkner

    I agree it is worth a try!

  • conner_faulkner

    Great and interesting article!

  • Mdraymore

    When I first read the article I was a little skeptical about the idea, but after thinking about it I do agree with and really like the idea. I believe the process to find the right people would have to be very comprehensive and in depth to make sure the right people receive the money. I also think investing in people (just like the MacArthur Genius grants do) will work well for non-profit people not only because it will free up time and money, but it will also make it so more money raised can go to the non-profit instead of to salaries. Overall, I like the idea of investing in people.

  • JakeEllis7

    I think you are one hundred percent correct about the great minds who want to live a normal life and have the everyday struggle of balance. An incentive such as the MacArthur Fellowship would be a fantastic way to help these people provide for their families and free up their time to focus on the global problems we face around the world.

  • Matthew Montoya

    I think these are both excellent points! I think that investing in nonprofit organizations, especially with respect to the amazing people who’s ideas spark their impact is an amazing concept. I think that nonprofit organizations are too often under a strict microscope for every dollar they spend, which can drastically halt their ability to make a long standing impact on the issues that prompted them to create a nonprofit organization in the first place. I think if investors really focused on the amazing potential people within the nonprofit sector have (maybe not all are amazing, but most) those leaders can then invest in the areas that would help their organizations most! I think it takes a special investor to do so, but I would challenge more investors to think this way! Awesome read!

  • Pauline Lefeuvre

    I am joining Mdraymore about the fact that I was skepctical after a first reading : how awarding someone with that much money without being sure it will not be spent foolishly ? But I guess that the whole idea of investing in people is also an answer to this question is the sense that the Foundation trusts those Fellows and they put great hopes in the way they can enhance global development. We live in a world where trusting the others is not instinctive and I really like this project as it helps trust people more for the great ideas they can provide!

  • Solar Sister

    Ken – checkout Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation – they practice this approach of investing more in people than projects – people with a solid idea and a passion for change – but it is their investment decision is driven by the investment in the person, and provides 3 years of unrestricted funding and a mentor. Very VC approach to social investment.

  • kiwanja

    @Matthew – Donors certainly do find their work put under the microscope, and it can make them so afraid of failure that they only fund ‘safe bets’. But all that said, so many projects fail to meet their objectives despite the caution. The current approach has failed for so long – we just need some bravery to try something else/new.

    @Solar_Sister – Thanks for highlighting this. I’ll certainly take a look!

    Everyone else, thanks for the comments! I’m glad this resonates. We just need it to with a few more rich foundations. 🙂

  • One of my all-time role models & who I would consider was a trailblazer in bringing health care to people living in poverty is Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health. He was a MacArthur Fellow as well and I think is just another example of why MacArthur Foundation is amazing and more foundations should follow suit and invest in people.

    @kiwanja:disqus , this is one of the best arguments and points I’ve heard for why nonprofits should change their approach to making an impact. Thank you for sharing your brilliance with us yet again =)

  • Thanks for this point @disqus_57JN3HmM4P:disqus ! What do you think it would take for investors & nonprofit administration alike to change their their mindset?

  • Thanks for this comment @Mdraymore:disqus ! What made you skeptical upon your first read of this article? Thanks for sharing!

  • Matthew Montoya

    @Cat George, I think like @kiwanja mentioned in a comment a couple below this one, “The current approach has failed for so long – we just need some bravery to try something else/new.”

    I think on the end of nonprofits, nonprofit leaders need to have the courage (not to say they do not have any already) to be upfront with investors to note that without adequate funding for components of the organization like development, the recruitment of talent, even marketing practices, the organization will not have nearly the impact it would with those components sound in place. I think both nonprofit leaders and investors alike acknowledge the critical role nonprofits play in attempting to tackle some of the worlds greatest issues. However, I think nonprofit leaders need to point out the genuine impact that can be made with the help of genuine investors who trust those leaders to make the biggest impact in the long run.

    I think at the same time this issue requires investors to also have a great deal of courage. Sure on the end of investors, there may be other interests as stake such as having to show where funding goes in order to satisfy stakeholder requests and more. But at the same time I think that if investors stop for a moment, and think to themselves, why has poverty remained at the same rate for so long? Why are so many families going to bed hungry every night? Why are all these issues still so prevalent when nonprofit organizations work themselves tirelessly to alleviate such issues? I think investors need not question the ability of nonprofits to solve the issues because they still exist, but rather they should question the framework instituted that harshly limits nonprofits ability to invest in the things they need most (such as those mentioned above). I think investors can genuinely help nonprofits change the world, but they need the courage to stand against the current system, they need to use their genuine interest in alleviating these issues to trust nonprofit organizations to use their funding in the best ways to accomplish their goals.

    I think this shift can definitely happen. In fact, I would challenge any student planning on entering the work force to drive this change. Be an investor with the courage to be the root of change for the better. And if a student is going into the nonprofit sector, I would challenge them to show investors just how important funding for necessary business components can make a bigger impact on the causes they set out to solve.

    Together, I think nonprofit leaders and investors alike can change the world for the better!

  • kiwanja

    Thanks, @catgeorge:disqus! 🙂

  • thanks for this thoughtful & compelling comment Matthew Montoya ! I think Ken Banks’ article here makes an impressive point and call-to-action for nonprofits in shifting their approach to impact from trying to solve problems themselves (that as you mention, we have seen a repetitive history of nonprofits & policies tackling big problems without making the type of dent we would be see by now.) to instead putting their money toward the best people who can change the game – instead of using nonprofit money to try and put a dent on poverty, what if more nonprofits (like MacArthur) used that money on 100 individuals & trailblazers identified as having great potential & problem solving ability to create innovative solutions? For instance, giving more incentive for next-generation leaders to go into a career that defies the status quo and provides insurance to increase courage & being a leader? The students you challenge (and I whole-heartedly agree!) to be catalysts of change as they enter the work force?

    Also, while I 100% agree that on-the-ground, for-profit solutions led by world-class leaders, creatives & entrepreneurs are the greatest opportunity of our time to put a dent on big f*#&in’ problems that no one has yet to solve (poverty, access to water, health), I disagree that right now those types of companies (for-profit but impact driven) have access to the resources you mention that non-profits are lacking. In fact, having worked for both the non-profit & for-profit companies, I actually had more access to those ammenities you mention at the non-profit organization I worked for (bigger organizational budget, bigger team, higher salary, more benefits). I think impact-driven, for-profit companies who approach impact & change with for-profit solutions have the opportunity to build toward having equal access to those perks seen at most for-profit companies (and large non profits), but it will take pushing resources – like @kiwanja mentions in this article – toward people and not the problem itself from non-profits to help get us there faster, and to a better world in which no one is limited by their circumstances. p.s. I tweeted a quote from your comment on @Unreasonable for making a damn good point =)