As technology continues to evolve and reshape our everyday lives, it stands to reason that the world of philanthropy would change along with it. This group of young trailblazers is embracing changing technologies and new business models—in both for- and not-for-profit businesses—that advance altruism in more efficient and transparent ways than ever before. —Brooke Kelly and Ann Loynd
Adam Braun, MissionU
Adam Braun—the New York Times bestselling author behind The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change—was on the fast-track for a breakout career on Wall Street when he was traveling abroad during his tenure at Brown University. He met a young boy on the streets of India who said what he wanted most in the world was “a pencil.” That moment inspired Braun to found Pencils of Promise, which has since built nearly 400 schools around the world. His latest venture is MissionU, which reimagines the broken higher education system in the United States by providing career-focused skills in a yearlong program.
Q: How do you define philanthropy?
A: Philanthropy represents each individual’s effort to improve the well-being of others, regardless of contribution size or form. Personally, I view nonprofit organizations as “for-purpose” companies because they’re doing just that—members have a unified purpose and vision to make a certain impact in the world.
Q: Is it changing?
A: Philanthropy is an ever-evolving sector and fortunately is a space that is now encouraging participation from people across all ages and socioeconomic positions. Most notably today, technology and, specifically, social media, has become an extremely powerful tool for philanthropists; it’s a valuable way to develop grassroots and crowdfunding campaigns that enable people
to share their messages far and wide via several channels and platforms.
Q: What’s wrong with affordable education in this country?
A: Student debt in America is rising at an alarming rate (currently at an all-time high of $1.4T), and the Brookings Institution estimates that as many as 40 percent of students could be in student loan default by 2023. Currently, universities do not have a proper financial model in place and do not teach the necessary skills to succeed in the present and future nature of work, therefore leaving graduates jobless and financially unstable. With MissionU, we’re offering a program that teaches students the hard, soft, and technical skills that are crucial in order to succeed in today’s most in-demand jobs, while offering a unique cost structure.
Q: What made you want to start your career in nonprofits?
A: Originally, I started my career at Bain & Company but was always interested in becoming an entrepreneur to impact education. I believe education is the great enabler of opportunity, and it’s incredibly inspiring to see that learning transforms into livelihood for those who better themselves through education.
Morgan Curtis, Morgan Lane / Breast Cancer Awareness
It was inevitable that Morgan Curtis, daughter of designer Jill Stuart, would someday launch a fashion line of her own. Curtis founded lingerie and sleepwear brand Morgan Lane in 2014, after working for her mother for years, while also helping launch Solid & Striped. She was, and has always been, enthused by Stuart’s passion for her work, and longed to be the driving force behind a brand tailored to her very own interests. Lingerie is a symbol of female empowerment for many today and, fittingly, she’s used the brand to spread awareness for breast cancer, the most common cancer among women. Most recently, she collaborated with Pink Agenda and developed a limited-edition embroidered sleep wear mask, and 60 percent of proceeds went to the charity. More exciting initiatives are underway for 2018.
Q: What motivated you to build the Morgan Lane brand?
A: I love all the little details that go into intimates. I think women have a personal relationship with their lingerie that differs from their connection to ready-to-wear. It’s their little secret or treasure, that only they or their loved ones can see.
Q: What is your biggest inspiration?
A: My mother, designer Jill Stuart. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always been fascinated by my mother’s energy and passion. She truly loves what she does and puts everything she has into it. When designing for Morgan Lane, I have a bond with the items I create and my collections reflect my character and personality. She always taught me to stay true to myself and not to design things I wouldn’t personally wear.
David Gilboa, Warby Parker
“We really started the company to solve our own problems,” remembers Warby Parker co-founder David Gilboa (below, left). He recounts the time he lost his only pair of $700 eyeglasses during a backpacking trip in college. As a full-time student, he had no choice but to go an entire semester without a pair of glasses, and, as he says, “complained to anyone who would listen.” His plight fell on the ears of friend and classmate Neil Blumenthal (below, right), who had spent several years running a nonprofit called VisionSpring.
“He knew there was no reason that glasses are as expensive as they are in the developed world since he was producing glasses for people living on less than $4 a day,” Gilboa adds. “Through his work there, he knew the magnitude of the issue, and we felt there was a really big opportunity to create a consumer-friendly brand, but to also create an organization that did good in the world.” In 2010, the duo founded Warby Parker to provide accessible eyewear with a buy-a-pair, give-a-pair model.
Q: How does Warby Parker’s one-for-one model differ from comparable structures, like TOMS?A: We work with nonprofits like VisionSpring that are training men and women to become entrepreneurs themselves. They administer eye tests, explain the value, and sell them to the community. So, it creates jobs and a market-based solution that forces people to be willing to pay for it, even those who are living on a few dollars a day. Pure charity models that are just giving things away can have unintended consequences. This market-based model avoids these pitfalls.
Q: Are there other ways Warby Parker gives back?
A: There’s a need here in the United States as well. In New York City public schools, there are 200,000 kids who need glasses but don’t wear them. They’re often misdiagnosed as ADD or placed into special education programs. In reality, they can’t see the board. We paired up with the mayor’s office to provide free vision tests in 227 community schools around New York and have just set up a similar program in Baltimore.
Q: How is philanthropy changing?
A: We’re unapologetically a for-profit company, but we think there’s an opportunity to build businesses that do good in the world. Our mission is to do that through our own customers, but also through partnerships with great nonprofits. As the world becomes more connected, there’s more awareness around issues that are impacting the world, and there are new platforms that enable solutions to be crafted. Hopefully, through some of our efforts, we’re creating awareness and excitement for other entrepreneurs and philanthropists.
Danielle Lauder, Breast Cancer Research Foundation
Danielle Lauder, only 23 years old, may be a rising star in acting with recent roles in films like The Charnel House, but the hustle and bustle of the entertainment industry certainly doesn’t steal her attention away from charitable endeavors. On the contrary, she has used her career as a vehicle to amplify her voice and raise awareness for issues like breast cancer.
Q: What does philanthropy mean to you and what inspired you to become involved?
A: My biggest inspiration is definitely my family. I learned and was taught by my parents and grandparents that any success is only further enriched by giving back. Most importantly, giving not just a check to any random organization, but finding something you care about and doing something to make a difference. To me, philanthropy is a passion. In my years of schooling and experiences around the world, I found my voice in the vague theme of “philanthropy” by starting with giving back to the school I went to from K through 12. With my family’s support, I was able to build a black box theater, which was a creative space for students to use as an artistic escape and playground.
Q: Which organizations are you most passionate about?
A: Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). My grandmother, Evie, started this organization and fiercely dedicated herself to it. To this day, women still come up to me and let me know how my grandmother would respond to letters personally that she would receive from women diagnosed with breast cancer across the country. I am also very passionate about mental health and recently worked with the Linda E. Marshall Foundation to raise funds and awareness for OCD research and treatment.
Q: How do you balance this work with your career in acting?
A: It is completely part of my acting career. Studying theater and film allows me to understand the emotional aspects of philanthropy, and being an actress and filmmaker has been a great space to find my voice and use it. These past few years, since graduating from Northwestern, I have found that I want to create, inspire, and make a difference with the acting projects I am involved in. I hope my philanthropic passions can be part of my future projects.
Liam Krehbiel, A Better Chicago
In 2010, Liam Krehbiel founded A Better Chicago after 10 years of working in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Why? Aside from his passion to promote education in his home city, Krehbiel was frustrated with “charity as usual” and set out to create a model that was more effective. So he put his MBA in finance from Northwestern and experience in investment banking to use in a way that would give back to the community with A Better Chicago, a venture philanthropy fund.
“We call ourselves that because we want to emphasize that we’re a clean break from charity as usual,” Krehbiel explains. “We’re more of a high-performing private equity fund than a typical nonprofit.” The result is a program that operates with 100-percent impact, which means when a donor offers funds, all of it goes to A Better Chicago’s affiliates, and not the business’s operating expenses (which are underwritten by the board).
Q: How do you view philanthropy today?
A: Philanthropy, when it’s done well, is a catalyst. It helps to identify and incubate new ideas that have the potential to change our world. That to me is to where philanthropy is at its best use, but it’s also changing. There’s more of a focus on data, outcomes, transparency, and accountability. More and more, donors want to fund things that work, as opposed to just funding things that sound nice. We need more transparency and evaluation of programs to make sure they’re actually working.
Q: What needs to change?
A: Far too much for philanthropy is still reactionary and based on who your friends are or a compelling commercial, as opposed to what’s actually working. There’s a study done recently that uncovered the percentage of donors who are thinking about impact or doing research, and it was only three percent.
Q: What is the ethos behind A Better Chicago?
A: A Better Chicago was founded on two beliefs. First: education changes everything. Education is the single-most impactful investment you can make. We’re dealing with huge income inequality, a lot of issues around violence, and a very polarized political landscape. All of those things can be best addressed by providing education and, therefore, economic opportunity. Second: Charity as usual is punching way below its weight. We believe we need to radically rethink charity.
The Elias Sisters, The Vintage Twin
New York sister act Morgan and Samantha Elias didn’t set out to be philanthropists. In 2009, the Elias twins (then 19 years old) were best known for sporting their reworked vintage pieces, and they were constantly stopped by friends and strangers alike who wanted to know where to find such unique items. Eying a hole in the market for one-of-a-kind options, the duo founded their brand, The Vintage Twin, and set out to solve the issue of harmful mass-production in the process. Ever since, their unique creations (sold online and at pop-up shops throughout New York City) have garnered recognition from the fashion community and have been profiled in W, Elle, and Galore.
“We wanted to quench the thirst for individuality and bring sustainable fashion to the masses,” Samantha recalls. “We also used recycled or salvaged fabric to create new designs,” Morgan adds. “It’s basically a win-win: nobody else will own the same thing as you, and you’re also creating less demand for the mass production of new goods, which is so bad for the environment.” Aside from lightening the load (30 million tons, to be exact) of mass-produced goods Americans throw into landfills each year, The Vintage Twin donates 10 percent of proceeds to charity.
Q: How do you determine the organizations to donate to?
Morgan: We donate to causes that are close to us. In the past, we’ve donated to Autism Speaks, Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, Active Minds, and Global Lyme Alliance.
Samantha: We also just partnered with Planned Parenthood for an event a few weeks ago.
Q: How do you look at the world of philanthropy?
Samantha: Philanthropy is no longer a phenomenon only applicable to the rich and famous. Brands like ours and like TOMS have helped to bring philanthropy to the hands of individuals, young and old.
Q: How does your concept differ from other vintage concepts?
Morgan: We re-brand every item that you sell so you can never mistake it from something that you thrifted. You can rely on our curated selection being on-trend and relatable. In the world of vintage clothing, this is a luxury, because we hand-pick the best pieces, so you don’t have to go digging through piles of stuff.
Samantha: Our Jeanius Bar is exclusive to The Vintage Twin. In an experience that feels a bit like a magic trick, a Jeanius takes one look at you and selects the perfect pair of jeans for you from thousands of pairs that we have on-hand.
Q: What’s next for you two?
Samantha: We are working on more original designs made from salvaged fabric, tech-enabling our business, and want to start expanding to other cities soon. We’re just getting started.