New Method of Global Philanthropy Encourages Investing in Local Leaders, Not Start-ups

Posted September 28, 2021

Kirk Bowman, a professor in Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, has spent years going to and from the Global South, learning more and more about its various peoples and cultures. However, it wasn’t until his longtime friend, banker Jon Wilcox, pointed out the potential for increasingly effective global philanthropy in the region that the professor and banker decided to step into the world of global development.

They document their six-year experience testing out a new method of helping underserved communities in their new book, Reimagining Global Philanthropy: The Community Bank Model of Social Development. In it, they talk about providing 32 grants ranging from $1,000 to $25,000 through their nonprofit, Rise Up & Care. The money goes to different organizations in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, marginalized communities of untitled homes. These areas are oftentimes run by gangs or former military or police known as milicias, so residents — especially children — are in need of a peaceful place to spend their free time in healthy ways.

That’s where such organizations as badminton training centers, circuses, theatres, and dance troupes come in. In Reimagining Global Philanthropy, the locals who lead these groups are the heroes, and the grant-givers are their willing sidekicks.

Bowman’s and Wilcox’s research produced such positive results, the professor decided to expand it beyond the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and into the classrooms of Georgia Tech. Bowman recently taught a mini-mester on his research method, and students were so interested in it that he ended up launching a Vertically Integrated Program (VIP) so that students could get hands-on experience applying the principles outlined in the book.

Even Tech’s own George P. Burdell joined in. Burdell authored a children’s book, The Birdieman of Rio de Janeiro, where a young Scout sees a real-life superhero in the leader of a local badminton center. Portuguese copies of the book are given for free to the residents of Rio’s favelas to support children’s literacy, while 100% of the proceeds from the English version go back to those social projects with proven success.

“The students get to have a real impact on these neighborhoods but also have real products that they’re able to work on,” said Bowman. “We at the Nunn School are working on how to improve the human condition and global development at the neighborhood, city, national, and international levels.”

Currently, the VIP students are looking to support organizations in Rio, but also expand to Puerto Rico and Atlanta. To help to support these endeavors, students are producing a second children’s book, and all royalties and speaking fees from Reimagining Global Philanthropy are earmarked for local superhero support. The students are also creating apps that will combat stereotypes and implicit bias and producing more documentary films that will gain attention for the organizations they’re funding, similar to one already made for Rio’s Miratus Badminton Training Center.

Bowman and Wilcox’s methodology for providing grants is based on their community bank model of global philanthropy. This method hast two pillars: First, to empower local leaders who’ve proven themselves to be of good character; and second, to emphasize maximum impact through cost efficiency. Start-ups, especially those run by non-natives, fail to meet these requirements due to their high failure rate, so the community bank model solely funds pre-existing local organizations with a long track record of success. This way, the money can go towards expanding their operations, not cutting through the red tape that’s preventing them from getting off of the ground in the first place.

“We don’t go into a circus or a theatre group and tell them how they should innovate or change their practice,” Bowman said. “We only serve as a supporting role.”

In testing this method across several years and dozens of organizations, Bowman and Wilcox made sure to find non-invasive ways of measuring success. Where most grants come with requirements for large reports that take time and resources, Bowman and Wilcox only asked for one-page breakdowns of what the money had been spent on, knowing that the community leaders were using resources for interventions demonstrated to transform youth.

“What surprised us the most was how committed the organizations were to fulfilling the pledge that they made in their proposal for receiving the grant,” Bowman said. “We’ve had 32 grants; all 32 were able to demonstrate that they spent the money exactly on what it was supposed to be used for.”

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Children in Rio de Janeiro's favelas stand with their badminton equipment and copies of The Birdieman of Rio de Janeiro, written by George P. Burdell. Credit: Kirk Bowman

Credit: Kirk Bowman

Left to right: Jon Wilcox, Sebastião Oliveira (of the Miratus Badminton Training Center), and Kirk Bowman. Credit: Kirk Bowman

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Grace Wyner

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Sam Nunn School of International Affairs | School of Public Policy