Background on UP’s New Search We embarked on Unorthodox Philanthropy (UP) with the intention of experimenting with a new sourcing model, evaluating opportunities based on their potential endgame rather than short-term output metrics, and prioritizing efforts that have a clear financing pathway at scale. We believe that we have validated some of our original hypotheses and recognize that there are more funders now focused on endgames and systems change, potentially making our approach less novel and value-added. We will continue to support several of our existing grantees that are pursuing their pathway to scale.
After a review of our portfolio, we found that a successful strategy is to enable a passionate individual or team to pursue something new or different and that they otherwise might not have without catalytic funding. We have witnessed the magic of combining early, flexible funding with a powerful entrepreneurial drive to do good in the world. Sometimes the specifics of the idea or effort change, but we have seen how a dedicated and creative leader can surpass all expectations to achieve outsized impact.
Thus, we are launching an experiment to see if we might identify exceptional people to back by removing some of our original criteria and instead focusing more squarely on the leaders driving the effort forward.
We are seeking nominations of extraordinary leaders that are passionate about transforming a field and have identified potential qualities that may characterize the types of people we seek:
Unique vision for alleviating suffering in the world: We are agnostic as to the issue, sector, or geography being addressed, but our guiding principle is to support mission-driven individuals seeking to achieve transformational social change. Our goal is to prioritize people that have proximity to the issues and communities in which they are working.
Strong entrepreneurial nature: While this person may come from academia or have a research background, we would like to direct our funding toward someone dedicated to transforming their ideas into reality -- someone with a big vision, along with the commitment and skills to make it happen. It’s not necessary that this person has a long track-record of success, but instead the tenacity and drive to achieve their ambitious goals.
Full-time focus on a singular goal: We would like to identify individuals that are seeking to dedicate themselves full-time to a singular effort. They may be pursuing this work in a professional capacity currently and are looking to embark on a new chapter in their career, or have a personal passion to which they would like to dedicate themselves more fully. We recognize that accomplished innovators and big thinkers may be involved in a variety of efforts and, in this case, we would expect them to be mobilizing a full-time leader or team dedicated to the effort.
Outsized ambition, passion, and commitment to transform a field: We are seeking to support exceptional leaders that are pursuing transformative ideas which create a new solution, define a new market, or ideally do both. They may demonstrate a new paradigm, challenge prevailing narratives or assumptions, or have the potential to shift or redirect a field or sector. They also may be less likely to be initially funded by others, since they may not be working in a defined program area or are perceived as too risky. It is likely that such transformational leaders are working across or at the intersection of disciplines or fields.
Additional Funding Considerations Our funding preferences and considerations include:
Preference for providing catalytic funding for a new effort, rather than incremental support of an existing venture
Supporting leaders where funding is the gating item to unleash their focus on an effort that they otherwise might not have pursued
Supporting an extraordinary leader at the moment when an idea moves to action
Funding may be staged, starting with smaller, unrestricted seed grants ($50-$200k) before consideration of larger investments ($1m+)
Examples of Transformational Leaders
Throughout our philanthropic journey, we have come across several exceptional leaders that had a unique drive and vision to achieve transformational change. Just a few examples are below.
Paul Niehaus and Michael Faye, GiveDirectly In our first search for “extraordinary and unorthodox” ideas for social change, we connected with two post-graduates, Paul Niehaus and Michael Faye, who had an alternative vision for addressing global poverty. Rather than design and implement complex and expensive aid programs, they posed the question: What if the best way to help people out of poverty is to just give them money? At the time, this question was provocative and received a lot of push back from traditional development circles. However, Paul and Michael’s clarity of purpose, dedication to rigorous evaluation, and unwavering commitment to their vision allowed them to grow the effort into the organization GiveDirectly. What was especially compelling about Paul and Michael was their willingness to push against the status quo and build an alternative to the existing international aid infrastructure, rather than just try to improve upon it. Last year, GiveDirectly transferred over $300m directly to people living in poverty and continues to advance the global conversation about the value of cash as an effective poverty intervention.
Svetha Janumpalli, New Incentives Also in our early days of philanthropic exploration, a co-founder of an accomplished micro-lending platform referred us to an ambitious young woman, Svetha Janumpalli, with an idea to create an online marketplace for conditional cash transfers (CCTs). Svetha had already created a prototype in her spare time and we asked her what it might take for her to quit her day job and focus on her passion full-time. We provided some unrestricted funding so she could commit herself to this new venture and encouraged her to define an unfilled gap in the market that she could uniquely fill. After several years of intense persistence and dedication, Svetha developed, tested, and proved the model for New Incentives, an organization providing CCTs to improve childhood immunization rates in Nigeria. Charity evaluator GiveWell supported Svetha through this rigorous evaluation process and has named New Incentives a global top charity, recently awarding them over $16 million to carry out their evidence-based program that is saving children’s lives.
Michael Kremer and Shawn Cole, Precision Agriculture for Development In the first round of our latest UP search, we connected with (now Nobel-laureate) development economist Michael Kremer, who had an impressive track record of spearheading transformative development interventions (advance market commitments for vaccines, low-cost deworming, etc.). Michael was teaming up with fellow economist Shawn Cole to develop an effort based on their research on the impact of providing customized agricultural advice to smallholder farmers via mobile phone. Michael and Shawn, along with a third economist co-founder, Dan Björkegren, had an ambitious vision for a global organization that could transform agricultural extension services and recruited CEO Heiner Baumann and a capable team to operationalize their vision. These leaders had a unique combination of deep academic expertise combined with experience in launching real-world ventures. UP provided start-up funding to get this effort off the ground and today, Precision Agriculture for Development is reaching more than 4.5 million farmers across 11 countries. They also recently rebranded as Precision Development to reflect their expanded suite of services in areas such as nutrition and education.
Ben Hubbard, Alex Haar and Mike Linton, Parsyl Another example is Ben Hubbard, CEO and co-founder of Parsyl. Ben spent many years working at government agencies in the international development sector and saw firsthand the challenge of cold chain management in global supply chains. Ben teamed up with Alex Haar, a technical product manager at Google, and Mike Linton, a veteran of the supply chain industry, to develop a market solution to strengthen these critical supply chains. Combining their professional expertise and and entrepreneurial spirit, Ben, Alex and Mike founded Parsyl, a mission-driven company that deploys low-cost, smart sensors to provide end-to-end temperature monitoring of essential goods in food and health. What stood out about Parsyl co-founders' approach was their savvy combination of commercial and social applications and their deep understanding of the various markets they were intending to reach. Parsyl has since developed a first-of-its-kind insurance product for the delivery of health commodities in the developing world and secured backing for the effort from the U.S. Government.
Nomination Process We are experimenting with a new process to identify and select leaders to support. Rather than asking individuals to apply on their own behalf, we are seeking nominations from our network of advisors and scouts. If you would like to nominate someone, you can simply email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the name and a short description of why you are nominating this person.