January 19th, 2012
Over the past three years, I’ve completely transformed myself as a giver. Previously, I was the uninspired yet loyal trustee of our family foundation. Although our grant-making was generous and thoughtful, the process seemed perfunctory, not nearly as satisfying as I had imagined giving away money would be. Now I am a hands-on social entrepreneur, fully engaging my time and talents committing a daring amount of my personal money. Guess which role I prefer?
I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts as one of eight children. My father, who owned and operated a beer distribution company, embodied the true meaning of philanthropy for me as a child: he generously supported families other than his own and always found ways to support his employees above and beyond the industry standard. My mother embodied another type of generosity by always opening her door and setting the dinner table for any neighborhood kid who needed a little extra love.
I entered a career in clinical medicine and international public health, and devoted myself to that work for twenty years. About half way through my medical career, my father sat all eight of us in front of his accountant who told us what our balance sheets looked like as shareholders in the family business. It was with great foresight that my father waited until we were all firmly established in our careers before transferring this wealth.
Nonetheless, in the ensuing years I struggled with my new financial reality: I made more in interest each month than my paycheck brought me from working in a busy emergency room on the lower east side of Manhattan or in the minefields in Cambodia. I also found myself conflicted about what types of organizations to support with my new resources. Was it permaculture, because a friend stressed its global importance? Peace promotion, because I had worked in post-war countries? The common question so many givers face—where will my resources make the biggest impact?
Eager to learn more, I joined networks where inheritors like myself learned to be skillful givers: Threshold Foundation in the US, and the Network for Social Change when I lived in England. Both were supportive communities and I worked my way through their “philanthropy universities,” eventually coming to start and run our family’s foundation, funded by the company. My work in international health began to inform my philanthropy -- but only marginally.
Over the next 15 years, I helped the foundation grant over 11 million dollars to causes primarily in Massachusetts. Instead of feeling successful, sadly, I felt jaded. I had learned how philanthropy doesn’t always fulfill our good intentions, how grants can inadvertently undermine local institutions, and how difficult it is as a funder to execute a constructive exit strategy. Philanthropy had begun to create more knotty questions in my mind than answers. I began to give less.
Then an “aha moment” shook me and I realigned my philanthropic mission. I had just returned from working in Africa with my two young children, when I saw a photograph of a shipping container converted into a home. I asked myself ‘What if shipping containers were converted into medical clinics?!’ In Africa I had seen hundreds of abandoned shipping containers on shorelines, while five miles away women were dying of preventable diseases but there was no staffed clinic that could provide the care they desperately needed. When I thought of clinics in shipping containers I remembered working in ambulances where an incredible amount of life saving equipment was packed into about 12 feet of vehicle.
The three years since that “aha” moment have been an incredible journey-- the most engrossing, challenging and rewarding time of my philanthropic life. With a great amount of thought and guidance, I founded the nonprofit organization called Containers2Clinics (C2C) and have built a diverse, skillful, and committed team and board of directors. Our first clinic went to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, 8 months after the devastating earthquake. Together with local doctors and nurses at a children’s hospital that was 80% destroyed, the C2C clinic has treated over 5,000 pregnant women with high quality care, in a clean, safe, well equipped shipping container clinic.
There have been many moments where I’ve felt overwhelmed, and doubted my capacity to be a parent and run a nonprofit with constant budget woes. But every time I visit the clinic in Port-Au-Prince, my commitment to make this model work is strengthened by what I see and hear from patients. I’ve worked full-time without a salary and invested over $250,000 of my personal money -- at least 50% of my income each year. Now we are partnering with the Ministry of Health of Namibia and the Synergos Institute to bring container clinics to Namibia by the end of 2011. With my resources, decades of experience in global health and a lifelong passion for maternal and child health aligned, my philanthropic mission is clearer than I ever imagined it could be.