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The inspiration for our philanthropic venture came at the 25th reunion of Stanford Business School’s Class of 1980. We were seated in a lecture hall listening to a panel of our classmates describe how they gave back to their communities by teaching in public schools, putting boots on the ground in Iraq, and starting a foundation to fight AIDS. At the end of the session, Carol Head, one of the 60 women in our class spoke up.
“Look at the people in this room,” she said, “and think about all the resources we represent--money, skills, personal networks. Why don’t we combine these resources and to help make the world a better place? If you’re personally in for this new venture, raise your hand.” Virtually every hand in the room shot up and our non-profit was born.
Though we looked at philanthropic efforts started by other college classes we never discovered any that shared our desire to donate classmates’ money, talents and time directly to the non-profits. To fulfill our vision, we had to create a one-of-a-kind organization.
Six months after the reunion, a team of classmates had established the name, Project Redwood*, our legal structure, our fund-raising strategy, and our mission: Project Redwood provides funding, expertise, and connections to social entrepreneurs who address the challenge of global poverty.
When it comes to fund-raising, Redwood’s first priority is to involve as many classmates as we can. We want each class member to be approached by another classmate. Dozens of us called nearly 300 fellow alums, asking them to become partners in Project Redwood by contributing $1000 a year for three years. If that was too much, we ask them to donate what they can afford. And needless to say, we graciously accept larger gifts.
Classmates’ non-financial support for the organizations we support is important as well. Only Project Redwood partners can sponsor non-profits to be considered for funding. A committee of partner volunteers reviews the nominated projects, selects those that best fit our criteria, and then submits that list for a vote by the partners. The four or five organizations that receive the most votes get the support and a cadre of experienced and connected MBAs to help solve their most pressing problems.
In the early days, Project Redwood worked with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. They served as our first fiscal sponsor and provided invaluable advice on our grant-making and overall operations. With their help, we've developed the tools and capacity to be a more effective organization. Note: Tides Foundation is now filling that role.
Like any start-up, we’ve had problems. We underestimated the amount of administrative work it takes to keep Project Redwood running. We never imagined contacting 300 classmates would take so long. We bickered about supporting projects in the United States versus the rest of the world. In the beginning, we weren’t clear about our criteria for selecting projects, so some classmates were disappointed when their favorites were rejected.
Despite these issues, Project Redwood can claim these achievements:
About half of our class has joined us as partners. Our charter partners include many class luminaries: Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Bob Fisher, Chairman of the Board of Gap, Inc., Miles White, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Abbott Laboratories, and Steve Poizner, former California State Insurance Commissioner and candidate for Governor.
We've donated more than a million dollars to 43 projects, and provided other support to help organizations extend their capability and reach.
We also support Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, through their Design for Extreme Affordability program. Teams of interdisciplinary graduate students apply engineering and business skills to design inexpensive solutions to challenges faced by the world's poor; we've helped fund development of dozens of prototypes.
An unexpected benefit of Project Redwood has been the opportunity to reconnect with classmates. Back in 1980, many of us struggled with the academic load and had little time to socialize. Being involved with Redwood allows us to re-discover our former classmates. Though not one of the project’s original goals, we’re delighted to find that that we really like each other. Who knew how interesting we’d become by middle age?
Project Redwood partners don't expect to solve world poverty. But we know this: we can improve the lives of the world’s poor. By pooling the skills, experience and resources of the Class of 1980, we can accomplish more together than we can individually. And in doing so, we’re having one heck of a great time.
* While the redwood is a symbol of Stanford, Project Redwood is not affiliated with the University.