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 The mission of the "Your Mark on the World Center" is to solve the world's biggest problems before 2045 by identifying and championing the work of experts who have created credible plans and programs to end them once and for all.
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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

My Take Monday

Opinion: Want To Help 100M People? Do These 3 Things

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

By his example, Paul Polak, the 85-year-old social entrepreneur, teaches those who follow in his footsteps three important principles: the primacy of distribution, “never give up” isn’t just a slogan on a t-shirt and listening is an innovation superpower.

You may wish to read Friday’s article about Polak.

The Primacy of Distribution

His impressive career started by inventing a new distribution channel in India for selling water pumps that revolutionized micro-scale agriculture.

Right now, most social entrepreneurs are focused on inventing a solution in the form of a gadget or app without much regard to the distribution channel. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door,” was almost certainly not true when he (allegedly) said so.

While the internet has made scaling some technologies easier over the last 25 years, this can be a distraction for social entrepreneurs working in places where few people use the internet.

The great social entrepreneurs of our day are inventing distribution channels to deliver value and opportunity to people who’ve lacked them.

Never Give Up

Denver-based Polak has a peer on the other side of the Rockies in Salt Lake City that I presume he doesn’t know. James Mayfield, about whom I’ve also written, is the same age as Polak. At age 80, he decided to spend the next decade of his life focused on eradicating poverty in Nepal, convinced it could be done.

Paul Polak CREDIT: PAUL POLAK

Several years into that project, he’s making real progress implementing an innovative financing model and cooperative business structure at the village level in thousands of villages across the country.

In writing about these two, I fear younger social entrepreneurs will find their examples unimpressive or unrelatable.

As to the first fear, let me remind readers that the majority of people born around the world 85 years ago are dead, of the those who remain virtually all retired, and these two have spent their last few years starting long-term projects.

As to relevance, Mayfield’s CHOICE Humanitarian has implemented a model that has uncanny parallels to NURU International, founded by then twenty-something social entrepreneur Jake Harriman. I don’t mean to suggest anything except that Harriman—probably without knowing of Mayfield—determined independently to attack the same problem in much the same way. What Polak and Mayfield are doing in their 80s is as hip and contemporary as social entrepreneurship gets.

Unless you have celebrated more birthdays than Polak and Mayfield, I implore you not to quit. You have more to give. If what you’re doing now isn’t working, try a new distribution model and keep innovating.

Listening Is an Innovation Superpower

Polak listens. When seeking an innovation, he spends five days in the field listening to the people he hopes to help before he even begins to think about solving their problems.

Much has been written in recent years about how the people with the best answers to the world’s problems are those who are experiencing those problems. Often, they know exactly what the solution is, but it may simply be out of reach. Knowing there is an aquifer 300 feet below your farm is of little help if no one in the community has a drill that can reach it.

Polak demonstrates by his example the power of listening not only for problems to solve but for the solutions others can offer.

Social entrepreneurs and impact investors can provide a slew of resources, especially access to capital, for implementing solutions that work in communities experiencing challenges. It is important for all who wish to improve the lot of others, to work with them to ensure that they participate in all the benefits of innovation, not only as consumers but as owners and employees whenever and wherever possible.

Polak’s vision is to see every new venture he starts reach more than 100 million people. I suspect he’ll do it again-or die trying.

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Deep Kindness — When Smiling At Strangers Isn’t Enough

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Behind the divisions in America—and the world—over politics that seem broader and sharper than at any point in my five decades, there is a flourishing counter movement for kindness. In fact, some social entrepreneurs have built businesses around kindness. Professors are teaching it. Kindness is a thing.

Still, as much as I admire people and the movement behind kindness, I sometimes worry that when we hear the word kindness many people think mostly about being nice and polite. While I’m all for good manners, the real problems in our world are not due to a lack of civility.

The mosquitoes that carry the malaria virus don’t care a gnat’s rear end about manners, smiles or whether you thanked your mother for making breakfast this morning.

Climate change will continue to get worse no matter how polite we are to one another at climate conferences.

The devastating symptoms of poverty—illiteracy, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and hunger—have nothing to do with the sort of surface level kindness that first comes to mind when I hear the word.

Climate change is not impacted by manners. CREDIT: DEPOSITPHOTOS

All the world’s problems can be addressed, however, by what I will call deep kindness, the sort that requires effort and sometimes pain and sacrifice.

It is the sort of kindness displayed by one of my clients, who didn’t ask that I share this story but whose permission I obtained to do so. Shaun Michel saw a homeless man in a wheelchair and offered him a new pair of shoes he’d just purchased. They didn’t fit. Michel went back to the shoe store and bought another pair in the correct size. Upon returning, he found the man had gone. Not to be deterred, he guessed, correctly it turns out, where the man might have gone on a bus and delivered the shoes.

Nonprofits have been doing this hard work for generations. Some have argued that they have little effect, after all, there are still hundreds of millions of people living and dying in poverty. Such observations are silly to anyone armed with a modicum of data.

When I was born just 54 years ago, about 60% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10% does. Life expectancy in the Gambia in 1965 was just 33 years and today is 61 years, typical of the improvements across much of the developing world. Nonprofits may not deserve all the credit, but any suggestion that their work is ineffective simply because there are still poor and sick people in the world comes from ignorance.

Today, nonprofits have been joined in their efforts by social entrepreneurs and corporations doing much more strategic good through their corporate social responsibility programs.

Nearly four million people die each year from health complications associated with cooking at home over open fires. The use of wood for such cooking also contributes to deforestation and climate change as a result. Social entrepreneurs—often in partnership with nonprofits—are building and selling a slew of efficient cookstoves that reduce or eliminate smoke indoors and use much less fuel.

Social entrepreneurs are selling solar lanterns that not only reduce dependence on kerosene they charge cell phones. They sell clean drinking water that saves lives and increases productivity by reducing the time required to get water. They create what families in extreme poverty need more than anything else: jobs.

Corporate social responsibility programs are having more impact as well. MAC cosmetics has distributed about $500 million to fight AIDS. Microsoft gives about a billion dollars of software to nonprofits every year, technology that is used to fight problems from human trafficking to climate change.

For my part, after reading so much about kindness, I am slowly picking up better habits. They make my life better—and I suspect they improve things for people around me in small ways. Still, I admire most those who operate at the level of deep kindness, going beyond niceties to real impact.

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Endgame Strategy Recognizes That What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us To Our Goal

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Social entrepreneurs can learn from the global effort to fight polio. In the first decade of this century, efforts to vanquish the disease once and for all stalled. With an injection of capital and insight from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative or GPEI launched an “end game strategy” near the middle of this decade, driving an acceleration of progress.

Rotary International first organized the global effort to fight polio in the mid-1980s. With help from the U.S. CDC, World Health Organization and UNICEF, the effort has become one of the biggest global public health initiatives in history. (Full disclosure: I have been hired to speak to Rotary audiences about polio eradication.)

The number of cases dropped from about 350,000 per year in the mid-1980s to fewer than 1,000 documented cases in 2001 but little progress was made over next ten years. In 2010, more than 1300 cases were documented. While tremendous ground had been gained from the mid-80s level of 350,000 to 400,000 cases per year, the numbers suggest little progress was made during that span.

Late in the decade, the Gates Foundation joined the GPEI, bringing much needed financial resources and a fresh perspective. By 2014, the GPEI had developed an “End Game Strategy” that implicitly recognized that what had gotten them below 1,000 cases once, wouldn’t get them to zero. More was needed. Since implementation in 2014, the number of cases has fallen more than 90%, from 505 in 2013 to 29 in 2018, bringing complete eradication within grasp.

A stuffed “poliovirus” waits outside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to be eradicated. CREDIT: DEVIN THORPE

Social entrepreneurs can take a lesson from this. Whatever impact they might seek, the activities that get them on the path and even to measurable progress may not be what is required to reach the goal.

The polio end game strategy included a significant increase in annual funding, expanded global collaboration and incorporation of new technology–a new vaccine.

Similarly, what is required for a social enterprise to go from one level of success to the next will likely require investment, collaboration and innovation.

Investment: If the profits from the business are sufficient, the investment could be internally generated, but it is more likely that success will require more outside capital.

Collaboration: As an organization grows, opportunities for collaboration will likely improve. As the GPEI gained traction in the fight to end polio globally, governments around the world engaged more thoughtfully. It has become clear that virtually no amount of effort absent the participation of government will allow for polio eradication where it is most deeply rooted. The need for collaboration may grow with the opportunity.

Innovation: The GPEI learned from the experience in India that a bivalent vaccine that protects against only two of the three known types of polio is more effective than the trivalent version that also protects against a strain that is known to be completely eradicated. The new bivalent vaccine is used around the world today. Social entrepreneurs may need to find similarly fundamental innovations to get them to their next level of success.

For the past four years, I have been saying this year will be the last that anyone gets polio—proving I’m not a prophet. Still, the progress has been dramatic and the lessons clear. What got us here won’t necessarily get us where we’re going. If you want to go farther, faster, then invest, collaborate and innovate.

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Our Solutions Are Greater Than Our Problems

Does it feel like Earth is spiraling out of control, that poverty, disease and climate change are bound to overwhelm us?
When I was born, more than half of the world’s people lived in extreme poverty; today fewer than 10 percent do.
No one on the planet has had smallpox in two generations. Only 22 people were paralyzed by polio last year. All we’ve learned from eradicating smallpox and polio is being used to fight malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis.
Climate change remains a threat, but there is reason to hope. In 2016, for the first time, the world produced less carbon than the year before despite a growing global economy; that trend continues.
But we can’t relax.
We should build purpose-driven enterprises that don’t extract value from low-income countries or communities but that create value for them.
We can fund schools that educate children, especially girls–who are too often excluded–so that everyone has an opportunity to prosper.
As consumers, we can insist that companies we support with our purchases are behaving responsibly toward the planet, their employees, customers and their communities.
As investors, we should purge our portfolios of investments in companies that harm the planet or people. Instead, we need to invest in companies that are improving global health and prosperity while protecting the environment.
I am deeply optimistic that by working together we can largely eliminate the threat of climate change and live in a more prosperous, healthier world.
Our solutions are greater than our problems.

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How Deep Optimism Is the Key to Solving the World’s Biggest Problems and Yours

People often ask, “are you a glass is half full or half empty kind of person?”

Entrepreneurs I’ve known can look at a virtually empty glass and see it as full. For a long time, I figured that they all must suffer from some shared psychosis, but I’ve come to appreciate that entrepreneurs aren’t blind optimists or mentally ill—they know something others don’t: they know where to get the water.

For most of my career, I have worked with entrepreneurs. For the past seven years, I’ve worked primarily with mission-driven business owners who are focused on solving a social problem, not just an economic one.

Now, I see an entrepreneur’s view as “deep optimism.”

This is not about believing today is going to be a good day nor even about having confidence in your solution to a big problem. And it isn’t only about knowing where the water is.

To the contrary, it starts with a recognition that action trumps attitude. Nothing is as likely to make today great as doing something great.

Picture a beach covered with crude oil after an oil spill. A good attitude and cheerleaders won’t clean it up. It will require hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of careful scraping and scooping to remove the layer of muck and return the beach to its pristine condition.

Your book won’t write itself because you have a good attitude; you have to sit down and put words on the page. Your business won’t grow because you will it to; it will grow only when you do the work required.

Deep optimism, you see, isn’t about seeing the glass as half full, it’s about knowing where the water is and then fetching it.

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