The roots of the imbalance started long ago. So long that many just assume “this is how life is.” The Western concepts of Manifest Destiny and survival of the fittest have propelled us into a “race to the top,” with no end in sight. Should we believe that if a few win and everyone else loses, it is because the winners are morally and intellectually superior and the losers are weak? Should the interests of the few determine the fate of the planet?
This is not what we believe at the NoVo Foundation. We imagine a world that can become much more balanced, equitable, and sustainable. We are dedicated to helping catalyze this change.
When my husband Peter and I started the NoVo Foundation, we dedicated its mission to fostering “a transformation from a world based on systems of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership, with girls and women as the primary agents of change.” When we wrote this mission statement in 2006, we had only just begun to take in its magnitude. We studied the ways philanthropy can play into many imbalanced systems (and colonialistic ways of thinking and acting). Those with little or no voice are often overlooked, seldom fully understood, and rarely given power or voice. It is staggering how often well-educated and well-meaning members of our profession fail to engage the disenfranchised in constructive conversations about what they need and how society might play a role in empowering them.
We set out to see if we could work with the most marginalized, the most dominated and exploited — in order to ultimately change the systems that keep them subordinated. We find that half of the world’s population, girls and women, suffer from this position in the most profound ways. Less than 2 cents of every dollar spent in the developing world is spent directly on an adolescent girl. Hence, it is no surprise we see girls facing incredible neglect and exploitation. There is no more powerful agent for change than a person who has deep experience at the bottom of the system, and we know that girls have powerful insights and solutions.
In the relatively short time that NoVo has operated, we have realized remarkable success by engaging with and investing in those whom we consider to be the most undervalued and untapped forces on the planet: adolescent girls living in poverty. Girls across the globe do not enjoy basic human rights: freedom from violence, to education, to inherit or own land, to decide when and whether to marry or bear children, or, the right to self-determination. These are the mothers of the next generation, and the quality of these girls’ lives will literally determine the course of their children’s lives and our collective future.
Together with the Nike Foundation, we invested more than $100 million to scale the multiplier power of “The Girl Effect.” Invest in a girl’s life and she will stay in school longer, marry and bear children later, have healthier children, and earn a living to benefit her family, community, and nation. Millions of girls are already being supported through innovative programs that promote health education, rights-based participation, and economic empowerment. The power of girls is already causing a fundamental shift in society, starting from the foundation of families and communities, and extending out around the globe.
Yet a major barrier to empowering girls is the violence that permeates their lives. One in three women around the globe will be beaten, raped, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Where girls and women live under the daily threat of violence, there can be no real collaboration. It is both a cause and a consequence of a world greatly out of balance.
At NoVo Foundation, we seek a bold response to ending violence against girls and women. We start by supporting change agents who take on deep-seated attitudes that lead to this violence. With our partners, we empower girls and women to balance inequitable relationships. We help challenge powerful institutions and behaviors that perpetuate violence and discrimination. Boys and men play a critical role, and we work with them to build meaningful partnerships that can help shift social norms. Organizations like A Call to Men and Men Can Stop Rape present a new masculinity premised on equality, humanity and partnership.
We also invest in changing the paradigm of education – from the prevailing performance-based models, which focus on competition – to new approaches that promote not only academics, but the social and emotional well-being of the “whole child.” We seek to foster healthy school environments that emphasize relationships between teachers and students. Our aim is to nurture children who have the skills that allow them to achieve their dreams. NoVo’s support of CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) produced meta-analysis evidence that demonstrates how SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) programs in schools improve test scores, reduce negative behavioral issues, and help teachers teach. Those are some of the most pressing goals of education policy makers.
We further invest to strengthen relationships in communities by promoting Local Living Economies, a new approach to economic development that fosters local ownership of business and sustainability. We hope to inspire people to re-imagine a world where financial transactions reflect balance between people and the natural world, supporting ecosystems that sustain us. We naturally take care of who and what takes care of us. NoVo’s support of the Local Economies Project in the Hudson Valley of New York state is creating powerful connections between farmers and consumers, while helping affect a transition toward more resilient agricultural systems.
Remembering what human beings need in order to thrive, feel safe, seen and valued, we at NoVo are dedicated to a world built upon collaboration, at the local and global levels. True prosperity has much more to do with human experience than numbers on a balance sheet. We like this vision for humanity better.
I will leave you with a quote:
“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.” ~ Albert Einstein
Published in Partnership with Forbes.com.
This article is part of an ongoing series at the Skoll World Forum titled “Our Theory of Change”, which highlights different strategies and approaches of investment organizations working for social impact.