There are a few ways to give back to your community. Have a bake sale, donate clothes to the Goodwill, or call up your good buddy Rainn Wilson and throw a party in Palo Alto for charity.
That’s exactly what Payam Zamani, chief executive officer of Reply.com, did to raise awareness for an organization close to his heart: the Mona Foundation, which is focused on improving education around the world, particularly for women.
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“He’s one of those celebrities you don’t come across very often,” Zamani said of Wilson.
Wilson, who is best known for his character Dwight Schrute on NBC’s The Office, met Zamani five years ago on a trip to Haiti the two took volunteering for the Mona Foundation. Aside from his paper salesman fame, Wilson is a big supporter of the Mona Foundation and is now challenging Silicon Valley companies to open their coffers to annual charitable donations.
The two put on a fundraiser at the Rosewood Hotel in Palo Alto California on Monday to raise awareness for the organization and implore Silicon Valley to be more philanthropic.
Five years ago, after vetting the Mona Foundation himself, Payam lobbied the board of his company, local online advertising marketplace Reply.com, to donate one percent of all its profits to Mona each year. He sees no reason other companies shouldn’t do the same. Wilson, whose one wish for the Mona Foundation would be “cash,” also sees a need for bigger organizations to step in and “make it a yearly thing for your company.”
Zamani explained Mona Foundation’s core as being very entrepreneurial. Indeed, its donation structure almost acts like a venture capitalist. The organization goes to resource-poor communities all around the world and finds what is already working. VCs don’t find failing companies and step in, they find what is already successful and support its growth.
One neighborhood may have a school that is already running, but in great need. Others may have a budding medical program, but could benefit from a financial push in the right direction. The difference is, that “right direction” isn’t fully determined by the Mona Foundation. Similar to a VC, Mona vets the community’s project, sees if it is really sustainable and headed for success. It then consults the people who run the program, and doesn’t dictate how donated money should be used, but instead asks what the program wants.
At the reception, Wilson recalled a book he had read about the outside world forcing its views on in-need communities. This particular community had thatched roofs and the villagers worked as shepherds. Not far from the thatched houses, however, was a set of empty condominiums, built by a charitable organization’s efforts. When the villagers were asked why they were not using the condominiums, they had an interesting answer.
What the condominium builders didn’t understand was the importance of the villagers’ sheep. They would be eaten in the night if not protected, so the villagers brought them inside the thatched houses at night for safe keeping. The villagers would not be able to bring sheep up the condominium stairs, and thus the buildings went to waste. Mona respects this division of knowing “what’s best” and honoring what the local program leaders know is best.
Like a VC, the foundation doesn’t give the money and run either. It sticks around to advise and watch the community’s progress.
Venture firms in Silicon Valley can also play a big role in giving back, bigger than simply giving its own money. For Zamani, getting venture capitalists to encourage portfolio companies to follow in Reply.com’s footsteps would be a great start. Giving profit to charity is sometimes hard to convince boards of, and having the VC’s support would help facilitate that conversation.
When VentureBeat asked Wilson what he thinks of celebrity investors and whether they should invest more time in philanthropy, Wilson said, “I think that we can do it all. We can have our creative lives, we can have our business lives, and we can have our lives that are focused on making the world a better place.”
During his talk, Wilson expressed how important women are to the Mona Foundation, and the belief that young girls will really be the purveyors of knowledge for their communities. He joked that if we educate boys, they’ll become cab drivers in the big cities, and highlighted the importance of educating the girls who will return to their families and villages. So in keeping with that theme, what technology company would Wilson like to see most get involved with the Mona Foundation? Well, that would be “Internet company” Boobs.com, which probably sees a ton of traffic. So, donate, Boobs.com, Rainn Wilson compels you. (Click the link, I dare you.)
Watch our video interview with Rainn Wilson and Payam Zamani to get the down-low on their hopes for Silicon Valley philanthropy.
If you’d like to donate to the Mona Foundation, you can find more information here.
Photos courtesy of Mark Tuschman