Technoserve gains heavyweight backers

After a $3m donation from Google, the US not-for-profit has now chalked up a $47m grant from Bill Gates.

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Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Technoserve takes a business approach to world poverty – often by helping small companies in developing countries gain access to the skills and capital they need to grow. Microsoft boss Gates, whose private charitable foundation works on a very similar principle, has just committed nearly $50m to help coffee farmers in East Africa double their income by growing premium beans. And earlier this month, Google’s philanthropic arm agreed to stump up $3m to support small business entrepreneurs in the same region.

Technoserve has been in operation for more than 40 years, typically drawing its funding from corporates, wealthy individuals and government bodies. However, in recent times its approach has really taken off. The charity has tripled in size in the last four years – which explains why Google has agreed to provide $3m in ‘institutional support’ to help it build its corporate infrastructure.

CEO Bruce McNamer told MT that there’s been an evolution in the way wealthy individuals and companies think about philanthropy. ‘The focus used to be more local; now it’s a question of: how can we apply what we do every day to help poor people around the world?’

And the new generation of workers are driving this change, he reckons. ‘Employees are expecting more from their professional experience,’ he says. ‘It’s become a necessary part of a company’s offering that they’re engaged in the world in a positive way. They want to build a culture that their people can be proud of.’ McNamer says that he’s even seeing this desire to apply business skills to the developing world at business schools – which never happened in his day…

Google’s input will not only be financial. As well as working closely with Technoserve on specific schemes like business plan competitions, it’s also been sending out Googlers as volunteers in the region (boss Larry Page has even been over to take a look). According to McNamer, the power of Google’s brand has even reached the depths of Ghana (which is a little scary, if you ask us). 

Of course, this corporate influence is starting to change the world of charity. Some are starting to think more in terms of markets, as a private-sector company would; others are looking at the way they’re managed internally, with a view to becoming more efficient and effective. And that’s no easy task: McNamer runs a company of some 450 people, dispersed across 18 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, plus an army of volunteers. Throw in a period of rapid growth, and you can see why he wants to invest in getting his systems and processes right.

The amounts involved may still be relatively small – Google does, after all, make about a billion dollars in profit every quarter – but this convergence between business and not-for-profit will be the start of a big step change for the sector...

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