Get involved with the communities you’re serving. Sometimes we can feel like we are doing good but are not actually aware of the concrete impact, or lack thereof, that our actions have on the communities we’re trying to help. The best way to ensure that you are actually getting to the root of the problems you intend to solve is by listening to representatives from the community describe the concrete, particular needs that they have.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders and leaders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zain Jaffer.
Zain Jaffer is the Founder of the Zain Jaffer Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to creatively address the big-picture issues of our time. The Foundation supports emerging programs and projects that bring public awareness to problems such as climate change, poverty, exploitation, and discrimination.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
One of the most profound experiences of my life was the period immediately after I sold my first Startup. Building it was an intense, all-consuming process that required virtually all of my energy and focus. When I finally succeeded, after all the setbacks I had endured, I was obviously overjoyed, and yet, at the same time, I began to feel restless almost right away. It was the end of an era in my life, and it was not at all clear to me what I wanted to do with the next era.
During that time, I tried to use my newfound freedom to take a long, hard look at what was most important to me. Taking time to get in touch with myself and my values helped me realize that in addition to launching another business, I also wanted to take some time to really give back, in the form of mentoring other founders and starting a non-profit. This has been an extraordinarily rewarding experience for me, as it helped me better formulate and internalize some of the lessons I’d learned during my experience as a founder while also broadening my perspective on some of the larger issues facing our world.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
My style of leadership comes down to three mutually reinforcing traits: integrity, vision, and a sense of purpose. A clearly defined sense of purpose is one of the most important qualities a leader can have, as it helps you stay focused on your goals and serve as an anchor for your team, even when times get tough. Proving your dedication to your chosen cause through your everyday actions and interactions helps inspire those around you to be their best selves and go the extra mile towards achieving your goals. This brings me to my next quality — integrity. Integrity is infectious, and when people see that your deeds consistently align with your words, they are much more likely to trust you and want to work with you. Especially in the non-profit space, integrity is absolutely non-negotiable, as you cannot make any positive, lasting change if you do not wholeheartedly believe in and stand behind everything you’re doing.
Finally, I think that vision is one of the most important but often overlooked qualities in a leader. The future is always uncertain, but with massive-scale problems such as climate change on the horizon, it becomes more important than ever to have a rallying vision that people can identify with and stand behind. It’s always easy to bemoan the present state of things: the real challenge is to imagine how it could be better. This principle has always been at the heart of everything I do, and it has almost become even more central since I’ve entered the non-profit world.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
My work with the Foundation has helped me understand that there is no single person or group that is going to find a solution to climate change; instead, any positive changes are going to come from many people with different backgrounds coming together to address different facets of the problem. Having spent so much time in the tech startup world, it was profoundly refreshing to be able to meet people from all walks of life and see how they are using their particular skills and interests to make a difference. I have been consistently surprised by people’s creativity and ingenuity when it comes to thinking about climate change, and these encounters have made me even more optimistic about the future than I was before I started.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
We have recently funded a documentary by filmmaker Deej Phillips and writer Neelima Vallangi called The Weight Of Water: The Human Cost of Climate Crisis. It is an extremely moving documentary that follows the lives of three Nepalese individuals and their communities, who are already experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change (despite having made minuscule contributions to the problem). I think that the film is so profoundly valuable because it does what no statistic or scientific papers can: it brings us face to face with realities on the ground, to make us see the effects that this crisis has on real people’s everyday lives.
In addition to our work on climate change, the Foundation also seeks to address the equally pressing issues of poverty, lack of education, and human rights abuses. We have been working with Moms Against Poverty to bring much-needed care and supplies to some of the poorest nations in the world. I hope that, by providing direct material support while also empowering filmmakers and artists who are using their voices to shine a light on these issues, the Foundation can help people get a sense of just how much good work is being done out there and feel inspired to think about how they themselves can contribute.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
My background as a tech founder taught me the value of always keeping one eye firmly fixed on the future. Nowadays, it’s impossible to look at the future without thinking about the ongoing implications of climate change and global poverty. The two are mutually reinforcing, as climate change makes it even more difficult for those who are already struggling to access basic resources. Without adequate infrastructure, education, and healthcare, many people are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and to a variety of human rights abuses. I think that, in order to make lasting changes, we need to see the interconnectedness of all of these issues and work to eradicate the conditions that give rise to them in the first place.
One of the things I learned from The Weight of Water that deeply shocked me was the extreme amount of time and effort it takes for women all around the globe simply to secure enough water to support their families’ needs. The cumulative millions of hours that women and girls must spend retrieving water — a number that is poised to grow as the effects of climate change worsen — represent an extraordinary amount of time that could be spent working or getting an education to break the cycle of poverty. To me, this a perfect example of the way that the many issues facing our world overlap and inform one another, and demonstrates the need for immediate positive action.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
One of our partners, a Tanzanian non-profit called WIPHAS, is working to improve access to clean water in some of the poorest communities in Tanzania. One in six Tanzanian citizens currently suffers from a scarcity of clean drinking water, a burden which has had especially negative effects on women and girls. The organization has recently built a number of wells in some of these communities, which has not only improved overall health and sanitation, but saved women an extraordinary amount of time normally spent fetching water. This has empowered them to spend more time working and pursuing their education, allowing them to experience a much greater level of self-determination. By helping people more easily satisfy their basic needs, these wells have formed the foundation for stronger, more resilient communities for generations to come.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
1. Get educated. You cannot solve a problem if you do not have a thorough understanding of it. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations and artists of all kinds who are doing a solid job publicizing and popularizing important information about serious global challenges, such as climate change, poverty, and global development. This information has never been more easily accessible, so there is really no excuse not to do your research and find out what aspects of these problems your personal passions and competencies can contribute to. However, it’s important to remember not to get too bogged down in the research phase: concrete action is the end goal, so you should try to use your time and energy wisely.
2. Get involved. None of us are going to fix any of these issues by ourselves. From climate change to poverty, every global problem requires a global solution. Fortunately, you do not need to be an expert in any of these things to participate meaningfully — there are plenty of organizations out there that are more than happy to take in people of all backgrounds and help them learn by doing. Alternatively, if you have a powerful idea for how to make a difference, don’t hesitate to start building it right away. So many people are conscious of world issues these days that it has become much easier to drum up support for these kinds of ventures.
3. Be intentional. As with any large-scale problem, the best way to approach these challenges is to break them up into smaller pieces and make positive action a part of your daily routine. For myself, I find that starting my day by taking some time out to focus on my intentions has really helped me transform the way I live. I have been doing this for years, and adding a focus on broader world issues to this practice has really helped me embody these commitments more fully in my daily life.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
- Diversify fundraising sources. The classic investment advice about maintaining a diverse portfolio is equally applicable to the non-profit sector. While it may be relatively easy to secure a base of people who are really invested in a given issue, relying entirely on one fragment of the population can massively inhibit your potential for growth. It’s imperative to always be on the lookout for new connections and communities of like-minded people, as this creates a positive feedback loop that constantly expands your reach to potential donors. For example, my Foundation’s support of documentary filmmakers quickly earned us a small, committed following of film buffs. This base is very important to me, and I am always factoring them into our growth plans, but I also make sure to take on new projects and get new communities involved, as the connections you make by doing so can massively expand your reach.
- Build around your purpose. It can be tempting to feel like your organization needs to take on all of the world’s problems at once. However, the truth is that no one organization can solve all of these problems: what the world really needs is a diverse community of organizations, each committed to a clearly articulated and well-defined purpose. Making sure that your organization has a distinct identity, and a realistic scope is important both for making tangible, measurable impacts and for securing long-lasting, committed donors. For the Zain Jaffer Foundation, we are carving out a particular niche for how to contribute to the vast field of climate change activism. I have always believed in the power of film and video to have an impact: it was a critical element of my business success. Now, we are investing in the power of that medium in the non-profit world as well.
- Prioritize Steady Growth. There are many misperceptions about non-profit organizations out there, and one of the major ones has to do with the way they raise and distribute funds. Many people assume that non-profits tend to sit on plenty of cash and distribute it very quickly, but the reality is that such an approach is unsustainable. To create growth that lasts, it’s critical to have a diversified, relatively conservative portfolio of investment assets that you can be sure will grow steadily. That way, you can eventually begin giving larger donations to causes that you initially supported on a smaller scale, creating the potential for truly long-term partnerships. For me, this funding strategy has been crucial to developing solid, productive relationships with our partner organizations and ensuring that the Foundation has grown at a sustainable rate.
- Get involved with the communities you’re serving. Sometimes we can feel like we are doing good but are not actually aware of the concrete impact, or lack thereof, that our actions have on the communities we’re trying to help. The best way to ensure that you are actually getting to the root of the problems you intend to solve is by listening to representatives from the community describe the concrete, particular needs that they have. If your foundation is helping others in a far-off country, this can seem difficult to achieve. However, getting creative by sending personalized video messages and other communications to affected communities helps them put a human face to the support they receive, while also opening up new lines of communication. Sponsoring and attending the events of the organizations we support has helped me get directly in touch with the underlying reasons why I created the foundation in the first place, which is always an invaluable experience.
- Use your business brain. This can be one of the toughest aspects of running a non-profit to keep in mind, but it is absolutely critical. Sometimes with non-profits, we can let our desire to do good get in the way of our more rational, calculating mind: the crucial thing to remember is that these two impulses are directly dependent on one another. The best way to help the most people is to run an effective and efficient organization that allocates resources as intelligently as any other business would. When you think of yourself not as the person doing good, but as a conduit that allows many others to make an impact, you can set up an organization that makes positive action easy and effective for all. I have found that approaching the Foundation the same way I approached my Startup has allowed me to choose partnerships that have consistently delivered tangible results. It seemed strange at first to think about ROI in a non-profit context, but I quickly found that ROI directly translates to the amount of people you are able to help, making it all the more imperative.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
One of the main things that the pandemic taught me was that growth, rather than achievement, is the ultimate measure of success. When you are so caught up in the routine of work, it can be easy to forget about or ignore other parts of your life that need serious attention. By interrupting my accustomed habits and ways of thinking and acting, the pandemic gave me space to reflect not just on how much I’ve grown over the past few years, but which parts of myself still need work. Ever since the pandemic, I’ve tried to make these other parts of my life more of a priority, and I’ve found that positive personal growth has translated directly into positive career growth.
The pandemic also showed how immediate improvements could be made based on our actions as it relates to climate change. When the world shut down due to COVID, there were very tangible positive changes that environmentalists could point to. This gave me more hope that this is an issue worth tackling.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I think that the answer lies in that keyword, “inevitable.” If you go into the non-profit world thinking that it will be easy to secure loyal donors and have everyone care about the issues as much as you do, you are in for a very unpleasant time. The important thing to remember is that setbacks do not mark the end of anything, but the beginning of something new — they are opportunities to learn and grow in ways you never could have otherwise. I have recently started trying to approach the setbacks I’ve encountered with gratitude, focusing on what these experiences gave to me rather than what they took away from me. This has made me a more humble and open-minded person, and it has profoundly improved my work-life balance and relationships with donors.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I think I would have to say Elon Musk, as he recently made a massive $5.8 billion donation to his foundation primarily using Tesla stock, which is tax-free and has the potential to appreciate in the long run. People can often be quick to criticize him, but I think that this move is worth paying attention to–the foundation became one of the world’s biggest overnight, and there is no telling where it will go from there. Regardless of what you think of him, we can all agree that he certainly does things differently, and I think it would be inspiring to get to pick his brain.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
You can follow the Foundation’s latest projects at https://zainjafferfoundation.org/.
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.