August 25th, 2011
August 25th, 2011
My goal is to bring safe drinking water to 200 million people by the year 2022. So far I’ve volunteered ten years of my full-time energy and given $7 million (half my wealth) towards that goal- -and at age 73, I’m having the most interesting and educational time of my life.
I grew up in a philanthropic family. When my father left Russia in 1912, at age 16, he didn't know how to read or write any language and did not at the time of his death – yet he became hugely respected in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities through his business, civic, and moral accomplishments. My mom, who had to quit school at 13, was no less accomplished. Father started a steel forging and fabrication company—the source of much of our family’s wealth.
After college, I co-ran the family steel business with my brother. Since leaving the family business I’ve kept my hand in the for-profit world as venture capital investor – but one who only loses his own money! For thirty plus years Zen meditation has been a bedrock of my life. Like doing push ups each morning, I just do it.
I’ve always been someone who operates by intuitive flashes. All linear thinking, even reading and writing, come hard for me. But when a fully-formed image enters my mind, I act on it. Get a hunch; bet a bunch. Once I wanted to find out what it's like to be truly alone. So in mid-winter, I had a helicopter drop me off at 8,000 feet to live in the wilderness alone in a tent for a month. I heartily recommended it!
As much as I’ve risked earlier, this water project is on a different scale. The idea came to me in a flash on the one-year anniversary of my wife Linda’s death. I remember the next morning, when I looked in my eyes the bathroom mirror I was like a deer caught in the car headlights. Terrified. I didn't know the first step. I had never started an organization. The idea—along with the fear--gripped me like a hawk with talons in my head. Then I remembered that 100 years ago, three ordinary women met in a church and declared, "Women should have the right to vote.” Well, I’m an ordinary man. With that image, the fear of failure melted away, and I crossed the threshold from fear to commitment.
I started cold calling people. I called my friend Randy Hayes, who founded the Rainforest Action Network. We spent three days together, wrote the first project profile and the rest is history. One person led to the next, and eventually I developed a team of 7-8 people. I don't have the skill of running things. But I have the skill to create an environment that attracts competent people.
Over the next year I traveled around the world to learn about water. Not one of the organizations I visited had set a specific goal. They all made vague statements like, "Let's solve the drinking water problem.” Meaningless! Why did the U.S. get to the moon? Because Kennedy had the audacity to say we’d do it within ten years.
So our team named the goal of serving 200 million people over twenty years. But we didn't know at that time that the average village in the developing world has only 1,000 residents. Which means to meet our goal, we need to do 10,000 projects per year. Which means reviewing about 100,000 proposals year, submitted by small organizations with no coordination between them!
To solve this problem we’ve created the Peer Water Exchange, a breakthrough internet platform for pulling together the water field, and one that’s as revolutionary for the non-profit world as e-bay was for for-profit. In 2010 we won Intel Tech Award, 1,000 nominees from 54 countries. And we created Blue Planet Network, through which we have raised of millions in financial support from corporations and organized the first-ever around-the-planet fundraising relay run.
I’m looking now for a company that wants to put in $300 million, to be seen as a world leader in the world’s largest health issue. Blue Planet Network is like a book. I am not the author. I'm the first character the author wrote into the story. As time has gone on the author has introduced new characters and the way the current characters respond will depend how the next scene unfolds. The next character to step on stage will be bringing that major funding.
When I ask other wealthy people, "What are you doing with your money?" they usually tell me something that’s just a variation on the same game they have always played: using money to make money. To which I respond, “No, I asked what are you DOING with your money.”