Since 2007, Seattle attorney Matthew Bergman has been the sole funder of a project that built two schools for girls in one of the poorest tribes in Eastern Africa.
“I call it entrepreneurial philanthropy,” Bergman said. “I’ve always tried to do things on my own and kind of apply a business model to philanthropy.”
If Bergman succeeds in scaling up what was initially a personal mission to bring literacy to girls of the rural Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania, it could point the way for other philanthropists to broaden and solidify their financial support for a favored cause.
While it’s not uncommon for wealthy people to start their own pet philanthropy projects, it is rare for one person alone to fund them for more than a few months, or at most a year, said Julleen Snyder, a partner at Seattle-based Jacobson Jarvis, an accounting firm that works exclusively with nonprofits.
“The fact that he funded it this long, just by himself, that is unusual ... More often when I see an individual (who) wants to give in that way, they’ll give through an established organization,” Snyder said.
Starting a small nonprofit and acting as a single-funder for several years can allow a founder to maintain control, minimize bureaucracy and control the speed of growth. But eventually most funders who take this approach will need to develop a donor base for the long-term sustainability of the organization.
Bergman’s Maasai Children’s Initiative focuses on educating girls in the Maasai tribe of Kenya. Fewer than 5 percent of Maasai girls can read, compared to the overall 80 percent literacy rate in Kenya. Now, for the first time, MCI is actively looking for donors so the nonprofit can be sustainable for the long term — instead of being financially dependent on one person.
The project is also facing the challenge of attaining enough visibility to raise money as a small-scale nonprofit in a stagnant economy.
“It’s hard because there are a lot of worthy causes, and it’s hard because we are a small organization that is very new,” Bergman said. “It is a very significant challenge.”
Bergman first heard about the education void from Sekeyian Yiaile, a Maasai woman who was his tour guide during a trip to Africa in 2004, and is now a friend and executive director of MCI.
She’s also Bergman’s inspiration for the MCI project — it was her idea. Their partnership has flourished: Yiaile identifies the needs and manages day-to-day the program on the ground in Maasailand in Kenya, and Bergman funds those efforts.
“If you just completely eliminate the bureaucracy and find someone on the ground who is capable and confident and committed, you can do a lot more than (when) working for an organization,” Bergman said.
Their work together started out small in 2006 — a few thousand dollars covered the cost of school lunch for Maasai children at an existing school, giving students an incentive to walk the many miles to classrooms beyond their isolated villages.
The project soon expanded to more schools, where Bergman’s money doubled and even tripled attendance. It was relatively inexpensive, about $3,000 per 100 students for one semester, he said. Between 2006 and 2011, MCI fed more than 1,000 children at five schools. The Kenyan government stepped up school lunch programs earlier this year, so MCI has since scaled back its feeding programs.
Bergman never anticipated the work would evolve into a project to build new schools for Maasai girls. But educating young Maasai girls has always been deeply personal for Yiaile.
She narrowly avoided marriage to a man nearly four times her age. With the help of Catholic missionaries, Yiaile ran away and was able to stay in a boarding school for a year before her family agreed to let her continue her schooling without a forced marriage. Education helped her escape what would have otherwise been inevitable: becoming a bride at age 13.
“Right now, girls are married when they are young,” she said. “They are going to be married as a second, third, fourth wife to someone who is older, maybe two or three times (older). So when we are giving them an education, we are giving them a chance to choose for themselves.”
Bergman was moved by her story when they met in 2004 and eventually funded Yiaile’s education in the U.S. She will receive her master’s degree this spring. Her passion for education also inspired Bergman to start the school lunch program in 2006.
Eventually Yiaile started talking to Bergman about the need for a school just for girls, but he was skeptical.
“I just didn’t think we could do it,” he said. “She was confident we could. I just didn’t share the vision.”
So Yiaile started a school on her own in 2007, finding a teacher who agreed to teach girls in an outdoor classroom under a tree.
“I have a duty to change what I don’t like, or what I didn’t want other young girls to go through,” Yiaile said.
When Bergman learned of her success, he was persuaded to get involved.
Meanwhile, Yiaile convinced elders in the Maasai community to deed the land to the project. Bergman funded the construction of the first school in 2007 for about $150,000.
The Fred Baron School — named for an attorney Bergman admires — opened its doors in 2008, serving about 40 young girls from nursery school through third grade. The school’s attendance has since grown to 120 girls.
In 2010, Yiaile and Bergman opened a boarding school about 20 miles away, called Mara Hills Academy. It currently serves 152 girls and 37 boys from nursery school through grade five. The school will continue to add a grade each year until eighth grade so students may have a complete primary school experience. Eventually the program may build a high school for girls.