Interview with Maya Ajmera, founder and president of The Global Fund for Children

Maya Ajmera is the founder and president of The Global Fund for Children (GFC), a philanthropic intermediary that makes small grants to innovative, community-based organizations working with some of the world’s most vulnerable children and youth. To date, GFC has awarded 2,606 grants, totaling over $15.3 million, to 376 grassroots organizations in 73 countries. In addition, GFC has a dynamic media program focused on children’s books, films, and documentary photography. She is also the co-author of many Global Fund for Children books, including the award-winning Children from Australia to Zimbabwe and Faith.

Maya is sought out nationally and internationally to address audiences on local and global philanthropy, global children’s rights, early childhood development, and social entrepreneurship. Her work and life story have been profiled by such media outlets as CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Financial Times, NPR, and many others.

Maya serves on the boards of directors of Echoing Green, the Washington Area Women’s Foundation and New Global Citizens, and is a trustee of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. She also serves on the advisory boards of numerous philanthropic entities, including theAmerican India Foundation, the Global Philanthropy Forum, and the Emerging Markets Foundation.
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Can you please tell us a little bit about the effects of growing up spending your summers in India? How did it affect you, and how do you think it helped shape who you are and what you do today?

I was raised in eastern North Carolina in the 1970s as the daughter of Indian immigrants and my summer holidays were spent in India with my extended family. I attempted to navigate between both cultures and saw how children in other parts of the world lived. It really shaped my world view and taught me to become a global citizen from an early age.

When you were little, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

I was the typical Asian kid who was supposed to become a doctor or an engineer. I thought I was going to become a doctor, and went on to work in laboratories and study neuroscience in college. I didn’t think there was another possibility until I received a Rotary Fellowship that allowed me to travel extensively in South and Southeast Asia.

And here you are now: working, through GFC, to create positive change in the lives of the world’s poorest children. In interviews, you often talk about your “moment of obligation,” when you realized you had to do something to help others. Could you tell our readers what that moment was and when it happened?

After college, I traveled to South and Southeast Asia on a Rotary Scholarship. In India, I spoke with a wise professor who told me, “If you really want to know people and to understand them, visit their homes and villages.” So I traveled with my backpack for a year.

One hot and dusty day in March, I stepped off a train onto a busy platform. There I saw 50 children sitting in a circle learning how to read and write. They had such an extraordinary determination to learn amidst all the chaos. Their teacher was in the middle, teaching them with flashcards, and I was amazed at what she was doing. I approached her after her lesson and we had a conversation in Hindi. She explained that these children worked, played, begged, and slept on the platform.

When I asked her how much it cost to run such a school, I was stunned by her reply. The cost of running a school for 50 children with 2 teachers for a whole year was approximately $400 USD. It was then that I thought to myself, how do you get small amounts of capital to the most worthy grassroots organizations that are social innovators and are really providing change to the poorest children in their communities? And it was then that I saw how a small amount of money can make an enormous difference if put into the right hands. I wanted to turn foreign aid on its head.

Could you please name and briefly describe a few of the groups the organization has been involved with to date, just to give us a taste of its scope and reach?

In Uganda, Nyaka AIDS Orphans School provided free high-quality education and extracurricular activities to children who have been orphaned due to AIDS. It operated free primary education and social services, basic healthcare for students and their foster families, HIV/AIDS community education, and nutrition and community gardens. Combining education and advocacy, its garden provided vegetable seeds to 400 families and its students built a rain-harvesting water tank for access to clean drinking water.

In Cambodia, Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization addresses the needs of Phnom Penh’s waste pickers through community development models and the Mobile Outreach and Education Program. Using “curbside classrooms” at 18 locations to build awareness about the environment and sanitation at the community level and to provide basic education to child waste pickers, its staff offers a curriculum that educates children about dangerous materials; child abuse protection and reporting; and health and hygiene.

These are only two examples, but we work with dozens of organizations that provide similar education opportunities, including some that provide secret schools for girls in Afghanistan, mobile boat schools for children in Bangladesh, night classes for women and girls in the red light districts of India, and schools in Bolivia that apply Montessori methods to engage working children.

I understand you have a hands-on approach to selecting grantees. Please tell us how you go about it. It must be a tough job, with so many needs to fill and so many deserving projects out there…

Grassroots organizations are incredibly undervalued and undercapitalized. For us, it is tough knowing that there are so many honorable organizations out there, but we have a team of dedicated program officers who seek out the most promising community-based groups that are in their earliest stages of development.

Our program officers are each assigned to a region of the world where they scout for new grantee partners with the potential to affect change on a local level. We don’t sit back in our offices getting proposals. We ask the kids on the street, “If you need help, where do you go?” And they’ll show you. We basically ask the customers what the best services in their communities are, and then follow through with due diligence to award them with grants.

We believe that grassroots organizations are in the unique position of serving their communities best because they know what is most needed and what will work locally, and can often accomplish this on grants of just a few thousand dollars per year.

In addition to its grantmaking program, GFC has also developed a strong and well-respected media program.  What do these media ventures encompass exactly, and how do they relate to the organization’s main work?

I wanted to show people in the United States that we live in a true global village. I wanted to show American kids how kids all around the world live. The images I always remember seeing of children around the developing world were of their suffering, but there is more to these children than just suffering. There is beauty, resilience, and culture.

In light of this, we harness the power of children’s books, films, and photography to promote global understanding. Our children’s books are filled with vibrant photographs that help children explore diversity and tolerance. The books depict positive images of children, which encourage children to take an active role in shaping their destiny and to become productive, caring members of a global society.

We also support films that portray the resilience of young people in order to raise awareness of the issues confronting them, and provide a connection to grassroots organizations that directly address the challenges identified in the films. In partnership with the International Center of Photography, we select promising young documentary photographers, who visit our grantee partners and highlight their powerful work.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the publishing arm of GFC and its partnership with other publishers? I understand the organization’s first grant was made using royalties from Children from Australia to Zimbabwe…

After I had my moment of obligation, I went to the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke. It was there that my mentor, Professor Bill Ascher, said, “What do you really want to do with your life? Do you really want to become a doctor?” I replied that I didn’t. What I really wanted to do was start the Global Fund for Children. I would use my graduate school training in foreign aid, the World Bank, and my experience and travels to put small amounts of capital into the most innovative and worthy grassroots organizations around the world.

In conjunction, I also wanted to publish children’s books. Professor Ascher said I needed to raise money, so I went to the Echoing Green Foundation and they invested in my vision of the children’s book publishing venture. My first book was Children from Australia to Zimbabwe, but when I peddled the idea to publishers, no one wanted to take me on because there was no market and I was an untested author. I decided to self-publish, and to accomplish it, I convinced funders to give me $5,000 a piece. In return, I promised to donate 3 copies to every public school in North Carolina.

We did that, and went on to sell through a local distributor in North Carolina. When all the copies sold out, publishers began to call me and tell me they liked the book and wanted to do others with me. I politely rejected their offers because I wanted to create the Global Fund for Children books imprint, and we found a wonderful publisher called Charlesbridge.

Together Charlesbridge and GFC have developed 24 booksto date; and we recently published Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan with Simon & Schuster.

Our first grant, made from the royalties from Children from Australia to Zimbabwe, was awarded to the train platform school in India that initiated my obligation to create GFC.

Faith, the title you co-authored with Cynthia Pon and Magda Nakassis, is a photo-illustrated book that celebrates the diversity of religious expression around the world. What inspired you to focus on this particular topic?

Religion is the topic of the century. Tolerance builds understanding across cultures, so while most multicultural children’s books accentuate differences, I felt we needed a book that celebrated faith by looking at the similarities children of different faiths share.

Do you recall, by any chance, when and how promoting global understanding and respect for diversity became a goal of yours, in relation to GFC’s work?

There weren’t many kids of Indian decent where I lived as a child. I wasn’t Caucasian and I wasn’t African American, so I had to navigate the road between cultures. My parents were always very open and encouraged me to experience attending houses of worship, sharing Shabbat dinner with my neighbor’s family, or going to Catholic mass. Living in that environment fostered my intrigue with people and really gave me a lens for seeing the world as a place or richness: so when I started GFC, I wanted to convey that richness to others and to children in particular.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges confronting the world’s children today? How does one stay one step ahead in order to be proactive in preventing issues from worsening to the point of affecting entire societies in the future?

HIV/AIDS is certainly an issue with which we contend. We have grantee partners working around HIV/AIDS prevention and education, and working on the ripple effects it creates in society, such as AIDS orphans and malnutrition. While this is a focus of many international development and relief agencies, GFC has a unique perspective on another challenge — the plight of boys globally.

We’re seeing more boys leaving school, living on the streets, and becoming unemployed, which has implications for global security. There also isn’t enough literature for boys out there. We have a children’s book calledExtraordinary Girls, and one of our hopes is to develop a book called Extraordinary Boys. It will help build up boys’ self-esteem and show how they’re talented and interesting, and how they can provide public service in their own right.

We would be interested in learning how GFC, as a grantmaker, approaches the funding of projects that address the education needs of boys and girls in places such as Afghanistan. Has the organization, to date, favored projects that serve one gender over the other? If so, what motivated it to do so?

In the late 1990s, we were one of the first funders of secret schools for girls in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. For security purposes, I would like to allow our partners in Afghanistan to remain anonymous. The day after September 11th, I called the leader of this organization and asked, “What can we do to help you now?” She told me that something must be done for boys being pushed into extreme schools. In response, we started funding schools for boys that taught peace, tolerance, numeracy, and literacy.

As an organization that works on children’s issues, boys and girls are equal to us in the amount of attention they receive. Girls have their own unique issues and needs, as do boys, so it is our responsibility to address both.

What are some of the most challenging and some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?

The most rewarding aspect is realizing that 15 years of work has meant we’ve been able to award nearly $15 million to 362 organizations in 72 countries; that our work has reached more than one million children; and that we have more than 26 children’s books with over 2 million readers globally. We’ve built a lasting institution of change that goes way beyond me.

What is challenging is realizing that there is so much need, and that we need to be able to provide more resources and support to these innovative groups around the world. I would like to give away $10 million per year to 600 NGO’s globally, and I know that there is capital out there for us to be able to do that…

Since the end-of-year celebrations are approaching, do you have any holiday-related memories that relate to the topic of respect for diversity?

Our family followed Jainism, one of the smallest religions in the world. Jainism’s essence is concern for the welfare of every being in the universe, for the health of the universe itself, and for nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi was among those greatly influenced by the principles of Jainism.

As a child, I was raised to be very open to other people’s holidays and traditions. Even though we weren’t Christian, we had a Christmas tree in our house and Santa paid us a visit. We celebrated the holidays by focusing on family togetherness and counting our blessings.

I believe that keeping an open mind and being exposed to different cultures and traditions is absolutely vital for every child.

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