John Kluge (@klugesan) is co-author with Karl T. Muth and Michael T.S. Lindenmayer of “Charity and Philanthropy for Dummies,” released this week. John is also co-founder and chief disruption officer of Toilet Hackers (@toilethackers), a US-based nonprofit accelerating access to improved sanitation for the 2.5 billion people without a toilet. A graduate of Columbia, he serves on a number of for-profit and nonprofit boards, including UNICEF’s Next Generation, Pencils of Promise, and Fonderie 47.
Ashoka picked his brain in the following interview.
What do you hope for your book to accomplish? If everyone in America were to read it, how do you think the future of philanthropy would be shaped by it?
Think of this book as a roadmap for the field of philanthropy, a compass to help you navigate it, and a toolkit to help you get involved in improving the state of the world. We assume the reader is interested in helping their community and their planet. The more people that read it, the more people will be equipped and empowered to participate in solving social challenges both big and small, and the closer we will be to living in an “Everyone a Changemaker” world (to use an Ashoka tagline).
There are so many issues and problems in the world, from global to national to local challenges, and it’s so overwhelming. How do you decide what cause to commit to? How do you know that the project you choose is having impact?
The diversity and the scope of challenges we face can be paralyzing. It’s also easy to say, “that problem is too big,” what can I possibly do to improve it? We wrote this book in part to abolish that excuse and to make it easier to find your focus. I always start by making a list of things that either inspire or bother me. It might mean I think of a museum I loved visiting as a kid, remembering what it felt like to be bullied in elementary school, or maybe it’s just that I enjoy time at the beach. Make your list, and then prioritize it from most to least important, focusing on the top item. If you have many causes you care about, try focusing on only one a year. As you learn and gain experience, you’ll get closer to the thing that truly moves you, but this only happens if you take that first step! It took me almost ten years to find my cause, but if you stick with it you’ll get there.
Out of all the possible causes you could have dedicated yourself to, you picked sanitation. Why sanitation? Tell us about your story—what led you to sanitation? Was there a turning point that turned your “awareness” into action?
When I was about eight years old, I made my first “cause list,” for a hypothetical eight-year-old benevolent dictator president (yours truly). This included eradicating poverty, guaranteeing education for all, and lowering taxes, all of which I was determined to achieve once I convinced Congress to lower the candidacy age. Needless to say, much of that stuck with me and I’ve been looking for a way to combine education, poverty alleviation, and other causes I think are important for years. I wanted to work on something that could provide an exponential return on my efforts by connecting and impacting all the things I cared about—sanitation was the answer. I started learning about the field while on a writing assignment in the Central African Republic six years ago. I was there looking for stories about the then newly elected government but found myself more interested in the rural communities miles away from the capitol, where simple things like access to safe and clean toilets, a small community soap business, and resulting access to unpolluted water had transformed living conditions and brought hope to the people—not the new government or president. Having access to a clean and safe toilet was something I used to take for granted, but now I am convinced it is the key to unlocking the potential of emerging markets and eliminating extreme poverty.
At Ashoka, we discuss how philanthropy is evolving right now. How do you think it has changed in the past few decades, and where do you see it going when you look towards the future? How have your own views of philanthropy evolved over time?
In the past, money was largely the arbiter of power, and philanthropy, at least in the Western tradition, was largely associated with those who had lots of it (the names of Carnegie and Rockefeller come to mind). The more money, the greater capacities to give it away, and thus affect social change. While money is still a useful tool for social change, it’s no longer the most powerful tool. Technology has radically lowered the barriers for social innovation. It’s democratized philanthropy. Giving power now lies in the hands of the many instead of the few. This is the rise of the citizen-philanthropist, of crowd campaigns and standing armies of volunteers—where time and talent are as equal currency as dollars and cents in the philanthropists’ toolkit. It’s where motivated eight year olds like Talia Leman can use technology, persistence, and guerrilla lemon-aid stand sales tactics to out raise and out give almost all major corporate gifts to a national disaster (true story—Talia’s efforts a few years ago matched the top five corporate gifts for Hurricane Katrina relief, totaling over $10 million raised). This is what I call the rise of the PhilanthroPunk.
Ashoka’s vision of the world is one in which “everyone is a changemaker.” Is this incorporated into “Charity and Philanthropy for Dummies,” and if so how?
Without a doubt. As I mentioned, money is often seen as a barrier to entry. I hear traditional philanthropists advise my peers or their children that they should go out and make money, then think about charity or social good when they’re rich and in their 50s. Traditional philanthropy still has its place, but you shouldn’t have to wait to get rich to start making the world better, nor should money be considered the only way to give. In the book, we break down giving into four categories—time, talent, treasure, and transaction—though there really should be a fifth category, talking. Everyone has time, which is our most precious resource. Everyone has some talent; specialized skills like design, marketing, legal—these are invaluable to for-purpose organizations. We have different levels of financial assets (treasure) that can be deployed in varying ways. We also have our purchasing power as consumers that can either help fund social change or be used as drivers of market change. Talking is more about advocacy and awareness building, but it’s an equally important asset. All of these tools make being a philanthropist an option for anyone. The more people consciously work at using these tools, particularly when combining them with a giving strategy or theory of change, the more people contribute to the Ashokan ideal of “everyone a changemaker.”
Did you have experiences when you were younger that influenced your own skills as a changemaker?
My dad always said, what little difference you can make, you should make. That stuck with me. Anyone who thinks their voice, their time, or their resources aren’t needed hasn’t stepped outside their door. You don’t have to go far to see a need or meet someone who is stepping up to address it.
When will you feel you have been successful?
Eradicating open defecation would be an epic win, as would empowering 10,000 new girl-led hygiene entrepreneurs. But for me it’s less about that big win and more about making progress, having fun, and growing the Rebel Alliance every day. Doing that consistently until I die would be success.
Editor's Note: This post first appeared as an Ashoka "Change in the Making" Forbes post and was written by Terry Donovan with the Global Media and Communications team and Kate Jenkins with the US Team.