Voices from the Field: An Interview with Mari Kuraishi


In an effort to help EPIP members gain value from the experience of professionals in the field, EPIP has started a new interview series. Blog readers will be able to learn valuable lessons from leaders in the field.

The fourth interview in this series is with Mari Kuraishi, Co-Founder and President of the Global Giving Foundation.  

Could you provide a brief professional description of who you are and what you do?

I’m the co-founder and President of GlobalGiving, a crowdfunding site that gives social entrepreneurs and non-profits from anywhere in the world a chance to raise the money that they need to improve their communities. We are unique among crowdfunding platforms in that we are improving social impact by providing our nonprofit partners with the tools and information they need to constantly improve their performance.

What drew you to your current work and how did you get your start in philanthropy?

I wandered into the field of international development by joining the World Bank back in 1991 when my unit of analysis—the Soviet Union—as a PhD student imploded on me. After ten years working in international development, the last years focused on innovation, it felt like we could start a new organization that eliminated some of the barriers to creativity and innovation in the field. See HBR article here.

What are your thoughts about diversity in philanthropy?  How have you contributed to it and what should funders keep in mind?

I believe firmly in the donor’s right to choose—and the reasons that move a given donor to give are bound to be varied. And I believe that the aggregate effect is in fact more powerful the more diverse donor’s viewpoints are. It is a way of encouraging different approaches, different philosophies about how to tackle problems which systemically keep the field moving. I of course have my own perspectives and inclinations, and I celebrate the idea that others would have different perspectives

Based on your professional profile on GlobalGiving.org, you have served in several leadership positions including service on nonprofit boards.  What would you recommend for early career professionals who would like to develop their leadership skills?

I hate to sound like a college admissions officer, but I do think that leadership positions in extracurricular activities are really helpful to develop leadership skills, mostly because they give you opportunities to learn your strengths and weaknesses, and opportunities to test out ways to leverage or make up for them. You can of course also luck out and get sent to some leadership training courses—depending on the type of institution you work at—if you do, I would highly recommend you find courses that are experiential. By that I mean that they are focused less on delivering content to you via lecture, but are designed to give you insights about yourself (a good sign is if the course asks you to do a 360 in preparation for the course) by throwing you into group interactions that experientially teach you how you influence—and are influenced by—others. In addition, what are two tips you would suggest for those who would like to prepare for service on a nonprofit board? Nonprofit boards are funny things. They are frequently fundraising engines. So there is a preference for older people who can give money. So as a young person, I think you need to bring nonfinancial contributions to the table. Whether it is a knack for social media/unmarketing or willingness to pitch in by raising funds from others or being willing to do the inevitable fiduciary stuff like poring over 990s and financial audits for the annual audit, you need to figure out what your contribution can be if it’s not financial. The other is to actually let people know you want to serve. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s not something I’ve observed happening frequently.

What are three important lessons you have learned from your career that could help early career professionals improve their work going forward?

A) Try to see outcomes dynamically instead of statically. By that I mean that if you find yourself disagreeing with a peer often, instead of seeing her as simply not seeing life the way you see it—you say red, she says blue—see if you can find opportunities that might shift both yours and her perspective. Say you think our antagonist is risk averse, and you are an opportunity seeking type. See if you can find a way to put her in the position of finding opportunities—even if you are the one who usually jumps at those opportunities. Ditto putting yourself in positions that have to safeguard the organization against risk. The outcomes might surprise you. B) Never believe that you trained for one thing, so you can’t do anything that doesn't fit that mold. Don’t rule out dramatic shifts—the most creative insights come from coming at a topic with a perspective that is different from the discipline that usually informs it. Don’t be cavalier about the experience that others bring, but don’t shy away from bringing a new perspective. C) Try to make every professional interaction you have—heck, every interaction, period—a value producing interaction. You might think you don’t have enough bandwidth to do that but you’ll find that when you can start making more of your interactions value creating, it will energize you and give you back more bandwidth than you thought you had.

When it comes to your work, what thought leaders do you regularly follow?

I must say I don’t have a regular stable of people in the philanthropy field I follow, besides Lucy Bernholz (but she’s also a friend, so that may not count). In the international development field, I unfailingly read Bill Easterly’s books (but again he’s a friend too). In international development I track a lot of writers at the Center for Global Development. But I also try to keep up with behavioral economics, cognitive science, finance—it’s all ultimately related, I find.

In your opinion, what do you think the future of philanthropy will be?

I think philanthropy will increasingly become less “I give to charity,” more “What are the multiple ways I contribute to the public good?” That might include funding a new documentary about private sector operators of prisons on Kickstarter, encouraging an entrepreneur to come up with a child’s game to learn basic programming on Indiegogo, or supporting a kid to go to school in Rwanda on GlobalGiving. You might also join your neighbors to petition for better bike lanes in your neighborhood. All of these things are in one way or another related to the public good. You only get a tax exemption for one of the things I listed.

What do philanthropy professionals and foundations need to do now to ensure its future success?

I think philanthropy professionals need to contemplate this blurrier world and see how their assets can be best deployed in that context. It’s been said before, but figuring out what to do with corpus is a big part of that.

In closing, do you have additional advice you would like to give to early career philanthropic professionals?

Go get experience outside of the field of philanthropy. Nothing wrong with deep expertise per se, but be on the receiving end of philanthropy, engage in private sector activity, serve as a public servant. I guarantee you will be come a better philanthropist for it.

This interview was conducted by EPIP Social Media Fellow, Sophia Guevara.

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