Bringing Sesame Street to Life

Bringing Sesame Street to Life

Carnegie’s Creation of the Groundbreaking Public Television Series

The beginning of the iconic children’s program Sesame Street can be traced to an apartment in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park.

 

Education TV officials told a Senate subcommittee on Equal Educational Opportunities that television is a potential ‘savior of our society’ that could turn its mind-molding powers to providing all children everywhere equal educational opportunity. Mrs. Joan Ganz Cooney, of New York City, president of Children’s Television Workshop, praised the show Sesame Street which she said is now reaching 7 million of the nation’s youngsters each week.

 

It was 1966 when Joan Ganz Cooney, who worked in public television, hosted a small dinner party at her place. Her boss, Lewis Freedman, was there, as was Lloyd Morrisett, an executive at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Freedman started talking about the potential in using television to help educate children.

“Something clicked in Lloyd’s mind because Carnegie was financing research in educational development of children, how they learn,” Ganz Cooney said in a 1998 interview for the Archive of American Television. “And he and his wife, after 10 years of marriage, had two little kids and he had noticed that there was nothing really on for them. He had gotten up one morning and found them watching test patterns, waiting for something to come on. So it all sort of came together in his mind – why not do something educational, good for children, that will help them cognitively?”

In the early days of broadcasting, this was a novel concept. Days later, an exploratory meeting was held at Carnegie. Soon after that, Ganz Cooney was traveling throughout the United States and Canada, researching the use of television for preschool education for what turned out to be a groundbreaking report.

On Nov. 10, 1969, Sesame Street premiered, with the distinguished actor James Earl Jones appearing as the first celebrity guest. For the first time, educational goals and a curriculum were used to shape content, and child psychologists advised on the impact storylines would have. As author Malcolm Gladwell has said, “Sesame Street was built around a single, breakthrough insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them”.

“The reception was so incredible,” Ganz Cooney said in the archived interview. “The press adored us, the parents adored us. Nothing like it had ever been on the air, and there has been very few television programs – and maybe it’s the only one in history – that got this kind of immense reaction.”

 

Sesame Street Creator Joan Ganz Cooney attends the 12th Annual Sesame Workshop Benefit Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 28, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/WireImage)

 

Nearly half a century later, Sesame Street remains a staple of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), although new episodes now appear on HBO first. Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Elmo and the other Muppets are among the most cherished and popular faces of children’s programming.

It remains groundbreaking. It has addressed real-life disasters such as the September 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. In April 2017, Sesame Street introduced Julia, a new Muppet who has autism, performed by Stacey Gordon, who has a son on the autistic spectrum.

“Sesame Street literally would not be here were it not for the bold vision and audacious philanthropy of the Carnegie Corporation,” says Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy at the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the show and other educational initiatives. “That investment proved to be transformational for children’s television, as we know, and millions of children have benefited.”

It is as American as apple pie, and holds a special place in the heart of anyone who has grown up in the US. Indeed, surveys show that 95 per cent of preschoolers have watched it. But extraordinarily, Sesame Street is also now one of America’s great exports. Its effect on children worldwide could not have been foreseen.

The workshop reaches 156 million children in 150 countries. Study after study has pointed out Sesame Street’s success. A 2013 report found that children who watch one of its international versions gain an average of nearly twelve percentile points on learning outcomes. In Afghanistan, children who watch it test 29 per cent higher on gender equity attitudes. In Bangladesh, 49 percent more children use soap for hand washing after participating in a Sesame Workshop program. And a new Harvard Business Review article lists Sesame Street among the past century’s fifteen examples of social movements that defied odds and achieved life-changing results.

 

HACKENSACK, NJ – FEBRUARY 22: Elmo And Grover From Sesame Street Live Visit The Children Of Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospitall on February 22, 2017 in Hackensack, New Jersey (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

 

Carnegie helped establish the landmark television series and pass the Public Broadcasting Act, which led to the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). This November marks a key anniversary: the Public Broadcasting Act turns 50.

Public TV was the only place to watch all 250 hours of Watergate testimony. And when NPR started broadcasting in April 1971, it showed live coverage of Senate deliberations on the Vietnam War.

Recent threats to future funding appear to have been averted. The new federal government originally proposed eliminating all federal money for public broadcasting. But a House committee recently appropriated a budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which supports nearly 1,500 public television and radio stations nationwide.

“As we mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act, this uniquely American public-private partnership continues to keep its promise—to provide high-quality, trusted content that educates, inspires, informs and enriches in ways that benefit our civil society,” Patricia Harrison, CPB’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “Through the nearly 1,500 locally owned and operated public radio and television stations across the country, public media reaches 99 percent of the American people from big cities to small towns and rural communities. At approximately $1.35 per citizen per year it is one of America’s best infrastructure investments—paying huge dividends in education, public safety and civic leadership for millions of Americans and their families.”

Westin says it is vital to stress that the benefits of children’s public television are greatest for those who have the least. And as Sesame Street gears up for its 50th birthday celebration in 2019, it is a good time to inform people about the breadth of its work.

“People love our broadcast, but often don’t realize we’re in 150 countries or that we’re in developing countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan and in South Africa, making a difference,” she says. “And the 50th anniversary gives us the opportunity to celebrate all the work we’ve done addressing the challenges of the most vulnerable children around the world.”

So that 1960s dinner party in Gramercy Park had a huge and lasting impact. Whether it is in helping tackle HIV/AIDS in South Africa, progressing girls’ education in Afghanistan or raising awareness of autism in the United States, you can count on Big Bird and friends to be there.

 

Sesame Street season 10 end credits (1978-79)

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Protecting the Right to Vote

Protecting the Right to Vote

How Foundations are Helping Ensure Americans’ Access to the Voting Booth

Democracy is precious. It means everyone’s voice being heard. Sometimes, that simple concept is lost, however.

When Marvin Brown, a 90-year-old Army Air Corps veteran, registered to vote by submitting a federal form, he discovered he needed additional proof of citizenship to cast a ballot in local and state elections. Kansas’s new dual registration system meant that while he could vote in the presidential race, he had to supply more documents to elect his local representatives.

For Brown, that missing document was his birth certificate, which was in a different state. His case is one of four lawsuits the ACLU filed against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, arguing the rule was affecting at least 19,000 Kansans. The ACLU won the case in trial court, and it is now under appeal.

Brown says: “My family has been in Kansas since about 1850. It’s wrong that a bunch of so-called leaders would tell me that I have to show a bunch of extra documents before I can vote. As a military veteran who fought to protect our democracy, it’s particularly offensive.’

The case of course has wide-scale implications. “It just shows how extreme these laws have gotten,” says Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “Usually, the way things work is, if there is reason to think you may not be eligible to vote, they say, ‘Maybe we’ll double check.’ But instead, we’re flipping the process around, where we are double-checking everyone, including a 90-year-old World War II veteran. It’s just insane.”

Philanthropic organizations have long funded work on issues such as election integrity, voter access and education. In recent years, many states have passed laws that make it harder to vote – purportedly to reduce fraud, and efforts by the current administration are making voting rights organizations and civil rights groups even more worried. Foundations focused on democratic rights and civic engagement are supporting litigation and advocacy, as well as outreach efforts. But given the current threat to Americans’ right to vote, there seems to be agreement that philanthropy needs to do more.

Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations (OSF) are some of the long-term funders of voting rights work. Some say they have stepped up funding of litigation in recent years due to a spate of laws making voting more difficult, as well as a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County vs. Holder, that gutted major parts of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 law that helped prevent racial discrimination in voting.

Carnegie Corporation, for example, funds a coalition of ten public interest law firms that work to protect the right to vote, says Geri Mannion, the foundation’s program director of the U.S. Democracy and Special Opportunities Fund.

“Our viewpoint is that we want every citizen to have their voices heard and their votes count,” she says, “especially those who are at a disadvantage.”

Since the 2010 election, hundreds of measures have made it harder for Americans to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Ten states have put in place burdensome voter ID requirements, seven have made it harder to register to vote, six have cut back on early voting options, and three have made it harder for people with past criminal convictions to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In 2017, at least 99 bills to restrict access to the ballot have been introduced in 31 states, and five states have enacted laws making it harder to vote.

 

Voting Restrictions in America

Source: Brennan Center for Justice.

 

The restrictions often disproportionately burden minorities, low-income individuals, students, and people with disabilities, who may have a harder time accessing and paying for required IDs, reaching Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) in remote and rural locations, or getting to far-off polling stations. For example, up to 25 percent of African-Americans lack government-issued ID, compared to only 8 percent of whites.

Other voting restrictions can also have discriminatory effect, such as cutting early voting days, as minorities often rely more on such options. In 2012, black voters in Ohio voted early at twice the rate as whites. In some places, the Sunday before Election Day has historically been the busiest voting day for blacks, thanks to “souls to the polls” events after church. In a legal case in North Carolina, a court said that cutting Sunday voting is equivalent to a “smoking gun” regarding discrimination. Limiting early voting days, imposing voter ID requirements and changing registration requirements target blacks “with almost surgical precision,” the court said.

Julie Fernandes, OSF’s advocacy director for voting rights and democracy, says the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby v. Holder opened the doors for such troubling laws. The ruling removed a requirement for states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get pre-approval for changes in their voting laws by the Department of Justice.

“Now that the protections of Shelby are gone, we’re seeing much more intentional racial discrimination and voter suppression efforts,” she says. “The funders are waking up to that, and saying, ‘This is a real crisis – what are we going to do about it?’”

Between 2011 and 2016, 309 funders distributed 1,859 grants totaling more than $222 million for voter turnout and access, according to the Foundation Center. Litigation was the most popular area, followed closely by advocacy and public policy, then coalition building. Some of the key recent successes have come from lawsuits, with courts striking down laws such as Texas’s voter ID and redistricting laws, and North Carolina’s voter ID law. The Supreme Court recently said it will hear a key gerrymandering case, which could influence how electoral district lines are drawn across the country.

 

Source: Foundation Center

 

Between 2012 and 2016, the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project won or settled 15 cases in 12 states protecting the voting rights of more than five million people, Ho says. Before the election, the project planned to grow from five to seven attorneys, but the current plan is to expand to eleven. Ho says that foundations and individual donors are to thank for that.

Ho and others working on voting rights say the current administration poses a great threat to the right to vote. Under new leadership, the Department of Justice is taking a different side in these court cases. President Trump also appointed a commission on election integrity led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kobach, whom the ACLU calls “the king of voter suppression.” The commission says it aims to tackle voter fraud, but studies have shown voter fraud is almost non-existent, raising concerns about the commission’s intentions, such as purging people from voting rolls. Most states recently refused the commission’s request for voters’ private information, and at least seven federal lawsuits have already been filed against it.

Foundation executives say they are responding by ensuring their grantees have funding that is long-term and flexible, so they can quickly address new developments. For example, when the commission sent its request for information, one of Ford’s grantees, Color of Change, quickly reached out to its members to put pressure on secretaries of state not to comply.

Still, some say there has not been enough support given the threat level. Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the national office of the Advancement Project, says the civil rights organization has not seen spikes in donations, like Planned Parenthood has seen in light of recent attacks on reproductive rights. Often, foundations increase funding only during election years, but that means many restrictive measures get passed in between, Browne Dianis says.

“That is not how we should be safeguarding democracy,” she says. “Our democracy deserves a continued, vigilant watchdog apparatus. “I think the challenge is to get more funders into this space.”

The Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation, which brings grantmakers together, is seeing more interest from foundations looking to get involved with voting rights and civic engagement, Executive Director Eric Marshall says. Last year, the committee added 16 members – the most in its nearly 35-year history. In the first half of this year, it has already added another 16 members, giving a total of 85.

“While there is increased interest, there is still a tremendous gap that philanthropy can fulfill,” he says, adding foundations should be willing to invest in the long-term fight to protect the right to vote. “Foundations need to think about what interim success looks like and trust organizations with strong track records, follow advice on the ground and trust that even if there is short-term failure, you’ll see success in the long term.”

Browne Dianis says some foundations inaccurately view voting rights work as political. Another challenge is that sometimes, money for voting work competes with dollars for political candidates, she says.

“It’s great if you can fund a great candidate,” she says, “but if the election gets stolen, what’s the point? I think the individual donors miss that. If we don’t get the voting piece right, then Americans won’t be heading to the voting booth.”

One important tool for fair elections is the census, which is done once every 10 years and is scheduled for 2020. The census helps determine everything from legislative districts to congressional apportionment. Because the current administration has been openly anti-immigrant, many funders say they are concerned people in immigrant communities will be afraid to provide census information to the government. A number of foundations have been pooling resources together to fund outreach around the census, ensuring it is conducted fairly and accurately, and that it is adequately staffed and financed.

“There is deliberate intention in the funder community to pay attention to the census given its significance, and to invest resources earlier than has happened in the past,” says Erika Wood, Ford’s program officer for civic engagement and government.

Wood and others say another key area is election administration and modernization, as the election system is underfunded and outdated. Poll workers, including volunteers, are often not well trained, Carnegie Corporation’s Mannion says.

“The fact is that our country talks a lot about democracy, but it really doesn’t put money where its mouth is,” she says. “Imagine running your business on volunteers and the biggest sale day of the year, you rely on them to show up?”

Some philanthropists are funding modernization efforts, while others are focusing on state-based capacity-building, restoring the right to vote for people with past criminal records, or proactively advocating for laws that make voting easier. But regardless of their priorities, foundation executives agree: in a democracy, the right to vote is worth fighting for.

As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said: ‘Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.’

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Funding Journalism

Funding Journalism

How Individuals and Foundations are Helping Deliver the News

ProPublica’s president, Richard Tofel, says classical music and journalism have something in common.

“We know that classical music was once popular music,” he says. “It is no longer popular music and it does need philanthropic support. We need to explain to people that an analogous transformation has occurred in journalism.”

 

Staff of the New York Daily News and ProPublica, and Lee C. Bollinger (4th R), president of Columbia University, are seen on the stage during the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Award Ceremony in New York, the United States, on May 22, 2017. The New York Daily News and ProPublica won the prize for public service for uncovering how police abused eviction rules to oust hundreds of people, mostly poor minorities, from their homes. Pulitzer Prize Administrator Mike Pride announced the winners of the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes in the World Room at Columbia University on April 10 in New York. (Xinhua/Wang Ying via Getty Images)

 

Without philanthropy, certain important kinds of journalism will disappear, Tofel says. At ProPublica, an independent, Pulitzer Prize-winning non-profit newsroom, philanthropy accounts for more than 95 percent of the funding. The 2016 Presidential election led to most of the 26,000 donors who gave last year, a sharp increase from 2015, when 3,400 donated. Tofel believes that the key now is to ensure this is not a short-term phenomenon.

“Journalism needs to go on the list of charitable options that people consider when they think about how they spend their charitable funds,” Tofel says. “We’re trying to build a new class of cultural institutions in this country, and just as people need to support private universities, hospitals, art museums, history museums and theatres, they’re going to need to support some kind of journalism.”

The 2016 presidential campaign put a spotlight on how fast inaccurate news can spread, and the challenges in correcting that. And the current administration has been openly attacking the media, creating tension that only seems to be escalating. Several foundations have recently stepped in to support journalism by funding projects in areas such as fact-checking, journalism ethics, and investigative reporting. But even beyond grant-making, those in the journalism field are hoping for a major shift, where the public starts to see journalism as a regular charitable option.

 

Henderson, Nevada, A Future to Believe In, Press Pass for Presidential Candidate, US Senator Bernie Sanders.. (Photo by: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

 

Donations in the news business are not new – journalism has long been seen as the bedrock of democracy, and press freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment. Journalism serves a critical role in ensuring the public’s access to information and holding the government accountable. Still, Rodney Benson of New York University estimated early last year that foundations only gave about $150 million directly to news organizations. Inside Philanthropy lists more than 30 foundations that fund various journalism projects.

It is difficult to measure the impact of philanthropy on the news business, but there have been some notable efforts recently to bolster the field by supporting investigative and local reporting, countering fake news, and funding ethical journalism practices. Here are some examples:

 

Pierre Omidyar, 2011 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy honoree, Founder and Chairman of eBay and the Omidyar Network (Photo by James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

 

• E-bay Founder Pierre Omidyar announced in April that his philanthropic firm would donate to $100 million to address the “global trust deficit,” which includes strengthening independent media and supporting investigative journalism. For example, up to $4.5 million will go to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, which produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Panama Papers” series about how politicians and others participate in corruption.

• Along with Open Society Foundations, Omidyar Network also announced a $1.3 million grant to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies to expand its work through the International Fact-Checking Network.

 

Founder of Craigslist Craig Newmark attends IAVA 7th Annual Heroes Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on November 12, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for IAVA)

 

• Craig Newmark, founder of the Craigslist website, has supported journalism for years and in December 2016, his foundation donated $1 million to Poynter to fund a faculty position focusing on journalism ethics. The gift was Poynter’s largest single donation from a foundation since its founding in 1975. Indira Lakshmanan, who recently started the job, said she hopes to examine issues that include fake news; she pointed out that the 20 most popular hoax stories during the 2016 election campaign were shared and liked on Facebook 1.3 million times more than the 20 most popular real news stories.

• The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation announced in June they were distributing $1 million for 20 projects that aim to improve the flow of accurate information. Some projects focus on engaging the public in news gathering, while others zero in on issues such as media literacy and tools for better fact-checking. Also in June, Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund announced a $2 million pledge to kick off a campaign to support nonprofit journalism.

 

Jerry Lenfest talks with the media preview of the new LOC Experience, which will feature interactive exhibits and touch-screen technology in the Jefferson Building on April 9, 2008. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)

 

• The Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute for Journalism said in June it will distribute $1 million to support local news projects. The institute was founded by H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest. He and his wife, Marguerite, are among this year’s Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy honorees.

There are other examples of how philanthropy is helping deliver the news, including supporting non-profit and for-profit news organizations, as well as helping start new ones. In his book “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age,” David Callahan lists such examples, including Robert Wood Foundation giving more than $10 million to National Public Radio since 2008, and Ford Foundation funding coverage of inequity issues at the Los Angeles Times and Minnesota Public Radio.

 

The Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy forum on the challenges facing the philanthropic sector featured: David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy; Sacha Pfeiffer, investigative reporter at the Boston Globe covering wealth, nonprofits, and philanthropy; and Karl Zinsmeister, vice president of The Philanthropy Roundtable. Moderated by Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the June 22 forum was held at Carnegie Corporation of New York’s headquarters in New York City.

 

Kelly McBride, Poynter’s vice-president, says the organization has had some longtime funders, including the Knight Foundation, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Tegna Foundation, Gannett Foundation, and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. But there have definitely been some new players in the space, including a number from Silicon Valley, she says.

“I think all of these organizations recognize that journalism is vital to democracy,” she says, “and if you care about democracy, there are very few places to actually put your money. You can put it into voting efforts – efforts to get people to register to vote and educate them about voting issues – or you can put it into journalism.”

Many U.S. news organizations now find themselves in confrontation with the new administration. President Trump has called the media the “opposition party,” and “the enemy of the American People,” and the White House has sometimes blocked or limited journalists from covering certain events and press briefings. Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said the organization is very concerned about Trump’s “hostile rhetoric toward the media,” and CPJ has documented a series of recent incidents, including arrests of reporters covering protests and the president’s inauguration in January.

Some media outlets also continue to struggle financially as they adapt in the digital age and cope with mergers and other challenges. In 2016, print and digital circulation of newspapers fell by 8 percent from the previous year, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines, according to Pew Research Center. Newspaper advertising revenues dropped by 10 percent from 2016 to 2015. This year, several outlets announced layoffs. In June, Time Inc. said it would cut about 300 jobs and The Huffington Post announced 39 layoffs. The New York Times said in March it was offering buyouts and potentially laying off people in an effort to reduce editing staff and add more reporters.

McBride, of Poynter, says journalism remains under duress, but there are plenty of ways for individuals to help, including becoming a paid subscriber, a member of a journalism organization, or a regular supporter.

“Individual citizens are going to have to step up more in their giving,” she says. “One of the messages we are trying to get out is that if you support journalism, you should pay for journalism. We have not traditionally thought of journalism as a cause worthy of charitable giving, but I think you can definitely make that argument now in the United States.”

That way, journalism can continue to thrive and enrich the lives of new audiences for many years to come, just like classical music.

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Sending Hope to Syrians: Philanthropy’s Role in the Refugee Crisis

Sending Hope to Syrians: Philanthropy’s Role in the Refugee Crisis

© Jason Florio/MOAS.eu 2016. All rights reserved. Visit here for more.

Christopher Catrambone’s foundation runs on a simple, but critical belief: no one deserves to die at sea. His organization, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS, has rescued more than 30,000 people over the last three years, many of them from Syria.

Catrambone and his wife founded MOAS shortly after an incident in October 2013, when a boat carrying about 400 children, women, and men from Africa sank off an Italian island. The Louisiana native, who has been living in Malta for the last decade, said he felt compelled to address the growing number of such tragic deaths. He estimated that so far he and his wife have given $8 million to the cause.

“I have so much satisfaction because the reward is making a difference,” said Catrambone, a philanthropist and entrepreneur who also runs a multimillion-dollar insurance company. “It’s not money that’s the reward. And the awesome feeling of helping people in their most dire moment is great satisfaction.”

MOAS has served as a model for many organizations that have since started their own search and rescue operations at sea, including Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, Catrambone said. MOAS has rescued people from all walks of life, including the elderly and children. One Syrian girl arrived as an unaccompanied minor after her mother was killed on the route to the boat.

“There are a lot of terrible stories and this is what keeps us going,” Catrambone explained. “We rescue them, we talk to them, we document their stories. Because their stories are the most important message they can get out—why did they decide to get in a rickety boat and flee?”

After six years, the Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 470,000 lives. About 13.5 million people require humanitarian assistance and over half the population has been forced from their homes. More than 5 million people have fled Syria since 2011, and millions more are displaced inside the country.

The United Nation’s funding appeal for Syria remains unmet. And in early June, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, warned that unless urgent funding is received, some 60,000 Syrian refugee families in Jordan and Lebanon will be cut from a vital monthly cash assistance program as early as next month.

But philanthropy is making a notable difference in some areas. MOAS is an example of how it has saved lives, after thousands of refugees set out on dangerous journeys in hopes of reaching safety. As the refugee crisis spilled into the Middle East and Europe, a growing number of individuals, foundations, and businesses responded by helping refugees access everything from cell phones and electricity, to housing and educational opportunities.

In April Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp started using a solar plant—the first ever built in a refugee setting—thanks to the IKEA Foundation. The plant supplies electricity to 20,000 camp residents (construction of the plant provided income for more than 50 refugees).

Some tech companies have also stepped in. Google supports Project Reconnect, which is providing 25,000 Chromebooks to organizations serving refugees in Germany. Google also recently created the Searching for Syria website to inform people about the crisis. Microsoft Philanthropies has a number of initiatives, just last month signing an agreement with the UN to help with job creation in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the countries that have absorbed most of Syria’s refugees.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has awarded more than $5 million in grants and recently approved another $1 million for Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Airbnb aims to provide temporary housing to 100,000 refugees over the next five years. UPS, Uniqlo, H&M, and the United Nations Foundation have also donated, as have many individuals and organizations from the Gulf and the Middle East, said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, emergency response coordinator with UNHCR in Geneva. The need is still enormous, she said, but unlike other crises, such as that in Yemen, the media and the public are still paying close attention.

“With the Syrian crisis, what we’ve seen, even six years into it, is it’s one of the emergencies that is most supported,” she said. “And by that I mean not only financially, but emotionally, morally, and in terms of public support.”

Ghedini-Williams said there are many benefits to building partnerships, including innovation and increasing awareness. For example, IKEA helped create freestanding refugee housing units that have locks and solar panels, which are critical for girls and women’s safety, she said. And through its in-store campaign that donated money for every light bulb purchased, more people have become informed about issues facing refugees, she said.

“This situation just continues to get more politicized,” Ghedini-Williams said, “so it’s about how do we reach new ears and wallets and feet that are going to march to their countries’ parliaments or to their mayors’ offices and really advocate for better asylum and protection and assistance for refugees.”

In addition to the vast humanitarian needs, the Syrian conflict also created an educational crisis, said Hillary Wiesner, program director for Transnational Movements and the Arab Region at Carnegie Corporation of New York. The foundation has supported such programs as the International Institute of Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, which helps threatened scholars, as well as the Global Platform for Syrian Students.

The conflict also illustrates the need to ensure that cultural preservation is funded, as many museums and cultural heritage sites of great value have been damaged or destroyed. “I do think Syria has changed philanthropy more than philanthropy changed Syria,” Wiesner said. “Syria highlighted, among many other things, the need for more focus on preserving higher education in emergencies, and cultural preservation as part of the first-wave of humanitarian relief.”

In 2016, for the second year in a row, the Syrian crisis was the largest recipient of private humanitarian funding, with $223 million going towards the crisis and the neighboring refugee-hosting countries. That is no small feat, as private donors do not typically fund crises resulting from conflicts, said Sophia Swithern, head of research and analysis at Development Initiatives, a U.K.-based organization that analyzes funding for poverty and development-related projects.

“Private donors have traditionally stepped in for high-profile natural disasters, but they didn’t really respond to complex crises,” she said. “What we’ve noticed over the last two years running is that Syria bucks the trend on that.”

A recent survey found that donations to the refugee crisis vary greatly by country. Turkey led the way, with nearly 3 out of 10 of participants saying they donated to refugees, according to the Tent Foundation. Swedish and Greek respondents were also more likely to donate, while French, Hungarian, and Serbian participants were the least engaged.

Tent, which aims to improve the lives of those who are forcibly displaced, was founded by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder and CEO of Chobani yogurt. He is a signatory of the Giving Pledge, has hired many refugees, and donates to organizations such as UNHCR and the IRC.

Catrambone, from MOAS, said philanthropists like Ulukaya will likely continue to give in order to ease the pain the Syrian crisis has inflicted on so many families. But he said it is unfortunate that many others view the situation first and foremost as a political issue. He said he and his wife have been criticized, even threatened for helping refugees, and MOAS has had to defend against allegations that it was colluding with human traffickers. According to Catrambone, many individuals and organizations have not donated to the Syrian crisis because they do not want to take any political risks, but he has no regrets about helping save lives.

Letting people get involved in different ways may help. Catrambone recalled a conference he hosted that featured the Syrian-American pianist Malek Jandali. Many participants told him afterward that they were impacted more by Jandali’s performance than by anything else at the conference.

“I saw more people engaged because they were moved in a different way,” he said, stressing the need to use creativity to motivate people to get involved.

People from all walks of life have found ways to give to Syrian families. One Canadian couple canceled its wedding celebration and instead donated money to Syrian refugees, and a Canadian man gave his car to a Syrian refugee family settling in his city. A San Francisco woman is sending 5,000 teddy bears to Syrian children through her organization. A Quaker woman in Pennsylvania helped raise $30,000 for UNHCR.

Catrambone said he agrees to some extent with Andrew Carnegie’s comments about the need to educate yourself in the first part of your life, earn money in the second, and give it away in the third. But for those who have made their money at a younger age, there is no reason to wait. Catrambone and his wife were in their early 30s when they were sailing near Italy and she saw a life jacket floating nearby. At that point, there had already been news reports about migrant deaths at sea. They founded MOAS a few months later.

“I looked at my wife and said, ‘We’re so young, we [made money] so early, let’s give it back now. What if we give it all away?’” he recalled. “We’ll have been so enriched with this great feeling of helping people and helping with the most core principles of humanity.”

 


For more information:

To learn more about the Syrian conflict, check out Searching for Syria, a project by Google and UNCHR.
Check out Charity Navigator’s list of charities working on the Syrian conflict.
Learn about MOAS.
Learn about IKEA Foundation’s Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign.

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