By Richard, IvyWise Tutor and Project Mentor
What do Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg have in common? Aside from their remarkable commitment to their causes, both started to work to build the society they want to live in before they turned 20. And they have a lot of inspiring company among young changemakers! But whether you want to work on a global issue or a cause closer to home, you do not need to win a Nobel prize to make a difference for others while learning important lessons and building leadership skills in the process.
As a social entrepreneur and non-profit organization executive, I have had the honor to help lead multiple teams to work on important problems over the last 15+ years. The scholarship program I co-founded has helped more than 300 African students to accept $80+ million in full need university scholarships. More recently, in 2020, our team at Bulamu Healthcare provided more than 2,600 low-income patients in Uganda with surgeries while treating more than 80,000 general medicine patients, all free of charge. But looking back, it took me from when I was in high school until well into my twenties to get the experience I needed to do any of this work.
Today, I would like to share a few thoughts with students and their families who want to do more good in the world and might want a little advice from someone who has tried to do the same. For students who would like to learn more and get support for their own ideas, our team at IvyWise is happy to help.
Start With a Problem in Mind
Any change, no matter how large or small, starts with someone who sees a problem and realizes that change is possible. If there is a problem that bothers you or an issue you would like to learn more about, this is a great place to start as a social entrepreneur or young philanthropist. In my case, not long after college, I decided to focus on helping people in poverty as the first principle for what I would work on. I have seen many great philanthropists pick their own defining principles, from education to healthcare to social issues. There is no single thing that defines these focal issues, except that these people care deeply about what they choose, and they want to see things change for the better.
We all have our favorite examples, so I will share one that is a bit less well known: Thomas Clarkson won the senior thesis prize at Oxford University for his essay on the importance of banning slavery. He then spent his life on this cause, ultimately succeeding with the abolition of slavery in England in 1807. (For more on this story, see Adam Hochschild’s wonderful Bury the Chains.)
Any effort to change something for the better takes time and the hope that the problem can be addressed. Often the solution will be different from what we initially expected, but a positive attitude will take us far in this work (and everything else that we do). I learned this from a mentor when I was starting to work on social issues.
Today, it is a lesson I share with younger people who have identified their own problems they want to focus on. When we started our scholarship program, it seemed impossible that Rwanda would earn more than 10 full scholarships a year. Today, the country’s students earn about 100 scholarships per year, including all my old students below pictured during a fun moment in class:
100% of the African students in this photo earned a full university scholarship, only a few years after people had told us our program would never work.
The Importance of Mentorship
One of the lessons of each of the leaders mentioned above is that no one succeeds alone. “Dreams take teams,” as I have told many students over the years. Individuals can have ideas and energy. However, what leads to change is the ability to bring in partners and build teams dedicated to the issues where we want to make a difference.
As a student, one big part of this kind of work is to learn and to develop as a leader. Mentoring can help you go farther, faster, to think carefully about the projects you start, get better results from them, and learn and develop more as a leader along the way. My career did not begin where I am today, and neither will yours. The more we learn along the way, the more we will grow and do later on.
Understanding Your Capacity
Each student and family’s philanthropic interests are unique, but often the question will come along: “Should we work on a self-contained project, or is this a more long-term problem that we want to address?” I do not think you need to know the answer right away but defining the scope of the work you want to do will help you better understand whether you have the time and resources to commit. This will help you build project management skills, along with the leadership skills that come from building a team, the marketing skills that come from sharing a problem you are passionate about, and the confidence that comes from finding a way to get a successful result for the issue you take on.
One of the things I love about this kind of work is how it blends practicality with the visionary. Today, it is an honor for me to support IvyWise students to work on the issues they care about and see these outstanding young people develop as leaders in ways that matter to everyone.
John F. Kennedy said, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” How do you want to see the world change? Our team is here to mentor and support your philanthropy and social entrepreneurship goals as part of your long-term growth!