Maya Ajmera was born and raised in North Carolina. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she was on her way to medical school after graduating from Bryn Mawr when she received a fellowship that allowed her to travel in South and Southeast Asia. It was there, on a train platform in Bhubaneshwar, India, watching forty kids sitting in a circle learning how to read and write, that she experienced what she calls her "moment of obligation." Ajmera learned that, for only $300 a year, the train-platform school not only taught the kids, it fed and clothed them and, most importantly, instilled in them a sense of worth.
She returned to the States and, instead of going to medical school, decided to study public policy at Duke. A few years later, at the age of twenty-five, she founded the Global Fund for Children to, as she says, "put small amounts of money into innovative grassroots groups serving the most vulnerable children around the world."
Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Ajmera on Friday about GFC and the $10 million initiative it announced on the opening day of this year's CGI event. (Editor's note: We planned to post this on Friday but had some problems with the tape.)
Philanthropy News Digest: The Echoing Green Foundation, here in New York, provided the seed capital for what became the Global Fund for Children. How did that come about?
Maya Ajmera: Well, back when I applied for an Echoing Green fellowship in the '90s, it all started with a four-page application and your mission statement. Basically, the folks at Echoing Green had two questions: "What do you want to do? And how do you want to do it?" Eventually, they invited me to an interview with four venture capitalists that I thought were really mean to me. [Laughs.] I'll never forget one of them saying to me, "So are you telling me that what you want to do is to invest in small literacy organizations around the world and start a children's book-publishing venture and redefine what literacy means in the twenty-first century?" And I said, "Yeah."
I walked out of there thinking, "Well, that's that." But I day later they called me and said, "You got the money -- $100,000 over four years, $25,000 a year." I think they must have thought I was hallucinogenically optimistic. But you know something, you make bets on people, and they made a bet on me. And that's what the Global Fund for Children does. We make bets on leaders.
PND: Why literacy? Why not vaccines? Why not affordable housing? Why not something else?
MA: There are three hundred million children in the world who have slipped through the cracks. They are not being serviced by systems or governments. Who's going to take care of these kids? The answer is CBOs -- community-based grassroots organizations. We see the kind of impact these organizations can have. They go deep in their communities, they do great things with small amounts of money, and they need to be recognized by the broader world for their innovations. And I'm not just talking about what they do in terms of education. CBOs tend to work holistically; they do nutrition, they do health, they do skills training, they provide the foundations of a decent life to kids who would otherwise have nothing.
PND: And you only support CBOs working in India?
MA: Oh, no. We're in sixty-two countries.
PND: Working with how many different NGO and CBO partners?
MA: Over three hundred at this point.
PND: Tell us about the CGI commitment you announced a few days ago.
MA: It's called the Under-8 Initiative. It's a $10 million commitment over five years to invest in a hundred grassroots organizations globally working in the area of early childhood education. Over the years, we've seen some incredible grassroots organizations doing great work with very young children, and what we've learned is that if those kids are not healthy, are not eating properly, are not stimulated, they are not going to learn. So we want to get those kids early. It's preventative. We know in this country how important early childhood education is -- look at the success of Head Start -- and we want to provide the same kind of advantages to kids in poor countries. I personally think if we're able to develop a big network of these groups, we can generate some real momentum around the issue of early childhood education in developing countries.
PND: Why announce your commitment here, at the CGI annual event? What makes CGI a good platform for you?
MA: Because I'm talking to you. [Laughs.] Clinton brings people together, and we've been mentioned in a lot of different places over the last couple of days. It's also a place where a lot of donors are looking to invest their philanthropic capital. I couldn't think of a better venue to announce something like this.
PND: After you leave here today, what are your obligations to CGI?
MA: The CGI people are going to stay in touch with us -- that's my understanding, at least. Every three or six months they're going to be in touch to find out where we are against our first-year goals, which is great. My hope, also, is that they will be helpful in terms of relationship building. It's my first year here, and I'm still learning. [Laughs.] But it's interesting to see how these deals are made.
One of the things that makes me nervous about CGI is that when you're making a $10 million commitment, a $25 million commitment, you need to raise money in big chunks. Twenty-five-thousand-dollar donations are great -- yea for people who make those kinds of gifts -- but larger donations are really important.
PND: Are you worried about becoming too big?
MA: Well, we're in a scaling-up mode; we awarded over $2.7 million in grants last year, we plan to give $3.4 million in grants this year, and we want to get to $10 million a year, with over six hundred NGO partners globally. We want to become the largest network of NGOs that support children and youth in the world. I think if we got to $20 million or $30 million it would change our model and the way we work. But I think we can remain true to ourselves and our vision if we keep it around $10 million.
PND: Well, thanks for chatting with us this morning, Maya.
MA: Thank you.
-- Mitch Nauffts