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CEO of nonprofit wins award for advocacy

By CHARLIE DUCEY | Friday, November 1, 2013


Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of the nonprofit global venture fund Acumen, received the 2013 Notre Dame Award for International Human Development and Solidarity for her advocacy for the revitalization of impoverished communities.

University President Fr. John Jenkins presented Novogratz with the award on behalf of the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity in a ceremony Thursday. The event in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium was part of the Notre Dame Forum on women in leadership.

 Jenkins said Novogratz stands as an exemplary person in the area of women in leadership because of her dedication to human dignity.

“There are two dangers when seeking to help people in need. One is condescension; the other is imposing solutions on the poor,” Jenkins said. “Novogratz is particularly worthy of celebration for avoiding those dangers.”

“She displays a profound respect for the dignity for those whom she serves, knowing that the real gifts in life are not material, but empowering acts of love that form community.”

Fr. Robert Dowd, director of the Ford Family Program, echoed Jenkins’s remarks, emphasizing the power of human dignity that drives the mission of the program.

“We are thankful to Jacqueline Novogratz for advancing the mission of the Ford Family Program, which seeks to help people to lift themselves out of poverty and produce sustainable outcomes,” Dowd said. Novogratz spoke about the mission of Acumen, the nonprofit organization she founded in 2001 after working in the banking world of New York City. Novogratz is the daughter of Catholic immigrants from Austria, a fact which made Notre Dame stand as a mythic name in her family while she grew up. She also holds an honorary degree from the university.

To begin her remarks, Novogratz appealed to the sense of kinship at the heart of Acumen’s mission.

“We all do this work in different ways, and we do this work together and stand on top of each other’s shoulders,” she said.

Acumen attempts to unify aspects of philanthropy with a sound understanding of investing to fund aspiring entrepreneurs primarily in Africa and south Asia, Novogratz said.

“The goal is to take the humanitarian impulse of philanthropy with the efficiency of the market while recognizing the limitations of the market as well,” she said.

Novogratz said this approach enables her to taks on issues of poverty and the great “un-freedoms” of economic inequality in a new and courageous way. Building and renewing conventional institutions lies at the core of this pursuit, and Novogratz lauded Pope Francis for his own efforts to renew one of the world’s oldest institutions: the Catholic Church.

Since the organization’s founding in 2001, Novogratz said it has made immense strides, providing funding to projects that serve more than 100 million people around theworld. These projects aim to give the poor time to make mistakes and to help them satisfy basic needs in their communities, she said

Novogratz gave two examples of how poor entrepreneurs have transformed their communities with funds from Acumen.

Bruce Robertson, an entrepreneur originally from South Africa, took funds to Gulu in northern Uganda, a place typified by refugees and the aftermath of genocide. He gave capital to the newly returned inhabitants, trusting some who had virtually no farming experience.

“Today, there are 50,000 farmers as part of an all-Uganda company in Gulu,” Novogratz said.  “This is an image of resurrection.”

Jawad Aslam, a Pakistani-American, used Acumen funds to establish low-income housing outside the Pakistani city of Lahore, Novogratz said. Aslam provided the poor with sustainable shelter without bribing corrupt officials.

“Jawad did what was right, not what was easy,” Novogratz said. “Many people go into this thinking they’re building bricks and mortar, but Jawad built a community. There was one mosque in the whole settlement, and Jawad worked with the elders so that Imams from various Islamic sects could share.”

The innovation of empowered citizens, along with the charity of philanthropists and ordinary kind-hearted individuals, maks these projects possible, Novogratz said.

Novogratz provided a final example of her personal encounter with the poor to show how various kinds of capital can change the world.

“I was visiting a site with an Australian entrepreneur who sells solar energy. I asked a woman who had bought his product if she thought it needed any improvements. Though she said she loved the product, she went on to list four ideas for improvement,” Novogratz said.  “Seeing this little woman talking to this big man with such confidence about how he could improve his product reminded me of why I founded Acumen – to empower the poor to find their own solution.”

In the end, Novogratz said we need both the soft and the hard – the head and the heart – to fight the status quo, the bureaucracy, corruption and complacency.

“We need charity and philanthropy, but it can create dependency and arrogance, and the systems that will better the world have human dignity at heart,” she said.

Contact Charlie Ducey at [email protected]