Entrepreneur shows how innovation can fuel philanthropic solutions in education

Fidelity Charitable donor Robert Friedman channels the spirit that helped him launch businesses to fuel charitable endeavors, taking them from local to global. Get his tips for making a difference.

Children using tablet to represent entrepreneur Rob Friedman’s innovative philanthropic solutions in education.

Robert Friedman, who cofounded the web-based company Auction.com, is also an engaged philanthropist who works to provide educational opportunities to children in some of the poorest parts of the world. Friedman believes there are brilliant young people all over the globe, and that educating them can help end poverty and provide more opportunities, particularly for girls. “Many of these children don’t have access to learning,” Friedman says. “Their communities have to spend most of their effort just meeting basic needs, like food and shelter.”

Friedman has made significant contributions locally in Orange County, California, and is a supporter of organizations including the Boy Scouts and Big Brothers Big Sisters. He has also supported schools in India and is working on another project in Nicaragua. But his biggest project, if successful, could be scaled for worldwide use. He’s exploring ways to bring affordable internet-based curricula from the world’s top educators to children around the globe.

Using technology to power global education

Several years ago, Friedman was introduced to an educator in India who created schools centered around the use of computer tablets. Friedman was captivated. “There was an incredible spike in kids showing up for school just to use the tablets. Kids with learning disabilities were even flourishing because they finally found their strengths,” he says. Friedman funded several of these schools, then decided to expand the model.

He wants to reach even more boys and girls and hopes to take an open-source approach that will enlist top educators around the world to develop and share curricula that could be turned into highly educational games. The curricula would be loaded onto tablets—which would not require internet access to use.

The gamification of learning

“My hope is that some of the world’s best teachers will share their curricula with technologists who will turn the material into amazing games,” he says. “Using this model, it’s possible we could educate countless numbers of kids in need—with no on-site teachers—for less than $50 per student each year.” He sees the concept as very scalable.

A self-sustaining solution

Another project Friedman is hoping to get off the ground involves a coffee farm, a resort and a school. Friedman’s goal is to capitalize on the ecotourism trend by building a school and mini resort on a coffee farm in Nicaragua. The resort would attract affluent families from the U.S. and farther abroad who are looking for an eco-friendly opportunity to give back with their families. “People could come and relax, do some yoga, enjoy this beautiful coffee farm and also volunteer,” he says. “The money from the operation would support the school.”

The political situation in Nicaragua may influence how the project plays out. But it’s this kind of innovative thinking that is fueling philanthropic possibilities.

Jump-starting your own charitable project

Friedman offers this advice to entrepreneurs who want to create their own philanthropic projects:

  • Learn from projects that already work. Talk to others who have faced the ups and downs of creating a similar project. “Most folks are happy to share what they’ve learned,” he says.
  • Follow your passion. Engage with charities that align with your values and have your wholehearted support. Helping kids “makes me feel surrounded by love,” says Friedman. He delights in imagining the future success of the young people he’s helping and anticipates that they’ll achieve great things.
  • Hold people accountable. You want your dollars to be used well. Define metrics and establish regular check-ins with people on the ground to monitor success.
  • Scale your project when appropriate. Look for ways to expand your project and reach more people, if and when it makes sense.
  • Build in self-sufficiency. “You’ll get the best possible results when you teach people to support themselves so they can give back as you continue the giving cycle,” Friedman says.

Discovering a new breed of hands-on philanthropists

Friedman’s hands-on approach to giving embodies some of the findings of a recent study on philanthropy among entrepreneurs highlighting some of their unique qualities as donors. For instance, 62% of entrepreneurs want to be personally involved in the work of nonprofits they support, compared with just 50% of non-business owners. And while both groups were strong supporters of traditional charities, entrepreneurs were more likely to be interested in supporting a new, innovative nonprofit by a wide margin.

Learn more about entrepreneurs and their unique approach to giving in Fidelity Charitable’s report, “Entrepreneurs as Philanthropists.”

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