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What, historically, has been the most successful nonprofit organization?
Harvard has the most financial assets*. The Red Cross has the most Nobel Peace Prizes. Stanford and MIT may have contributed the most to GDP.
But what if you look at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at adequate food?
Then it’s probably a contest between the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). More than 70 percent of the wheat grown in developing countries and more than 50 percent of improved maize varieties derive from CIMMYT breeding materials. Meanwhile, IRRI has released more than a thousand improved rice varieties in nearly 80 countries in 57 years.
Nobel Peace Prize -- check. Saving more from starvation than anyone else -- check. Greening effects visible in a poster-sized satellite image of the world -- check. Huge body of economic literature showing effectiveness -- check. A top international priority for major foundations for more than 50 years -- check.
Despite the impressive accomplishments of just these two institutes, international agricultural research organizations receive little from individual donors. The International Rice Research Institute, which had a $67 million budget in 2016, is mainly funded by governments and foundations. Only a small portion of their revenue comes from individual donors through an affiliated foundation. This is typical of the sector, from agronomy to veterinary medicine, alfalfa to zucchini, Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, from projects to improve nutrition to those that help farmers grow more sustainably or adapt to climate change.
Here’s what this means: When a farmer in India has a simple idea for veterinary herbs or irrigation timing that they want tested by a credentialed scientist, it falls through the cracks in government bureaucracy. And if American children ask, “how can we help prevent famines from happening again,” their parents have no answer beyond “call a member of Congress” or “become an agronomist.”
Most agricultural research isn’t related to genetic engineering nor is it particularly expensive or controversial -- dirt-cheap as science goes is more typical.
Grow Further is building a mechanism for individual donors who care about the future of food security to not only donate but also to learn and engage, opening up a closed bureaucracy. We’re looking to build a new charitable category -- international agricultural research with a public face -- with numerous organizations engaging broad swaths of society, much like medical research today.
We’re not expecting to top Harvard’s endowment or the Red Cross’s four Nobel Peace Prizes. But we do think we’ve identified the biggest overlooked category in giving today.
*Among 501(c)3 organizations that file a Form 990, according to Guidestar.
Original contribution by Peter Kelly, Founder of Grow Further.