After Austin-based Philip R. Berber sold his online brokerage firm, CyBerCorp.com to Charles Schwab, early last year for $488 million, he and his wife, Donna Berber, became full-time "venture" philanthropists. Pledging $100 million to set up A Glimmer of Hope (AGOH), which funds projects in Ethiopia, they're using a business-based model to create a charity that supports long-term, sustainable projects and that funnels all donations directly to projects.
The Berbers' story begins in London, where Philip Berber, who was born in Ireland, met and married Donna. In the mid-80s, Philip Berber created a high-tech London-based company, Financia, which was bought in 1991 by Frontier Financial of Houston. The Berbers relocated to Texas with the company and in 1995 they moved to Austin, where Philip founded an electronic trading technology and Internet brokerage firm called CyBerCorp. Five years later, with the Schwab purchase, the Berbers retired from business to focus on philanthropy.
But, they state in their Web site, www.aglimmerofhope.org, business principles remain a mainstay of their work. Organizations in Ethiopia -- chosen by the Berbers because of its desperate poverty -- must devise a plan that details the viability and sustainability of their projects before they'll get a grant and the technical assistance that AGOH also provides. Quarterly report-backs documenting project progress are required to qualify for grant renewal.
This built-in accountability gives recipient groups a critical degree of project ownership -- too often missing in charitable exchanges, the Berbers assert. For its part, AGOH acts more as an "entrepreneur," working directly with these groups -- and not through government bureaucracies -- as social investors supporting projects that they expect will succeed because they have been so carefully crafted.
The Berbers focused their initial efforts in a rural area called Dembi Dollo following a feasibility study to identify core community needs. These included water, electricity, schools and provision of health care. It took just six months to build a middle school which opened this July. A project to provide potable water and a women's vocational center are being developed now. Under consideration are a health care facility for AIDS victims, an animal clinic and a mill. After visiting the local hospital -- which he found "appalling" -- Philip Berber led an effort, through the foundation, to provide health supplies, and health professionals are now being recruited to work in the region. (Teachers are also being sought.)
The Berbers' model welcomes other donors. Income from their $100 million pledge, given in the form of an endowment, supports the foundation's operating costs and capital for some projects. Additional donations -- which may be made on-line -- go directly to projects.
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