Nike Foundation: Getting Girls on the Anti-Poverty Agenda

The successful effort of the Nike Foundation ( to get girls on the agenda at the inaugural meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative is a natural outgrowth of the new direction announced by the foundation in 2005.

The organization's work focuses on the more than 500 million girls aged 10-19 in the developing world today, who bear the burden of domestic responsibility, early sexual activity and pregnancy, marital violence, and cultural norms that prevent access to resources, education and social and economic opportunity.

Research by the World Bank and other sources suggests that programs directed to girls and women yield a higher rate of return than virtually any other investment in the developing world -- better maternal and child health, increased school enrollments, and economic growth and productivity that ripples out to entire communities.

"Our focus is on programs and advocacy efforts that are directly linked to two of the UN Millennium Development Goals, poverty alleviation and gender equality," said Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation. "By inspiring and mobilizing support for girls' empowerment and well-being worldwide, we can not only help change the lives of individual girls, but also help to transform entire communities."

The re-launch of the foundation, established in 1994, was the culmination of years of learning begun while Eitel was head of corporate responsibility for parent company Nike, Inc. With factories in more than 50 countries, Eitel had ample opportunity to observe conditions affecting girls and women in the workplace and in the community.

"After spending 7-1/2 years with the team at Nike, setting the CSR [corporate social responsibility] agenda through some tumultuous years, I learned a lot of things, the hard way, and I wanted to apply this learning to the foundation," said Eitel.

"The foundation was quite passive for a period of time. We didn't infuse it with significant budget or leadership. I thought of it as a bit of a diamond in the rough and began to think about fashioning it into something complementary but not similar to other programs at Nike," Eitel said.

Eitel consulted widely with other philanthropic experts in an attempt to learn where Nike could focus the foundation to make a unique effort. During this time, she said she also became aware of "the importance of the role of other stakeholders, of building strong relationships with people outside of Nike."

What emerged is a revitalized Nike Foundation committed to the goals of poverty alleviation and gender equality, which it considers inextricably linked. The foundation takes a holistic approach, and will assist girls in multiple arenas including economic opportunity; health and security; leadership, voice and rights; education; and social mobility.

The foundation will act on two levels: through conducting programs on the ground with community partners in developing countries and by working with global advocacy partners to raise awareness of the value of investing in girls.

Nike, Inc. has provided the foundation with about $20 million in cash and land donations for the work ahead. Going forward, the company will direct a portion its annual giving target of three percent of pre-tax profits to the foundation.

Global partners include the World Bank, the Population Council, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health and the UN Foundation. ICRW will help monitor and evaluate all of the foundation's projects, and will gather data to close the information gap on the value of investing in girls.

The Nike Foundation is working with local and national nonprofit organizations in the five countries it has selected for its initial focus: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ethiopia and Zambia. In the first round of grantmaking re-focusing on girls, in September 2005 the foundation announced 11 projects totaling more than $5 million.

These include initiatives to prevent early marriage in Ethiopia, keep girls in school in Zambia, and to create rural learning centers in Bangladesh to provide a safe haven for girls to socialize and obtain access to information on personal finance, careers, and reproductive health. Ultimately, Eitel expects the work of the foundation and its partners to yield lessons on the value of investing in girls that would be applicable to a range of development settings.

"What we're trying to do is to engage in a dynamic way to change the paradigm-to transform the way that girls are seen and taken advantage of in poverty," said Eitel. She noted that the contributions of girls in the developing world are enormous but largely undervalued.

"The silent, unpaid labor of girls -- carrying water, collecting firewood, caring for siblings or sick family members -- is the backbone of family and community," Eitel said. She added that the sacrifices expected of girls, such as forgoing education, exact a high cost on individuals as well as society.

"We envision a world where girls are valued, have choices and are part of society, contributing their enormous capabilities to income generation and progress in their family, community and nation," said Eitel.

"Over my lifetime, I'm hoping to see some kind of catalytic change in the way people value adolescent girls and invest in their well being. Our new foundation will be a highly passionate and energetic participant in that journey."

See related article on the Cliniton Global Initiative