Mireya and Oswaldo Cisneros: Using communications technology to build capacity for social action in Latin America

Mireya Cisneros believes in the power of connection.

Her philanthropic work throughout Latin America seeks to exert that power in two ways – by establishing the technological connection provided by wireless cellular networks, and by fostering the human connection between those in society who need help and those who can provide it.

This work is carried out through two foundations created by Cisneros and her husband, Oswaldo Cisneros – Caracas-based Venezuela sin Límites (“Venezuela Without Boundaries” – VSL – www.venezuelasinlimites.org) and Panama-based Unidos en Red (“United Network” – UEF – www.unidosenred.org), which has an Iberian-American focus.

Cisneros’ primary interests are education and its positive benefits for young people. “There are more young people than ever in the history of Latin America,” she said. “If they become educated, they can change the region.” She believes the key issues young people need to be educated about include health, drug prevention and peace – “all the things that affect them,” she said. Corporations, government and philanthropy must help these young people because they “need big brothers, angels, somebody who can be behind them.”

Born in Chile in 1963, Mireya Blavia de Cisneros became a Venezuelan national at 18. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the Jean Piaget Institute of Caracas and began work as a counselor and teacher. In 1999 she married Oswaldo Cisneros, a Venezuelan entrepreneur who made his fortune in soft-drink production, marketing and distribution, and later in wireless telecommunications. That same year, the couple founded VSL, of which Mireya Cisneros is president.

She is also president of Prevención Sin Limites, an organization that works to prevent drug abuse. She serves on the boards of nonprofit organizations involved in health care and cancer prevention, and business organizations, and is a member of the Civil Society Advisory Council for Venezuela at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Leveraging family strengths

From the outset, VSL identified Venezuelan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) that work in the foundation’s sectors of interest. Leveraging the family’s holdings and experience in information and communications technology (ICT), the foundation offers technology, training and advice to its NGO and CSO partners. Over time, it has expanded its effectiveness by bringing in corporate partners, including competitors.

“Other tech companies have [public service] programs that are good in some places, not others,” Mireya Cisneros said. The foundation works to persuade those companies to provide services to NGOs and share best practices, arguing that it’s a marketplace advantage for all companies.

The Cisneros’ choice to specialize in the ICT sector makes sense from several angles. For one thing, nearly every NGO and CSO can benefit from improved connecting and collaborating, regardless of its area of interest. For another, their 20-plus years of experience in the field gave them expertise and contacts among potential partners across the entire range of implementation – from connection to software development to training. ICT also lends itself to measurement (i.e., number of users connected, number of people trained, demonstrated proficiency levels), and therefore to ways of demonstrating the effectiveness of organizations and initiatives.

Working in partnerships

Through partnerships, UER has helped organizations with intranet and website design, and both foundations bring high-tech tools such as Blackboard Collaborate and DANAConnect to nonprofits. These tools offer services such as web conferencing, mobile collaboration and instant messaging, and also offer access to “the cloud” – remote file storage and applications. The foundations and their partners teach organizations how to take advantage of these tools, and they spread the word. “These NGOs impart this training to their beneficiaries – to the people they serve,” said Patricia Kehler, UER’s executive director, via email. “That way we impact the lives of hundreds of people.”

While the foundations’ staff members must be familiar with the technology they facilitate, much of the actual implementation comes from partners, Kehler said. The foundations’ primary work is coordinating and “matchmaking.” “We have a team responsible to channel the requests we obtain from our registered NGOs to our technology partners,” Kehler said. Venezuela Sin Límites’ registry contains listings of more than 300 NGOs. In evaluating NGOs for partnerships, the foundation classifies them according to their level of management (i.e., “senior” or “junior”) and potential for impact (“stronger” or “weaker”).

VSL has found ways to help organizations that extend beyond communications. The foundation facilitated a joint project between the Cisneros’ cellular company, Digitel, and Fe y Alegria (“Faith and Joy”), a Venezuela-based education organization founded in 1955 that operates in 16 countries. Together, they created a fundraising campaign called Unidos en un Solo Corazon (“United in One Heart”); through the campaign, buyers of Digitel cellular phone cards donate a portion of the purchase price to Fe y Alegria – which Digitel matches. The program has raised more than US$1 million in each of the last three years, Kehler said.

VSL also encourages sharing of information and best practices. For example, the foundation’s works with the Switzerland-based Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship to promote Schwab’s annual “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” competition. The competition provides entrepreneurs of Venezuela with opportunities to learn from the global network of the World Economic Forum.

Reaching across sectors and countries

Unidos en Red, started in 2012, is an effort to expand VSL’s approach throughout the region. Its web site (translated) notes, “We firmly believe that sustainable development and regional integration are a way to solve current social challenges. Assuming our responsibility, we are committed to social inclusion, education, health, culture and sport, the environment, gender equality and peace.”

UER seeks to identify organizations that will, Cisneros said, “have a large impact in a short time.” UER hopes that partnerships with popular Latin entertainers such as Alejandro Sanz, Miguel Bosé and Juanes (Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez), and strategic allies such as UNICEF, the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB), CNN en Español, Fundación Avina, Corporación Sybven, and Digitel will increase its effectiveness.

Since its inception in February 2012, UER has been busy finding and linking to partners. Examples include:

Working with CNN en Español to gain coverage of news and events related to UER’s issues, including a piece CNN did at the World Economic Forum in Davos and video about social innovation from a WEF event held in Peru in April

Partnering with Caracas-based PROA Comunicaciones Integradas C.A. to provide communications services and strategies to UNICEF and to Red Pro Bono Internacional, a network of pro bono legal providers in 13 Latin American countries. UER also encourages NGOs to use those legal service providers

Advising corporate partners such as OMD Latin America, 100 Montaditos restaurants, the Latin Trade Group and Tata Consultancy Services on implementation of their social programs

Promoting the inclusion of social entrepreneurship and social innovation on the agenda of the Iberian-American Presidents Summit

Urging the Republic of Panama to change its laws so that prominent social entrepreneurs, business people and artists from other nations can sit on foundation boards in that country.

Kehler said UER seeks to understand the issues and initiatives that potential allies are involved in, then tries to complement their efforts and create added value. “We also introduce them to other partners, whether they are NGOs, international cooperation agencies, government entities or companies,” she said. “They consolidate many of our efforts, especially when appropriate to the projects within their companies.”

UER heightened its visibility among governments in the region this summer by reaching a partnership agreement with SEGIB, a 22-nation group of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic. The partnership is intended to use digital tools to promote civic participation under SEGIB’s Ciudadania 2.0 (“Citizenship 2.0”) program.

Cisneros’ passion for change leads her to connect with organizations such as SEGIB and the Inter-American Development Bank that have regional and international reach. “I have the opportunity to be with people who make a difference. I have my life to make these connections,” she said. “I am trying to learn more, trying to speak how the corporations speak, how the governments speak.”

And as Cisneros has learned to work with and connect people from different sectors, she has also learned the value of not insisting on a single way of doing things. “The great lesson from my own work that I would like to share is to learn to listen to the team, to the allies and the NGOs,” she said. “The solutions to the social challenges are always different, so it is important to hear the different points of view of all the parties involved.”

In seeking alliances with partners, she said, “it is most important to have an open mind. Sometimes people want to do things the way they used to do, but that is not the way. That is something we need to remember every time.”

Cisneros added, “You have to be patient and try to understand the different opinions and different response times,” and be able to gather relevant information, understand it and choose the right technology to accomplish the agreed-upon goals. “It turns fascinating when you start seeing results, and if the project is successful, you can witness it grow exponentially,” she said.

Cisneros sees SenosAyuda, a Caracas-based organization involved in the fight against breast cancer since its founding in 2006, as an example of such growth. She said that working with the organization and its originator, Bolivia Bocaranda, has been “one of the most rewarding experiences.”

There are challenges as well as rewards in the foundations’ work. Cisneros said her organizations have to push technology providers and governments to offer more, at lower costs. “It’s hard, but is so necessary to effect change,” she said.

And when the services are available, it’s still a challenge to use them effectively. “Don’t think that everyone knows how to use technology. We focus on continuous education, providing information online, and teaching,” she said. “It’s most difficult to help those who are not digital natives to compete with digital natives. We have to start with easy things – how to connect and use the computer.”

Cisneros describes her view of the future in two words: many alliances. “I think we will have the impact we want because we have the right partners – with experience, talent, commitment and the ability to influence,” she said. “We need to push young people and teach them the right way.”

She doesn’t intend to slow down. “The lesson is that sometimes you think what the other people are doing is enough, but nothing is enough. We need more alliances,” she said. “People deserve the opportunity to live in dignity and to meet their basic needs.”

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